Church, Stay Out of Missions!

August 29, 2014

by David Garner

In the previous articles on the Insider Movements (IM), we have surfaced four IM commitments which counter the teaching of Scripture.

1. IM calls believers to stay in. God’s Word calls believers to come out.[1]

2. IM makes the old trump the new. God’s Word makes the new trump the old.[2]

3. IM claims that identity is a personal decision. God’s Word claims that identity is a divine determination.[3]

4. IM extricates the Church from the kingdom of God. God’s Word integrates the Church and the kingdom of God.[4]

We now move to our fifth and final consideration:

5. IM calls the established Church to stay out. God’s Word calls the established Church to go in.

Give Me Jesus, Not the Church

Many evangelicals find the “organized” Church something to be avoided, even dismissed and detested. Denominations, it is frequently thought, represent all that is wrong with the Church and can go wrong with the Church. The logic goes as follows. The structures, authority, and formal processes of the Church stifle the ministry of the Spirit; the machinery of Church polity militates against the gospel itself!

The solution? Repudiate denominations, reject inter-Church connections, and remove the suffocating blanket of ecclesial structures. Give me Jesus, not the Church. Enjoy a personal relationship with God through Christ. Don’t become enmeshed in the Church’s structures and strictures.

Let me expand a bit further. Given the sordid history of mainline denominations in this country, this recoil against ecclesial connectionalism and church authority structures is hardly a surprise. And commitment to organized churches that have become “synagogues of Satan” (Rev. 2:9; 3:9) can hardly be defended! Jesus commands us to depart such alliances. But the need to distance ourselves from the false church in no way justifies distancing ourselves from the Church itself!

But more is at work in the contemporary pushback against the organized Church than repudiation of theological error in mainline denominations. Much more. The all too common notions of a personal faith betray a blindly held allegiance to personal autonomy and a privatized religion.

Many of us have swallowed the contemporary line whole: the gospel is internal, not external; it is personal, not institutional. The gospel offers us a “personal relationship” with Jesus, not an affiliation with an organization or institution—even one that bears the label “church.” Membership and even association with local churches have become a matter of personal choice, rather than an integral part of the gospel. Jesus wants my heart, not my church membership certificate.

In short, the well-groomed and adored individualism of western culture has recast the Christian faith, elevating personal faith over corporate expressions of it. Since faith is personal and intimate, formal church association is optional. The western cult of self and raw individualism has turned “church” into an option for each believer rather the necessary outworking of all believers.

Much could and should be said about Scripture’s teaching on the visible church and membership in its Christ-honoring structures. Our concern here, however, turns towards missions and the IM missiological paradigm.

Missions and the Church

The modern missions movement has not been immune to the pressure of anti-ecclesial commitments. Missiologists, in fact, impose additional reasons for avoiding formal and even informal connection between churches worldwide. If you have read the previous articles on Insider Movements (IM), the reasons will not shock. In the name of cultural diversity and local autonomy, allowing believers to develop their own theology in their own way with their own interpretations and applications of Scripture has become a magisterial mantra within contemporary missions.

IM advocates are no exception. Few would be brazen enough to demand expressly, “Church, stay out!” But what is not stated overtly appears implicitly nearly everywhere in IM literature. Churches and their historic confessions are intrusions at best, impediments at worst. In any case, the established Church is not welcome to the IM table. Why not?

As leaven in the dough (IM’s most popular metaphor), how the “gospel” grows in one culture will necessarily differ from how it does in any other culture. IM advocates argue for local autonomy in the creation of a Christ-following identity. Theology and practice must grow from within, not be imposed. Theological understanding and confession ought to come from the bottom up and from the inside out. They must never come from the top down or the outside in.

Discipleship without the Church

IM “discipleship” effectively substitutes evangelism, preaching and teaching with facilitation (read, “passivity”). The risks of theological/cultural imperialism warrant a hands-off policy in missions, wherein the established Church should stay away and to let the Spirit do what he is doing on the inside. The established Church should not act as a big sister, but as a distant cousin twice removed: the greater the distance, the more effective the Spirit’s “ministry.”

The logic comes with warning. Imposing ecclesial dependence upon insider groups will squelch the Jesus followers from developing their own theology in their own way. Better to let them stumble in unbelieving error than to demand they look like the worldwide confessing Church. Put otherwise, it is better to let those in IM perpetuate idolatry and syncretism, than it is for the established Church to intrude by preaching and teaching biblical truth.

Not a hardy endorsement of the Church for whom Christ died and in which he has enacted his loving purposes! The resounding teaching of Scripture is that the universal Church is one under Christ. Intentional neglect by the established Church or defiant rejection of the established Church by the fledgling groups of believers: both fail to obey Jesus.

When the Church lies in the shadows, it militates against the Spirit of Christ. Why? Because the Spirit works freely by the ordinary means of grace he has given the Church. Rather than nebulous “facilitation,” bold preaching and teaching by the Church advance the gospel around the world. That is Jesus’ and the Spirit’s way.

Faithful missions is always churchly missions. Faithful missions not only recognizes a concept of the universal Church, but does all it can to promote, advance, and proclaim the one Body of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Church that is called by Jesus as his people is the Church that is called to proclaim Jesus and his Church: in all its glorious Christ-given structures and Christ-given dynamism.

The Church called out of the world is the Church that goes into the world with the gospel. Gospel power is Christ’s power. Christ’s authority is exercised in and through his Church (Eph. 1:15–23). Any other approach stifles the ministry of the Spirit.

Originally published on Place for Truth.

[1] “Stay In or Come Out,” Available online.

[2] “Old Trumps New or New Trumps Old?”, Available online.

[3] “Who Am I and Who Says?”, Available online.

[4] “Missions: The Kingdom of Christ or the Church?”, Available online.

David Garner

Dr. Garner (PhD, Westminster) is associate professor of systematic theology and vice president for advancement at WTS.

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