Monday, December 22, 2014

Theologians Off the Rails Again...

In a recent blog post Arthur Sido asked an excellent question: "What is it about ecclesiology that makes otherwise sound theologians go off the rails?"

I had been thinking about that question quite a bit this week when a magazine arrived at our house. This particular magazine is published by Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (where I graduated in 2006). Despite my current views on the church, I still think SEBTS does some good things. For example, I love their emphasis on international missions. A sizable chunk of this magazine focuses on that topic. However, I did find one article that is disturbing. Not surprisingly, that article focuses on the dreaded subject of church membership.

The SEBTS article is an overview of a conference held back in September that was a joint venture between SEBTS and 9Marks. The conference's name was "Meaningful Church Membership." Speakers included Mark Dever, Ligon Duncan, Alistair Begg, Danny Akin, and others.

What I find most problematic is the two quotes from the conference that the writers of this article decided to highlight, placing them in bold font in the middle of the magazine's pages. These two quotes are prime examples of theologians going off the rails.

First, Jonathan Leeman (editorial director of 9Marks) is quoted as saying, "The local church represents heaven. It is also God's embassy on earth. We don't join churches, we submit to them. Church membership is the declaration of citizenship in Christ's Kingdom."

Let's be clear about something: when these speakers refer to church membership they are talking about the extrabiblical idea of belonging in a special way to only one particular local body of believers (sign your name on the card and you go on the membership roll).

Leemon's statements in that quote are unbiblical and absurd. His final sentence is the most shocking. He is calling into question the salvation of anyone who is not a member of a specific local church. He has, therefore, equated church membership with the gospel. Now, I'm sure he would deny this if asked in these terms, but his statement certainly makes things murky at best.

Later in the article, speaker Thabiti Anyabwile is quoted with the following, " Every time we talk about the body of Christ we are talking about church membership. God puts His body together. Pride tears it apart."

I agree completely with Anyabwile's second and third sentences. It is the first one that is troublesome. The key is the definition of church membership. Anyabwile's statement is correct if by church membership he simply means everyone who is part of the church everywhere. However, in light of this specific conference, he is much more likely to be talking about the extrabiblical specific church membership I mentioned earlier. If that is the case, then Anyabwile, like Leeman, is referring to the body of Christ as only those whose names are on membership rolls somewhere.

What do these speakers do with folks like me (and probably you) who claim Christ as Lord and Savior but who shun the idea of specific church membership? The answer is that they want to ignore us because we do not fit their paradigm for what church membership is.

Returning to Arthur's great question, what is it that causes normally solid theologians to go off the rails when it comes to church issues? My answer is an old one: the love of man-made traditions. These theologians either cannot or will not see past the church traditions that they love so much. These men consistently fail to use the same principles of biblical interpretation for the church that they do for other topics such as Christology, salvation, and social/cultural issues.

The church institution is not based in scripture. Rather, it exists as part of man's own comfort zone. It makes him feel good. The problem is that it is not what God wants. It bears little resemblance to the church of the New Testament. It remains based much more in Rome than Jerusalem.

Many theologians continue to ride the same train off the rails again and again and again. Let's hope and pray that God will open their eyes to the magnificent thing His church can be when we live church life according to sound biblical principles.


Bobby Auner said...

To add insult to injury, Thabiti's statement casts a condemning glare toward those whose Spirit-led, Biblically confirmed convictions expose his as scripturally deficient. By saying that our decision of separating ourselves from the man-made institutional system is rooted in "pride" when our testimony is that we are doing so out of obedience to God, he is treating something good as if it is evil and sinful.

Eric said...

Bobby, I hadn't even thought of that, but you may be right. I was thinking in terms of typical church splits. The difficult thing with this particular article is not having the entire transcript. Either way, the speakers as a whole appear to just be toeing the party line on traditional church membership. I'm not surprised by that, but it does sadden me.

Chris Jefferies said...

This is an interesting conversation. I dare say most of us have come across these issues from time to time.

I once 'joined' a church here in the UK and later regretted it - I wanted out. I had given my allegiance to an organisation so just walking away seemed less than honest. After some thought I wrote to the elders asking to be released from membership, telling them that I'd made a mistake.

But there was no mechanism for being released; nobody had asked for this before. Nobody knew what to do! After a couple of interviews and the specification of some conditions, they did release me :-)

Aussie John said...


" ...the love of man-made traditions..". Yes!

Another matter,apart from the love of tradition, which I know I faced many years ago was,and possibly yourself more recently,is the thought,"I've been teaching this traditional stuff for so long, if I follow my convictions I'm going to lose many "friends", be regarded as backslidden, apostate,losing ones marbles,etc.

David said...


There's so much to discuss here and, for the most part, I agree with you that various aspects of these statements are troubling. (Also, the fact that this commenting apparatus has taken me away from the article means I actually now have to remember what the article said.)

I personally take exception to the church as kingdom language used here. I think their misunderstanding of eschatology has led to a misunderstanding of ecclesiology (among other things most likely). It sounds like to me they need a little more reformation.

I'd like to know more about what YOU mean by the phrase "the church everywhere"? Do you mean the universal church? If so, do you think NT writers are always writing in the context of the church universal or do they at times address local congregations? How does one differentiate?

Just so you know I'm tending to see less "universal church" in the NT and more "local church". I think the term "universal church" is being used more and more as the church that replaces Israel. This is very problematic for interpretation of the OT as it relates to the church (I'd expect you to agree with this at some level). That's why I would expect you to be less about the church everywhere and more about local gatherings.

When I'm not wielding the magical power from my pulpit these days (we can joke like that right?) I've been reading the book. I'm developing some thoughts.

Eric said...


That is an interesting situation. I imagine that very few people do, indeed, make the request you made. What, might I ask, were the conditions of your release?

Eric said...


The danger of loss of freindship is a real one. I believe you are correct that that is one of the things some Christians consider. What a shame.

Eric said...


Thanks for writing. I agree with you that the church/kingdom confusion is troubling.

As I read the New Testament, what I see for the most part is all the Christians in a location being addressed. For example, all the believers in Philippi, all the believers in Corinth, all the believers in Rome, etc.

Sometimes the universal church seems to be addressed (especially in Ephesians), but for the most part the epistles are directed to Christians in certain locales who are dealing with the specific issues dealt with in the letters.

What I do not see in the New Testament is Christians in specific locations splitting up into different groups such as Church A in Corinth, Church B in Corinth, Church C in Corinth, etc. Instead, all the believers in Corinth were the church in Corinth because they lived in Corinth. There's no hint at any sort of membership role or anything of that sort.

I believe the most troublesome thing from the conference at SEBTS is the murky language some of the speakers used about church membership and the gospel. They came close to making it sound as if a person is not saved if he does not belong to First Baptist Church of Some Place or Grace Presbyterian Church of Some Place or something else like that.

All Christians are part of the universal church. All Christians in a certain location are part of the church in that location. Those are the only divisions I see in the New Testament.

Arthur Sido said...

"Leemon's statements in that quote are unbiblical and absurd. His final sentence is the most shocking. He is calling into question the salvation of anyone who is not a member of a specific local church. He has, therefore, equated church membership with the gospel. Now, I'm sure he would deny this if asked in these terms, but his statement certainly makes things murky at best."

Don't be so sure he would deny it, I got into an online kerfuffle with R. Scott Clark of Westminster Seminary (California) a few years back and he absolutely stated that if you aren't a member of a local church you are outside of the Kingdom.

Eric said...



A great irony in this is that many of these theologians claim the banner of "Sola Scriptura." However, they violate this principle constantly when it comes to the church.

Arthur Sido said...

In practice what many of them believe is "Selective Sola Scriptura"

Norm M. said...


I agree with your assessment that traditions breed a comfortable environment that many people blindly adhere to, but I think there is also another element at play--the idea that we must control people in order to preserve sound doctrine. If we simply let people question traditional teachings, why, they might let error or heresy creep into their belief system, and we can't allow that! This mindset can be seen throughout the history of the church in virtually all denominations. Dissent is discouraged at best, and is usually crushed. I think this is the reason that many of those who seek doctrinal truth in most other areas turn a blind eye to the design that Christ has for His bride. They can't give up control over others. Pride is at the root of this mindset, and it results in the self-serving institutions that, for all good intentions, seek their own perpetuation over all else.

David said...


Probably more to deal with than we can finish in the comments on a blog. But I'd love to sit down over coffee sometime and unpack some of this together.

First, on the issue of the universal church, it seems to me that your view is actually closer to the view that produced the Roman Catholic church and then much of the post-reformation "institutional church" that you stand against. I'd tend to see the church in the NT as more atomistic as opposed to monolithic. Small gatherings of believers who gather to exalt Christ and encourage one-another. I think the universal church position leads to bad OT application (priests, altars, all the stuff you don't like) AND replacement theology. My guess is that these guys would out- "universal church" - you!

Second, it's difficult for me to find any reason in the NT that churches in a local city or area would not have divided up just for practicality's sake. I know your going to insert something about the NT pattern here. But I just don't see any kind of statement prohibiting smaller local assemblies. I just don't see any reason to believe that when NT speak of the church at A they aren't referring to various groups that may be scattered around the city. AT least there's no way we can take a hard stand on that.

Third, I totally disagree with Leeman. I think he's off in his ecclesiology and his eschatology. I think the two are more related than most people know. It's very strange to me that he considers himself baptist because he sounds like a Presbyterian. But I continue to think there's middle ground between where he is and where you are.

I've been reading about those who tried to get the Reformers to keep reforming. I applaud your impulse and I hear echoes of their protests in your writing.. I want to join you in pushing back against every shred of worldliness that seeks to infiltrate the church. I just don't see it in the same places you do.

Eric said...


Yes, I agree. I imagine we are guilty of that to some extent, but these theologians are consistent with it when church issues are at hand.

Randi Jo :) said...

Definitely. I think you've told me before but i forget... when an acquaintance asks you "where you go to church" what is your answers if there's time to chat but don't feel discernment to talk in length lol

Eric said...


I believe you are onto something there. I've certainly seem some institutional leaders who fear heresy above all else, and therefore have set themselves up as judge and jury over it. As you said, this discourages any dissent whatsoever. Statements of faith are part of this as well.

I don't believe this is the motivation for all leaders, but in many cases this is what is going on. In seeking to avoid heresy, they have created institutions that, ironically, keep the majority of the people in a position to not question heresy if it arises.

Eric said...


Coffee sounds good. I'm a big proponent of it. I'm off work for several days around the New Year; send me a Facebook message so we can coordinate a time to get together.

Regarding the universal church, my primary concern is that we not ignore its existence. Many, many of the one anothers (for example) are directed to all Christians everywhere as opposed to only a specific group of believers. My main focus is the functioning of local groups within the mindset of being part of a larger whole. That said, the only authority over the larger whole is God Himself. All Rome does is create heresy after heresy after heresy.

As for dividing up for practicality's sake, I believe the burden of proof for that falls on those who support the idea. I see no evidence for it in scripture. That may sound simplistic on my part; however, that's part of the reason why I believe what I do. It is simple. I just want to follow what I see modeled in the N.T. If I saw directions about how to split up into various groupings within a city then I would be all for it. It just doesn't exist.

I believe we need another reformation within the church. I'm grateful for the Reformers and their focus on the biblical gospel. However, here we are 500 years later with much the same hierarchical church model. I hope and pray we will see some substantive change in our lifetimes. I'm seeing it as more and more Christians are leaving the institution. This wave is only going to increase as more and more folks become more and more disillusioned with institutional practices.

What many Christians want is true community. In the years ahead this will likely occur in simple settings, outside of traditional trappings. I hope to see it in large numbers.

Eric said...

Randi Jo,

In that case I've found the best thing to say is something like, "Let's get together and talk about that some time. Can you meet me for coffee?" If they say yes, then you know that they are truly interested. If they don't seem interested in meeting, then you know that they aren't really that concerned.

Tim A said...

I will address Thabiti's first statement. " Every time we talk about the body of Christ we are talking about church membership." Notice the "every time". He is directly saying he has no interest in talking about the membership that Christ has done. He will only talk about the membership that men have arranged. This is a direct and total substitution of what men do for what Christ has done. EVERY TIME!!! Is this not idolatry when she substitute what men do for what Christ has done? This is a theological golden calf to reverence, believe, and obey.

When I read Os Guiness's book "No God but God: dealing with the idols of our age", he used the concept of man's substitutes for God as a definition of idolatry. He failed to identify institutionalism and it's many "marks" as idolatry of our age. When we are told to "keep ourselves from idols" we are being told to avoid more than mere phyiscal graven images. The church as institution is a graven image of the heart, fully crafted and constructed by men such that it replaces the amazing work of Christ. These men proudly proclaim that believers "submit" to this image of the heart. Their membership even has a place for you to sit and one direction to face and it's called a sanctuary. Thabiti's statement is a statement of idolatry. He has excluded membership in the body of Christ as being a relationship of any effect or significance when it does not include a membership in an institution. Am I wrong that the "every time we talk" is a statement of full confidence in what men have erected and zero confidence in the work of Christ?

Eric said...


It is difficult to get behind the rhetoric to know the speakers' intentions. However, I agree that Anyabwile's statement is very troublesome. It supplants what Christ has accomplished with what man tries to do. What a shame it is.