Jonathan Leeman joins CrossPolitic for a discussion on the recent church closures in California.
My three-year-old was doing a three-year-old thing at breakfast. He wouldn’t drink his milk because he said it smelled funny. Every time he put his cup to his mouth to take a sip he curled his nose and told us “This milk smells yucky!”
Finally, I did what dads do. I took the cup and gave it a sniff. Turns out, he was right! Sort of. It wasn’t the milk that actually smelled funny but the cup. The inside hadn’t been cleaned properly and it gave off a noticeable odor when you put the cup to your nose. I attribute the problem to my older children who are too much like the adolescent version of their father who thought washing dishes poorly might get him out of having to do it (as an aside I was wrong, and so are they!).
Of course, I wouldn’t have gotten my youngest to drink the milk if I would have taken a paper towel and simply shined the outside of the cup. The outside wasn’t the problem. It was the inside that was causing the issue. I could have put a sticker on the outside of the cup that said “Clean Cup!”, but alas, the inside is what needed changing.
God is using current events in the United States of America to reveal and topple our idols. Some believe political ‘power’ and ‘control,’ supposedly summarized in the constitutional rights we enjoy as United States citizens, are such idols. But this take is extremely shortsighted.
For one thing, under the US Constitution, freedom of religion isn’t just for Christians, it’s for everybody. So it’s a strange argument that equates the loss of religious freedom with the loss of Christian power or control in particular. But let’s set aside this observation for a moment, and consider a handful of other non-starters in this discussion before we return to it.
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2020 is, obviously, bizarre in a number of ways. One of the lesser indicators among evangelicals is that we are officially in the era of writing responses to responses to responses.
If you aren’t familiar with the genesis of this particular post, Grace Community Church of Sun Valley, CA (where John MacArthur pastors) recently announced their intention to resume meeting for corporate worship on the Lord’s Day indoors – a decision that defies California’s prohibition on just such gatherings – and, in doing so, articulated the theological conclusions that led to their decision.
Jonathan Leeman, editorial director of 9 Marks Ministries and an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church in Maryland, felt compelled to write a response to the announcement from Grace Community Church (hereafter referred to as GCC). One important additional feature of this whole imbroglio is that, around the same time as GCC’s decision, Andy Stanley and SBC President J.D. Greear announced their own decisions, in various fashion, to do the opposite of GCC for the remainder of 2020. Greear, in particular, has described his church, Summit, as re-constituting into 2400 smaller churches. Leeman apparently felt no similar compulsion to respond to those choices, particularly Greear’s (who he shares a denomination with) yet did feel an impetus to respond to GCC (who he has no formal relationship to).
In response to Leeman’s response (what a strange phrase to write) Tom Buck has penned a strong piece for Alpha & Omega Ministries, putting Leeman’s critique of GCC under a particularly precise microscope.
One of the most interesting features of Buck’s response is his quotation of Leeman’s own words about the central importance of the church’s structure in regards to the church’s nature and Jesus’ designs for it. From Buck’s piece on A&O (and quoting from Leeman’s One Assembly: Rethinking the Multisite and Multiservice Church Models published for 9 Marks in April of this year):
In discussing ways that churches can obey the government in the pandemic, Leeman appears to make an enormous shift to how churches can legitimately structure themselves.
In his most recent book, released this past April, Leeman argues that, “changing a church structure changes its moral shape” and applies that truth down to the specific details of how a church gathers for worship. He declared, “change the basic biblical structures and you’ll slowly, subtly change people’s understanding of what the church is, what the church does, and what members are responsible to do.”
9Marks has based much of its ministry arguing for what constitutes a healthy church and what its gathering is to look like biblically. It revolutionized my own ecclesiology as a young pastor. They have argued against the “multi-site” model, and have not minced words about their position. Leeman writes,
“We fight Jesus by redefining the church. We fight Jesus by forsaking any of the responsibilities he’s given to us… Multisite and multiservice churches repudiate the Bible’s definition of a church, redefine what the church is, and so reshape the church morally. And all that means these models pick a fight with Jesus. The fight involves abdication by the members and usurpation by the leaders, even if unintended… What is a church? It’s an embassy of Christ’s kingdom. It’s a group of Christians who together identify themselves and each other as followers of Jesus and as the church through regularly gathering (in one place at one time) in his name, preaching the gospel, and celebrating the ordinances… So next time you hear someone say, “the church is a people, not a place,” you might respond: ‘Sort of. The people become a people by regularly assembling in a place. You can’t call the team a team if they never play together.’”
Yet now, Leeman and 9Marks seem more comfortable with pointing to the solution of the multi-site model of J.D. Greear to “turn the 12,000-member Summit Church into hundreds of house churches for the remainder of the year.” When you consider 9Marks long-held views on ecclesiology, how are they more comfortable commending the decision of Greear’s church to create 2,400 multi-sites that are essentially “churches” without elder leadership, than the decision of MacArthur’s church to come together under the authority of their elders to worship? If I may be so bold, I am as concerned, if not more so, about the inconsistencies of Leeman and 9Marks on this issue as I am the current inconsistent practices of our government.
Do the circumstances of the pandemic mean Leeman does not believe that Greear’s church will be “picking a fight with Jesus” over the next 7 months in their 2,400 “churches?” How is that not raising the “fight with Jesus” to the level of an ecclesiastical revolution? Has 9Marks concluded that in this case it is better to “pick a fight with Jesus” than with Caesar? Has the circumstances of the pandemic caused them to rethink their position on multi-site churches? The inconsistency of the position of Leeman and 9Marks at this point seems equally glaring.
It seems quite clear that, in fellowship with Leeman’s words above, GCC has re-entered the essential structure at the heart of the church’s nature and Jesus’ intentions for the local church. In contrast, Greear’s church has done something… else. And yet Leeman has words of response and critique for GCC and MacArthur but not Summit and Greear.
Why is that?
More specifically, does this indicate Leeman has changed in his understanding of the church published a mere four months ago? If, not, the question arises again: why did he feel compelled to respond to GCC and not Summit?