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Evangelicalism, Christian Identity, and Church Membership

December 17th, 2018 | 14 min read

By Jonathan Leeman

A little while back one of my favorite preachers offered a long list of Christian books he recommends. It included excellent books about God and salvation and missions and the Christian life. But, strangely, it did not point to a single book about the church.

I’m not worried about this particular preacher. I know he loves his church. Yet the omission reminded me of something that’s typical of post-1950s evangelicalism: the tendency to forget about the local church in our discipleship and Christian identity.

Part of me wants to pick on his generation of evangelical leaders—those who came of age in the 1960s to 1980s. They built the publishing houses and seminaries and magazines and Christian music scene that defines evangelicalism. As compared to a younger generation of leaders and voices, their lack of emphasis on the local church feels characteristic of an era.

Still, to some extent, it’s all of us now. Post-1950s evangelicalism has trained us to divide our Christian identity and discipleship from our church membership.  Walk over to your bookshelf and pull off books by three of your favorite Christian writers—old or young. If the person is a pastor, the author’s biography will mention his church’s name. Of course. But if he or she isn’t, there is a 99 percent chance it won’t. It’s just him. Or her. They are a free-floating, self-defining Christian.

Have you ever thought about where James Dobson goes to church? Or J. I. Packer?

It’s the same thing with your favorite Christian artists. Did you ever wonder where Amy Grant attends? Or Lecrae?

I’m not blaming these individuals. I’m just saying that evangelicalism teaches us to think of them as…I don’t know…voices. Celebrities. Hovering-in-the-air personalities. Something. But as local church members? It’s an institutionally clunky and strange thought.

So it is with us non-celebrities. We identify ourselves as “evangelical” before we do “member of Cheverly Baptist Church” or “Covenant Presbyterian.” That church may have shared the gospel with us, nurtured us into the faith, publicly affirmed our profession of faith, fed and strengthened us into maturity, and corrected us when we veered off course, but we still view ourselves independently from it, like the child who goes to college and forgets all about his or her family.

My friend Sam Emadi has noticed that Christians book stores typically separate the “Christian life” section from the “church” section. “Why aren’t those one section?” he asks. Good question.

Unessential does not mean unimportant

Evangelicalism generally and this older generation specifically do an excellent job of emphasizing the gospel and the unity of Christians in the gospel. Neither church membership nor the ordinances save. Yet an unspoken corollary too often follows: If topics like baptism, the Lord’s Supper, church government, church membership and discipline are not essential for salvation, they must be unimportant. Plus, they only make Christians argue. So why bother with them?

Yet just because something is not essential for salvation does not mean it’s unimportant for the Christian life and obedience. There is a middle lane between “essential” and “unimportant,” namely, “important,” or even, “not essential for salvation but essential for obedience, for witness, and for preserving the gospel over time.”

No one would say that the platinum setting is as precious as the diamond it holds. No one would say the house is more important than the children inside of it. Yet the house lets the children flourish. And the setting protects and displays the diamond over time. Likewise, it’s the very things that give local churches their structure, the things that in fact make a church a church in distinction from a crowd of Christians, that are what preserve and display the gospel from one generation to the next. Crowds and unaccountable individuals don’t hold onto stuff for very long. Homeless children don’t do so well either.

Let me be more specific. There are at least six problems with dividing discipleship and membership, identity and a local church.

  • First, the division deprives us of pastoral care and instruction. When I don’t spend time with “dad,” I’m less likely to become like him (see Heb. 13:7; 1 Peter 5:1-3).
  • Second, it deprives us of other parts of the body. Every part needs every other part—the foot needs the hand, the eye needs the elbow, and so forth. Without them, I’m thinner, weaker, anemic, more prone to disobedience and false teaching (see 1 Cor. 12).
  • That means, third, the divide leaves the gospel itself more exposed to error. Outside of the body, we’re all more susceptible to false teaching and living (see 1 Tim. 1:6; 1 John 2:19).
  • Fourth, the division harms the witness of the gospel. Our evangelistic witness is very much tied to our life and love together (see John 13:34-35).
  • Fifth, it subtly undermines our obedience to Scripture’s “one another” commands (see Heb. 10:24-25). We might say, “I don’t need a local church to love other Christians.” But that makes us like the dad who uses the excuse of “quality over quantity time” with his kids first to deceive himself and then to cover over his neglect.
  • Sixth, the division deprives us of the assurance of faith we need, especially those of us who are prone to doubt (see 1 Cor. 14:31; 1 Thes. 4:18; 5:11,14). Churches are local assurance-of-salvation co-ops, Mark Dever often says.

For these reasons, I as a biblically convinced baptistic congregationalist can feel greater affinity with the presbyterian pastor who takes his polity seriously than the non-denominational leader who thinks membership is a waste of time. I assume that, three times out of four, sound doctrine and right living will remain safer for longer in his church than in the do-it-yourself, the-pastor-decides-everything congregation.

The older generation rightly stresses the importance of Bible preaching, teaching, and discipleship. Wonderful. But their lessons on local church ordinances tends to be broad, open, and non-specific. They may put in a plug for the local church and its discipline, recognizing churches are instrumental for Christian sanctification: “It will help you grow!”

But it’s never the main point of the book or the Sunday school lesson and can feel like lip-service. In their healthiest forms, these folk do a good job of putting first things first and focusing everyone’s attention on what’s essential to salvation. In their least healthy, they tempt Christians toward cheap grace, failing as they do to discern the connection between church polity and Christian ethics. Church membership and government belong under the banner of ethics. They embody the social requirements of our gospel repentance.

Those of us who have grown up in such ministries therefore view Christianity as hovering somewhere in the Christian-media-and-parachurch ether with only a light connection to a church. Disciples learn to self-feed and self-shepherd, which isn’t all bad. But sometimes they grab nutritious food, sometimes junk food, and too often can’t tell the difference.

Let’s see, I’ll put a little of this podcast preacher on my plate, a side of those praise and worship bands from Spotify, a helping of this church’s small groups, and the desert of that church’s large young adults meeting. This will keep me fed. Wait, that’s a cool looking book cover. And, look, Tim Tebow endorsed the book. Interesting!

Some Christians turn out okay this way. But many get lost. No one should therefore be surprised by the high level of Christian nominalism in the West—the millions of non-attending church members.

In all this, we fail to recognize that Christianity is to church membership what calling ourselves a member of the family is to the family table. Don’t tell me you’re a member of the family if you never eat with the family.

My sense is that the Anglicans, Pentecostals, the whole world of non-denominational Christians, and my own Baptists are more likely to err in these directions. Presbyterians and Lutherans seem more likely to keep them together. I’m honestly not sure about the Methodists. Yes, I know I’m using a broad brush, and I’m happy to be corrected.

The Christian Academics

Yet as long as I’m stepping on toes, may I offer a special word to the Christian academics? There are unique temptations that come with both academic work and intelligence in regard to our churches, and that’s a sense of pride and self-sufficiency. You listen to the Sunday School teacher; you catch half a dozen errors in what he says; you think of how you could have taught a better lesson.

Then, when you’re given academic recognition, when you’re published, you begin to view your work separately from your local church membership. At worst, a quiet voice in your head says, “I’m trained. I know better,” which is a kind of subtle (Satanic) step beyond the accountability of your elders and your congregation. I’m not simply pointing the finger; I’m confessing.  

Carl Trueman seems to have had Christian academics particularly in mind when he wrote,

The…problem with the way evangelicalism now functions is that it has weakened the church. Because it requires the marginalizing of ecclesiastical distinctives such as views on baptism and church government, evangelicalism and its institutions cannot, in theory, replace the church. Furthermore, the whole problem of accountability is a hardy perennial for parachurch organizations, from seminaries to academic fellowships like the Evangelical Theological Society. The problem is that, in practice, evangelical institutions come to supplant the church, even though they are not designed to fulfill that role. For some they become the key theaters of action, the forums in which little fish can be big shots, and the deviant and heretical can flourish without proper accountability. For others they become the primary centres of Christian identity, the reason why they become evangelicals first, and Presbyterian or Baptist or Pentecostal only second.

Often, it’s the smart or at least the studied ones who succumb to the temptation of viewing their Christian self as independent of the accountability structure of a local church. After all, they can build a Christian life, ministry, and reputation outside of it.

I recently participated in an academic seminar on the importance of the church. Think any of us were introduced by our local church affiliation? No.

A Larger Historical Snapshot

If you’re interested in a little historical speculation, I could offer a few hypotheses for how this separation happened. We might explore how…

  • Anti-institutionalism crept into much of Western Christianity when the elixir of nineteenth century Romanticism charmed us with the wonder of the self-defining individual.
  • Since the middle of the nineteenth-century, scholars in the theology departments of elite European universities have assumed that the churches of the New Testament were in a state of flux, their polities were inconsistent, and that they offer no normative model for today. When biblical norms vanish, pragmatism steps into the void, which pushes church membership toward voluntarism. I join a church not as a matter of obedience to a biblically prescribed accountability structure; I join when and where it proves beneficial to my discipleship.
  • Church leaders in the twentieth century, therefore, found themselves enticed and eventually intoxicated by the methods of the booming American marketplace. Every few years, a new church growth philosophy hit the bookshelves and conference circuit promising the latest and greatest way to grow a church in five easy steps.
  • Beginning in the 1950s, the so-called neo-evangelicals separated themselves from their separatist and fundamentalist parents by establishing their own seminaries, magazines, evangelism organizations, publishing houses, and other parachurch institutions. Their hope was to fulfill the Great Commission in a more culturally engaged way, while downplaying the things that divide like church government and baptism. A Billy Graham evangelistic rally, for instance, would point the people who came forward to any local church, no matter the denominational or theological stripe—from Baptist to Presbyterian, from Charismatic to Roman Catholic.

This list of possible could go on, and I have not even mentioned the Internet, social media, Mp3 preachers, and their effect on the institutional structures of Christianity around the world.

Or just think about church names. Robert Schuller, a church marketing mastermind, began the trend of dropping grumpy old words like “Baptist” and “Presbyterian” and “Methodist” from church signs, and replacing them with the gentler and family-friendly “Community” or “Valley Way.” That trend has accelerated in recent years as churches have taken to giving themselves a mysterious and sophisticated urban aura with names like Perimeter and Karis. These days evangelicals do not identify themselves so much by the old denominations, which divide over polity. They define themselves by their “tribes.” Tribes offer different lifestyle choices. They are defined by the tone of their preachers, the style of their music, the topics of frustration on their websites, and the general attire of their conferences.

A Different Picture

I’ve highlighted the older generation’s role in all this, both because we’re inheriting evangelicalism from them, but also because I’ve seen some encouraging counter trends among those under 60. I hear more and more younger voices saying, “yeah, we need to take the local church seriously.”

What would it look like for those books on money and Bible study and parenting in the “Christian living” section of the bookstore read like if we combined them with the church section? To view discipleship through a church membership lens? The books on money would probably sound more like the early chapters of Acts, where Christians shared everything. The books on Bible study would probably sound more like Paul’s Pastorals, with elders helping older and younger generations to resist mythologies and embrace sound doctrine. The books on parenting would look for ways raise children together—not just through a children’s ministry but as a lifestyle.

Or let me try another angle on picturing this merger by pointing to my 9Marks boss, Mark Dever. I don’t mean to exalt Mark, who pastors Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC. But he’s taught me for years what it looks like to locate your discipleship and your ministry first and foremost in a local church, even while running a parachurch ministry. If you intend to have a voice “out there” beyond the members of your church, even if it’s just on Facebook, I want you to consider his example. He

  • Devotes the best hours of his working week to his church and his church members, not to the outside invitations he receives.
  • Spends 25 hours a week writing new sermons for his congregation, while spending a couple hours rehashing old sermons whenever he speaks at conferences or other churches. “I’m primarily responsible for feeding my congregation, Jonathan.”
  • Doesn’t try to accomplish much on social media pastorally or by way of theological persuasion. It’s not the best way to pastor or persuade people, he would say.
  • Doesn’t keep up on evangelical gossip or know what controversies have erupted on the Internet. His attention isn’t fixed on “out there,” but on his church.
  • Bears a general reluctance to sign pan-Christian or pan-evangelical “statements.”  
  • Prays for several dozen of his church members every day by name.
  • Prioritizes his own church members for his pastoral internship, even though many from the outside apply.
  • Spends nearly all of his managerial time on his church staff; almost none on the 9Marks staff (for which I’m personally grateful!).
  • Insists that articles on the 9Marks’ website includes author’s church affiliation.
  • Gripes about any Christian conference which locates itself on a weekend and makes church attendance difficult or impossible.
  • Is suspicious of any organization or ministry which threatens to supplant the local church, whether a seminary, a website, a magazine, or a campus ministry.

Let me add to this last point. I sometimes hear of seminarians who view The Gospel Coalition as the standard of orthodoxy. TGC doesn’t view themselves that way and neither should you. God never meant parachurch organizations to serve this function. He meant for churches to do this.

So with 9Marks. I’ve heard people talk about being “a 9Marks church,” maybe because they’ve placed themselves on our Church Search. If they merely mean, “Our church adheres to the same biblical principles,” fine. That’s why the Search is there. But let’s be clear: 9Marks is not a denominational authority, not an accountability structure, not a source for ecclesial identity. We’re not bishops who separate true and false churches. The Church Search is basically a self-regulating community bulletin board. Post your ad.

Here are two more examples I have observed in Mark which capture the heart of what I’m trying to say.

  • He didn’t primarily blame Southern Seminary for its decades of theological liberalism. He blamed the churches where seminary professors were members for not disciplining those professors when they denied gospel truths. Do you see how this shifts the burden of accountability?
  • He won’t give you, as a member of a conference audience, answers to tough pastoral questions. He’ll tell you to “Ask your elders.” It’s his way of saying, “I’m not your pastor. Someone else is. And God has given that someone else to you to help you work through that question.”

I don’t mean to say you must make all the same decisions as Mark. I’m merely trying to offer concrete illustrations that will help you visualize another way of thinking.

I could point to other people, too. Have you heard of New Testament scholar Tom Schreiner? I was a member of the church Tom pastored while I was in seminary, Clifton Baptist. Ask anyone at Clifton: Tom loves his church. He always felt more like my pastor than he did my seminary professor.

I also think of the many pastors who are extremely careful about what they tweet or post on Facebook. Before posting anything, they consider the spiritually strong and weak, those on the political left and right, the men and the women, the ethic majorities and minorities. They think of the names and faces in their own church who fill out these categories—their flock. They know they are accountable for them and to them, not the thousands who might be listening in. They view themselves and their responsibilities primarily (that doesn’t mean exclusively) in terms of the audience of their congregation, not the potentially numberless audience “out there.”

In a nutshell: A good pastor denies the impulse to post that provocative tweet, even though it could win a thousand “likes,” because he has a picture in his head of that one weak sheep in his congregation who could stumble because of it. He won’t sacrifice the one for the ninety-nine.

Praise God, there are countless pastors like this on Twitter and Facebook, posting only careful, helpful, edifying material. You, too, friend, should use your congregation as a mental screen for everything you say or post publicly.


A last story: It was 11 p.m. in Denver. I was sitting in an empty hotel lobby with a friend who contributes to this blog. We were enjoying a quick hour together at the conclusion of an academic conference before my 6 a.m. flight. After talking about evangelical goings-on, he concluded, “Jonathan, I’m concerned about the state of evangelicalism.” He himself had received a lot of criticism in the previous months.

My counsel to this friend was, “Oh, brother, don’t worry about evangelicalism. It will take care of itself. Concern yourself first with your local church. Invest there. Faithfully love those people. Avail yourself of their correction. Then, when you turn to write for a broader audience, as with my whole job, don’t worry whether people say you’re in or you’re out. Just do your best to love and be biblically faithful.”