Vaughan Roberts. Authentic Church: True Spirituality in a Culture of Counterfeits. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2011. 213 pp. $16.00.
Greed. Sexual immorality. Quarreling. Pride. Selfishness. Such was the mess of the first-century church in Corinth. And such is much of the Western church today. That's why so many pastors have turned to 1 Corinthians for help in leading their congregations through various trials. This new book by Vaughan Roberts—rector of St. Ebbe's Church in Oxford, England, and author of God's Big Picture: Tracing the Storyline of the Bible—effectively models how 1 Corinthians speaks so poignantly to us today.
Roberts recognizes the clamor for authentic spirituality in the church today but regards many proposals as needing correction from the apostle Paul. So he guides readers chapter by chapter through 1 Corinthians, covering a remarkable range of topics. He addresses spiritual gifts, leadership, sex, marriage, atonement, holiness, gender roles, love, bodily resurrection, and more. Roberts's book, which functions as homiletical commentary or group study guide depending on the reader's needs, illustrates how expositional teaching can address relevant topics. Several key themes recur, perhaps none more central to his concern than the contrast between true spirituality, which seeks to emulate the holiness and sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and contemporary spirituality, which too often pursues self-indulgent experiences without reference to the cross.
“It is possible to be spiritual without having certain gifts,” Roberts writes, “but it is not possible to be spiritual without love, which is indispensable” (173).
Roberts's eight chapters, helpfully subdivided into sermon-friendly points, effectively mix illustration, application, exegetical insight, and ancient background. He guides readers back and forth between the world of today and the world of the Bible. With a pastor's teaching gift, Roberts offers observations that transfer naturally to our situation but find their roots explicitly in the text. Such food for thought includes:
- “A good test . . . of any movement or message that claims to be spiritual is to ask, 'Does this point me to the crucified Christ and encourage me to grow in knowledge and love of him, to serve him and imitate him?'” (19)
- “If you want to find a Spirit-filled church, look for one which takes the Bible very seriously and gives time to hearing God speak through it” (33).
Roberts clearly worries about what he sees in the growing charismatic movement. But he does not mock these demonstrative believers. His book reveals hope that they might heed Paul's warnings and grow in a Christ-like spirituality. He writes:
There is no deeper revelation of the Spirit beyond the revelation of the Bible. The authentic work of the Spirit is seen, not when people get excited by some new message or miracle, but rather when their eyes are opened and their hearts are filled with an ever-deepening appreciation of the Bible's teaching about what God has done for them in Christ and a growing longing to live in light of all they have received from him (29).
Even if you don't succumb to charismatic temptations to value the gift over the Giver, you will still come under microscope of Paul's wide-ranging letter. Nearly everyone in the Western church needs to hear these four leadership warnings Roberts deduces from 1 Corinthians 3-4 (50):
- Faithfulness matters more than success.
- Don't undervalue the faithful plodder.
- Don't put pastors on pedestals.
- Don't bypass the way of the cross.
Roberts might be an especially gifted teacher, but he understands Paul's concerns in 1 Corinthians and celebrates the “faithful plodder with average gifts, who is diligently living and teaching the true message of the Bible.” In fact, he says more talented preachers who rely on their own inspirtational brilliance rather than the power of God's Word should be avoided. These teachers forget power comes only through the cross, which an unspiritual world will never appreciate apart from God's revelation. Most pastors couldn't emulate these super-gifted leaders anyway, even if they tried. “Most of those God uses are ordinary people entrusted with an extroadinary gospel,” he writes. “Their task is simply to do their best with the personalities and gifts they have been given; God will do the rest” (53).
Roberts's previous work God's Big Picture might be my favorite book outside the Bible for use in small group study. But Authentic Church displays the same characteristic respect for biblical teaching and gift for applaying it to a broad range of readers in the local church. Anyone preaching from 1 Corinthians or teaching it in other settings would benefit from reading and sharing this book. There is more than enough material in this book to help sustain weeks, even months, of wrestling with 1 Corinthians. Experienced students of 1 Corinthians might benefit from a thicker, more scholarly commentary. But few academics can match Roberts's ability to reach popular audiences with memorable synopses of apostolic wisdom. Take, for example, “The G Test” he proposes to guide Christian decision-making:
- What will be the effect on my spiritual growth?
- Will this be good for others?
- Can I do this for the glory of God?
This may appear simple, but the effects will be profound if Christians ask these questions when discerning how to exercise their freedom in Christ. Likewise, Authentic Church isn't flashy, but that's the point of 1 Corinthians. Flashly risks distracting Christians, prone to forget the foolishness of the cross. Paul's words of warning for the church in Corinth could have been drafted for us today. By the illumining ministry of the Holy Spirit, teachers like Roberts can help today's church hear and heed the message.