I’ve been reading the new edition of Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine for work – and am coming towards the end! It’s been fascinating doing so – the first edition was my gateway drug into the serious study of theology, and my ultimate interest in systematic/dogmatic theology. You can read about what’s changed in the new edition on the IVP blog, but this post is an extract of something I think is particularly interesting. There are many things I now disagree with Grudem about – but I share his passion for the Bible, concern for the health of disciples of Jesus, and deliberate intention to make theology relevant to the mission and ministry of the church.
Every church I’ve been part of has been imperfect, in one way or another. Often – due to either my own sin or my own views, or both – I’ve been a contributor to that imperfection. Every church anyone is part of is going to be a mixed body – there will not, this side of heaven, be complete unity and complete uniformity of belief. In his chapter on the purity and unity of the Church, Grudem rather helpfully, in my opinion, puts meat on the skeleton of thoughts I’ve sketched in this paragraph:
“Factors that make a church “more pure” include:
1. Biblical doctrine (or right preaching of the Word)
2. Proper use of the sacraments (or ordinances)
3. Right use of church discipline
4. Genuine worship
5. Effective prayer
6. Effective witness
7. Effective fellowship
8. Biblical church government
9. Spiritual power in ministry
10. Personal holiness of life among members
11. Care for the poor
There may be other signs than these, but at least these can be mentioned as fac- tors that increase a church’s conformity to God’s purposes. Of course, churches can be more pure in some areas and less pure in others—for example, a church may have excellent doctrine and sound preaching yet be a dismal failure in witness to others or in meaningful worship. Or a church may have a dynamic witness and very God-honoring times of worship but be weak in doctrinal understanding and Bible teaching.
Most churches will tend to think that the areas in which they are strong are the most important areas and the areas where they are weak are less important. But the New Testament encourages us to work for the purity of the church in all of these areas. Christ’s goal for the church is “that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:26–27). Paul’s ministry was one of “warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Col. 1:28). Moreover, Paul told Titus that elders must “be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9), and he said that false teachers “must be silenced” (Titus 1:11). Jude urged Christians to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Proper use of the sacraments is commanded in 1 Corinthians 11:17–34, and right use of church discipline to protect the purity of the church is required in 1 Corinthians 5:6–7, 12–13.
The New Testament also mentions a number of other factors: we are to strive for spiritual worship (Eph. 5:18–20; Col. 3:16–17), effective witness (Matt. 28:19–20; John 13:34–35; Acts 2:44–47; 1 John 4:7), proper government of the church (1 Tim. 3:1–13), spiritual power in ministry (Acts 1:8; Rom. 1:16; 1 Cor. 4:20; 2 Cor. 10:3–4; Gal. 3:3–5; 2 Tim. 3:5; James 5:16), personal holiness (1 Thess. 4:3; Heb. 12:14), care for the poor (Acts 4:32–35; Rom. 15:26; Gal. 2:10), and love for Christ (1 Peter 1:8; Rev. 2:4). In fact, all Christians are to “strive to excel in building up the church” (1 Cor. 14:12), an exhortation that applies not only to an increase in the number of church members but also (and in fact primarily) to the building up or growth of the church toward Christian maturity. The force of all of these passages is to remind us that we are to work for the purity of the visible church.
Of course, if we are to work for the purity of the church, especially of the local church of which we are a part, we must recognize that this is a process and that any church of which we are a part will be somewhat impure in various areas. There were no perfect churches at the time of the New Testament, and there will be no perfect churches until Christ returns. This means that Christians have no obligation to seek the purest church they can find and stay there, and then leave it if an even purer church comes to their attention. Rather, they should find a true church in which they can have effective min- istry and in which they will experience Christian growth as well, and then they should stay and minister, continually working for the purity of that church. God will often bless their prayers and faithful witness, and the church will gradually grow in many areas of purity.
But we must realize that not all churches will respond well to influences that would bring them to greater purity. Sometimes, in spite of a few faithful Christians within a church, its dominant direction will be set by others who are determined to lead it on another course. Unless God graciously intervenes to bring reformation, some of these churches will become cults, and others will just die and close their doors. But more commonly these churches will simply drift into liberal Protestantism.”
What do you think?