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Churchianity or Christianity part 3: An example of Churchianity

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So far, in his series on 'Churchianity', Dr Joseph Boot has argued that Christians need to develop a cultural theology grounded in the Bible and has addressed two common faults among evangelicals' approaches to culture. In this third installment, he challenges well-meaning but errant thinking on the relationship between religion and politics and culture.


An example of churchianity

In this volume my primary concern is to address, not the advocates of social justice (which I have considered in detail elsewhere), but the pietistic cultural retreatism amongst those who are largely theologically orthodox and who are advocates of a kind of churchianity – which I want to contrast with scriptural Christianity.[1] For the sake of clarity it will help us to begin the discussion of churchianity with a typical example of how this problem manifests itself when the calling of Christians and the church in the world is discussed. In a recent interview titled ‘On the Mission of the Church,’ the popular American pastor, Mark Dever, attempts to articulate the essence of the Christian’s gospel-centred calling given the challenges in the culture.[2] The program is very instructive as an illustration of what I have called churchianity.

In a series of pithy statements, the sincerely evangelical Dever declares that the sum total of the Christian’s calling is to ‘make disciples’ and ‘build churches.’ “The Church” is not clearly defined in the discussion, nor is the actual nature and scope of disciple-making. Dever is clear, however, that the central calling of the Christian is evangelism, by which he means telling people about Jesus so that they can be forgiven, saved from hell, and join the church. No distinction is made between the life and work of the church institute and the kingdom of God. According to Dever, “Christianity goes forward by pastors raising up other pastors and sending them out.” Well and good for pastors, but where does this vision of Christian mission leave parents and families, school teachers and truck drivers, business leaders and politicians, lawyers and doctors, housewives and farmers, scholars and architects, musicians and artists, cooks and builders, in the biblical calling to advance the gospel, other than attending church services, being a ‘witness’ and going to Bible study?

Given Dever’s implicit identification of the church institute with the kingdom of God, Christians, he argues, are certainly allowed to pray about ‘life issues’ and for ‘local schools’ etc., but their real work as God’s people is evangelism and discipleship. Dever suggests he is all for parents being involved with the lives of their children and supporting marriage, but that does not mean he assumes we can work to impact social problems like gambling or reduce divorce rates in society. In any case, if the pastor attempts that with his time, he asks, who will preach the gospel?

When Dever is specifically asked whether he would ever use the language of ‘redeeming culture’ or ‘transforming the city,’ he answers forcefully, ‘No!’ that would only discourage people, he argues, since Dever sees no indication in the scriptures that cultural transformation is promised when Christians preach and live out the gospel. This is an incredible assertion for any student of Scripture to make. The following scriptures warrant a serious consideration in regard to the transforming impact of God’s Word in our lives and in cultural life: Genesis 1:26-28; Psalm 2; 8; 110:1-4; Isaiah 9:7; Daniel 2:46-49; 3:26-30; 4:34-36; 6:18-28; Jonah 3:5-10; Habakkuk 2:14; Matthew 28:18-20; Luke 13:18-21; John 12:20-32; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; Ephesians 1:10, 15-23; Colossians 1:15-20; Hebrews 2:6-13; Revelation 1:4-6. These illustrative texts concerning God’s sovereignty, the calling of the covenant people and Christ’s authority, power and expanding kingdom, clearly lead us to expect (as has been seen in the past) great cultural impact when believers are walking in obedience to God and serving the purposes of Christ’s reign which culminates in the consummation of his kingdom (Rom. 8: 22-23; Rev. 21:5).

Following his denial that the Bible teaches cultures will be transformed by the gospel, it is disappointing to hear Dever and Leeman engage in disparaging the venerable Abraham Kuyper and the vision he articulated of the Lordship of Christ transforming all of life. Dever asks what good either these teachings Kuyper’s tenure as Prime Minister ever did the Netherlands. This is an astonishingly short-sighted attitude toward Kuyper’s remarkable and influential legacy; Dever appears to believe that because there are lots of Christians being faithful in various places yet not seeing big changes in public cultural life, cultures aren’t changed by the gospel. This belief is a non-sequitur and lacks insight into what is happening at the religious root of life when a person’s heart is reoriented by the Holy Spirit to serve Christ with all their being. Is the open hostility to a faithful Christian politician (and theologian) like Kuyper the result of Dever’s restriction of the gospel to a limited section of life? Zuidema is to the point: “an integral Christian politics, an integral Christian view of the state…which as such play up to neither the ecclesiasticization nor the secularization of life outside of the church – these are a thorn in the flesh for the ecclesiasticized church-man and the politicized politician.”[3]

The inescapable reality is that human beings are cultural creatures. Everything we do in and with God’s creation is a work of culture-making, and therefore the salvation of an individual and their subsequent faithfulness to God in their personal and family life does effect an immediate change in culture as they live in the world. The culture of the home is altered when a man surrenders his life to Christ. The culture of a business begins to change when its leader orients his heart towards God’s Word. The culture of a school begins to change when the head teacher turns to Christ and is directed by the scriptures. Indeed, everything in which the true believer is involved, as they live out the truth in terms of God’s Word, is powerfully impacted. Yet Dever states with satisfaction that he has had political figures come to him at his Washington D.C. church on Capitol Hill saying they thought they had come to the capital to impact politics as Christians, but they had since realised at Dever’s church that they really had been brought to Washington to learn about being church and a good disciple. The church-centred character of Dever’s understanding of the gospel is thus reinforced in the starkest terms.

Dever certainly affirms Christ’s Lordship as a theological idea, but materially and practically, for everyday life outside of the church, it fades from view. This is because, as far as Dever is concerned, he can just cooperate and collaborate with non-believers in all the ‘ordinary stuff’ of life, since he sees no directional distinction in what believers and non-believers are doing in their everyday activities. Thus for Dever, there is no need for, nor indeed is there any such thing as, Christian newspapers, trade unions, etc., and there is certainly no need for Christian political parties and institutions. Naturally he also argues it is simply wrong to say the true way to educate children is Christian education. The goal of Christianising anything for Dever is badly misguided – though he never actually clearly explains why.

There is a profound irony in American pastors using their pulpits and religious freedom to attack the Christianisation of culture and the application of Scripture to the totality of life, given that their nation was effectively founded by evangelical puritans and was radically shaped throughout its history, in all its public institutions, by Christianity – Moses himself being engraved on Supreme Court buildings. In fact, it was the Christianised nature of American culture, however imperfect, that gave men like Dever their freedom to be pastors and to witness to the gospel without legal hindrance. Moreover there is a disturbing presumption and arrogance that attends church leaders identifying the church institute with the kingdom of God. Zuidema’s challenge here is profound and searching:

"The sin of identification of church with the kingdom of God, of church with Covenant, of church with heart religion, whereby for all intents and purposes this church as it were coincides with itself and Christ coincides with the church, is all the more serious since it once and for all blocks the Christian’s freedom and the free reign of God’s Word over the ecclesiastical offices. Humanly speaking, nothing is so stubborn and so hopeless, so tyrannical and so anarchistic, because nothing is so pious seemingly as this ecclesiasticizing of the Bible and religion."[4]

Despite the privilege of a remarkable Christian heritage in the United States, Dever piously argues that the future will surely be dark, like the days of Noah. As such, instead of speaking of cultural transformation he says, “I wish you would just share the gospel with that person on the bus.” In this statement we see the appearance of a radically truncated gospel and clear question-begging regarding the nature of the gospel mission – which is in fact the matter in question. It is certainly true that the calling of the church is centred in the gospel. But what is the nature and character of the gospel of the kingdom and what are its implications for us as God’s people? Do they go beyond personal evangelism and adding people to the institutional church?

Dever’s conclusion regarding the mission of the church is that we don’t redeem and transform anything cultural. Thus, his objective is to spend time and resources to establish churches that will do witnessing and discipleship. Again, these are no doubt critical tasks for Christians. But for Dever this alone is what advances Christianity. We have in this interview then a very good example of what I am arguing is modern and popular evangelical churchianity. Calvin Seerveld’s caution is telling:

"Many Christians have been content to witness to the world, vigorously preaching Christ crucified but holding back from involvement in the culture because it is so immoral and demoralizing…, yet it is not the full gospel. It has the ascetic reticence of John the Baptizer who preached repentance from sin and counseled moral rectitude in whatever profession you were in, but stopped there. John the Baptizer’s disciples fasted, and Christ did not condemn it; He just commanded his disciples who freely ate and drank to fashion new wineskins."[5]

Seerveld goes on to note that whoever is tempted to settle for such an introverted, pietistic Christianity – and it is an easier answer for the older and wiser believers – it is not the Reformed tradition.[6]  Which is to say, such a perspective is not found at the root of the scriptural faith emerging from the most consistent stream of the Reformation. Moreover the culture around us cannot be helped by such distortion of the biblical mandate. None of this is an appeal to politicise religion (as though salvation were by politics), because a politicised gospel is as great an evil as an ecclesiasticised faith. However, to divorce religion from politics, or from culture in general is a sheer fiction and can no more be done than separating religion from the Church.  

Go back to Part 1 or Part 2, or read on in Part 4.

[1]I deal extensively and critically in The Mission of God: A Manifesto of Hope for Society (Toronto: Ezra Press, 2016), with the social justice movement within modern evangelicalism.

[2]Jonathan Leeman and Mark Dever interview ‘On the Mission of the Church,’ accessed Nov. 16, 2017

[3]Zuidema, Communication and Confrontation, 42.

[4]Zuidema, Communication and Confrontation, 43-44.

[5]Seerveld, Christian Critique, 4-5

[6]Seerveld, Christian Critique, 5