The Church of England has been in the news again recently, both in regard to Women Bishops (they could be in place by Christmas) and in regard to church growth, with the Church Times reporting that serious efforts need to be made if the Church of England is to avoid extinction.
These two issues are interrelated in a number of ways, not least because it brings into sharp focus the Church’s relationship with wider society and culture. Many believe that failing to embrace and introduce women bishops would render the Church ‘irrelevant to society’. Indeed, this issue isn’t just limited to the Church of England, some in the wider church are also proclaiming a similar social ‘relevance’ imperative. In this article, my aim is not so much to discuss whether the Church of England should accept women bishops (my views are summed up in this excellent article by Carrie Sandom) but to set out some thoughts as to whether and how the Church of England (and the western Church as a whole) should engage the culture around it.
Thus, in this piece I will seek to answer what I consider to be two crucial questions. First, how will the Church survive in the 21st century and beyond? And second, how are we to be ‘in the world, but not of it’? In answering these questions, I will assume the authority and sufficiency of Scripture (Psalm 19:7-11, 2 Tim 3:16-17). All Bible references are from the ESV.
How will the Church survive in 21st century Western Society?
1. Through teachers/pastors teaching the truth to believers, and this truth producing public Godliness (Titus 1:1-4)
The Bible is very helpful in reassuring the Church how it is that people are saved and built up into the church, whether it be children, teenagers, young adults or adults. Note Paul’s words at the beginning of his letter to Titus for example, where he states that as the Word is faithfully preached, it leads to public Godliness in those who hear, accept and put it into practice. No gimmicks, no alteration to the Word to appeal to 21st century western moral values, just the truth as revealed in Scripture.
2. By trusting in and using the resources Jesus has given us to build the church (Matthew 28:16-20)
Further, let us consider Jesus’ words in the Great Commission. What does he consider to be sufficient in gathering and building up the church? His instructions to both the disciples, and those the disciples go onto to teach (i.e. us today) are clear; Jesus has given the apostles all authority and has opened their minds to understand the scriptures. Paul supports this in Ephesians when he says that New Testament apostles, Old Testament prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers have been given for the building up and equipping of the Church (body of Christ) (Ephesians 4:11-16).
It therefore follows that we here today can totally trust and put into action what the apostles go onto teach in their New Testament letters. After all, the writer of Hebrews says that ‘the sword of the word is the Holy Spirit’ (Hebrews 4:12). To be clear therefore, the words of the prophets and apostles aren’t just words on a page, but live, active and powerful to make a difference in today’s world. In brief, the Word as revealed to the prophets and apostles in the Old and New Testaments are as sufficient to gather and build Christ’s church as they were in the time they were first written. How encouraging!
Indeed, as revealed in the Word (by the apostle Paul), it’s imperative to remember that the Gospel itself is the power to save (Romans 1:16) and change lives (Romans 6:1-14). Logically then and in line with the above, Church leaders should prioritise the clear preaching of the Gospel and Word.
How are we to be ‘in the world, but not of it?’
Given that people are saved by God’s grace through the gift of faith (specifically, faith in the Gospel) (Ephesians 2:8-9), and given that this Gospel and the Word produces change in the believer, a worthwhile question one could go onto ask is how we to engage with the culture around us? Whilst whole books have been written on this topic (for example, Don Carson’s Christ and Culture revisited), here’s what I think the Bible says, and is therefore something both of Church of England and wider Church should consider when seeking to engage with unbelievers of whatever demographic.
1. We should not be physically separate from the World – we are to be sent into the World, being sanctified (or changed) by truth (John 17:14-19)
Consider Jesus words regarding the apostles in the Gospel of John, when he says that his desire for them is that they should be sent into the world. Thus, they are to be visible within it whilst being sanctified by truth (which is the word). This means that we should be active in the World, but we should also be being sanctified by truth whilst in it. This might make us stand out as different to those around us and could lead to conversations about the Gospel. However, it may also lead to people taking a dislike to us, after all, the Gospel is an offense to those who are as yet unsaved (1 Corinthians 1:18).7
2. We should not be conformed to the World (Romans 12:1-2)
Paul’s warning in Romans is clear. We are not to be conformed to the values of the World. This is important in light of the two developments noted earlier in the Church of England and the wider Church. That is, whilst being in the culture around us, are we tempted to change truth in order to fit in with, or potentially be more appealing to the World around us? If so, then I believe this to be a profound mistake. Instead of conforming to the values of the World around us, Paul would rather we be transformed by the renewal of our minds (brought about by the Gospel), seeking the will of God, and thus what is good, acceptable and perfect. Whilst it is all too tempting to conform to those around us in order to be accepted, popular or to gain status, Paul here has altogether different priorities in mind.
3. Our primary concern in engaging with the World should be the Great Commission, i.e. evangelism and discipleship (Matthew 28:16-20)
Again, whilst whole books have been written on the mission of the church (see Kevin De Young and Greg Gilbert’s ‘What is the Mission of the Church?’), I think the Great Commission as stated by Jesus gives a pretty good idea of what our primary focus should be with engaging with the World. That is, we are to go out into the World for the very reason that in doing so we are bearing witness to Christ (1 Peter 2:9-10) proclaiming his Gospel where we have the opportunity and making disciples (or building up) fellow believers (new and old) in Christ.
4. In undertaking the great Commission we should be prepared to associate with those who the World regards as ‘dirty’, or as low in status, as well as those who are not saved in general. (Mark 2:15-17)
One of the great things about Jesus is that his time on earth demonstrated that he was willing to spread his rescue (i.e. the Gospel) to those who society back then regarded as ‘the lowest of the low’ (tax collectors being a prime example). Thus, in undertaking the Great Commission today we should be willing to associate with and befriend those who society today might shun. In doing this, we should be careful to note that it is not socially excluded unbelievers who are exclusively in need of rescue but all in society from top to bottom. This then is another reason to engage with the World, to engage with those who are ‘sick’ ( i.e. those who are unsaved) and to tell them the way to become ‘well’, i.e. believing in the Gospel of Jesus.
5. We should go out of our way to remove as many barriers as possible in order that others might be saved (1 Corinthians 10:32-33)
Like the above, this statement from Paul emphasises that as Christians we should go out of our way (whilst not compromising on Scriptural truth) to not offend those we come across when we evangelise or bear witness to Christ. Note also the reason for doing so; ‘that they may be saved.’ Thus, for us today ‘being in the world’ in this way might mean meeting our unsaved colleagues, friends or family in environments they primarily feel comfortable in. In meeting for a drink in the pub, or having people over for dinner for example, we are going out of our way to make our Gospel proclamation as unhindered as possible by unnecessary social or cultural barriers. In doing this, its worthwhile remembering that in all situations its God who does the saving in bringing people to faith in the gospel (Ephesians 2:8-10, 2 Tim 1:8-9, Romans 9:14-18)
Concluding remarks – A need for truth spoken in love
In this article, I hope to have shown how both unaltered scriptural truth and the Gospel preached and shared faithfully are utterly sufficient to save unbelievers and build the Church today. Many will argue that in order to survive the Church must adapt and conform to current cultural norms regarding (amongst other things) gender and sexuality, yet I can find no such instruction in the Bible. Instead, despite what was a hostile environment back when the prophets and apostles were writing, and what is increasingly becoming so today, we can be completely confident that despite our many weaknesses God will build a church that no matter what the world throws at it will endure into an everlasting and eternal people. Therefore, whilst we should endeavour to engage in as accessible way as possible, this should not come at the expense of biblical truth.
Thus, in light of the current debates regarding Women Bishops and Church attendance, I passionately believe the Church’s primary concern should not be Church growth through becoming more ‘relevant’ by conforming to the World’s values or downplaying certain aspects of the Gospel in order to become more appealing to younger generations, but through trusting God to build his church by the faithful preaching and teaching of his Word and sharing of the Gospel by believers to friends, family, colleagues and anyone else where the opportunity arises. Let’s therefore pray that large parts of the Church of England and wider church would urgently rediscover these priorities and be characterised by a love and unity in God’s Word and Gospel and where its member (the body of Christ) are growing in Godliness and vitality.