Many Christians see the church world in black and white. You have liberals on one side–they are the bad guys who doubt the resurrection and don’t believe in the Bible. And on the other side you have the good guys who believe in the miracles, do not waver on the deity of Christ, and want lost people to be saved. We call these folks evangelicals or conservatives or Bible-believing Christians. Give them a checklist of doctrines and they will get almost everything right.

Liberalism is a problem, but squishy evangelicalism is the much bigger problem.

I do not write thinking that churches self-consciously in the tradition of Bushnell, Beecher, and Briggs will do an about face, or that those in the stream of process theology, liberation theology, or feminist theology will abandon ship. I may vehemently disagree with full-on liberalism, but I can respect that there is an ecclesiastical and intellectual tradition behind it.

The audience I have in mind are those Christians, pastors, and churches that continue to affirm the basic contours of evangelical faith. They’ve never read Fosdick or Tillich or Schleiermacher. They don’t read the Christian Century. They don’t know much about Deutero- or Trito-Isaiah and don’t really care to waste any more time with documentary hypotheses. They think Paul wrote Ephesians and John wrote John. They love Jesus and want other people to love Jesus. If you ask these Christians, pastors, or churches if hell is forever and people must be born again, they’ll say yes. If you ask them whether you can trust everything in the Bible, they wouldn’t dare say no. They have no problem with any of the historic creeds and confessions. The people and institutions I have in mind gladly affirm penal substitution, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and a real historical Fall. The folks I want to address are energetic about evangelism. They want to see churches planted and people come to Christ. They think small groups, accountability partners, and mission trips are excellent. And at least in private conversation they’ll tell you that homosexuality is not. These Christians, pastors, and churches are not liberal. They don’t seem like one of the bad guys.

The problem is they don’t seem like the good guys either.

Have you ever been talking to a pastor or someone from another church and it seems like you should be kindred spirits. The person you meet is obviously a warm-hearted, sincere Christian. They don’t have a problem with any of the doctrines you mention as precious to you and your church. They don’t affirm liberal positions on major theological questions. They nod vigorously when you talk about the Bible and prayer and church planting and the gospel. And yet, you can’t help but wonder if you are really on the same page. You try to check your heart and make sure it’s not pride or judgmentalism getting the best of you. That’s always possible. But no, the more you reflect on the conversation and think about your two churches (or two pastors or two ministries) you conclude there really is a difference.

And what is that difference?

That’s something I’ve thought a lot about over the past few months. I’m sure I don’t have all the answers, but here are ten things that distinguish between what I would call a vibrant, robust Bible-believing church and one that gets the statement of faith right but feels totally different.

1. The mission of the church has gotten sidetracked. Recently I stumbled upon the website for a church in my denomination. Judging from the information on the site I would say this church thinks of itself as evangelical, in the loose sense of the word. Their theology seems to be of the “mere Christianity” variety. But this is their stated missional aim: “[Our] Missions are designed to connect people and their resources with opportunities to respond to human need in the name of Jesus.” A church with this mission will be very different from one that aims to make disciples of all nations or exists to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples.

2. The church has become over-accommodating. I’m not thinking of all contextualization (of which there are some good kinds and some bad). I’m thinking of churches whose first instinct is to shape their methods (if not their message) to connect with a contemporary audience. And because of this dominant instinct, they avoid hard doctrines, cut themselves off from history and tradition, and lean toward pragmatism.

3. The gospel is assumed. While the right theology may be affirmed in theory, it rarely gets articulated. No one believes the wrong things, but they don’t believe much of anything. When pressed, they will quickly affirm the importance of Jesus’ death and resurrection, of penal substitution, of justification by faith alone, but their real passions are elsewhere. What really holds the church together is a shared conviction about creation care or homeschooling or soup kitchens or the local fire station.

4. There is no careful doctrinal delineation. Theology is not seen as the church’s outboard motor. It’s a nasty barnacle on the hull. You will quickly notice a difference in message and methods between the church whose operating principle is “doctrine divides” and the one that believes that doctrine leads to doxology.

5. The ministry of the word is diminished. While preaching may still be honored in theory, in many churches there is little confidence that paltry preaching is what ails the church and even less confidence that dynamic preaching is the proper prescription. No one wants to explicitly pooh-pooh preaching, teaching, or the ministry of the word, but when push comes to shove the real solutions are structural or stylistic. How often do those engaged in church revitalization begin by looking at the preaching of the word and the role the Bible plays in the practical outworking of the congregation’s ministry?

6. People are not called to repentance. It sounds so simple, and yet it is so easily forgotten. Pastors may call people to believe in Jesus or call people to serve the community, but unless they also call them repent of their sins the church’s ministry will lack real spiritual power. And this should not be done by merely encouraging people to be authentic about their brokenness. We must use strong biblical language in calling people to repent and calling them to Christ.

7. There is no example of carefully handling specific texts of Scripture. People will not trust the Bible as they should unless they see it regularly taught with detail and clarity. Churches may still espouse a high view of Scripture but without a diet of careful exposition they will not know how to study the Bible for themselves and will not be discerning when poor theology comes along.

8. There is no functioning ecclesiology. If you put two churches side by side with the same theology on paper, but one has a working ecclesiology and the other has a grab-bag of eclectic practices, you will see a startling difference. Careful shepherding, elder training, regenerate church membership, a functioning diaconate, purposeful congregational meetings–these are the things you may not know you’ve never had. But when you do, it’s a different kind of church.

9. There is an almost complete disregard for church discipline. If discipline is truly one of the three marks of the church, then many evangelical congregations are not true churches. All the best theology in the world won’t help your church or your denomination if you don’t guard against those who deny it. If we are to be faithful and eternally fruitful, we must warn against error, confront the spirit of the age, and discipline the impenitent.

10. The real problem is something other than sin and the real remedy is something other than a Savior. The best churches stay focused on the basics. And that means sin and salvation. Sadly, many churches–even if they affirm the right doctrine on paper–act and preach as if the biggest problem in the world is lack of education, or material poverty, or the declining morals in our country, or the threat of global warming. As a result we preach cultural improvement instead of Christ. We preach justice without Jesus. We lose sight that the biggest problem (though not the only problem) confronting the churchgoer every Sunday is that he is a sinner in need of a Savior.

If you read through this list and think you have everything down already, don’t be haughty. If we get all these right and are proud about it, we’ll rob ourselves and our churches of God’s blessing. But my prayer is that somewhere out there in the frozen tundra of the internet a pastor or a congregation or a church leader will read through these ten items and think, “You know, this may be what we’re missing.” The evangelical church needs depth where it is shallow, thoughtfulness where it is pragmatic, and conviction where it has become compromised. A casual adherence to a formal set of basic doctrines does not guarantee real unity and does not ensure genuine spiritual strength.

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82 thoughts on “If We Believe All the Same Things, Why Do Our Churches Seem So Different?”

  1. @ Akrasius, Please describe for us how, exactly, what the New Testament says on polity is “confusing, contrdictory, and inconsistent”. I agree in part with Ted Bigelow. However, I would add that it’s true there’s not a precise polity and ecclesiology laid out. That’s not because it’s confusing but because there is some liberty to implement the principles found in the New Testament. You’re appraisal is like accusing the US constitution of being “confusing, contrdictory, and inconsistent” because it doesn’t clearly tell us whether the federal government can require us to buy health insurance. Anyway, I don’t think there’s a lot of discord over polity, except from those who want to insist that commitment to a church is not important. But the discord they import is not from the Word but from the world.

  2. leslie_ says:

    Hey Kevin! There’s a speck in your eye! Here, let me get that for you…

  3. leslie_ says:

    So, the God that you claim to worship, is he alive? Because it seems to me y’all are worshipping some beautiful theology instead of the living One. Sure, the theology is balanced, articulate and doctrinally sound. However, all this intellectual beauty simply constitutes a mental image. I don’t know about you, but there’s something in the bible about worshipping images, graven, mental or otherwise. Oh yea, it’s called idolatry. Very elegantly expounded idolatry though. Kudos!

  4. Ted Bigelow says:

    @ John Carpenter “However, I would add that it’s true there’s not a precise polity and ecclesiology laid out.”

    I appreciate your kind words, but your liberty takes us to a place unknown in the New Testament.

    Exactly how many forms of precise polity did Paul allow in the churches on Crete (Titus 1:5) or Galatia (Acts 14:23)? How many did James the 1/2 brother of Christ recognize around the Roman empire (James 5:14), or how many precise forms of polity did Peter allow for around the Roman Empire (1 Peter 5:1-4)?

    And what part of ecclesiology is not laid out in the NT?

  5. Hi Ted Bigelow, It’s true that every church should have elders and that that is the center of church government. I think we agree on that. But then, who chooses the elders? The congregation? Then it is partly congregational. And one can make a good case for that because the Lord Jesus said a discipline matter should be told to the “congregation” (Mt. 18:15ff) and Paul said that the “majority” had decided on a discipline case (2 Cor. 2:5). If the majority of the congregation can put a member out of the church, can they do that to an elder too, thus making the congregation the final court of appeals? Or perhaps the elders choose themselves? But are they accountable to no one outside of themselves? Or perhaps there is a leader over the elders. In Timothy and Titus it appears that those two men were in a position of authority over the elders. Were they “first among equals” among the elders or were they simply in authority over the elders, even able to depose them? Paul tells Timothy that it is even necessary to “rebuke an elder in the presence of all”.

    What part of ecclesiology is not laid out in the NT? Who chooses the elders, that’s what.

  6. Ted Bigelow says:

    Hi John,

    There is no instance of the congregation choosing the elders in the NT. The examples we have are all leaders choosing leaders by Scriptural qualfications alone, never votes (Acts 14:23, Titus 1:5, 1 Tim. 5:17, 22). Elders are called to lead, manage, rule, etc. What part of those activities doesn’t include the appointing of further qualified leaders?

    The elders appointed in the NT always had the example of eldership being appointed by qualfied leadership, a principle that is also true in the OT. Those faithful to the pattern they were taught also appointed leaders by the word of God, not men’s methods.

    Just because we have churches that vote on appointing elders doesn’t make it Scriptural.

    In Mat. 18:15 the congregation makes no new judgments other than those already establsihed by the two or three witnesses. Christ and the Father support the faithful evidence of the 2 or 3, not a congregational court of appeals (Mat. 18:18-20). Have you ever seen a case tried in church as a court? Its not only a mess, its a shepherding crime agaisnt those in church.

    In 2 Cor. 2:5 the majority is those who gave the man a “epitimao” – a verbal rebuke. That word is used 30x in the NT and never means anything else. This verbal rebuke is consistent with the verbal rebuke required by Mat. 18:17a prior to a man being discipined out of the church.

    In fact, it is because of modern day practices and not Scripture that so many read “vote” into the word “majority.” The text says nothng of a vote – that’s how slim the evidence is for congregational rule that advocates have to graps at non-scriptural word associations.

    Do a quick search on your concordance program on the word “vote, votes, voting” and eliminate “votive.”

    How many ocurances did you find? Was the vote honoring to God, or an act of the highest sin?

  7. Brian says:

    Mark 9:38-39 says it all for me.

  8. Hi Ted,

    Most of what you say is true but pretty much beside the point. The point is: is there a clearly laid out polity in the NT. We agree on the role of elders. But you haven’t clearly shown who chooses elders. Again, in 2 Cor. 2:6 it appears that the “punishment” (likely the ostracism called for in 1 Cor. 5, not just a verbal rebuke but that’s not important either) was imposed by the “majority”. Obviously, they determined what was the decision of the majority by some means. Assuming that the congregation can do that to an elder, which seems likely, then the congregation is the final court of appeals.

    Further, it appears, as John Stott argues, that Timothy and Titus were over the elders and in authority to select and depose them. He uses that to argue for episcopacy.

    There’s no clear instruction of the elders choosing other elders. Indeed, that Paul tells Titus to select elders (Titus 1:5), shows that at least that time elders were chosen by Titus. Was Titus an elder? A first among equals or, as Stott argued, a “bishop” over the elders? It maybe that having Titus do that was just for the initial stages and after that the elders were to select themselves but that you can’t show it definitely there proves my original point that there is no clearly laid out polity in the NT.

  9. Ted Bigelow says:

    John, you wrote:

    “Most of what you say is true but pretty much beside the point. The point is: is there a clearly laid out polity in the NT? We agree on the role of elders. But you haven’t clearly shown who chooses elders.”

    John, we are very far apart on the role of elders.

    For me, the NT documents are clear on who appoints elders.

    Positively, God grants the elders the power in the church to lead, rule, manage, shepherd (ask me for verse references if you need them). As well, God commands the congregation to submit, obey, make ministry joyful for, think highly of, love exceedingly much, the elders.

    Negatively, congregational polity grants the congregation the power to sin against God by overruling the elders.

    Positively, the elders are required by God to appoint future elders as much as they are required to oversee the expenditure of money: these activities are simply done by those who lead, manage, rule, and shepherd – not by those who submit and obey. Neither of these activities need to be specified precisely in the NT because they come under the revelation from God on what elders are to do, and how the congregation is to respond.

    Neither Titus nor Timothy were bishops – not even remotely close – and their pattern of qualified men appointing future qualified men stands in distinction from democracy.

    A good comparison is the husband and the wife relationship of headship and submission. Scripture doesn’t specify how to carry that out but uses general commands that encompass all of the husband and wife relationship.

    Congregationalism is like the spouse who complains that God’s word isn’t clear about who in the marriage is in authority over the checkbook because there is no chapter and verse on it.

    I hope you’ll read my book, The Titus Mandate.

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  11. Ben says:

    I’m in agreement with much or all of the article, and i like to think of myself as one of the good guys, but I’ve grown weary of those who demand a perfect balance of the 9 marks and now the 10 DeYoungs.

    It just smells like many in the YRR community somehow think they manage to strike the perfect balance of Biblical Christianity each and every Sunday, in all the outreach ministries, on the church’s website, in the bylaws, and in every jot and tittle of ministry. It’s a heavy yoke for me. Lists like this are very much needed but using them as a scorecard makes me as a pastor feel as though we’ll never get it right at all the time.

    I know the solution is to get it right, but it just doesn’t seem quite like it’s that easy.

  12. Elliott Holden says:

    You do not specifically mention “dispensational theology” as being a divide in Evangelical Churches. The growing number of “Charismatic” churches in the UK, believing in a strong balance between WORD and SPIRIT is evidence of an unfortunate divide. ( CHARISMATIC in the UK does NOT imply “Craziness” as it seems to in the USA). The other thing that you don’t seem to mention is the old chestnut of CALVINISM versus ARMINIANISM, both embraced in Evangelical Churches.
    I was soundly converted to Christ in a Baptist church where repentence was an important first step to conversion. But this church strongly embraced “dispensational Theology”. I later became a member of a Charismatic Church in the UK which strongly encourages the expression of “Gifts of the SPIRIT in public meetings, believes in Church leadership teams giving expression to the APOSTOLIC, PROPHETIC, PASTORAL, TEACHING and EVANGELISTIC ministries, not simply a one man ministry (eg PASTOR) as seems to be the case in the vast majority of Evangelical Churches. Whilst being CALVINISTIC, Evangelism in mainly through Church planting.

  13. Right on the money, and yes, just when I started feeling good about our church, your admonition hit me right between the eyes. We will only make it, when we are with the glorified church in heaven, down here, we must be on guard to be always reforming. Good word! Thanks

  14. Sean says:

    Sub-title: “Why We’re Not the Problem, They Are”

  15. Curt says:

    WOW! That’s all I can say! WOW! I was praying today about this exact thing about my church. You’ve written it way better than I could ever articulate it, but you’ve hit it!!! Affirming all the core doctrines when asked about them but in actual preaching there is hardly a hint of any doctrine at all. Does a church like what you’ve written about, doing all the right things, exist? I ask that as an honest question, not to be disrespectful in any way. It has been a very hard thing to have to bring my family to church where the Word is not preached at all. In the town I live in there is a “King-James only” church, numerous Charismatic churches, the church I attend (Alliance), the Roman Catholic church and an Anglican church. We are being fed through ministries like John MacArthur’s Grace to You. Honestly, I don’t know what the church is supposed to be about. Equip the saints for works of service. The only “equiping” I hear about is “share your faith”. No teaching about the “faith” at all, but just go out and “share it”.

    Sorry for the ramble. It felt good to get that out. Thanks again for your post.

  16. Ronald Hongsermeier says:

    Older Evangelicals would note “mere Christianity” as being a near quote of a pretty good book with a somewhat unfortunate title by C. S. Lewis. As it was _not_ a systematic theology but a print version of radio talks given by the author, it might be a good idea to do some mere differentiation about what you mean by “mere Christianity”. Thanks for the blog piece!

  17. Ronald Hongsermeier says:

    Now that I’ve read through the whole piece, I’d like to address another issue of possible misunderstanding in Pt.1. It has to do with “Missions”. Some have developed this term to mean particular short-term activities organized and carried out by a particular local church or group of churches which have a combination of evangelistic and practical goals. If that is the sum total of their “mission” and “vision” statements and possible morphological variables thereof, they definitely have a problem.
    Under Pt. 6 you give the impression that repentance is a one-time thing. While there is initial repentance, Luther’s first thesis on the well-nailed door contained something like / the whole of the life of the Christian is one of repentance / In my opinion one very good way to preach repentance is to give examples from one’s own life as a preacher where the Holy Spirit points out sin and the preacher humbly delineates the process of repentance. While initial repentance should be catastrophic for the previous course of self-steered life, following this up with incremental repentance is crucial for sanctification.
    @leslie_ : so you have immediate experience of God? i.e., without explicating theology? Or are you suggesting some valid alternative means? If not: Beam alarm!

  18. Jim Bohn says:

    Pastors have created this situation by caressing the narcissism known as ‘felt needs,’ creating a culture of “me,” supporting something that is theologically already amiss. As we coddle people, and continue to support their ‘needs’ with programs, we merely satisfy their wants as consumers, not at servants and serve their flesh.

  19. Daniel says:

    People often think that they have to decide between “evangelicalism” or Antioch/Rome. However, can I propose an alternative? Try looking up the 1st Evangelicals.

    Also, for some good reads on the American situation, particularly: Hermann Sasse and C.F.W. Walther.

    I think Pastor DeYoung did a splendid job at pointing out some of the problems in the American church. I affirm that it is most definitely connected to how people regard Scripture but would also like to query why the change has taken place.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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