Monday, May 17, 2010

Another poor defense of the traditional church as the only valid expression

I haven’t been doing “point by point” critiques of blog posts much anymore. I don’t think it is terribly productive. Having said that, I am going to make an exception here because of something I read Sunday morning in a Tabletalk essay by Kevin DeYoung. Tabletalk is a widely read publication put out by Ligonier Ministries and Kevin DeYoung has become the de facto spokesperson for and defender of the institutional church, so an essay like this is going to be widely read and referenced. His essay The Glory of Plodding makes the case for Christians (at least the laity) to plod along through life. What I am writing is not a shot at men and women in traditional churches, laity or clergy. It is a poke at those who refuse to recognize that a) there are problems in traditional churches and b) refuse to consider as legitimate any expression of the church other than what they are used to. Here is the the key passage:

My generation in particular is prone to radicalism without followthrough. We have dreams of changing the world, and the world should take notice accordingly. But we’ve not proved faithful in much of anything yet. We haven’t held a steady job or raised godly kids or done our time in VBS or, in some cases, even moved off the parental dole. We want global change and expect a few more dollars to the ONE campaign or Habitat for Humanity chapter to just about wrap things up. What the church and the world needs, we imagine, is for us to be another Bono — Christian, but more spiritual than religious and more into social justice than the church. As great as it is that Bono is using his fame for some noble purpose, I just don’t believe that the happy future of the church, or the world for that matter, rests on our ability to raise up a million more Bonos (as at least one author suggests). With all due respect, what’s harder: to be an idolized rock star who travels around the world touting good causes and chiding governments for their lack of foreign aid, or to be a line worker at GM with four kids and a mortgage, who tithes to his church, sings in the choir every week, serves on the school board, and supports a Christian relief agency and a few missionaries from his disposable income?

Is there much that is mundane about Christian life? Sure, we have work and bills and dirty diapers and meals to make. Are there a lot of people who talk a lot about community and radical discipleship who think coffee once a week at Starbucks equals community and radical discipleship means a soul patch and cool glasses? Absolutely. Having affirmed that, I can’t see any reason, Scriptural or pragmatic, to believe that we are best served by “plodding” along. I don’t see any warrant in Scripture for paying professionals to do ministry on our behalf while we stumble along through life waiting to die or the Second Coming, whichever comes first.

Is the Christian life for those of us not in vocational ministry nothing more than working during the week, shuffling into a church building, sitting quietly for an hour or two, putting our “tithe” in the offering plate to pay for the building we shuffle into and the man we listen to and then shuffling out at the end, repeated week after week and year after year for our entire lives?

Or is it more accurate to say that the Christian life we are called to and see demonstrated in Scripture is one of self-denial, sacrifice, ministry by all Christians, not just a select few. There is nothing terribly sacrificial about putting a check in an offering plate and getting dressed up once a week. Rather than a faithful life of Christian discipleship, Kevin is advocating the perpetuating of a religious system that hampers the maturity of Christians. The evidence for that statement is all around us.

DeYoung closes with this quip that I guess is supposed to be pithy:

Don’t give up on the church. The New Testament knows nothing of churchless Christianity. The invisible church is for invisible Christians. The visible church is for you and me. Put away the Che Guevara t-shirts, stop the revolution, and join the rest of the plodders. Fifty years from now you’ll be glad you did.

I suppose that is supposed to be terribly clever. I found it smarmy, unbecoming and insulting. Using that as your closing paragraph is exceedingly odd since he is so concerned with what the New Testament does and does not know. The New Testament knows nothing of institutional Christianity nor professional clergy nor monologue sermons nor huge church budgets designed to prolong the institution of the local church nor VBS nor ritualistic “Lord’s Supper” ceremonies and on and on and on. You have to be cautious when you throw out “The New Testament knows nothing of…” statements in defense of something that the New Testament truly knows nothing of.

So we have yet another essay that makes a faulty argument based on the “either-or” error, i.e. either you embrace the traditional church without question or you reject the church entirely. There is no middle ground. It apparently never crosses the minds of some of the best thinkers of the church that the traditional church might not be the Biblical model. Faithful church plodders are noble and everyone who questions the traditional church is a perverse blend of emergent/social justice/liberation theology/neo-Marxism. Kevin DeYoung is a bright guy and writes some thought provoking stuff on many topics but when it comes to this topic (the church) he all too often reverts to gross mischaracterizations, groundless blanket statements and unbecoming mockery that strike me as pandering to an audience.

Invisible Christians are not the people who have become disenchanted with religion and sought a new path. The truly invisible Christians are the ones who plod through life, shuffling in and shuffling out of “church” on Sunday (always sure to pay their “tithe” of course!) who never mature in the faith beyond attendance and have no fruit to show for years of plodding except for a giving statement to file with their taxes.

Bookmark and Share


Eric said...


I agree completely. Kevin DeYoung has some good things to say, but he is just wrong about the church. His book "Why We Love the Church" was the worst thing I have read in a long time.

I'm sure older institutional church leadership likes DeYoung because he is young, cool, and engaging. However, when it comes to what we see in scripture, he is way off target.

Arthur Sido said...


Absolutely. What is troubling is that you can make a case for the traditional church but instead of engaging the critics of the traditional church, DeYoung and others descend into schoolyard insults. Some of what he writes is borderline brilliant and I have heard him speak a few times at his home church so it is doubly disapponting when he goes down this path.

James said...

How is it that you become disappointed with someone traversing a path that they normally do? This is a typical position for him to assume, would it not make sense for one to propagate what they stand for, let alone, what pays their salary?

Arthur Sido said...

What is disappointing is the lack of intellectual curiosity. This essay has the same faults on a smaller scale that Why We Love the Church exhibited: lots of assertions that were not backed up with Scripture, demonizing or mocking dissidents and a generally dismissive attitude. The thought process is that anyone who questions the church as we know it is a rabble-rouser. The problem is never with the church, it is always with anyone who questions it.

would it not make sense for one to propagate what they stand for, let alone, what pays their salary?

That is really the elephant in the room, isn’t it? Who has the most to gain or preserve from the perpetuation of “church as we know it”? This is why I rail against the preoccupation with money in the church. When you mix money and ministry it makes your motivations suspect. I think that is the crux of Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 9, that removing monetary gain from the mix makes it much harder to question the motivations of the one preaching the Gospel.

Anonymous said...

Arthur, I agree with what you're saying. But I do find some merit in what DeYoung is saying as well. Institutional or New Testament church aside, my generation (our generation? Don't know how old you are...) does tend to have this sort of "I'm gonna be somebody!" attitude. Growing up, I heard about that all the time at youth conferences--about how God is raising up this generation to do great things--really big things for God. We're gonna change the world! For me, the article was about the clergy/laity distinction in a different way. Whether he realized it or not, I think Mr. DeYoung was pointing out that just because you're not "in the ministry" doesn't mean your life has no spiritual meaning. There are many who would see my life as "plodding along." I have no degree, I have no job outside my home, I don't even have any "arrows" to raise up. But I am certainly not plodding. I serve my husband to the glory of God. That is not all I do--I interact with a lot of other people as well. You get what I'm saying.

I guess what I took away from that is that you don't have to do "big things" for God (as if He needs anything from us anyway). Many of us can (and should), serve God right where we are, in our own vocations. I agree that Kevin DeYoung is a huge proponent of the institutional church. I guess I just didn't see that that was what he was trying to push here.

Arthur Sido said...


I get what you are saying. God certainly works through us in small ways as well as large.

What I took away from the essay is that Christians should view showing up on Sunday, paying our "tithe" and keeping our mouths shut as sufficient. Giving money at church to support that local church and perhaps some full-time missionaries is the sum total of a life of Christian discipleship. I guess what disturbed me more is the dismissiveness I see in this essay and in Why We Love the Church. I love the church at least as much as kevin DeYoung, I just don't love the institutionalization of it and for that I am branded as someone who doesn't really love the church properly.

Aussie John said...


As usual, you are spot on. I appreciate your comments.

It saddens me to see the author equating "the church" with The Church.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I do find it odd when folks claiming the mantle of reformed roundly dismiss criticisms of abuse in the church. I bet if those critics used words like "regulative principle" or "westminster divines" or "heretics of the federal vision and emergent church" then some people might be more interested.

I am a member of a very traditional church, but out sister church is for homeless people. They eat free meals before the sermon, many of the members have not been baptized as they periodically disappear, and interruptions and discussion are welcome. I cannot think of any theological reason to say, "those who call on the name of Jesus, our Lord and their's" are somehow less churchly than us. I wish that other folks could see that the institution...whether it looks traditional or however else, is still ontologically the church regardless of its form.

Steve Scott said...


I, too, found his essay to give the impressions you mention about the either/or's. It's as if there can't be serious bible-minded people who see a lack of community and who want to see it a part of the church. It's as if the pursuit of community necessarily has a rock star status, so we should avoid community altogether.

Oh, and where does the bible say we should tithe to the church? Hmmm.

Mr. VonDoloski said...

Personally, I don't think you are being fair to the point he is making. It's almost like a political debate. Both of you have talking points but neither addresses what the other is saying. And then all the people on your side say, "Right on Arthur, you sure showed him"

Arthur Sido said...

Joe, I don't think diagreeing with him is the same thing as being unfair. I read his whole post, several times, and tried to interact with his argument which I found faulty.

Mark said...

First of all, to say that those of us outside traditional churchianity are "without church" is presumptuous and uninformed. Any basic study of the Greek word used most commonly for church will lead to the conclusion that the church is not the building or the institution, it is THE PEOPLE. The only basis I can find for distinguishing among "churches" was geographic location. It is also uninformed to say that those of us "outside the camp" (my term supplied, not his) have forsaken corporate worship and corporate accountability, because, in fact, the concept of community is more dear to me now than it ever was when I was churched.

Paragraph 2: Where is the risk in traditional Christianity? There is no risk, at all, except the risk of missing out on an entire depth of Christ that isn't found without moving outside of those confines.

Paragraph 4: Service to Christ should be anything but mundane and boring. The further I walk in Christ, and the more of Him I see, the more excited I get, and the more of Him I want. If we are simply plodding along, in our boring, repetitive life, we have missed the entire point of service to our King.

"Daily discipleship is not a new revolution each morning or an agent of global transformation every evening; it’s a long obedience in the same direction."
I agree wholeheartedly, but no one that I know is purporting global transformation every evening.

"It’s possible that our boredom has less to do with the church, its doctrines, or its poor leadership and more to do with our unwillingness to tolerate imperfection in others and our own coldness to the same old message about Christ’s death and resurrection. It’s possible we talk a lot about authentic community but we aren’t willing to live in it."

Willingness to tolerate imperfection in others, or different ideas, is exactly what got us to where we are now: a different church building on every corner. Any claim that the modern "church" is "authentic community" is an unfortunate sign of not having seen the beauty of the depth of Christ.

I guess the biggest difference between what he believes and what I believe is in the definition of 'church'. His use of the word is totally out of NT context. I agree, Arthur, that his tone is very dismissive, and really condescending.

One last comment. I think those stuck in churchianity are very protective of it, because if you begin to question that one belief, you have to question ALL your beliefs, because if in that major issue you were taught wrong, maybe you were taught wrong about other things. When I left "the church" I ended up questioning everything about my beliefs, down to the very existence of God and Jesus. While that may sound heretical, it was an important process, and I am so glad I went through it.

Mark said...

I'm sorry, I had one more thought, in regard to April's post. The "church" that he defends is a church of superstars, where to really be somebody you have to be the worship leader, or the pastor, or an elder, etc. In the true body, there are no superstars. We are all kings, we are all priests. Christ is the only superstar (no pun intended). All leadership in the church, whether it be an elder, an apostle, or whatever, is done from WITHIN the body, not OVER the body. Christ demonstrated servant leadership, and that is what we should see as well.

In truth "the ministry" is something we should all be involved in. It is not reserved for the few, it should be practiced by all. Our relationship with our spouse is ministry. Our interaction with those around us is ministry, and it all matters to the Lord. He calls each of us to do specific things, and if we are doing those things, April is right, we are not plodding.