Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Blog Tour with Michael Wittmer

Michael Wittmer’s book Don’t Stop Believing has three characteristics: 1) it is rooted in Scripture, 2) it is rigorous in its logic and 3) it is civil in its tone. Wittmer does not side step the hard questions that have been raised by what he terms “postmodern innovators (PI).” He uses this term to represent “the left wing of the emerging, postconservative, or younger evangelical church” (18). You can tell that he has genuinely listened to their (PIs) concerns and questions and he thinks the traditional church can learn from them. But he is equally serious in saying that some of their answers to the questions they raise are skewed at best and heretical at worst. I have only a couple of questions.

Wittmer says, “The notion that church membership is optional for Christians is a novel idea. Until recently, most Christians believed Cyprian’s famous saying that ‘outside the church there is no salvation.’ In case someone thinks that this statement is too Roman Catholic for Protestants to accept, ask yourself whether it is possible to belong to Christ if you pointedly choose not to belong to his church. Can you be connected to the head if you are not part of the body?” (pp. 107-08)

So here’s my question: If someone is not a “member” of a church is he really not part of the body? Does this confuse the visible and invisible church? Was there such a thing as “membership” as we understand it today in the original house churches of the first century or is the term “membership” being used as a synonym for regular attendance?

Next question: What would your advice be to a Christian who is attending a church that predominately teaches the views of PIs?

Thank you Mike and Zondervan for allowing me to participate in this blog tour. If you would like to see all the participating blogs on this tour go here and if you would like to see Mike's blog go here.

6 comments:

Andrew said...

Great question, Louis. I'm no historian, but it seems probable that our understanding of "membership in church" today is different than an ancient understanding of "membership".

Perhaps someone more educated in biblical history can weigh in(?).

mike wittmer said...

Louis:

Thanks for your kind and generous words. Per your question, I'm willing to let God make the final call on a person's salvation, and there are people in unusual circumstances, like the thief on the cross, who were converted without ever joining a church. But with that said, someone who claims to be united to Christ but does not care to be united to his body is placing themselves in a very awkward, tenuous position. Does it even make sense to make such a claim?

Great Googly Moogly! said...

By "membership in church", I'm assuming that he means (at least primarily) participation in the Body of Christ by being joined to Him by the Spirit in the New Birth. Outside of this "membership" there certainly is no biblical salvation for anyone. As Paul says in Romans, if you do not have the Spirit of Christ, you do not belong to Him; but those who do have the Spirit are joined to Christ as "sons" (children of God) and therefore members in Christ's ecclesia.

This is why I've always hated the idea of a "sacral church" and wish the Reformers had moved away from it. Oh well, another topic for another day.

But I think Wittmer may be referring to the fact that apart from the local church (an physical extension of the spiritual Body of Christ), an individual believer is understanding his "redemption" unbiblical. Sure, Christ saves individuals (as opposed to corporate entities), but He does so to form a community; the community that is the Kingdom of God, the community that is the People of God, a community that finds it's meaning and purpose as people in relationship.

Our Triune God models this relationship in His very nature as Father, Son and Spirit. Are we to assume that we as individual believers have no obligation to the Body? The New Testament (and O.T., for that matter) knows nothing of the Kingdom of God in individualistic terms.

I'm not saying that a person is not "saved" if he/she never joins a local Body; but the Body itself and the individual believer are both "lacking" without full participation. And Wittmer is right to ask the question, "Can you be connected to the head if you are not part of the body?" Do you really know Jesus if you don't think you should be an active part of His Body?

Christ's redemption has created one new people; a corporate entity that is the people of God. The Scripture doesn't allow us to think of ourselves as believers in individualistic terms--we are always a part of the Body.

For you next question, I would recommend to that person to read Wittmer's book! :-)

...and then help that Body grow with respect to understanding, knowledge and belief.

Great questions and important ones for us to consider.

Andrew said...

Great Googly Moogly!: Well said.

Mike: "Does it even make sense to make such a claim?" - I'll play the devil's advocate: A number of Christians might say this: I'm a Christian (read: saved, asked Jesus into my heart, etc.) but have no interest in the local church because it's so far gone from what Church should be. So, I'll be an active member of the Body of Christ through other means, and skip going to local services.

Have you heard this before? I have. And honestly at times, I'm pretty sympathetic to people that feel this way.

This is where "membership" gets sticky for a lot of people, (I think).

Paul said...

Thanks, Louis. Appreciate the question.

Unless and until we define the terms/expression "church" and "Body of Christ," then we really open ourselves up for a great deal of misunderstanding. Surely everyone agrees that "church" is not exclusively dedicated to a local expression. In fact, the "church" (as the "Body of Christ") may not have a local expression at all.
Consider: 1) It is not a sufficient condition for "church" to be a building set aside for public worship nor an organization that is institutionalized by paid professionals and a tax-exempt status. Believers in China meeting in homes bear this out. 2) The New Testament always refers to the Church as “the people of God,” whether locally or globally expressed. Metaphors referring to the Church include the “body” (Colossians 1:18), “temple” (Ephesians 2:20-21), “virgin” (2 Corinthians 11:2), “bride” (Revelation 21:9), “people” (Titus 2:14), “flock” (1 Peter 5:2-4), “household” (Ephesians 2:19), “one new man” (Ephesians 2:15), “chosen people … holy nation … royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9), “Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16).

Having said all this, I agree wholeheartedly that all believers by definition are members of a community and that our membership entails responsibilities to one another and to the world. But, please, let's not reduce the expression of these responsibilities to Constantine-like phenomena.

Louis said...

Mike,

Thanks for the clarification. I’m a little more comfortable with thinking that the person who is not a member of a church is in a “very awkward, tenuous position.” That said, I was thinking of the type of thinking that Andrew mentioned. This is where I’m finding more and more people. It seems very vogue today to “quit” church and/or to meet in a garage/bar or what have you and call it church. While I’m not sure to what extent this is characteristic of the emergent church this increased mentality has certainly followed closely on its heels.

Great Googly Moogly,

Your thoughts on our corporate identity are well stated. “We are always part of a Body.” Unfortunately, that “body” is sometimes reduced to nothing more than the “two or three gathered in my name.” We’re back to hanging out in the garage.

Paul,

You rightly distinguish between “church” and “body of Christ.” This was part of the intent of my original question. Your last statement that “our membership entails responsibilities to one another and to the world” is where the rubber meets the road. When these responsibilities are divorced from the local church and are rather expressed in ways of our own creating is where the problem arises. I’ll just meet with my friends and so we will “not be neglecting the gathering” and we’ll sing a few songs so we are involved in worship but this can all be done anywhere. Break some bread and pass the wine and we’ve got communion. What else do we need? It’s a far cry from Constantine but it swings the pendulum too far in the other direction.

I’m looking forward to a forthcoming book by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck called “Why We Love the Church.” I think it will address this issue in some very helpful ways.