In every era, Christians are called “to contend earnestly for the faith once and for all delivered to the saints.” Some struggles recur in every generation. Battles such as the veracity of Scripture or the person and work of Christ are perennial ones. The church, again and again, has to articulate and defend these doctrines.
Other battles, such as the Bible’s teaching on marriage, gender, and human sexuality, seem to appear out of nowhere, and require the church to be agile, quick, and forceful in response.
Christians are not to be pugilists, always on the look out for doctrinal fights. But we better not be cowards either, unwilling to find one. In fact, Martin Luther—the reluctant reformer—serves as a good role model. Luther challenged the ruling ecclesiastical and magisterial authorities of his day, under constant threat of death, because his “conscience was bound to the Word of God.”
On the Christian’s willingness to join the battle, Luther purportedly observed:
If I profess, with the loudest voice and the clearest exposition, every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christianity. Where the battle rages the loyalty of the soldier is proved; and to be steady on all the battle-field besides is mere flight and disgrace to him if he flinches at that one point.
Protestants understand that there is a balance to be maintained between the church and the truth. The church doesn’t determine the truth; the truth determines the church. The church doesn’t authenticate the Scriptures, the Scriptures authenticate the church. The church doesn’t empower the truth; the truth empowers the church.
Yet, the church and truth enjoy a symbiotic relationship. The church is called to proclaim and practice the truth. After all, the Apostle Paul designates the church as “the pillar and support of the truth.”
In the spirit of Luther, the church—and especially those who lead it—must continually ask itself, “where is the battle raging? Which truths are under assault? Against what attacks should Christians mobilize and engage?” When considered in this light, seven theological challenges surface for the church to confront.
First, the church must recover the exclusivity of the gospel. The evangelical church persists in a state of evangelistic slumber. In my own denomination, baptisms and giving for missions continue to slump. What is even more concerning is our collective lack of concern over these trajectories. The statistics are not just numbers. They are people—people in need of Christ.
At its root, neither the causes nor cures are methodological or programmatic. The issue is theological—do we still believe that people who die apart from Christ are eternally separated from God and will endure punishment in Hell? Even for those who still profess the exclusivity of the gospel, our practice often tells another story. We must recover the exclusivity of the gospel.
Second, the church must defend the nature and power of Scripture. This is a perennial concern, but an especially urgent one as well. Thankfully, in recent years the inerrancy of Scripture has received renewed attention. John MacArthur hosted The Inerrancy Summit, and recently released The Scripture Cannot Be Broken: Twentieth Century Writings on the Doctrine of Inerrancy. Additionally, D. A Carson’s newly released, The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, is a massive contribution.
Yet, for evangelicals, we can believe the Bible without BELIEVING it. The latter so values the Bible that it forms our convictions, dominates our pulpits, shapes our leadership, fills our minds, and drives our counseling. The church must defend and seek this type of belief—a belief in the full truthfulness, authority, and power of Scripture.
Third, the church must articulate a comprehensive view of sexuality, gender, and marriage. Albert Mohler has helpfully pointed out that the pastor simply cannot speak to every issue all the time. Rather, he must always be assessing what can be assumed versus what must be articulated.
Perhaps no facet of human experience has more quickly migrated from the “can be assumed” to the “must be articulated” category than issues of sexuality, gender, and marriage. In order to equip our own church members, protect the testimony of the church, and for the glory of God in the home and church, we must be speaking consistently—and loudly—to these issues.
Fourth, the church must nurture an experiential Christianity. The advent of the Internet has led to the proliferation of content and the possibilities to learn unlike any other time in human history. A world of knowledge is only a click away. Christians are now corks bobbing in an ocean of data, with books, articles, blogs, and posts all beckoning us to read them.
While there is much to celebrate, and many healthy ways to leverage these technological innovations for the gospel, we must beware of clinical Christianity. This is the kind of Christianity that so values learning, knowledge, and the consummation of data—albeit good data—to the neglect of the heart, the soul, and the experiential. The best truth is applied truth, and the church must nurture that kind of Christianity.
Fifth, the church must rediscover its eschatological hope. Throughout its history, the church has oscillated between a preoccupation with the return of Christ and an irresponsible neglect of this doctrine. In the 20th century, the pendulum swung too far toward towards end-time speculation and eschatological sensation. In the 21st century, the pendulum has swung back too far the other way.
Prophecy charts and eschatology conferences have given way to a studious indifference to the Eschaton. A healthy eschatological hope provides ballast for the church. It provides support for persecuted Christians and balance for those who’ve attained material gain and earthly comfort.
Sixth, the church must recover regenerate church membership. This concern, and the next, are more provincial, applying more specifically to my Southern Baptist context. When churches populate their rolls with those who show no signs of conversion—and leave them on their rolls with no concern—they undermine the integrity and witness of their church, hinder the testimony and integrity of the congregation, and limit God’s glory through the congregation to the community.
Additionally, unregenerate church membership undermines the integrity of congregationalism as a form of church government. How can the church be rightly governed if a substantial number of those entrusted with governing it show no signs of conversion?
Seventh, the church must reassert the primacy of the ordinances. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the two ordinances given by Christ to the church and for the church. Baptism by immersion is an unmistakable New Testament command and is central to the believer and the church. Moreover, it is central to what it means to be a Baptist and to neglect teaching and practicing this ordinance will surely erode our Baptist identity.
Similarly, Christ gave the Lord’s Supper to the church for the church, and it is stewarded by the church. Christians have long held that only baptized believers, in good standing with their church, are invited to take the Lord’s Supper.
President Bill Clinton once mused that he’d never be considered a truly great president because no major national crisis occurred on his watch. Lincoln had to save the Union; FDR had Pearl Harbor and World War II; and Reagan had the consummation of the Cold War. Immortal actors need a grand stage to stride across.
There is something far worse than not having a crisis to engage. It is having a crisis but not engaging it. Faithfulness in our generation requires the church—and especially the pastors that lead it—to do our duty of preserving the faith and supporting the church. Are you ready to do yours?
This blog post originally appeared at JasonKAllen.com.