Tag Archives: doctrine

The Doctrine of the Trinity Is Not About A Word

A few years ago I gave a talk to a popular audience on the doctrine of God. During the question and answer period a questioner ask, “Would you explain the Trinity?” The audience laughed. I replied that I find the doctrine of the Trinity quite simple and would be happy to answer his question. For today’s post I will share my understanding of this simple doctrine. Let me begin with two preliminary qualifications.

(1) The doctrine of the Trinity is not about a word. The Greek word “Trinity” (trias) was first used to refer to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the late 2nd Century. The word “Trinity” was not used in the New Testament, and some people turn this absence into an argument against the substance of the doctrine that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They seem to think that the whole issue turns on what word you use. If the word “Trinity” were that important to the doctrine, surely the Nicene Creed (381), the definitive statement of the Trinitarian faith for nearly all Christian churches, would have used it. It did not. The debate about the Trinity addresses the question, who is God? Or more precisely who is the God we meet in Jesus Christ and the Spirit who raised him from the dead? The name “Trinity” is simply a shorter way of saying the name “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19), into which we are baptized.

The real question of the Trinity is this: is it proper for Christians to believe and confess that the word “God” means Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Gregory Nazianzus (A.D. 329-89), Patriarch of Constantinople and one of the chief defenders of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity says it this way:

But when I say God, I mean Father, Son and Holy Spirit. For Godhead is neither diffused beyond these, so as to bring in a mob of gods; nor yet is it bounded by a smaller compass than these, so as to condemn us for a poverty-stricken conception of deity, either Judaizing to save the monarchia, or falling into paganism by the multitude of our gods. For the evil on either side is the same, though found in contrary directions.  This then is the Holy of Holies, which is hidden even from the Seraphim, and is glorified with a thrice repeated Holy, meeting in one ascription to the title Lord and God (Oration 38, 8).

(2) The doctrine of the Trinity is not a speculative doctrine that claims intellectual comprehension of God’s essential being. The church fathers who articulated the Nicene Creed were well aware that God dwells in unapproachable light and that no one has seen God. God’s essence is incomprehensible by any being other than God. The orthodox doctrine of the Trinity is a protective formula whose only claim to truth is that it faithfully summarizes the revelation of God made in Jesus Christ. Only God knows God. Hence only God can reveal God. The Son knows God and can reveal God (Matthew 11:27). The Spirit knows “the deep things of God” and can reveal the “thoughts” of God (1 Corinthians 2:11-12). In sum, the doctrine of the Trinity aims not to comprehend “the deep things of God” but to restate the truth of divine revelation in a compressed formula that protects the faithful from one-sided interpretations of the scriptures.

The doctrine of the Trinity arose in three stages. First, Jesus and his disciples confessed the one God and the Christian church never revoked this confession. There is only one God. However once Jesus had risen from the dead and was confessed as Savior and Lord and the Spirit had been poured out on the church, it became obvious that the one God acts for our salvation through his Son Jesus Christ and in his Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ is the revealer of God and the Spirit sanctifies us and unites us to God. The Christian experience of salvation and communion with God involves three who act as one. We are baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. We pray to the Father through the Son, in the power of the Spirit. Everywhere you turn in the Christian faith, ritual, and practice we find the three united in one. Thomas Torrance calls this stage “the evangelical Trinity” (The Christian Doctrine of God).

Second, Christian experience and faith raise questions that demand explanation. At this stage, the church recognizes that the work of Jesus Christ as Savior, Lord, and Revealer and the work of the Spirit as Revealer, Sanctifier, and Giver of life can be accomplished only by God. God acts in the economy of salvation and revelation as Father, Son, and Spirit. In relating to Jesus and the Spirit, we are relating to the true God. When we are united to Christ we are united to God. When we are touched by the Spirit, we are touched by God. In the economy of salvation and revelation we relate to the Father as God, to Jesus Christ as God, and to the Holy Spirit as God. Torrance calls this stage “the Economic Trinity.”

The third stage moves to the ontological or immanent Trinity. The truth of Christian faith and practice depends on the saving and revealing work of Jesus Christ and the sanctifying and life-giving work of the Spirit (the first stage). And the validity of the work of Christ and the Spirit depends on the divine character of that work (the second stage). The final stage asserts that God is triune not only in the economy of revelation and salvation but in God’s own eternal life. Unless God really is Father, Son, and Spirit in eternal truth, we could not receive the revelation and salvation in Christ and the Spirit as a real revelation of the Christ-character of God, of the love of God, of the real presence of God. There might be a different God hidden behind the masks of Christ and the Spirit. The doctrine of the immanent Trinity simply states that what God reveals himself to be for us in the economy, God is in his own eternal life. It is not speculative, and it’s not complicated.

The three stages stand or fall together. If we think God might not really be Father, Son, and Spirit in eternal truth, we would have cause to doubt that God is really at work or genuinely revealed in Christ and the Spirit; and if we doubt that God is really at work and revealed in Christ and the Spirit, would have cause to doubt our salvation, our union with God and our sanctification.

John dealt with similar doubts in his own context in the First Century. And his answer is similar to the one the church eventually gave in the doctrine of the Trinity:

We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life (1 John 5:20).

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Who is Jesus?

The first generation of Christians was occupied with grasping for themselves and explaining to others the identity of Jesus of Nazareth.  One of the earliest identifiers is expressed in the confession, “Jesus is Lord” (1 Corinthians 12:3; Romans 10:9). His original disciples also designated Jesus as Messiah, Son of God, Savior of the world, Word of God, and many more titles. Jesus saves and judges the world. He is the one through whom God created the universe (Hebrews 1:1-3) and the one in whom the fullness of God dwells (Colossians 2:9).

He existed in the “form of God” but took on the “form of a servant” (Philippians 2). The eternal Word became flesh and lived among us (John 1:14). He is the “true God and eternal life” (1 John 5:20). Jesus is not identified in a one-to-one correspondence with the God of Israel to whom Jesus prayed as “Father.” He is distinct from but in the closest and most intimate relationship with the God the Father.

Though Jesus is called a prophet, lawgiver, messenger and teacher, he is more, much more. The Gospel of Mark begins with the affirmation that this is the story of “Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). Mark’s gospel tells the story of how Jesus came to be recognized as “Messiah” and “Son of God.” John baptized with water, but Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit. What a contrast! Jesus speaks with authority and casts out demons, which recognize him as “the Holy One of God” (1:24). He heals the sick and raises the dead with a simple command and in complete confidence.

In Mark 8, Jesus asks the question “Who do people say that I am?” At this point in the narrative, Jesus’ actions and words have asserted such unprecedented authority and provoked such wonder that none of the usual labels can do him justice. Peter replies to Jesus, “You are the Christ” (8:28). But not even that label says all that needs to be said about Jesus. For “messiah” means one anointed to be “king,” and Jesus, we discover, is more than a king.

In the next chapter (Mark 9), Jesus is transfigured and meets with Moses and Elijah. The three disciples wish to honor Jesus as the equal of Moses the great lawgiver and Elijah the greatest of the prophets. But God, speaking from heaven declares, “This is my Son listen to him.” Jesus is greater than the law and the prophets! He is God’s “Son.” Mark wants us to view Jesus’ messiahship or kingship—which could be viewed simply as an office like those of prophet and priest—in light of his “Sonship.” When the human beings in Mark’s gospel speak about Jesus’ identity, they speak of him as the bearer of an office such as king or prophet, but when God or demons speak, they speak about Jesus’ person, that is, the inherent personal qualities that make him qualified for the work he does and the offices he holds.

In Mark, as well as the rest of the New Testament, the title “Son of God” means more than an office; it means an intimate relationship with the Father based not simply on a divine choice but on something analogous to natural kinship. John calls Jesus “the only-begotten” Son of God, emphasizing the uniqueness of Jesus relationship to the Father (John 1:15), and Paul contrasts Jesus the Son of God with “the sons of God” who are adopted into “sonship,” in an obvious contrast between natural born and adopted children (Romans 8:15). Jesus is “Son of God” by nature. There never was a time when he was not God’s Son.

 Israel’s lawgivers, prophets, judges and priests were chosen by God from among the people and endowed with the authority of the office. Whatever authority they exercised or wisdom they displayed derived not from their own persons but from their divine appointment. Apart from that divine choice, they are just like their brother and sister Israelites. But Jesus was not only chosen and appointed for his work in this world. He was sent from the Father. He is not qualified because he was appointed but he was appointed because he was qualified. And this fact distinguishes Jesus Christ from all prior and succeeding prophets, priests and lawgivers. Jesus is Lord.

To be continued…

 

When Did “Doctrine” Become a Four Letter Word?

Doctrine has fallen on hard times among mainstream Christian churches. Liberal churches have disparaged doctrine for at least a hundred years. By “doctrine” they meant the traditional orthodox doctrines that asserted miracles, original sin, the incarnation and atonement, the resurrection of Christ, the Trinity, and others. According to Liberal churches, modern people schooled in natural science and critical history can no longer believe these teachings, and such controversial teachings distract attention from the liberal agenda of progressive moral advance in society. (For more on the idea of Liberal Christianity, see my essays on Liberal Christianity posted on August 01 and 08, 2015). In the first half of the Twentieth Century Liberalism was opposed by traditional believers who defended the orthodox doctrines mentioned above. But even within conservative Christian circles in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries there were revival and evangelistic movements that down played “denominational” doctrines so that they could more effectively evangelize the unchurched. That is to say, the practical concerns of evangelism and church growth nudged evangelists and pastors toward minimizing doctrines that were not directly related to conversion and salvation. Requiring prospective church members to consider and adopt many doctrines would distract them from making a “decision for Christ.” Hence in their own way many conservative opponents of Liberal Christianity down played doctrine.

We can see many of these same forces at work in 2015. Liberal churches still reject orthodoxy and continue to pursue a mission of social change according to progressive philosophy. Many evangelical churches continue to put a high priority on church growth and churching the unchurched. Of course the methods of attracting people into churches have changed. Over the last years I have noticed an increase in two areas: offers of social support and exciting “worship experiences.” Instead of evangelistic “crusades” or revival meetings churches provide a full spectrum of social programs that appeal to young families with children, singles and other affinity groups. And they spend huge amounts of money and energy to provide moving experiences of worship and uplifting messages from the pastor. Doctrine does not fit well into this picture. And it’s not hard to imagine the consequences of years of doctrinal neglect. People may eventually begin asking themselves, “Why are we here?”

So, what is doctrine? The English word “doctrine” derives from a Latin-based word that means “teaching.” Jesus taught his disciples and the crowds. In his “great commission” recorded in Matthew 28, Jesus commanded his disciples to go to the nations, baptizing people and “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (v. 20). The apostles remembered Jesus’ teaching and passed it on. They also taught about what happened to Jesus on the cross and his resurrection. They explained how his death and resurrection affect us and how we are to relate to the Lord Jesus Christ. The church “devoted” itself the “the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42). The New Testament is the record of the apostles’ teaching and the apostles’ memories of Jesus’ teaching. Preaching is simply a particular way of teaching. The gospel is not opposed to doctrine. The gospel is the first and the most important thing that must be taught.

Doctrine, that is, Jesus’ and the apostles’ teaching, informs us about certain historical events and their meaning, about the right way to live in the world, and about God’s promises. The Bible teaches about God’s nature and identity, about the identity and work of Jesus Christ, about sin and salvation, about the church and her sacraments. Christian doctrine instructs us about whom to trust, for what to hope and how to love. It teaches us how to use our bodies and souls and tongues. The task of the church is to continue to teach and live the full range of Jesus’ and the apostles’ teaching. We do not have the right to limit teaching only to areas that are consistent with progressive culture, as do Liberal churches. Nor do we have a right to focus only on the “exciting” “affirming” and “uplifting” teachings as do many evangelical churches. To church the unchurched should not mean simply getting them in a worship assembly three or four times a month. It means to work toward re-forming them in the image of Jesus Christ. It means to help them to know and rely on all the promises of God, to engage them in the practices Jesus and the apostles taught us: prayer, the supper of the Lord, baptism, listening to the Word of God and confession.

But doctrine is boring, some say. No! Some teachers of doctrine are boring. But everything Jesus’ and the apostles’ taught is exciting, revolutionary and challenging! When various teachings get separated from the heart of the good news of how much God loves us and has done for us in Jesus Christ, then, yes, they are onerous and boring. But if we keep clearly and steadily in mind that doctrine—every doctrine!—is about who God is or what God has done for us or how God’s love can become a real power in our lives or how we can live in this world in faith and hope and love, then each and every morsel of teaching (doctrine) will be like honey in our mouths, wisdom for our minds, and energy for our souls!

There’s Nothing Mere About “Mere Christianity”

Last week I announced the theme for the coming year: “A Catechism of Mere Christianity for a Post-Denominational Church Living in a Post-Christian Culture.” I explained the rise of the post-denominational church and its negative effect on contemporary churchgoers’ understanding of the Christian faith. Today I want to explain what I mean by “mere Christianity” and why the church’s teaching must take into account the general post-Christian Culture.

I am sure that the term “mere Christianity” reminds many of you of the book by C.S. Lewis. In his preface, Lewis cites the Puritan pastor and theologian Richard Baxter (1615-91) as his source for the term “mere” Christianity. In Baxter’s Elizabethan English, “mere” meant pure, unadulterated or unmixed, whereas in modern English it has acquired the connotation of minimal or bare. In Mere Christianity, Lewis attempts to present the central teaching common to almost all denominations, Protestant and Roman Catholic. According to Lewis, nonbelievers ought to be given an opportunity to hear the basic Christian message rather than having to sift through all the fine points of denomination-specific teachings.

Perhaps Lewis wishes for his age what St. Vincent of Lérins (early 5th century), advocated for his, that is, that Christians ought to give special honor to “that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.” Lewis discovered that it is not easy to articulate “mere” Christianity in a way satisfactory to everyone any more than the Vincentian rule can generate a list of teachings acceptable to everyone. Lewis’s first readers found matters with which to quibble and some later readers cite omissions and offenses. But Lewis’s work has stood the test of time. Seventy-years later it is the number one selling book in the category of theology and is read approvingly by Protestants of all denominations and Roman Catholics.

In this series, however, I will not attempt to imitate C.S. Lewis. His book was aimed at outsiders and was written before the post-denominational church gained the prominence it holds today. This series aims at insiders and takes our post-denominational consciousness into account. This is why I am referring to it as a catechism. Seventy-five years ago, during the Second World War, when Lewis first presented the material contained in Mere Christianity to a British radio audience, it would have been inaccurate to refer to England as a “post-Christian” culture. Not so today, for Great Britain or the United States. Lewis could presume that regular churchgoers have been taught the basics of the faith by their denominations. We can no longer make this presumption. Hence my title “a catechism of mere Christianity.”

Like Lewis and St. Vincent, I am convinced that there is a set of basic beliefs that defines the boundaries of Christianity and that the historic traditions (Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant) share this core. Perhaps the exact boundaries are fuzzy, and it would be difficult and perhaps impossible for these traditions to agree on a particular text articulating these basic beliefs. Nevertheless when I read the Seven Ecumenical Councils (or at least the Nicene Creed), the Protestant confessions of faith and catechisms, the documents of the Second Vatican Council and the Roman Catholic Catechism, I am amazed at the consensus on these core beliefs. And I am also amazed at how extensive the list of consensus beliefs and practices is. There is nothing minimal about this “mere Christianity”!

Though the post-denominational culture in its evangelical form does not deny those historic beliefs and practices, it neglects to teach them in their fullness and focuses instead on experience. The language of worship includes references to God, Jesus and the Spirit. It directs worshipers to praise the grace of God, the love of Jesus and the joy of the Holy Spirit. Sermons inspire and encourage individuals. But as far as I can tell, there is little instruction in doctrine. Such neglect fails on two counts. (1) It assumes either that Christians don’t need instruction in the material covered in the historic catechisms or that they already know it. My experience is that they do not know this material, and my conviction is that they really need to know it. (2) It assumes that churchgoers understand the few beliefs that are mentioned in worship and sermons. I do not believe this is true. Familiar religious language has a way of losing its cognitive content and becoming opaque unless it is explained continually. When this happens, Christian words or professions of faith cease to direct the mind and become mere expressions of religious emotions.

In this series I plan to remind you of what your church should be teaching all its members (catechism) about basic Christianity (mere Christianity). All along, we will keep in view Christian language’s loss of meaning for a post-Christian culture.

Most church catechisms follow the order of the creed or of that church’s confession of faith. That order corresponds also to the order of most systematic theologies: God, the Trinity, creation and providence, the fall and sin, Christ and salvation, the Church and the Spirit, the Christian life and eschatology. I shall begin at a different place, with the church. And next week I shall explain why I begin there.

Next Week: “Yes, The Church Really Is Our Mother.”

In the Year 2113…Will There Be Faith on the Earth (Part 1)?

Perhaps it has always been so, but I see lots of short-term, consumer-driven thinking among Christian people and their leaders; and it has weighed on my mind lately. The questions to which we give our attention seem to be: “How can we meet our budgets for this fiscal year?” “How can we attract young people to our churches?”  “How can we keep our worship or preaching or children’s program or youth ministry relevant to contemporary audiences?” Or, “How can we make our services guest friendly?” I would not say that such questions ought never to enter our minds or ever receive any consideration. But shouldn’t we take a broader and longer-term view of our mission? What if we ask a different question: “How would we understand, study, live, teach and practice our faith if we wanted to do all we could to make sure that our church is authentically Christian 100 years from today?”

Okay, I admit it: We can’t control what future generations believe and do. It may be that, despite our best efforts, our great, great grand Children will not profess Christian faith. Still, that is no excuse for not thinking about the task and giving it our best efforts.

The first step is to raise the issue of the long-term sustainability of the form of faith we teach and practice. Let me explain what I mean by the term “form of faith.” Each Christian community by tradition or by circumstance selects certain aspects of the Christian faith to emphasize while it leaves others in the background as assumed or otherwise neglected. Your church may place justification by faith, good works, evangelism, church order, social justice, election, experience of the Spirit or some other teaching or practice at the center of church life. This specialization of teaching makes sense in many ways. You can’t teach everything at once. The needs of every age and context demand more instruction in certain areas than in others. Churches tend to perpetuate their founding and traditional insights. However, if the form of faith we teach does not contain the whole range of Christian teaching held in proper balance, it becomes vulnerable to two common forms of change that can lead it astray over time.

Allow me call the first “the law of logical progression” and the second “the law of dialectical change.” The law of logical progression comes into effect when for whatever reason one truth is emphasized to the near exclusion of others and becomes a sort of master concept by which others are judged. This truth—a particular understanding of church order or charismatic gifts or any another—is treated as if it were clear, precise and absolutely true apart from its relationship to other Christian truths. Hence other truths are interpreted by and forced into consistency with this truth.

Already, we have surfaced a serious misunderstanding about how the faith is communicated. In my view, no single proposition of Christian doctrine can in isolation from other statements of faith communicate its full truth and only that. (I hope to defend this statement in greater depth in a later post.) A fine example of this can be found in Romans 6. The statement “we are saved by grace” communicates an important truth as long as it is understood in relation to other teaching. But apart from its relation to the whole faith, it is ambiguous. And bad things happen when you treat an ambiguous statement as if it were clear. Once an isolated statement of doctrine is assumed to possess its truth in itself apart from any modifying relations to other teaching, our minds cannot resist drawing out all the implications of that statement almost to absurdity. Paul reacts severely to those who would isolate grace from righteousness and extend its meaning so that it actually contradicts other teachings: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Romans 6:1-2). As an isolated statement the assertion of salvation of grace may plausibly be interpreted to imply that sin is permitted. But given the whole context within which the doctrine of grace is nested, the implication that sin is a good thing appears not only unwarranted but ridiculous.

The law of dialectical change becomes operative when one party makes a strong affirmation (or negation) that evokes an opposing negation. In the previous paragraph, I asserted that no proposition of Christian doctrine can communicate its full truth and only that truth when asserted in isolation from the full range of doctrine. So when someone asserts an isolated proposition of doctrine as if it were unambiguous and absolutely true in isolation, our minds automatically begin the process of negation; we immediately see that this strong claim cannot be true. This mental process is both logical and psychological. It’s logical in that the very form of the words of an assertion of truth requires that the negation of that truth be false. An assertion always carries its negation along with it and smuggles it into our minds even against the speaker’s and the hearer’s intention. It is psychological in that strong assertions call up resistance to any person claiming such absolute and unambiguous knowledge. It seems a bit arrogant, and we can’t resist enjoying the humiliation of the arrogant.

Again, consider the proposition “We are saved by divine grace.” If this truth is asserted in isolation from other doctrine—because in isolation the statement is ambiguous, containing falsehood as well as truth— it could be taken to mean something like, “We will be saved by grace regardless of any other factor. Hence whether we sin much or little, intentionally or inadvertently, it matters not.” Suppose that we like Paul recoil against this permissive conclusion, but unlike Paul respond to the misuse of the doctrine simply by negating the proposition that we are saved by divine grace. In this case the law of dialectical change would become operative with a vengeance. A simple dialectical negation would also negate the truth that the statement “we are saved by grace” is intended to teach when set in its relation to the whole Christian faith. The simple negation would assert: “It is not the case that we are saved by grace.” In attempting to correct one distortion simple dialectical negation produces another, its mirror image.

A hundred years of logical progression and dialectical negation could move a church very far from where it is today. So I believe becoming aware of these processes is a first step toward preserving the continuity of faith between year 2013 and year 2113. Next time we will reflect on some positive strategies for preserving authentic Christian faith for our great, great grandchildren. To be continued…

Is Your Church a “Teaching” or an “Experiencing” Church? (Part 2)

The most effective natural ways of stirring people’s emotions directly are stories, images and music. (We could also add other sensuous experiences, such as smells and movements of the body like dancing. Some religions even use drugs to induce the experience.) A story paints a mental picture that doesn’t need explaining. Hearing a good story affects the emotions directly, and different stories move us in different ways. Images can also move us directly and almost instantaneously. Images can excite humor, horror, sadness, wonder and other feelings. But music is the primary way “experience churches” do this today. Perhaps more than any other means used in churches music can bypass the mind and will and affect the emotions directly. I don’t know how it works, but we all know it does.

By music I mean a system of sounds of different qualities, frequencies, durations and order that can be represented by musical notation exclusive of words. Music without words is often called “absolute” music. Music can be joined to words to make a song or it can be played without words. When music and words are combined each affects the other. Words are cognitive, directed to the understanding, so in a song words can guide the emotions stirred by the music toward a particular end, good or ill, secular or religious.

However, if in the “performance” of the song the words are overpowered by the music, the words lose their cognitive and directive power and simply become another aspect of the music; that is, they convey no more conceptual content than la, la, la. On paper or spoken in a common voice, a well-phrased series of words directs the mind to think in a certain way about something, but in a song designed and performed primarily to create a certain feeling in the participants these words can no longer do this. When this happens, a song (music and words) functionally becomes absolute music, music without words.

There is something very appealing about absolute music. Stirring or tender music without words moves our emotions but leaves our minds free to attach those emotions to whatever object or activity we wish. But words exercise a directive force that we may resent or resist. A musical composition that evokes in me memories of my beloved father may remind you of your dog or someone else of a recent romantic moment. Absolute music makes fewer demands of its listeners and allows each member of a large audience to enjoy a private experience. The unity we feel with the audience—which is undeniable—is not created by believing or thinking or willing the same thing but by feeling in general and endures only as long as the performance endures. We enjoy absolute music’s power to get us in touch with our emotions “on demand” in a way that allows us freedom to channel those emotions in any direction we choose.

Here is my concern with experience-oriented churches: if we employ means—stories, images but especially music—to move people’s emotions directly, it is very tempting, even intuitive and natural, to allow the music to dominate the words. This can be done by making the music louder or more elaborate than the words. Or it can be done by limiting the range of ideas expressed in the words. If every song the church sings expresses the greatness of God simply by saying over and over again “God is great,” it won’t take very long for us to forget who and what God is and what it means to praise God.

Unless we continually explain who God and repeat the full story of God’s work in Christ we will begin to hear “la, la, la” instead of “praise God, praise God, praise God.” Hence “experience churches” may unintentionally neglect the church’s mission to direct its members’ emotions and actions to the right ends and their minds to full truth. Such churches run the risk of making emotional experiences ends in themselves, unrelated to the truth of faith or an authentic vision of the Christian life. Unless the church teaches the whole range of the faith even in its music (music and words), each person will be left to substitute their own content—their own version of God, Christ, Spirit, moral life—into the experience of religious emotion. Such an approach to church life may also undermine genuine community. Authentic Christian community is created and held together by the “one Spirit…one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God…” (Eph 4:4); and these principles of unity must be taught. The church cannot be held in unity by a common feeling of transcendence or awe or celebration alone. It also requires common belief, commitment and practice.

Is your church a “teaching” or an “experiencing” church? Think about it. I hope your church will resist the current trend toward making experience the prime goal of its assemblies. Instead, I hope it will renew its teaching mission and trust the power of the Word and the working of the Holy Spirit to move people to faith, love, hope and good works…and, yes, to vibrant experience of the power and presence of the Father through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit.

Is Your Church a “Teaching” or an “Experiencing” Church? (Part 1)

Does the Christian church gather to be taught and reminded of its faith or to experience the presence and power of God? Perhaps most Christians would reject the dichotomy posed in this question. And I agree that we don’t have to choose one or the other. Most churches combine the two in some way. Nevertheless, I think it worthwhile to consider the alternatives just to clarify the concepts. Out of this exercise may arise deeper insight into the relationship between the two goals and the best means of keeping them in proper balance.

I might as well place my cards on the table. I admit that there are churches that are so focused on teaching (or doctrine) that they are cold, rigid, intolerant of deviation and exclusive of emotions other than jealousy for doctrinal conformity and righteous indignation against error and sin. I know these churches exist. But I don’t see the majority of contemporary believers rushing to adopt this extreme model. I see the dominant movement in the opposite direction, away from the “teaching church” to the “experiencing church” model. What concerns me is that I don’t see this movement headed toward a proper balance between the two but to a near exclusive focus on experience.

Here is my view of the appropriate relationship between teaching and experience: In working toward a balance between these two factors, the church should give priority to teaching and reminding itself of its faith; that is, its main goal should be to speak, live and enact the Word of faith. It should also expect the Word and the Holy Spirit to work together to drive the message home to the heart so that hearers of the message believe, feel and act consistently with the truth of faith. Christianly understood, religious experience should arise from hearing the Word and the work of the Spirit. But this means that Christian religious experience, as vital and necessary as it is, is secondary to teaching and the accompanying action of the Spirit.

Here is what I see happening among churches today: when experience becomes the primary goal of a church it becomes possible to think of religious experience as relatively independent of the knowledge of faith and the work of the Holy Spirit. The gathering of the church will be designed to evoke experience, and the means of evoking experience will include elements other than the truth of faith and the working of Spirit. Simply put, “experience churches” choose means that can provoke the desired feelings directly, completely bypassing, or spending very little time addressing, the mind and will. In effect, this model of church replaces the mysterious and free working of the Spirit and the inherent power of the Word with natural methods of moving the emotions. Continued in Part 2.

Note: I posted part 2 of this essay simultaneously with part 1. It’s ready to read.