02.11.16

The War for the Church

Christians customarily think of spiritual warfare in terms of personal struggle with the world, the flesh and the Devil. We ordinarily view spiritual warfare as an unusual battle during an otherwise normal process of progressive sanctification. In this view, warfare happens when Satan harasses us, when our desires master us, or the world system inconveniences as we pursue a tacit, I’ll-defined “perfection.”

But what if warfare involves not only a struggle with foes outside the Church, visible enemies blocking our path to greater holiness, but also intramural skirmishes with other Christians for the Church itself? Or what if the world, the flesh and the Devil set up camp inside the congregation? What if spiritual warfare sometimes looks like civil war?

We don’t have to look too far to see the evidence. Consider the Anglican Communion’s split over the ordination and “marriage” of people practicing homosexual acts. Or, we might consider historical incidences like Baptist and Presbyterian groups splitting over slavery and the participation of slaveholders in missions. On the local level, too, there are plentiful examples of local bodies fighting and splitting over just about everything.

The wars break out while all sides proclaim they love Jesus and the Church. Indeed, they sometimes tell us they’re fighting the war because they love Jesus and the Church. And all sides argue that the health, relevance and effectiveness of the Church will suffer unless their side prevails.

How is it that people claiming to love Jesus and the Church could differ so wildly?

With Too Many Visions the People Perish

How can two (or more) walk together unless they are agreed? They can’t, can they?

But the disagreement among professing lovers of the Church often involves more than small skirmishes over fine points of doctrine or otherwise insignificant differences in practice. The real warfare involves radically different visions of Christianity, the Church, mission and the gospel. That truth has been papered over far too long by vacuous terms like “evangelical” and over-acceptance of dubious things dubbed “Christian.” Add to that the culture’s general post-modern and pluralistic squeamishness about distinctions or divisions and we find ourselves in a war for the Church with no language to call it such or even declare combatant sides.

This, along with romantic blinders, accounts for the slow bleeding to death of many congregations. They’re being shot and stabbed in a conflict they haven’t recognized as happening. One pastor leads the congregation in a direction with particular principles and values. Another pastor comes along, switches course radically–giving the people whiplash and watching those loyal to the previous vision sliding off. Or congregations in the same denomination pursue different visions and the body suffers a tearing, sawing, splitting fate.

People perish when there are too many visions—competing visions representing different ideals.

Sibling Rivalries

The warfare of competing visions is easier to see when the combatants have views that are clearly irreconcilable. Competing visions about homosexuality are clear, for example. So, too, is the biblical teaching on the subject.

But fights among genuine evangelicals using the same language are more difficult to detect. Take, for example, discussions regarding the health of preaching. Some brothers and sisters–true evangelicals who love the gospel–may say, “The Church is doing just fine.” They tell us the gospel is preached far and wide, men are committed to the scriptures, and Christ is central. They may hold this position with even greater vigor if they’re romantics. But other brothers and sisters–no less evangelical and gospel loving–may tell us there’s a crisis in preaching. They tell us too many church pastors are not preaching the gospel, sermons are weak, and Christ may be assumed but isn’t central. People with this view may hold this position with greater vigor if they’re realists.

These two groups belong to the same broad camp and yet see things differently. Why?

What I’m asking you to consider is that these brothers and sisters in the Lord may be using the same language (i.e., “Expositional preaching” or “gospel-centered preaching”) but have widely different definitions and visions lying behind the terms. And I’m suggesting that this unspoken and hard to see difference in visions helps explains why these siblings feel like rivals and can’t quite agree though they both love the Lord, the Church and the gospel.

When I recommend someone as an “expositor” I have in mind a particular thing. I’ve seen the recommendations of others and I realize we don’t mean the same thing, though we use the same language. There are people on my list that others may never recommend. Likewise, there are people on other lists that I’d never sit under or endorse. By that, I don’t mean the preacher is necessarily a bad person. I simply mean what he does as a preacher is not my (or your) definition of exposition or gospel-centeredness, etc. I think preaching is a certain thing with certain aims and a certain (though somewhat diverse) manner. Someone else thinks preaching is something else, with different goals, and perhaps even a different manner. So when we discuss the state of “preaching” and feel ourselves disagreeing, it could at least be partially due to our differing visions. And those visions matter. We can feel the differences on everything from preaching to public worship to ministry practices and a host of other topics.

Competing, undefined, unspoken visions for the Church pose a significant problem for evangelical African Americans. Here’s why: These intramural squabbles among genuine Bible-believing, gospel-loving, Christ-fearing brethren actually take our eyes off the left flank where real theological liberals seek ground and on the right flank where wolves masquerading as evangelicals devour the sheep. That’s where the real war rages and we need every soldier on the battlefront. And to get on the front lines, we sorely need some vision casting and some evaluation of competing ideals so we know what we’re talking about when we say _____ and when and how it matters. We need to do this in earnest because as I read the perspectives of those on the left holding to Black Theology and some others on the right practicing word of faith/prosperity approaches, they’re already clear and in print that they see a battle going on for the future and present of Christianity. Black evangelicals need to stay woke, as the young folks say.

What Is a Church-Loving, Unity-Seeking Christian to Do?

Let’s say you’re buying this perspective so far. If so, you’re probably asking, “So what now?” That’s a pressing question for everyone who loves the Church and wants to see not only the peace but the deeper health of the Church.

Here are a few tentative, simple suggestions:

1. When we find ourselves using the same terms but we feel ourselves disagreeing, we should ask, “What do you mean by ____ and can you give me an example?”

2. When we feel uncomfortable about a conversation with someone we assume holds our basic commitments, we might pause and ask, “Can you say more about your vision for the Church?”

3. Let’s slow down our conversations, especially when one or more persons say things like, “The Church always…” Or “The Church never…” Or “You can be sure…” Sentences that begin that way are often over-generalizations that tell us more about the speaker’s romanticism or realism than it does the actual state of the Church. It might be good to ask the person, “What are you basing that on? Do you have some evidence we can consider?”

4. Let’s regularly ask ourselves, “Is this difference worth fighting over, or is it merely a difference?” Not every disagreement is opposition. Sometimes we simply see differently and the result isn’t chaos but nuance. We must be able to tell the difference.

I’m suggesting these questions as a way of being clear with each other so we can see the competing visions, agree more deeply about biblical and healthy ways forward, and fight the good fight together. A non-Reformed evangelical brother is not my enemy. The traditional Black Church is not my enemy. Nor are professing Reformed brothers who throw away the traditional church my allies. I’m hopeful that–Reformed or not, traditional or contemporary (multi-ethnic, missional, etc)–there might be a sizable and sound mainstream that can win the war. That’s my prayer and hope.

Thabiti Anyabwile
Thabiti Anyabwile serves as a pastor of Anacostia River Church (Washington DC). He is the happy husband of Kristie and the adoring father of two daughters and one son. Holler at him on Twitter: @ThabitiAnyabwil

C’mon Up!

  • Baybay

    In Hosea it says that God’s people are destroyed for lack of knowledge .if the leader is in error then the flock is under error and it doesn’t matter what anyone says because if that head isn’t right then the body is sick too. That’s why the church is suffering. There are too many spiritually unsound leaders trying to run the show for selfish reasons and they have put Jesus out of the church and allowed Satan inside. Well we Christians need to pray for the leaders as well as each other and let God handle the rest.He knows how to winnow his floor.He knows how to expose and chasten and set things right.