The Right Church: A Book Review

I pull for old guys, partially because I’m becoming one. But also because I know a secret about old guys; they know stuff. While I don’t know if Charles Gutenson would admit to becoming an old guy, he knows some old guys who know stuff. He introduces them in The Right Church: Live Like the First Christians. The title misleads a little. He’s not trying to help the average church hunter find their next church – you know, the right one without any problems and nobody who is a pain south of the border. The “right” church isn’t something we find; it’s something we become. The early church fathers (leaders beginning with the generation following the apostles emerging in the late first century and later), at our first meeting, swirled together into a tangled ball of names, dates, documents and councils that I picked apart to fill blanks on church history tests. But once I stopped grappling with how to spell their names long enough to begin to listen to their voices, I discovered they were a sharp bunch of guys. Charles Gutenson thinks so too especially for three groups of people.

He tells of one man who just didn’t see the need of seriously reading these dusty old coots from earlier centuries. Why spend so much time on something that would eventually leave him with the theology that he already had? It used to be that belief was only as good as the foundation of truth underlying it. The postmodern hash we shuffle around in today says it’s true because I believe it. My belief, my theology, my doctrine stands as being biblical because I think it is. We’re okay; the other guy needs to shift. Heaven actually describes what will happen when everybody else comes around to what we knew all along. Many good Roman Catholics are sure that, given enough time, we’ll all come home to Rome. Pentecostal/Charismatics believe heaven will be like one of their services (They may have a point here.). Baptists will nod knowingly as all those baby sprinklers get dunked and get things done right instead of those wimpy few drops on a baby’s head that they don’t remember. Creation science guys know that, in heaven, evolutionists will learn we weren’t descended from monkeys and intelligent designers will quit being deists. As all Calvinists will know in heaven, everyone’s theology will be spelled TULIP and the Methodists will find out they didn’t have to work so hard to keep their salvation since it was secure. And we will all read the King James Bible.

Marketing plays all of us for saps. It’s new and improved! Well of course it is. Who would plunk down their money to the tune of “this is the same old stuff you’ve bought all along. Keep buying it.” We want the new, the now, the edgy, the happening. Judging by the brochures clogging our church mail, church leaders suck this stuff up by the gallon. Anything old is suspect; anything new is it. I love college and seminary book sales. It’s easy to grab the good stuff because the students don’t know what’s genuinely good. They’re too busy rummaging for the new which may be more trendy and novel than cutting edge. Offer them some A.W. Tozer, J.I. Packer or John Stott and they screw up their face as if handed a dead rodent. They don’t think old dead guys have as much to say as young, immature, shallow leaders ignorant of history echoing the gripes and frustrations of others their age as if these things have never popped up in the history of the faith. Not only have these things happened before, these things have been worse in the past and were wrestled with by Christians of grit and depth unknown to us.

Gutenson speaks to a third group to help them leave behind a fantasy so they can get on with genuine Christian living. It’s easy to pedestalize the early church as a “Golden Age”, the pure headwaters of the Christian faith before the pollutants of man centered ideas, power trips and institutional hypocrisy ruined everything. If we could just get back to the Early Church! Have we never read I and II Corinthians? The Right Church breaks down the huge volume of the early fathers’ writing into three manageable chunks – church life (Scripture, unity and discipleship), social life (human freedom, wealth and creation concern) and civil life (government, war and a closing look at the desert fathers). Origen, a North African who would have followed in the footsteps of his martyred father except his mother hid his clothes so he wouldn’t leave the house, believed that wrestling with truth, the world and each other was part of God’s plan toward our spiritual formation. Through working these things out, we work God’s grace deeper into every area of life.

These early giants held the Bible in great respect but while they held it as completely authoritative, words like “inerrant” or “infallible” would ring strange to them. Not just a sourcebook of things to believe, the Scriptures lived and breathed for them in ways that will surprise and convict the reader. Do we need to think and talk about unity? As of this writing over 30,000 different denominations and groups in the world call themselves Christian. Our attempts at unity, quite frankly, feel wimpy. Let’s pretend that there are no serious differences to settle or broken relationships to reconcile. Let’s light candles, hold hands and sing “Kum Bah Ya.” Without compromising truth, church fathers fought tooth and nail to keep the church from splitting in the first place. There was none of this bland, little cookies and punch reception, ceremonial fluffing that passes too easily for demonstrations of unity today. Does Jesus want everybody rich? Listen to John Chrysostom insist that virtue and skill are more important gifts and legacies to leave our children as money and possessions dull their sense of dependence on God and the needs of the poor. Creation care? Long before population explosion, oil refining and pipeline right of ways, internal combustion engines, strip mining, carbon footprints, global warming, ozone depletion, acid rain, greenhouse gases and species extinction, men like Clement of Rome (Peter’s hand picked successor) rooted caring for the creation in love for its creator, in relationship to God instead of in response to the crisis of the moment. War and peace? Christians, including those in the Roman army, embraced pacifism for the first centuries of the faith often at great cost. And Gutenson saves the best for last as he features and ends the book with a look at a bunch of weird birds known as the desert fathers. This chapter is worth the price of the book as long as we don’t read it first. These ascetics who shunned all of the comforts of life and most human companionship lived some of the most vibrant Christian lives of their day bringing many from all over the world, even some outside the faith, to their doors.

Our lives may seem a little watery after a dip into the strong broth of the Christians featured in Charles Gutenson’s The Right Church. But there can also be that “Aha!” moment we think, “I knew it had to be better that this (meaning whatever we’re used to).” Start pulling for old guys. Learn from their struggles and mistakes so we can avoid them. Look hard into their victories. Anything won at such a high price as they paid could be worth keeping and adapting. Delve into their minds and thoughts. We find the strong meat of truth that holds the ground under our feet when life blows our beliefs to pieces. Hold our hearts against theirs; they loved Jesus Christ with a love emitting both heat and light. Couldn’t we use a little more of that?

For more conversation on The Right Church, visit the Patheos Book Club here.

David Swartz pastors Bethel Baptist Church in Roseville, Michigan. He thinks that jazz is sacred music, that books are better company than most people, and that university towns rock. He blogs at geezeronthequad.com.