‘Churchianity’ challenge to evangelical complacency

Mar 26, 2019 by

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

The ongoing protest at Parkfield School in Birmingham gives an insight into the inevitable clash of values between Islam and secularism, small-c conservatism versus progressivism, but also into majority views on Christian mission among the overlapping Anglican and evangelical constituencies.

At Parkfield, well over 90% of the children are from Muslim families. The majority of parents, standing up against the attempted indoctrination of their children by LGBT activists under the guise of ‘promoting tolerance’, are not radical Islamists. They are social conservatives with a strong community spirit, and concern that the state should work in partnership with them for the education of their children, and not impose moral and religious agendas in direct conflict with the traditions of the family. Similar protests have been held by mostly Christian parents from Caribbean and West African backgrounds in South London, so this is not just an clash of Islam vs the West. As education becomes increasingly ideologically contested, what has been the response of white, middle class evangelicals and Anglicans, and why?

The Diocese of Birmingham, whose Bishop is from an evangelical background, appears to be supporting the Parkfield School leadership in their aim to teach small children the philosophy of LGBT Pride in order to promote values of ‘inclusion’ and ‘equality’. The Diocese may have wrongly understood the Equalities Act, but more seriously, they have sided with the secular worldview of the sexual revolution against the need to promote and defend orthodox Christian doctrine in the public space, and the need to witness graciously to the teachings of Scripture to those of other faiths.

What about other, more orthodox evangelical churches? A small number of individual Christians have been standing with the courageous parents in Birmingham, but have received considerable criticism. Some have accused them of engaging in an inter-faith project which waters down the distinctiveness of the gospel, or even being ‘useful idiots’ for those wanting to impose sharia law. Others have suggested that Christians shouldn’t really be getting involved in this kind of social action, as our concern should be about evangelism and the building up of the church, not issues like government education policy.

In a booklet written for Christian Concern entitled ‘Churchianity or Christianity?’ (more details here), Dr Joe Boot gives some detailed analysis of two commonly-seen approaches to mission. The first, exemplified by the Diocese of Birmingham’s dismissive response to request for help from Muslim parents concerned about their children’s exposure to inappropriate Relationships and Sex Education, is explained by Boot like this:

They believe that the kingdom of God must broader than the walls of the church…[they] shift the locus of hope from the church institute to the state…the kingdom of God is increasingly identified with persons, movements and institutions pursuing…’equality’, so that a kind of politicisation of salvation occurs, with the state functioning as de-facto high priest in bringing about a secularised deliverance from oppression…God-centred inward renewal producing external transformation is replaced by external political coercion as the route to the kingdom.

This is a re-run of the missiology popularised by the World Council of Churches in the 1960’s, to which liberal Anglicanism has always been prone: the gospel is associated with a progressive utopian vision, and ‘mission’ is getting the slow and conservative church to wake up and follow a secular programme of social justice. This attitude must neglect or even deny central Christian doctrines of sin and salvation, holiness and Christ’s uniqueness, but also as we’re seeing, it takes the side of adult concerns about sexual freedom, and fear of criticism from powerful lobby groups, over against the protection of children against inappropriate sexualisation.

The main target of Boot’s criticism however is contemporary evangelical pietism which avoids controversial clashes with society’s leaders and agendas, because it associates God’s kingdom entirely with the church. In this model, believers are encouraged to focus on personal spiritual growth, investing gifts and resources in church buildings and activities, but not develop a vision for transformation of the culture – certainly not in any way that might be seen as unpopular. The society in which we live which is seen as a given – it might be benign, neutral or hostile but we can’t do anything to change it nor should we try. Boot calls this “churchianity” – a designation which a generation or two ago used to refer to nominal, formal Christian observance without heart conversion, but here is applied to born-again people restricting the miraculous life and ministry empowered by the indwelling Spirit of Christ to individual salvation and church life, rather than the whole of creation.

Well-known Washington DC-based Baptist pastor Mark Dever is given as an example of ‘churchianity’ thinking, but Boot could just as easily have taken English independent evangelical leader John Stevens’ view, as set out in his book Knowing our Times (see a very positive review here)Both pastors are highly influential; they are commended for being firm and clear in adherence to historic Christian doctrines, committed to evangelism and the growth of the church. Both recognise the increasing slide towards secularism and even paganism in the USA and Britain, and the challenges that this brings to Christians.

However both pastors are critical of attempts by churches or Christian campaigning groups to oppose bad legislation, which for example facilitate abortion or same sex marriage, damage family life or threaten freedom of speech and conscience (which have affected bakers, street preachers, Christian teachers and parents among others). John Stevens accuses such Christian cultural activism of being motivated by a nostalgic desire to return to a mythical golden age of Christendom; rather, as he repeats many times, “we should not be surprised” that the laws and values of our country do not reflect Christian values, because most people are not Christian. The answer is to evangelise and build up the church, not to try to shape the nation’s morality and laws.

This ‘churchianity’ thinking, according to Boot, is traced back to the medieval Christianisation of Greek philosophy by scholastic theologians. Accepting the idea of Plato and Aristotle that reality is composed of a higher, invisible realm of forms, ideas and spirit, and a lower material realm, they saw society, culture and the state as belonging to the latter, and the church and salvation as acting only in the spiritual part of reality. The church in the time of the enlightenment built on this dualism: state and culture are the realm of reason; church and individual spiritual life the area of faith. The result is a church in a corner, not seeing the world as its responsibility – in fact, though it believes in Christ’s universal Lordship, it has “surrendered one area after another to Christ’s enemies” (Boot, p21).

The irony, according to Boot, is that many proponents of ‘churchianity’ are theologically rooted in the Reformed tradition, but follow Lutheran rather than Calvin in attitudes to culture and mission.

How should we respond to systemic unbelief and its effect on all aspects of culture? Most evangelicals would say the aim is to build up the church, and encourage faith and obedience to God there. Boot, quoting a number of theologians with Dutch-sounding names, insists the aim should be to promote systemic and comprehensive submission to Christ in all areas of society.

Government’s secular humanist sex education policies have been driven by ideologues who know how to change culture. There is some resistance to the agenda from ordinary Muslim mums and dads, withdrawal by evangelicals, and submission by liberal Protestants. Boot’s critique of the latter two responses is challenging and should contribute to a profound rethinking of mission paradigms among faithful bible-believing Christians. The call to faithful Christians to confidently proclaim Christ’s Lordship in the whole of life rather than just the church, needs to be heard, but Boot’s vision of the solution (expanded in his major work, The Mission of God) could be seen as unrealistic. Before the church can begin to re-shape culture in the way it did in the time of King Alfred or the Reformation, it needs to unite around the truth and take a stand against what’s wrong. We need further thinking on the church’s engagement with spiritual powers of evil, in serious analysis, in disciplined intercession, in caring, creative and costly witness, in prophetic word and action.

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