Volume 27 - Issue 2

Spoilt for Choice

By Carl Trueman

Emigration is a strange experience, and that of myself and my family to the US has, as I write this, only just begun. Yes, I have made it through customs, through the labyrinth that is American bureaucracy, through the usual institutionalised absurdity of mortgage applications, driving tests, medicals etc.—yet the hard part is only just beginning: learning how to relate to a culture that is not my own, and never will be, and yet which will become the very air that my own small boys will breathe. I will always be British; my children will be Americans; and that is, strange to tell, the most difficult thing for me to take.

There is, however, another challenge which I have faced, one which was completely unexpected and for which life had left me unprepared: the choice of a church. As readers in the UK will know, unless you happen to live in a big city in Britain, or in certain rural areas in the Celtic rim, you are unlikely to be spoiled for choice as far as church goes. Having spent two years of my adult life without a car and without much money in the wilds of the Grampian region of Scotland, I know what it is like to have no church fellowship at all for extended periods of time; and I am also aware that I am not unique in this experience, since much of the UK has little or no gospel preaching at all. Thus, when one does live in a place where there is something resembling a good church, one tends to support it, even if one does not endorse everything that is said and done there. In effect, for many British Christians the decision is very often made for us: beggars, as the old adage has it, cannot be choosers.

The US, however, is radically different—or at least in Philadelphia this would seem to be the case. True, the place has more lawyers in the phone book than churches—no surprise there, I’m sad to say—but to the person seeking good, solid, biblical preaching and fervent fellowship, there is apparently no shortage of places to go. Indeed, you name it, they’ve got: from charismatic to exclusive psalmody, from ‘New Life’ to highly liturgical, the choice is remarkable. It is, one might say, typical of the consumer culture that is America: you can, after all, get any kind of cuisine or car or music in the shops; it should not be surprising therefore that churches should reflect the variety, eclecticism, and consumer-driven cornucopia of the wider culture. Of course, when I look at American society in general, I am left with profound doubts about the depth of much American Christianity. The rates of abortion are tragically high; the ubiquity of drugs eats at the fabric of society; unbelievable levels of deprivation and poverty stand side by side with vast wealth and opulence; the awful urban violence easily (and ironically, given American help in the province) eclipses that of Ulster in numbers of dead and wounded; and glib political blasphemies drip constantly from the lips of politicians who consistently identify the American way with God’s way. Yet, for all this, one cannot deny that, for good or ill, there are a lot of churches over here and a lot of church-goers. The British can be very condescending about American Christianity—but I have yet to pass a church building over here that has recently been turned into a night club or bingo hall.

Much could be said on these themes, but the thing that caught me off-guard most was not the obvious need to deconstruct the theologies and social underpinnings of American Christianity, but the sheer amount of choice available to the Christian looking for a church. I have never lived anywhere where there were more than two (at most) churches that I would consider attending; yet here I am where there are probably fifteen or so within ten minutes of my front door. Too much freedom can indeed be a form of oppression, and, to be honest, the freedom of so much choice has made my life a lot more difficult over recent weeks; but it has also forced me to reflect in some depth upon the question of what exactly the church is. After all, the answer to this question in general is of crucial importance to the more particular issue of where any individual should worship.

As a presbyterian, my mind automatically started thinking of the three basic marks of the church as taught by my church’s subordinate standards: word, sacrament and discipline. For me—as for you—any church to which I belong here on earth will be less than perfect; that’s because of the imperfect people like ourselves who go to make up the church. Yet there are degrees of perfection, and I firmly believe that it is consistent with biblical teaching that every church should strive to conform to these three marks as perfectly as it can. Let me expand a little on this.

Word. This is very simple. Does the church read the Bible prayerfully at its meetings? Does the minister expound that word faithfully and humbly, drawing out its timeless truth and applying it to the present in an earnest and accurate manner? In other words, any church worthy of the name must place the gospel—the good news of God’s salvation in Christ—at the very centre of its life and ministry. If other things, however worthy in themselves, are coming to eclipse the basic, verbal confession of the church that Christ is Lord and Saviour, then the word is being removed from its proper place and what is left—be it social club or social service—while it may well fulfil a useful function in wider society, is most definitely no longer a Christian church. It is an absolute essential for the church that the good news of Jesus Christ, the promise of grace that he embodies, needs to be sounded forth from a church’s pulpit with clarity if it is to be worthy of the name.

Sacrament. Are baptism and the Lord’s Supper an important part of the church’s practice? Do they mean something in the church’s life, or are they optional extras which are there for those who, for some reason, feel they need them or don’t have to rush home to get the roast on after the Sunday service? Now I know that the church is split over the mode and subjects of baptism, and I do not want to use this column to exacerbate any differences there may be. I do want to say, however, that whether one is a believer baptist or an infant baptist, one should never make the mistake of assuming that baptism is of no importance. It is a command of Christ and is thus of absolute importance—and anyone who says otherwise is flying in the clear face of New Testament teaching. Let us therefore learn to respect each other’s differences on this one, but let us not make the mistake of reducing those differences to matters of complete indifference. That would be the worst attitude of all. It is politically incorrect to say so, but I believe it to be one of the tragedies of the modern church that we have become less denominational—the result not so much of a developing sense of the unity all believers have in Christ, whatever the rhetoric at evangelical jamborees might encourage us to believe, but of an increasingly casual attitude both to things that are actually of great importance and to the doctrine of the church. I am aware of the sin that lies behind much denominationalism—make no mistake, it lies behind much of the para-church anti-denominationalism as well—but I also rejoice that denominations often testify to the seriousness with which men and women took the teaching of the Bible on issues such as the sacraments. We need once again such churches that take the commands of Christ and the practice of the early church seriously—and that means moving beyond evangelical indifference to baptism and the awful habit of appending communion to the end of the worship service. Instead, we need to place them more firmly at the centre of the church’s life. They are, after all, God’s gracious gifts to us; let us not despise them.1

Discipline. This, of course, is one of the bogey-words of modern society, with its connotations of oppression, of bully-boy unpleasantness, and of sinister manipulation. Surely to identify Christianity with discipline is to fall right into the hands of Nietzsche, Foucault and others for whom religion is merely one more means of manipulation and of stifling creativity? Sadly, the arguments of such atheistic philosophers have often had more than a grain of truth about them: the church has indeed frequently used its power to crush and oppress rather than to liberate and encourage; but that is the fault of the sinful men and women who filled its positions of power, not of the gospel. In the right hands, under God, discipline is a positive, liberating thing. We must rid ourselves of the mindless, predictable and boring cynicism of the postmodern age. Discipline in the church is all about caring for and nurturing the saints. Put simply: does the church have a leadership that will look after you? Will they encourage you when you are feeling down? Will they rebuke you in an intelligent and loving manner when you slip-up or backslide? In other words, do they care enough for your soul to look after you and help you mature as a Christian? Church discipline should mirror that of God the Father for his own children—rooted in wisdom and love, and manifested in wisdom and love. If your church cannot offer you that, then you are being short-changed and need to find somewhere that will, for your own sake.

These, then, were my markers as I set about trying to navigate through the unchartered waters of American Christianity. You will notice that I have said nothing in the above about styles of worship, dress codes, charismata etc. This is because, compared to the three issues outlined above, these latter things are trivia. If you have no word, no sacraments, and no discipline, you can sing all the psalms or choruses you want, dress as conservatively or as outlandishly as you wish, and attempt to perform as many miracles as you can cram into a service, but you will not have a church; what you will have is a gathering of crooners, of fashion victims or of well-meaning enthusiasts. For those who want to grow as Christians, more profound questions about the church need to be answered before such ephemera are addressed.

I was blessed: even after asking these questions, the number of churches on my list of potentials remained rather high and so I did what, with all things being equal, I felt was right: I went to the church where, in addition to the above, my children felt comfortable and my wife and I could sing the psalms we love in the simplicity of unaccompanied four part harmony. But make no mistake: even for a dyed-in-the-wool presbyterian traditionalist like myself, word, sacraments and discipline are of far more importance than the outward aesthetics of the worship service. Aesthetics do not make a church; word, sacrament and discipline do.

1 Evangelicals are often more uncomfortable with why communion is important than baptism so I take this opportunity to recommend Robert Letham’s little book. The Lord’s Supper: Eternal Word in Broken Bread(Presbyterian and Reformed) as a great introduction to the sacrament from an evangelical perspective.

Carl Trueman

Carl Trueman is academic dean, vice president of academic affairs, and professor of historical theology and church history at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.