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I am very grateful indeed to have recently been offered a book publishing contract by a publishing house in the South West of England. The manuscript that I’ve submitted focuses on the body of Christ in the context of the unprecedented days in which we happen to be living (Acts 17:26). It contains a radical message that has been incubating in my heart for several years, especially since at least 2014 when major cultural/societal changes started to be more obviously seen ‒ and felt ‒ here in the UK.
One of the main purposes of the book that I’ve written is to graciously address one particular reality of unhealthy Christian leadership that has become increasingly clear to me over this time. Depending on the context in which you find yourself reading this from today, it may be an observation that is harder for you to absorb than others.
As I have followed Jesus now for more than three decades, and as I’m soon to reach my fortieth year, I’m able to offer this perspective having been in church for the entirety of my life: churches that I grew up in as an infant; churches that, as a family, we went to during my teenage years; churches that I went to while at university; churches that I’ve relocated all of my life to join; churches that I’ve worked for and … churches that I have come to believe aren’t as healthy as they are meant to be.
Yes, this can be said of any church on the planet because the perfect church is mythological and doesn’t exist; but there is one specific area of ecclesiological discord that I have come to be deeply persuaded is going to be healed before Jesus returns to us in glory:
When man-made, instituted, denominational forms of church become more important to leaders than Jesus Himself, there is a serious problem that damages many; when the uttermost allegiance of the heart of a Christian leader is to a movement or a “governing body” or set of leaders rather than Jesus Christ, His Word and His kingdom, there is a very serious problem.
One of the best chapters I’ve happened to read in any book in the last few years is by Paul David Tripp. (You can find this chapter, “Resist Spirituality,” in his book Broken-Down House.)
Within what Tripp says here, I believe we can all be helped today to begin to more seriously seek the will of God for our personal lives, our family lives and our public ministries. But it will take a wholehearted willingness to “put down tools” and to listen, in faith, to what He is truly saying to the Church at this hour.
Regardless of how long you have personally known and walked with Jesus, regardless of who you work with or for, regardless of your theological education or academic pursuits, Tripp highlights some key, transferable questions that I think are worthy of all our time today.
We have been graced to live within arguably the most tumultuous decades in world history and, without being offended or easily squeamish, we need to think more “disruptively” than we are.
These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. (1 Corinthians 10:11)
How to Recognize and Resist Church Cultures That Are “Counterfeit”
- They Mistake Commitment to Christianity for Commitment to Christ
At the age of twenty-six, in relocating the whole of my life after university to join a large, charismatic church in England, this was in many ways my experience: wooed by the lights, cameras and action of a larger church who seemed to have it all together, primarily because, well, they were large. No, there is nothing wrong with numerical growth, obviously; neither with lights and cameras. But, within the church-based razzmatazz, I knew deep down that I wasn’t growing in my personal relationship with Jesus Christ and the growth that did happen in these years was more by indirect “self-feeding.” (I talk about this more in my book). I specifically remember wondering during the decade involved in this two-thousand strong church, how are the younger Christians in their faith getting on?
As Tripp says,
The danger is that they (systems, traditions, locations, institutions, sights, sounds and culture of Christianity) can actually function as a replacement for a relationship with Christ.
Again in recent months, I have personally witnessed the tragedy of friends who were in this large, glitzy, globally-influential church with me abandon their faith in Christ, leave the Church altogether and become divorced in their marriages. It breaks my heart.
The greatest epitaph over any flailing church is that it facilitated, in any way, people believing they knew Jesus when, in fact, they had never met Him in the first place. This unthinkable reality is linked to Tripp’s second point.
- They Mistake Bible Knowledge for Biblical Wisdom
In a day and age that rages against absolute truth in culture and against “traditional” values in the Church, biblical literacy has never been so fragile. If Martin Luther or William Tyndale five hundred years ago had been told of some of the changes in the Church of England in recent years, they would have laughed in your face; if C. S. Lewis, just fifty years ago, had been told, he would have cried out loud.
The point that Tripp is making is profound. As far as the devil is concerned, there is every point indeed in learning about the Bible, referring to it occasionally, glancing at it when we’re in a busy season of “serving at conferences;” but, as lovers and followers of Jesus, we are called to be biblically wise not just biblically knowledgeable.
King Solomon understood this very well,
The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water (knowledge), but a man of understanding will draw it out (wisdom). (Proverbs 20:5)
There’s nothing wrong with knowledge ‒ we’re meant to grow in it ‒ but the end game is to become wise as reflected in our Christ-like decisions and choices and attitudes and values. Without solid, doctrinal ‒ dare I even say ‒ expository teaching, the church culture in question will ultimately struggle to become biblically wise though it may grow numerically. Whenever a popular, seeker-sensitive form of Christian culture, of isolated, out-of-context Bible verses, is preferred to the life-shaping, life-transforming, Bible-soaked environment of doctrine, scratch-your-head-theology, and full surrender to suffering and glory, a spiritually shallow church will always result.
- They Mistake Commitment to a System of Theology and Rules for Christian Maturity
If your Christianity is something less than a surrender of the thoughts and motives of your heart to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and a daily hunger for and pursuit of His transforming grace, then your Christianity will tend to get reduced to a system of theology and rules.
Ultimately, it is the transformative power of the Gospel to reshape and rewire our hearts that is to be at the beating epicenter of a life loving and following Yeshua. Ergo, the Gospel is infinitely more radical than being merely inclusive. If a church environment revolves around a “biblically-literate” culture that is void of the heart-shaping power and grace of the Spirit ‒ if it is “head/knowledge biased” to the expense of the heart ‒ it is not biblical Christianity.
Again, Christian maturity ‒ and healthy Christian leadership ‒ revolves around the miracle of transforming grace not cerebral knowledge. Churches can be biblically illiterate at both ends of the denominational spectrum. We need the Word and the Spirit of God.
- They Mistake Doing “Religious” Things for a Heart of Obedience to Christ
The example Tripp uses to make this point is contextualized to parents and young children who only do what they’re told to do because they have to ‒ i.e. because of the parent’s authority over them to clean their bedroom or stop gaming in order to to do their homework. Is a child who only complies because they have to ‒ and a Christian who only obeys because they know they should ‒ really being obedient? Or rather, is true Christian obedience only from a joyful heart-expression of trusting obedience? The young child who obeys willingly, happily and joyfully might seem far-fetched ‒ and the limit of the metaphor ‒ but when church cultures form around serving the agenda of man rather than the glory of God, this is exactly what needs to be examined. Are we energetic because of the Lord or impassioned to reach influence and the ladder of Christian celebrity?
- They Mistake Participation in Ministry Opportunities for a Christian Lifestyle
Again, I experienced this hugely in my formative twenties in the church I mentioned above. Thousands and thousands of people every year forming around hectic agendas of conferencing, gigging, and serving but with little corresponding corporate involvement in prayer or Bible study, intercession or fasting, etc. You get the idea.
When spiritual cultures form and gather around rhythms of hosting global conferences rather than the depths of the Bible, the presence of Christ and prayer, what results is a counterfeit form of spirituality that has nothing to do with the Bible at all ‒ it’s a different religion that, in later years, when the lights have dimmed and the cameras have been turned off, will see people walking away and jumping ship because the cost of following Christ is just too much. I have seen this with my own eyes.
Make no mistake, “serving” and “volunteering” are hugely important aspects of true Christian lifestyle but always as an expression of the infinitely, preeminent reality of knowing Jesus Himself, not as a substitute for Him. Again, I’ve seen this with my own eyes, including in my own life.
Paul Tripp is right: though it may be the chapter title Resisting Spirituality that sounds like an anti-Christ proposition, what in reality is at the core of so many anti-Christ “christian” cultures today is an unwillingness, and/or obliviousness, about the non-negotiable indispensability of:
- Personal commitment to Christ (including within leadership)
- Biblical wisdom as well as knowledge (impossible without communities gathering around the depths of the Bible)
- Maturity as well as theology (heart as well as head)
- Joyful obedience to Him, not man
- Genuine Christian lifestyle as distinct from only Christian service