Tuesday, June 11, 2013

On Lamenting the State of the Church

By Dr. Benjamin Shaw

In 1984, Francis Schaeffer published The Great Evangelical Disaster. In 1993, David F. Wells published No Place for Truth: or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? In 2008, Michael Horton published Christless Christianity. These are merely the tip of the iceberg of jeremiads lamenting the current state of the church. These three are focused on the evangelical church, but dozens of others could be added lamenting the state of the Reformed church, the Lutheran church, the Roman Catholic Church, and any other church you care to name. All of these authors decry the problematic state of the current church.

For some people, it provokes a desire to go back to some period when the church was pure and things were good. For some, that was the seventeenth century, the period of the Westminster divines and the rise of Puritanism in England. For others, it was the previous century, with the rise of the Reformation. For others it was the period of the early church fathers, when such greats as
St. Augustine
Athanasius, Augustine, and Jerome roamed the earth. (Almost everyone agrees that the Middle Ages were a complete mess.) For others, we need to go back to the purity and simplicity of the New Testament church.

But a little historical investigation demonstrates quickly that these are all chimeras—illusions or fabrications of the mind. The Puritan authors consistently decry the problems of the church in their own day. The Reformation writers likewise display the unfortunate difficulties of their time—problems caused by radicals, disagreements among reformers, and lawlessness throughout the land. With the early church fathers, the situation is no different. Doctrinal disputes, theological laziness, rampant antinomianism or legalism among believers. Even the New Testament church is only a testimony of the same set of problems. Consider all the problems Paul dealt with in the church at Corinth, or the serious doctrinal problems among the churches of Galatia. Even Philippians, which reflects no serious doctrinal issues, shows serious relationship problems among the members of the church.

What, then, are we to think about the church? Should we just give up? Should we simply refuse to publish such works as those listed above, since the problems are real, but they are long-standing, and are not going away any time soon? No, we should take a hint from the Old Testament. The Old Testament can easily be read as an ongoing lamentation/critique of the state of the church. The failures of the patriarchs in Genesis; the failures of Israel in the wilderness in Exodus through Deuteronomy. The brief success of Israel under Joshua followed by the woeful collapse recounted in Judges. Then the other books of history, retelling a story of long decline with an occasional bright light here or there. The Psalms are full of lamentations regarding the state of the nation. Then there are the prophets. They decry against the failures of their days, while at the same time proclaiming the hope of their saving God.

That is our work today. Decry the sins of the church. Call both the church and the world to repentance. Show them the beauty of the gospel of God in Christ Jesus. Then trust in God to do his saving work. For it is his purpose “that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph 3:10.

Dr. Benjamin Shaw is academic dean and associate professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at Greenville Seminary. The preceding is reproduced with permission from his blog, gptsrabbi.