The Anti-Ecclesial Rhetoric of Emerging Church Movements

One of the things I have grown weary of in the last decade or so, is anti-ecclesial rhetoric. What I mean by this is the pitting of the ‘church’ over against Jesus, or ‘the established church’ over against more ‘organic’ models of Christianity (e.g. house churches, and the like). I suppose we all from time to time look for something or someone to blame our problems on, and the Christian church has become something of a punching bag, even for a goodly number of devout Christians. Sometimes this is because they have joined the ‘I’m spiritual, not religious’ movement, or the ‘I love Jesus, but the church…. not so much’ band wagon. Some of this frankly is caused by a profound misunderstanding of the word church/ ekklesia. Perhaps then, it would be wise to start this post with some basic definitions.

The church is the corporate people of God assembled for worship, fellowship, and service. It is not a building, it is not an institution, it is not an organization. Any church that is even moderately successful certainly needs a regular place to meet, needs some organization, needs some structure, but the ekklesia as defined in the NT is not these things. I would stress the church needs structure, needs buildings, needs organization, but it should not be identified with them. It is precisely when the buildings, structures, and organizations or institutions of the church become overly-sacralized that they become difficult if not impossible to change. That’s what I call Christians developing an ‘edifice’ complex.

The word ekklesia, often translated ‘church’ actual means ‘assembly’. One person is not the church. A group of unassembled Christian friends is not the church. No, there is an element of assembling for worship, fellowship, service that makes a group of people a church. You need to be having church to be a church.

It is certainly true that in my lifetime brand name denominational loyalty has declined in Protestantism (less so in Catholic or Orthodox circles). Some of this is caused by the weak ecclesiology of Protestant theology to begin with. By this I mean that Protestants tend to emphasize one’s individual walk with Christ, individual piety, individual commitment, and so on, at the expense of the group identity and unity. And when you throw in a hyper-active sensitivity about this or that view of truth or orthodoxy, it is no wonder that it seems that Protestants are better at fulfilling the Genesis commandment to be fruitful and multiple (by church splits) than at fulfilling the Great Commission. Put another way, when you stress your vision of Truth with a capital T, rather than the need for unity (with a little ‘u’), dividing and sub-dividing is inevitable it seems. There are literally hundreds of Protestant denominations…and frankly this is an all too modern phenomenon. Denominationalism did not exist in say the fourth century A.D. It is a decidedly Protestant development, or subplot.

Thus, when one gets to the emerging church folks, and you hear a lot of their anti-ecclesial rhetoric, it has a long precedent in Protestantism, whether it is Luther railing against the Pope, or Calvin complaining about the situation in Switzerland, or Wesley struggling with the Anglican Church, or the Free Methodists splitting off from the Methodist Episcopal Church or various Baptist groups splitting and multiplying prodigiously. And in all of this, few have stopped to ask—Is all this disputatiousness a good witness to the world? Put another way—Why should the world listen to any church group when we can’t even agree among ourselves, as we speak with forked tongues?

Don’t get me wrong, I am thankful for renewal movements of God’s Spirit wherever they come from. We need them. What we don’t need is the church eating it’s own young or old. What we don’t need is any part of the church claiming to be ‘the one true church apostolic and universal’ at the expense of other parts of the body of Christ. What we don’t need is the oh so familiar attempt to blame the structures for the problems of the church, when, after all it is the people of God who set up, maintain, and run those structures. They are not, inherently, the real problem. As Pogo once said ‘I have seen the enemy, the enemy is me.’ We need to look in the mirror. What we also really don’t need is one part of the Christian church having the hubris to think it has a stranglehold on the truth. This in the end simply reflects arrogance and ignorance, and an unwillingness to learn from others who are not part of our particular portion of Christ’s body.

One more thing. With the anti-ecclesial rhetoric has also come some anti-intellectual, and even anti-educational and anti-seminary rhetoric. Correct me if I am wrong but in a Dark Age where the culture and the church in general is becoming more and more Biblically illiterate what we surely don’t need is less training in the Bible. What we don’t need is a dumbing down of Christian college and seminary core curriculum in Bible, Church History, Theology. What we don’t need is less emphasis on learning the actual languages that the Bible was written in, and learning the historical, literary, rhetorical context in which it was given.

Nor do we need the arrogance and foolishness that says ‘I can learn all that on my own, thank you very much. I don’t need formal training by experts.’ Really? Would you go to a dentist who said— ‘I’ve got no degrees and no formal training and I’ve never extracted a tooth, but lets start with you.’? I think you get my drift. Ministers (clergy and lay), need as much training by experts as possible in the core Christian curricula. They just do. Because if the leaders are not the resident experts for their people, then we are dealing with leaders who simply pool their ignorance with that of their people. And that only furthers the darkness of the Dark Age into which we have been descending.

It is my hope that when the Emerging Church stops Emerging from wherever it has been previously hidden and starts merging with other groups of Christians who are willing to partner with them, that it will be realized that it was after all unprofitable and unhelpful to sass your Mother, to repudiate the womb from which you emerged, by which I mean the ekklesia, the body of Christ, the people of God, which will always need structures and organizations. Think on these things.

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  • Theophile

    It’s too bad so few “Protestants” have read Christian history in Foxes book of Martyrs, or liken Christs letter to Smyrna as “a church that’s doing it right in the eyes of the world.”
    > Paul’s analogy of the “church” was “the body of Christ”, this analogy has a problem though, everyone wants to be the eye, or the mouth, the tongue, or the brain(even though that position is supposed to be Christ’s); They want to speak, taste, and be in “fun” parts. No one wants to be the lower intestine, the gall bladder , or a toenail, where indigestion, slime, or fungus prevails. This causes divisions right away, which bring in the need for “clergy”, to settle that they are the mouth, tongue, and brain for us.
    Jesus gave us the “all brothers as children of God” analogy, in His plan for His church in Matthew 23. His sheep hear His voice in His Shepherd analogy.

  • JeremyJ

    BWIII, I agree that the anti-everythingness of the emergent movement is itself a negative, but what lessons can we plunder from emergent criticisms in order to bring renewal to the church as a whole? What ways can local on the ground pastors employ emergent strategies with the goal of building the kingdom? I am also reminded that efforts toward church renewal are too often rejected by the church as a whole and it isn’t always that the renewalists leave but they are forced out (Wesley, Luther).

  • herb buwalda

    Thanks, Ben. Very helpful insights and challenges!

  • Steve Harper

    Ben, thanks for reminding us about the necessity of keeping faith and church connected. I remember E. Stanley Jones’ words which aimed to do the same thing in his generation: “The Spirit without the Body is a ghost. The Body without the Spirit is a corpse.” He went on to say that it’s only when the Spirit and the Body are united that we have the Church. Even when we add up all the sins, faults, and failures of the church, we cannot advocate “churchless” Christianity. You’re a good voice to help us live in the tension.

  • Ben Witherington

    Yes I think there is a good deal to learn from the emerging folks. Flexibility would be one example. Structures need to be adapted and adopted to the times and needs of the situation. BW3

  • Chaplain Rich Hoffman

    There is no problem with Paul’s analogy of the Church as the Body of Christ. The problem is with us, the parts of the body who choose not to discern what role we are in the body. Our role is determined by God’s calling and giftedness, and it takes the corporate insight of the body to help us determine our role (body part).

  • Timothy Putnam

    Dr. Witherington,

    You speak, in a round about way, of the need for Unity with a capital U, but also denounce the idea of any one church claiming to be the One Holy, Apostolic Catholic Church. Who then will set the standard for unity? If there is no True Church, then there is no path to unity, and no basis to claim a need for unity.

    If the third and fourth century Fathers are to be used as the standard for unity, their descriptions of the church look remarkably Catholic (some Byzantine Rite, some Roman Rite). If they are not the standard for unity, who is? We have seven hundred years of disagreement on the interpretation of scripture, so scripture in and of itself cannot be the standard. Where do you find an acceptable standard around which to unify?

    JeremyJ, excommunication (Luther) is meant to be restorative, to point out a danger to ones soul so that repentance and correction can be made. It does not happen quickly and follows the process set out in Matthew 18. Luther should have humbled himself and submitted. He could have been a force for renewal within the church, instead the legacy of his pride is 38,000 Christian denominations. This is the necessary price of Personal Truth over Unity.

  • Ben Witherington

    Hi Timothy: It is indeed God’s Word which has to be the standard for truth and unity. There has to be unity in the truth, or it’s a false and forced unity. Of course you are right that the interpretation of Scripture is various, but I have taken encouragement from the fact that Evangelicals with a high view of Scripture and Catholics with the same have in recent years been able to come to remarkable degrees of agreement about fundamental Biblical concepts like justification by grace through faith. BW3

  • Mark

    It may be that all of us are, in one way or the other, Pharisees. We cling to our traditions like remoras to a shark, seeking safe haven and simple answers where none exist. This is especially easy in an affluent culture where our wealth insulates us from most basic suffering. Hunger, poverty, sickness, access to food, shelter, education and even health care are all redefined because of it. Poverty, and its attendant misery, is very different in the U.S. than it is in Mexico, Haiti or the Congo. This enables prosperity Gospels, and churches where the focus on spirituality is expressed in “mundane” miracles like, tongues, broadly generalized prophesies, or being slain in the spirit as meaningful expressions of Godliness. Maybe all of this ecclesiastical stuff is really just code, like so many secret handshakes and decoder rings, allowing us to know who belongs and who doesn’t. If that is true, we may be nothing more than the latest generation of religious hypocrites—just as blind as the Pharisees of Jesus’ time ever was.

  • Russell Purvis

    Very helpful. You’re really showing us to take hold of the truest meaning of ekklesia and teaching us the difference between popular/slang usage and proper Church historical usage. It is sad that all sides of the issue should turn an eye back to the historical church for renewal and recognize the value of the community instead of just focusing on their individual progressive Christianity. Thanks and keep up the good sharings.

  • JeremyJ

    Luther was told to recant his calls or renewal under the threat of death, how could he be a voice of renewal if he was killed by the Pope? BTW it took nearly 500 years for the Catholic church to enact Luther’s reforms, it is nice to see that the Vatican finally laid aside its pride and heard to rightful criticisms of Luther…half a millenia later. =}

  • Jared

    Ben, your post left a few questions I wish you would clarify. Do you believe that the primary characteristic of emerging thinkers is “anti-ecclesial”? When you refer to “emerging church folks”, to whom are you referring? Emergent Village? Neil Cole and CMA? This is a broad, vague brush with which you seem to paint, and narrowing this down would be helpful in understanding your critique. Do you believe that most don’t want to work with existing churches? In my experience it is the other way around, that to mess with the structure is to mess with the church entirely, and so existing churches don’t want to work with emerging thinkers. Not to mention that many emerging thinkers would gladly work with existing structures so long as that structure did not impede on their understanding of how to empower people to become (or better become) disciples of Jesus Christ.
    When you refer to the vast diversity of the denominations today, I wonder if the problem isn’t so much that there is diversity, but, as you said, a lack of unity within said diversity. How does the church today celebrate its diversity, believing that God could be all that we see through the Reformed church, the Methodists, the Baptists, the Anabaptists, and others? And in celebrating that diversity, would that not be a better witness to the world?
    Thanks for initiating this discussion, Ben!

  • Ben Witherington

    Jared I am thinking about those who have published things from within and on the movement, for example Brian McClaren. I tend to agree with Scot McKnight’s assessments of the movement, over against some of the things Don Carson has said. My own experience has not been like yours. My own church has happily worked with Emerging folks in church planting etc. BW3

  • James Petticrew

    I worked for some time with the Scottish Episcopal Church on mission development and had some interaction with the Fresh Expressions movement in England within the Anglican and Methodist Church, I think this is a model which has much to be commended.

    Archbishop Rowan talks about developing a mixed economy of church, where a parish church / diocese, may have several “fresh expressions” perhaps meeting in homes, or messy church for families etc but these are also still connected to the larger more traditional expression of church. When this is done well a synergy can emerge where both expressions of church learn from one another and learn to appreciate one another. This avoids the needs for the anti institutional rhetoric or splits, as the institutional leadership both denominationally and locally gives space for a the more “organic” form of church to develop. In some ways I see this as a return to the “Minister’ church model of the middle ages where large “central” congregations resourced and supported smaller congregations. So maybe this isn’t an “either / or” thing?

  • Timothy Putnam

    Dr. Witherington, The truth of Scripture certainly should be our rallying point. But who defines the hermeneutic? Who sets the standard of interpretation? So many theologians and church leaders study scripture for their whole life and claim to have insight on interpretation, yet there are so many bitter disagreements concerning a singular text.

    Additionally, Rome has never disputed that Salvation comes by Grace through Faith, rather she dismissed the idea that Salvation came by Grace, through Faith “Alone.” Even St. James tells us that Faith without works is dead.

    Jeremy, I see that this is something that you are passionate about, and I understand that some people have a deep hatred for the Roman Church. But passion is no excuse to remain ill-informed. All of the issues addressed by Luther that were legitimate problems were addressed by the Council of Trent convened 25 years after Luther’s excommunication, and concluded 43 years after his excommunication. Those issues that Luther brought up which were not legitimate have still not changed. Luther was never threatened with death by the Church, not once. He was threatened with excommunication – the inability to receive the sacraments – nothing more, nothing less. If you are looking for the church that executed people, you should be looking to Geneva, that was Calvin.

  • Ben Witherington

    Actually Timothy, you’re not quite right about that, or we would not have needed the Lutheran and Catholic conclave on justification. In fact, in Luther’s day the selling of indulgences was rampant, and the theology behind it was indeed a works righteousness theology— which is not Biblical. James is not talking about justification or initial salvation anyway. He is talking about living out ones faith which one already has. The earlier Catholic rejection of initial salvation by grace through faith alone, in fact has been repudiated by the Catholic church (see the conclave mentioned above). Works are not a pre-requisite for or a part of initial salvation or the new birth. BW3

  • Matt Bevere

    Well said.

  • Anthony

    Good post! I wrestled with a lot of the same issues you mention and left seminary in February to become Roman Catholic.

  • Dr. Howard Merken

    I agree in principle. The Emergent Church is wrong. But when you do your own thinking, you might come up with something different than any denomination teaches, hence the need for another church, or at least an independent church. Having grown up Jewish before salvation, I see things in the Bible, NT included, that go over the heads of Gentiles, as they haven’t been exposed to the culture. I believe in the virgin birth, the deity of Christ, etc., as the Bible clearly teaches these things; yet I see things that just don’t fit any denomination. Jesus’ talk to the disciples about not being like Gentiles in Matthew 20:25-28 (Jews are egalitarian by nature and would generally rather read than lead), the prophets telling the Jews not to get invovled with other people’s wars, the dominion mandate which does not extend into colonization of space–know a denomination that teaches these? Hence the need for independent thinking, and, unfortunately, the further multiplication of denominations.

  • Timothy Putnam

    Dr. Witherington,

    The Joint Declaration on Justification does not change in the slightest the traditional Catholic view of Justification, rather, it comes to a place where those Lutheran Churches that signed the statement are no longer doctrinally condemned for their view of Justification. The Catholic church still wholeheartedly rejects Justification by Grace through Faith “Alone.” As seen in the preamble to that joint document.

    “The present Joint Declaration has this intention: namely, to show that on the basis of their dialogue the subscribing Lutheran churches and the Roman Catholic Church are now able to articulate a common understanding of our justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ. It does not cover all that either church teaches about justification; it does encompass a consensus on basic truths of the doctrine of justification and shows that the remaining differences in its explication are no longer the occasion for doctrinal condemnations.” –

    Additionally, the only place where “Faith Alone” is mentioned in scripture is James 2:24 “See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” The Old Testament also weighs in on “Works Salvation” in the book of Sirach 3:3, 30 speaks of honoring ones father, and almsgiving atoning for sin.

    More on this can be found at a blog by a priest and a seminarian –

    Further, N.T. Wright in his book about Justification speaks about this on page 141, “The little word genometha in 5:21b-‘that we might become God’s righteousness in him’-does not sit comfortably with the normal interpretation, according to which ‘God’s righteousness’ is ‘imputed’ or ‘reckoned’ to believers. If that is what Paul meant, with the overtones of ‘extraneous righteousness’ that normally come with that theory, the one thing that he ought not to have said is that we ‘become’ that righteousness. Surely that leans far too much towards a Roman Catholic notion of infused righteousness? How careless of Paul to leave the door open to such a notion!”

    Roman Catholicism takes a Both-And approach to Justification. We are justified by Grace through Faith which is manifested in Works.

  • Timothy Putnam

    Anthony, Welcome home.

  • Ben Witherington

    I’m afraid Timothy you are misrepresenting your own position. I suggest you read my Romans commentary. Real conversion is of course manifested in good works. The manifestation presupposes the existing saved condition that makes such good works both possible and enabled. Justification is God’s declaration of right standing at the outset of a life in Christ, and that right standing comes from the finished work of Christ who atoned for our sins entirely. The quote from Sirach is irrelevant since the NT disagrees with it. We do not atone for ourselves or others by our deeds. That’s just unChristian theology of any sort, Catholic or Protestant. The problem with Luther was that he thought sanctification was also by faith alone. No Protestants in the Wesleyan tradition would agree with that. Sanctification involves working out our salvation with fear and trembling as God works in us to will and to do. I also, have problems with the Calvinist notion of imputed righteousness. I do not believe Christ is righteous for us, I believe in imparted righteousness as part of the holiness and sanctification process. This is the classic Wesleyan view. I would say in my various dialogues with Catholics that Catholic and Wesleyan scholars take basically the same positions on these soteriological issues, including on the issue of the place of good works in the life of a person who is already a new creature in Christ.



  • Bryant

    You know pulling teeth and reading intently are differing dynamics. I do not believe you can study in isolation and be successful since it is community we learn the most from. Yet on the other hand being able to grasp the message of scripture effectually called out to be an instrument of God; Does not always require a seminary degree to tell someone what God has done in their lives and what he can do for their life. I am reminded of the movie, “cast away” with Tom Hanks. He took out his own tooth without a degree in dentistry. And I believe one can preach the word of God without a degree. Knowledge does not always lead to repentance; a changed heart leads to knowledge of Christ though.

  • Dinah

    last year I would have agreed with you …. but the past 6 months have been an unbelievably hard time of injustice, of ‘sweeping the truth under the carpet’, of siding with the hierarchy regardless of the truth of the matter, and of the sheer lack of any kind of pastoral care despite repeated calls for help.
    This has left me completely disillusioned with established church structure ….
    I understand that we are all sinners …. but I expect those in leadership – especially from an established church structure which insists on and ensures adequate training for its staff and ordained ministers ….. to do better …. they should be more Christ-like … they are the recognized leaders after all.

    I still can’t believe it is happening, or that it could happen ….. but I do now more fully understand, and find myself with those who have left because they have been hurt by the church and also those who are trying to change the way we do church.

  • Ben Witherington

    Worst of all, in the case of the Catholic Church it is partially a self-inflicted wound. No priest or minister of the Gospel should be required to be celibate in order to be a priest. That’s unBiblical and unrealistic as well. If Peter was married, and James was married, and Jude was married, and Paul was married, its just unnecessary to require celibacy, especially when most people called to ministry don’t have the gift of remaining single for life in order to do their job. And it has let to a bumper crop of problems and sex abuse over the centuries. It’s just that we are more aware of the problems now in the age of mass media. BW3

  • bryant

    The difference is between being in an organization and being part of the organism. The one is religion the other is relationship!

  • Ben Witherington

    Sorry Bryant but that dog won’t hunt. The body of Christ is indeed a living thing, but it has organizations. No one is ‘in’ an organization when it comes to the church, regardless of which part of of the body of Christ you are a part of. They are simply structural tools and vehicles for the body of Christ to use. BW3

  • bryant

    Ben, indeed I agree with that statement and justly so. Men can affect is outcome of church polity, but it is Christ that effects the body. Being in a good old fashion Baptist church is an organization of organisms under the head of Christ! My mind was tittering in medieval church history at the time of my posting. It is ironic how the church in Rome exploited every avenue of organization and yet a few God fearing, Christ-centered men turned the tide, not all but a few reflected the imago dei in all that they do. Enjoy your posts!

  • Dennis J

    I worked in a large company for the better part of the decade and was a hiring manager for many of those years. At one point I was part of a hiring process for a team lead/manager and one of the other people in the process made a statement to the effect of “first we take all the resumes that don’t have an advanced degree and pitch them”. No accounting for natural ability, decades of experience etc. It seemed to me to be in the extreme wrong.

    The crux of the argument defending the clergy here seems to be “they have degrees and can read greek/latin, therefore the are qualified” which immediately creates a world view that discounts the congregation. and that seems to me to be very similar to the “let’s pitch them” approach my former co-worker had.

    Now you may have guessed that they had a degree which is why they thought so highly of them, people with rank in that organization also tended to have a natural deference and affinity to other people with the same rank or higher. Something about being invested in a particular structure tends to make it the metric by which you in turn measure others.

    The people that attend church are every bit as qualified to spread the gospel, do good works, provide care to others and yes even read and understand scripture, as anyone else in the room.

    My closing thought would be this, if you had 500 qualified volunteers show up every week at your door, and you put none of them to work, how effective are you being? Can you be more effective at making them part of the movement?

  • Ben Witherington

    Dennis its not an either or proposition, it’s both and. Every Christian is called to some kind of ministry, but only some are called to and trained for the ministry of Word, order, and sacrament. Laity training is a good and necessary part of all this, but again, that is not what this post is about. It’s about anti-ecclesial, and anti-clergy rhetoric—- rather like yours. BW3

  • Dennis J

    It is about both, and the restoration of proper balance between.

    To say that the balance is off and that the laity is being treated as second class rather than equal is hardly anti-clergy.

  • Ben Witherington

    Who exactly is treating the laity as second class? I don’t know of any church that does that, nor any clergy that do that either— they desperately need all the help they can get in his dysfunctional culture. BW3

  • Chaplain Rich Hoffman

    You wrote in response to Timothy: “Sanctification involves working out our salvation with fear and trembling as God works in us to will and to do. I also, have problems with the Calvinist notion of imputed righteousness. I do not believe Christ is righteous for us, I believe in imparted righteousness as part of the holiness and sanctification process.”

    If sanctification is a process how do you understand Paul’s use of “hegiasmenois en Christo” in 1 Corinthians 1:2? Is there not a sense that sanctification is here and now but not yet reality for all Christians? Or was Paul being sarcastic in describing the most worldly of his flock as “sanctified in Christ Jesus” (NRSV).

    I ask this as a Reformed (PCUSA) minister, who currently worships with a UMC congregation.

  • Ben Witherington

    Hi Rich: As you surely know the word hagios/hagiadzo can have both a formal and a material meaning. By this I mean, ‘holy’ can refer to either a moral condition, or the fact that one is set apart for God. I would suggest that the text you are referring to refers to position, not condition. We are set apart in Christ for various things. One of those things is the ongoing work of sanctification. In other words we have been designated for extreme makeover, but the term in 1 Cor. 1 is referring to the purpose and goal, or even the pre-requisite (being set apart), not the process. BW3

  • FollowingChrist

    I think this is just a symptom of a greater problem. It’s time for us protestants to be honest and admit that we have no meaningful source of unity or authority. We claim Christ as our King and the Bible as God’s authoritative Word, yet no attempt to unify for our King has made any significant progress, and we can basically pick our interpretations of the Bible from whichever scholarly interpreter is most agreeable to us. Rome will surely admit that it has many shortcomings, yet the arguments made against Catholicism sound less and less convincing, and I think I am one step closer to it.

  • JMW

    Wow, Ben. I’ve yet to read ANY emergent Christian thinker who is “anti-ecclesial.” (and few are “anti” anything for that matter!) Where did you get this term!? Seems like you had an axe to grind and you went to town. As much as I love your work, I think you abuse the term “anti-ecclesial” for your own agenda here – and, ironically, do to the E.C. what you accuse “them” of doing to the ekklesia.


  • Ben Witherington

    Joshua you must not have been listening very well. I’ve heard plenty of critiques by Emergent folks of the mainline denominations, again and again, and of their leaders. Perhaps you just missed it, but it’s pretty pervasive. And as for Mr. Following Christ…. you need to understand that there are far more theological and ethical problems with the Catholic tradition even today than with basic Protestantism. Mariology comes to mind for one thing, and banning women from being priests another. BW3

  • Timothy Putnam


    Might I suggest the “Coming Home Network” in general and the article by James Tonkowich in specific ( Before you take anyone’s word about Mariology, or requirements for priesthood, ask your own questions. I found many of the arguments I had against Catholicism as a Protestant came from misinformation or misunderstanding. Often I found they just used a word differently than I was used to. Other times the doctrines made logical sense when I learned the background.

    The Catechism is pretty cheap, and everything we believe is in there. If it isn’t in there, it isn’t an actual Catholic belief.

  • ben Witherington

    Thanks Tim. I’m well familiar with those things. I’m also familiar with mythology about Peter being the first Pope as well. In fact, women are barred from the priesthood, and in fact there is a celibacy requirement, and in fact there are unhistorical beliefs about Mary’s conception, and perpetual virginity and so on.



  • ben Witherington

    P.S. to Tim— go back and read Ephesians 2.8-9. It’s pretty clear. Initial Salvation is a gift from God and it is none of our own doing and has nothing to do with human works.

  • Dennis

    “God’s Word?” Can we please stop referring to the Bible as “God’s Word?” God’s “Word” is so much more and as we all know no two of us can even agree on what the Bible “says.”

  • cken

    Enough with the nitpicking and high falutin religious words. Your definition of church is arcane and denies reality. Today’s church is nothing more than a tax free corporation. What’s worse is the churches’ man made dogma has become more important or sacred than God’s commandments. Personally speaking, nearly all of my spiritual revelations or epiphanies have come where “two or three were gathered together in my name” as opposed to during a sermon. The real evil of today’s church is the belief in a dead God. For example, we were discussing James 5:14-15 in Sunday School recently. The class apologetic explained that back in the day they mixed healing herbs in the oil. I almost threw up. While there may be some truth to his explanation; it also a complete denial that faith in God by both the recipient of the oil and the anointing elder would be capable of healing in this day and age. Unfortunately this belief is held by most Christians including the leaders. When the church recognizes and believes God is still as powerful today as he was back in the time of Jesus and before; we may realize “thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven”. The evil in the church started at the Council of Nicea, when the leaders kowtowed to what the Emperor wanted – a way to control his subjects by making Christianity more simpatico with the pagan rituals. It was very shrewd as there were no strenuous objections when he made Christianity the official religion of the Empire. In 1700 years nothing has changed, it has gotten worse. No one wants to admit it, but the reason church membership is declining is because the church doesn’t nourish the soul or aid in one’s spiritual maturation. Most Christians go to church today either because they believe it is their passport to Heaven, or for the social and business networking opportunities. God, soul, Jesus, Holy Spirit, salvation, communion, baptism, – nothing more than rituals or clichéd lingo you use so you are accepted by the group.

  • Ben Witherington

    Hi cken: You need to get your history straight. Constantine had nothing to do with the Nicean Creed. He simply watched the whole proceedings and told the theologians to get along— that’s it. He also is not responsible for making Christianity more like pagan religion— that’s an historical myth. In fact, Gentile Christians had already been doing that. So Constantine’s not to be blamed or thanked for the church’s important Christological creeds. See the book on Constantine by Peter Leith. I certainly agree that God’s commandments are crucial and should be obeyed and you are right that God is very much alive. But it’s God who is the healer, not our faith per se, and not the oil either. But one of the things you seem to have missed entirely is that both belief and behavior matter deeply to Jesus— who is the truth. Behavior without belief is wineskins without wine. Belief without behavior is just hypocrisy.


  • cermak_rd

    It seems to me your description of ekklesia is somewhat idealized. It may be true that in your Scriptures, it is a body, but in reality, today, it is frequently an authoritarian institution with the priest or pastor making the rules and the pew folk told to either obey or get out. You can hardly blame the pew folk for deciding to set up more egalitarian structures of their own. Even many Baptist churches today are elder run by appointed elders rather than the more traditional congregationalist model. Exactly why should a member pay tithes and then have no say on what is done with said tithes? A house church can run on far less than a dedicated structure and the members can vote on which charities they wish to send their excess on to.

    In this same vein, many churches today are highly complementarian. House churches may or may not be less so, depending on the assembly, but it gives women who are called more options to serve.

    Now, I will say these critiques would not be true of many mainline churches. The ELCA, TEC, UCC,and CBF all allow women pastors and most have elected vestries or boards.

  • Chaplain Rich Hoffman

    I have read the comments and BW3′s responses, and I want to share some thoughts. One of the consequences of the Protestant Reformation was the repudiation of a central authority for western Christianity (Bishop of Rome). Instead we claim “Sola Scriptura” as our authority, but often the reality is “Sola Scriptura” as interpreted by “me”. While I am ordained by one denomination, my ministry as a hospital chaplain enables me to be in friendship with ministers and lay persons from a wide spectra of Christian tradition and Jewish movements. What I have come to appreciate is I need the insights and emphases of the various strands within Christianity (and Judaism) to help me “see thee (Jesus) more clearly, follow thee more nearly, love thee more dearly”.

  • Derek Rishmawy

    Dr. Witherington,

    Thank you. I have mostly gotten over my angsty, college kid “church sucks” mentality after a few years of actually working at a church, reading theologically, praying for it instead of just whining about it, and finding out just how much Jesus actually loves it. I’m not blind to its flaws, (in fact, I see them all the more clearly), but the beauty, the glory of what God is doing with his church has overwhelmed that cynicism. I think that’s what we need more of. We need pictures of the glory of Christ’s bride that can overwhelm the cynicism that is pervasive in our culture and has infected our own congregations, especially my age category, the Millenials.

    We also need winsome, brilliant dismantling of the anti-church rhetoric like you just gave us. Thanks again.

    Derek Rishmawy

  • Jesse Bruce

    Seminary trained leaders are the answer? Really? 80% of seminary trained pastors resign and leave the ministry within 5 years currently. Why? Because much of what they learned at seminary is ultimately irrelevant to the issues being faced by todays believers in this rapidly-going-crazy world. They are taught a “modern” version of the gospel that would make the apostles scratch their collective heads in dismay because it is so powerless and uneffectual for dealing with the many issues faced daily by the average believer – and few if anyone from the world of seminary academia appear to grasp what is so obvious to everyone else.

    The Apostle Paul forever laid down the true “marker” when he challenged those who disagreed with him to “display their actual power” not just their swelling words of high-sounding rhetoric and supposed superior theology. Believers today are desperately looking for “something” that actually has power and works! Because of the intense challenges to their faith they are facing daily from a culture that is no longer Christian-based, they are able to discern immediately when someone is speaking from real experience vs. someone who has an “educated argument” but no real substance of lasting value.

    The true gospel of Jesus Christ is profoundly and visibly powerful in its application in any culture!

  • Ben Witherington

    I’m sorry Jesse but your statistics are completely wrong. I have no idea where you got them from, but they are way off. So, clearly you’ve been drinking the wrong Koolaide. I’m afraid that the ‘people’ often know what they like and what they desire, but they often do not know what they need, and the supposed ability that they can magically determine immediately when someone is speaking from real experience is a myth. Many people are gullible unfortunately and naive, especially when they are desperately seeking answers especially when they are Biblically illiterate. So, you will need to apologize to thousands of good seminary trained ministers who have wonderful and effective ministries all over this country and around the world. I’ll await your apology. BW3

  • Jesse Bruce

    Ben, 4000 new churches will start up this year in the USA and 7000 will shut down. 1500 ministers leave the ministry each month due to moral failure, frustration with their board, or general contention within their congregation. Do you deny those stats also. These stats are all over the internet. If you have evidence to dispute them, do so.

    You inserted a “strawman” into my words. I wasn’t referring to the “gullible biblically illterate” who are mostly only interested in warming a pew, and having their ears tickled by a “highly educated” story teller. Those are the kind of people that Jesus spoke in parables to – in order to “hide” the truth of the gospel from them. They are the lukewarm who sit with thoughtful smiles on their faces while the seminarian rambles through his homily or great swelling story – but is completely lacking in power to heal, deliver or otherwise facilitate the listener into the place of abundant life that Jesus promised to those who followed Him.

    No, no no…I was speaking of those who’ve given up on the hundreds of self-help books out there, including those in the Christian bookstore written by someone with a PHD after his/her name. They are tired of hearing ear-tickling Bible stories that exhibit pitifully small amounts of power, and really don’t offer much in the way of helping them to overcome in their immediate world. They know they are surrounded by “sharks” on all sides that want to eat their lunch every day, physically, emotionally and spiritually. These want “REAL” answers! These are the people Jesus was most interested in and got alone with every chance He got. Seminarians today are schooled to entertain the lukewarm and impress each other. Thanks largely to our seminaries Christians in this country have ceased to be “salt” in our culture and we are dangerously close to being “trodden down under the feet of men.” Burn down these worthless institutions and start over.

  • Ben Witherington

    Jesse I guess I misunderstood the thrust of some of what you were saying. But yes, I doubt all those statistics are very close to being accurate. They are guesstimations. Major Denominations do not release such statistics. The church institutions I know about are far from worthless. I have no idea what seminaries you could be talking about, but its not the following that I have taught at— Asbury, Gordon-Conwell, Duke, Vanderbilt. They certainly are not training people to entertain the lukewarm. That would not only be an unkind caricature, it would be totally erroneous. So, again, you owe a lot of us an apology. BW3