How Can the Gospel Become Compromised in the Local Church? by Paul Roberts

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

In light of my recent criticisms on the Emergent Church and the gospel, I was reminded of an article I read a while back by Paul Roberts, pastor of a church in Northern Michigan. This article may help in furthering conversations with the EC movement as it relates to their concerns over the compromise of the gospel in the church.

Over a half century ago, G. K. Chesterton mused that “All men matter. You matter. I matter. It’s the hardest thing in theology to believe.”[1] It is undoubtedly true that people matter, and it is quite important for people to realize they matter. They matter to the church and to God. But I have found that most people find it rather easy to believe they matter. Most people expect God and his church, to borrow John Piper’s phraseology, to “make much of them.” That is what the church does. It exists to serve people and ease their burdens. Or so people think.

However, sometimes theology and ministry collide at awkward angles, and theological truths must be applied in seemingly obtuse ways. Yes, people do matter. But certainly not always in the prideful ways we think.

Quite frequently even dedicated church members need to be reminded that they (or even we) are not all that matters. The church is not about you; nor is it about me. It is not even about us corporately, though this may come closer to the mark. The church is in many ways “an earthly expression of heaven.”[2] Worship of the exalted Christ by, in part, preserving purity and holiness in her midst is key to who and what the Church is. The glory of God in Christ is what we are about. The church is not about us. We are about the church; and the church is about God. And the gospel? The gospel, the Good News, is at the heart of all that we are and believe. Indeed, “God is the gospel.”[3]

“A healthy church is filled with people who have a heart for the gospel, and having a heart for the gospel means having a heart for truth--for God’s presentation of Himself, of our need, of Christ’s provision, and of our responsibility.”[4] So if we don’t get the gospel right, we probably won’t be right with God and our churches will not faithfully worship the exalted Christ and preserve purity and holiness in her midst. Our churches will not be faithful in word or deed, in worship or evangelism, in polity or creed. We must, then, seek faithful gospel saturation in our churches. We must seek to overcome anything and everything which hinders gospel saturation if we are to be faithful. This leads us to our question:

What kinds of attitudes and ideas lead to the compromise of the Gospel in the local church?

Self-Centric Individualism

Insistence on “My Rights”

I’m sure if you have been in faithful ministry for any time at all you have heard the rally cry of American Christianity: “What right do you have to tell me . . .?” Our society has produced a nation of people who interpret freedom to mean freedom from anything that cramps their style, from anything uncomfortable or inconvenient, from anything (or anybody) that tries to assert authority (real or perceived) over them. People are trained to not be willingly submissive to or dependent on others, even though the New Testament is constantly telling us to place the needs and well-being of others before our own. Mutual submission in the gospel (Eph. 4:21) is not embraced joyfully. When we consider ourselves as the “end” rather than the “means,” we make the same mistake which angered Jesus and prompted him to clear out the Temple’s Court of the Gentiles with such passion. Our lives are now the Court of the Gentiles where those who do not know God can come to meet him. Is it Christ-like, then, to use such a place primarily for our own profit and convenience? Certainly not. Such an attitude would hinder the gospel. See Phil. 2:1-9; Rom. 14:19, 15:1-6; 1 Cor 10:23-24, 13:5; Gal. 6:2

Insistence on Being a Church Customer

In a similar vein, when people begin to see themselves as the purpose and center of life, the church becomes a store of sorts where they can shop what the church has to offer and settle on the best value: Which church gives the most to me while requiring the least from me? Churches in America (my limited travel experience limits my observation to the States) are being molded by the culture. American individualism has produced a church culture content to woo the customer with marketing and advertising of a product--a product which is not even the gospel! The marketed product of the developing church culture in America is the very church being marketed. Talk about confusing ends with means! At worst, the gospel is lost. At best, the gospel becomes just another service being offered along with entertainment and child-care! No, the customer is not always right, especially when they are shopping for the least offensive and most palatable packaging of “church.” We should be less concerned about trying to make God and the gospel palatable to people and more concerned about seeing the gospel make us palatable to God.

Self-Centric Congregationalism

Devaluation of Church Membership and its Responsibilities

I recently read of a man who pastors a church with 2000 members in a town of 1800 people.[5] A church in Kentucky, and probably in far too many other places as well, has over one thousand members with a mere fifty in attendance. How can the covenant responsibilities of mutual accountability in membership be maintained with such anonymity? They cannot. How can the gospel and its subsequent growth in godliness in the lives of Christians be maintained and proclaimed without compromise when church membership becomes little more than a club? It cannot. If the gospel is the good news of forgiveness and new life through the vicarious and substitutionary atonement of Christ, thus guaranteeing the effectiveness of atonement for all who believe, then we must be diligent about accountability in progressive Christ-likeness. Membership in a local church is the church’s endorsement, as far as is humanly possible, of an individual’s salvation. The church, then, because it cannot see into his heart, examines the professing believer’s life and decides whether such a life is consistent with a genuine embrace of the gospel. When churches become more interested in gaining members than in producing ethically accountable disciples, the gospel is hindered, the church loses its witness in the community, and the bride of Christ is less attractive to her bridegroom. See 1 Cor 5:1-11; 1 Tim 1:20, 5:19-20; Heb 12:1-14; Gal 6:1; Tit. 3:9-11; Mat 18:15-17; 2 Thess 3:6-15.

Valuation of Tolerance

The so-called ethic of reciprocity is used to support and encourage toleration of deviant views and behavior. We should treat others like we would want to be treated. Remember the Golden Rule, my fellow Christians? Yet are we to believe that we should tolerate the sin of others in our midst so that our own sin will be tolerated in turn? Paul chided the Corinthians for the pride inherent in their tolerance of immorality among church members (1 Cor 5:1-2). When arrogant and unrepentant sin is overlooked by the congregation, the gospel is seen by those outside to be impotent and worthless. No, the proper application of the “ethic of reciprocity” within the body of Christ is one of reciprocal accountability. If the gospel has truly transformed my heart and life, then when I sin, I will want others to take me aside and “explain [to me] the way of God more accurately”, like Acquilla and Priscilla did for Apollos in Acts 18:26. Christians should agree to hold others accountable, and to be held accountable themselves, in their growth in the gospel. Only then can the gospel be shown as the power of salvation for all who believe. Otherwise, people who claim to have embraced the gospel will lead unchanged lives, and will thus portray the gospel as powerless and false.

Briefly Annotated Bibliography of Helpful Works

Armstrong, John H., ed. Reforming Pastoral Ministry. Wheaton: Crossway, 2001. A plea for reformation in today’s churches. See especially chapter five, “Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing: Preaching Christ as the Focus of all Reformation;” chapter seven, “Leading the Church in God-Centered Worship;” and chapters 10, 12, 14 on fellowship, discipline, and pragmatism.

________, ed. The Compromised Church. Wheaton: Crossway, 1998. See especially chapter four on “Every-Member Ministry” and chapter eight on discipline.

Davies, John Keith. The Local Church: A Living Body. Wales: John Keith Davies, 1998. A marvelous work on the nature of the church, including membership, leadership, and mission. Self-published (ISBN 0 85234 495 3)

Dever, Mark E. Nine Marks of a Healthy Church. Wheaton: Crossway, 2000. Especially relevant to this discussion are Marks 3: The Gospel. See also Marks 4, 6, 7, and 8. A shorter booklet form is available from 9Marks Ministries (formerly the Center for Church Reform).

________. A Display of God’s Glory. Download Free Here. Washington, DC: Center for Church Reform, 2001. A helpful 68 page booklet covering the basics of church structure: deacons, elders, congregationalism, and membership.

Kistler, Don, ed. Onward, Christian Soldiers: Protestants Affirm the Church. Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1999. A helpful compilation of chapters on the church, including particularly valuable chapters on marks of a true church, membership, and discipline.

MacArthur, John F., Jr. The Master’s Plan for the Church. Chicago: Moody Press, 1991. A popular exposition of healthy congregational ecclesiology.


[1]G. K. Chesterton, The Father Brown Omnibus (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Co., 1951) 846.
[2]John MacArthur, “I Love Thy Church, O God,” in Onward, Christian Soldiers: Protestants Affirm the Church, edited by Don Kistler (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1999), 16.
[3]John Piper, Pierced by the Word (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 2003) 17
[4]Mark E. Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church. Fourth Edition (Washington DC: Center for Church Reform, 2001) 23.
[5]“Arkansas Baptists Elect . . . Officers for 2003-04,” Arkansas Baptist Newsmagazine Vol 102, No. 23.

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