Church Membership Is Unimportant

Church Membership Is Unimportant May 30, 2011

That’s one line you’ll never hear from 9Marks, the ministry outfit helmed by Mark Dever. A few weeks back, 9Marks released a new eJournal on church membership. This is actually the first eJournal they’ve ever done on the topic. It’s quite good, featuring commentary from Matt Chandler, Jonathan Leeman, Matt Schmucker and more.

In a lengthy essay, I reviewed a book entitled The Next Christians by Gabe Lyons for the journal.  The text purports to offer a new way forward for evangelicals today, a more positive, social justice-focused way that is based in a restorative gospel.  Lyons is a gifted strategist and a nice writer, but his book demands engagement and critique on a number of fronts.  I’ll make no claims about quality, but as I said, the review essay does not lack in quantity: over 5000 words.  Happy Memorial Day to you, too.

Here’s a snatch from the review that engages the idea that Christians are just now discovering cultural engagement and philanthropy.  You sometimes hear this from young Christian leaders today, but church history tells a different story, as I argue:

[T]here are a good number of historic examples of Christians who desired “to do good” in the their culture and society as an outworking of their faith. Timothy George has said of the followers of John Calvin that “Like the Franciscans and the Dominicans in the Middle Ages, Calvin’s followers forsook the religious ideal of stabilitas for an aggressivemobilitas. They poured into the cities, universities, and market squares of Europe as publishers, educators, entrepreneurs, and evangelists.”[21] Evangelicals have long been on the bleeding (not the leading) edge of philanthropy, cultural engagement and entrepeneurship. George Whitefield drew much of his living from the wealthy Countess of Huntingdon. The Sunday School was founded in America by Samuel Slater, owner of textile mills. The Clapham Sect and its protagonist, William Wilberforce, were supported by numerous English philanthropists.[22] The Tappan brothers single-handedly funded a substantial portion of the evangelical abolitionist cause in the 19th century. Moody Bible Institute was founded by the largesse of Henry Parsons Crowell, the man who also gave us Quaker Oats. Evangelical history is littered with gospel-minded Christians who used their wealth for noble ends, just as the apostles were supported by rich Christians—a point in favor of managing wealth wisely, not despising it (or spiritualizing poverty, on the other hand).

Evangelicals have historically showed great generosity to the needy. Douglas Sweeney has spoken to the benevolence of Jonathan Edwards, pointing out that “Edwards never made a show of it, but he loved to help the poor.” In addition to speaking about it from the pulpit, Edwards, in the words of his pupil Samuel Hopkins, “practis’d it” in private to such an extent that Hopkins judged that “his Alms-deeds…if known, would prove him to be as great an Instance of Charity as any that can be produced in this Age.”[23] The theology of Edwards included a hugely influential and largely unknown idea called “disinterested benevolence” that helped spawn what historians call the “benevolent empire” of the nineteenth century in which countless Christians, imbued with a love for God and his gospel, gave their time and money to what were called “benevolent societies.” This movement, profiled by Martin Marty, was one of the biggest cultural phenomena of the nineteenth century.[24] The National Association of Evangelicals, formed in 1942 and helmed by Harold Ockenga, included a substantial social outreach component.[25] Even the much-maligned fundamentalists of the twentieth century devoted considerable time and attention to mercy ministry, as Joel Carpenter has shown.[26] This trend continues into the present and recent past. Jerry Falwell, whose death signaled for Lyons the “death” of “Christian America,” founded a thriving, wide-ranging, and virtually unpublicized ministry to unwed pregnant mothers called the Liberty Godparent Home, among other ventures.

Here’s the whole kit-and-caboodle.

And once again, a warm and happy Memorial Day to all of you, one filled with remembrance of those who have sacrificed for our safety and flourishing.

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