Nearly two years ago I posted some thoughts in response to Carl Trueman's assertion that he saw no way forward for churches to reclaim church discipline and ultimately the church itself ("I See No Way Forward"). Now this week his review of David Wells' book The Courage to Be Protestant has been buzzing around some corners of the internet, and in it he again raises this issue. The review in general highly commends Wells' book, both in its diagnosis and prescription for our current spiritual condition, although Trueman does note some complicating factors. Nevertheless, Trueman closes his review by expressing some of his concerns.
It is easy to take pot-shots at Willow Creek and emergent excess, but the problems of American culture which they variously represent—cults of personality, worldly conceptions of success and power, standing on one's rights to the exclusion of everybody and everything else, radical individualism, eclecticism, iconoclastic views of the past—can sit very comfortably with Reformed, confessional theology. Such theology can just as easily be turned into a commodity as anything else out there in the marketplace. That is, after all, the American way! We confessional conservatives too like our superstars, our celebrities, our glossy magazines, and our mega-conferences. With all of this to take into account, we need to realize that theology is not enough; that theology needs to challenge many of the things that are so dear to American culture that, spiritually speaking, they are virtually invisible to the naked eye.
To this I say "Amen" and "May God be merciful to us." But Trueman is not finished yet.
Second, while agreeing wholeheartedly with David's call for a return to church discipline, I am very pessimistic about that happening for the reasons outlined above: ease of travel; multiplication of denominations; and arrogant, anti-authoritarian individualism and libertarianism that spill over from politics into church life. Discipline is a wonderful ideal. I am just not sure what it looks like in the contemporary world. And to the extent that we all, conservative Protestants and otherwise, are part of this wider culture, so we are impotent to resist its forces.
We are impotent to resist its forces, he says. Perhaps. Perhaps our efforts will be like the charge of the Light Brigade, as he suggests. Yet he does offer a glimmer of hope when he says, "only a dramatic transformation not simply of church theology and practice but also of church culture and the hearts of individual members of the church will be able to effect any of this."
That is exactly what we are trying to do as a church. For the glory of God and the cause of Christ, we aim to recover the church as the body of Christ and reconnect the gospel with it. I have contended for a few years now that doctrinal formulations are not enough - certainly necessary, desperately needed, but not enough. The common mantra that the message never changes but methods do is so naive as to be nauseating. That attitude is precisely what allows us to maintain our confession while being totally coopted by the culture around us, as Trueman points out. But we want to be different. We want to be men who understand the times clearly, and know the Scriptures so thoroughly, and love God and our neighbor so deeply, that we put into effect a church culture which powerfully cross-sects everything this world knows with the gospel of Christ.
We are moving forward. With full faith in God and our lives at his disposal, I am confident that the Lord will use us to accomplish his purposes. I hope you are with me. This is no time for surrender. The just shall live by faith. We are moving forward.