Five Myths about the Church
The church needs a clear definition of its nature before it determines and actualizes its functions and activities.
Myth #1: The church is a Trinitarian community.
Hold on! Of course, the church is a Trinitarian community! As Fred Sanders rightly affirms, “The gospel is Trinitarian, and the Trinity is the gospel. Christian salvation comes from the Trinity, happens through the Trinity, and brings us home to the Trinity.”1
As gospel communities that experience and proclaim salvation, our churches are Trinitarian communities—by definition!
Sadly, in our contemporary context, what is true by definition is far too often absent in reality. Certainly, we still baptize people in the name of the triune God (Matt. 28:19), and we still send forth our church members with a concluding trinitarian benediction (2 Cor. 13:14). But other key elements of our church’s worship service are at best Trinity-light.
Take preaching, for example. Decades ago, J. I. Packer warned of a disconcerting trend: “The average . . . clergyman never preaches on the Trinity save, perhaps, on Trinity Sunday.”2 Is this trend not accelerating today? To take the example of another element of Christian worship, a Christianity Today article lamented, “The Trinity almost never comes up in the songs sung by American Christians, according to a new study of the 30 most popular hymns and the 30 most popular worship songs over the past five years. Evangelical churches mostly sing about Jesus, with only occasional references to the Father and few (if any) mentions of the Holy Spirit.”3
A third example is the continued absence of creedal recitation in many “low church” liturgies, missing a regular structure by which their members can be formed in the trinitarian faith.
Accordingly, many of our churches don’t preach on the Trinity or sing songs praising the Trinity or liturgically confess the Trinity.4
Disappointingly, the definition of the church as a Trinitarian community fails to materialize in the practice of many churches.
The church needs to become a truly Trinitarian community.
Myth #2: The church contextualizes the gospel and its ministries.
Wait a minute! Of course, the church engages in this necessary practice! By contextualization, I mean “the adaptation of the gospel and the church it brings forth in different contexts. Because the church engages with cultures of all types, it must adjust its message, and the expression of its worship and discipleship, in the different settings into which it expands.”5
As Timothy Keller emphasizes, “to contextualize with balance and successfully reach people in a culture, we must both enter the cultural sympathetically and respectfully . . . and confront the culture where it contradicts biblical truth.”6 He points to clear biblical examples of the early church’s contextualization (e.g., Acts 2, 13, 14, 17) as evidence of and support for the ongoing need for it.
Sadly, the church’s claim of contextualization outpaces its practice. As one missiologist explains, “Although we can see the obvious need for contextualization, the actual practice of it is not easy. Blinded by our own ethnocentrism and ecclesiastical hegemony, we find it is very difficult to cultivate the art of listening and learning from those different from ourselves. But in a spirit of humility this is a fundamental requirement for contextualization.” He reminds us of what is at stake: “The challenge that contextualization brings to us is, How do we carry out the Great Commission and live out the Great Commandment in a world of cultural diversity with a gospel that is both truly Christian in content and culturally significant in form?”7
The church needs to actually contextualize the gospel and its ministries.
Myth #3: The church is defined by its functions and activities.
Not again! Of course, the church is defined by what it does! It gathers on Sunday morning, worships (hopefully, more explicitly) the triune God, preaches the gospel, disciples its members, baptizes and celebrates the Lord’s Supper, exercises church discipline, and more.
Here’s the problem: it is wrongheaded to define something by what that thing does. Determining the ontology or nature of something is different from describing its roles or behaviors. To presume that what a church does—for example, its ministries of worship and discipleship—constitutes its identity is to misapply the principle of causation. Function does not cause something’s nature. Rather, engaging in certain functions is the effect of something’s nature.8
So we don’t define the church by listing its activities.
As an example, the early church defined itself by four characteristics: the church is one, holy, catholic (universal), and apostolic. To take another example, elsewhere I have defined the church by seven attributes or identity markers: a church is doxological, logocentric, pneumadynamic, convenantal, confessional, missional, and spatio-temporal/eschatological.9
One payoff of properly defining a church by its characteristics rather than by listing its ministries connects with myth #2: Contextualization is aided when church planters, for example, have keenly in mind the nature of the church they seek to plant and then design and actualize that church in and for the context in which they labor. This approach contrasts with the model of replicating the sending church’s building, worship service, discipleship training programs, and more. Such reduplication of the sending church’s programs stands little chance at contextualization.
The church needs a clear definition of its nature before it determines and actualizes its functions and activities.
Myth #4: The church is a safe haven and affirming community.
Come on, now! Of course, the church is known by its love! Just read how the church is to exhibit the traits, attitudes, and behaviors as commended in this biblical passage:
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Col. 3:12–17)
Sadly, as we all know and experience, the church falls far short of this ideal image to which it is called. Even more sadly, for certain people, the church too often turns out to be the dreadful, polar opposite of this Christ-like portrait. Take women as one example. As I have spent several weeks listening to a small group of women, I have painfully heard expressions such as
• “I feel I don’t have a voice.”
• “Because I’m a woman, I’m tapped down.”
• “Because I don’t fit a certain stereotype—married with a lot of children and who does not work but home schools them—others look at me askance.”
• “My spiritual gifts are overlooked and, should I question such neglect, I’m regarded as a liberal, a feminist, a power-hungry usurper.”
• Each of these exasperated expressions—cries for help—is in reference to these women’s experience of church.
The church needs to become a safe haven and affirming community, especially in regard to marginalized groups of members.
Myth #5: The church’s members are less sinful than those outside the church.
One last time! Of course, the church’s members aren’t like non-Christians! Just consider these biblical descriptions of the status of Jesus’s disciples:
No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. (John 15:15)
Thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. (Rom. 6:17–18)
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God (Eph. 2:19)
These biblical affirmations underscore a very important truth about church members: we have been united with Christ, justified, regenerated, adopted, befriended, redeemed, incorporated, reconciled, and much more. Our identity and nature have been so transformed that we no longer are defined by our sinfulness but as a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17).
What may be overlooked is the reality of moral unbelievers, ethical non-Christians who are generous and kind and self-sacrificing. We should call to mind that all human beings are created in God’s image, receive and express common grace, engage in procreation and vocation as the two aspects of the so-called “cultural mandate” (Gen. 1:28), and in many cases outdo in love and uprightness those Christians whom Paul describes as “of the flesh” (1 Cor. 3:1–4).
This has no bearing on their salvation in Christ. But it should remind us that our new status and our new identity are due to the saving mercy and transformative power of God and are not of ourselves (Eph. 2:8–9).
The church needs to humbly relish saving grace while refusing to look askance or belittle those who don’t yet know Christ.
Editors’ note: This article was originally published at the Crossway blog. This article is based on Allison’s new book The Church: An Introduction (Crossway).
1. Fred Sanders, The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything, 2nd ed. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2017), 10.
2. J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1973), 66. Packer’s comments specified his own Anglican Church but have been rendered generic for effect and in keeping with observable trends in other denominations.
3. The article is based on research done by Southern Wesleyan University. Daniel Silliman, “The Trinity Is Missing from Christian Worship Music,” christianitytoday.com (August 24, 2020).
4. This noticeable lack of attention to the Trinity is not reserved for contemporary choruses but applies similarly to hymns. According to one study, “both bodies of song point to a certain lingering irrelevance or marginalization of the Father and the Spirit, with a corresponding focus upon Jesus Christ. . . . In Evangelicalism’s worship-expressed piety, it is the liturgical devotion to Jesus Christ and the framing of the economies of salvation and of worship in such dependence upon him that typical Evangelical expression can make the other two Persons irrelevant.” Lester Ruth, “Trinitarian Similarities and Differences in Evangelical Song: Old and New,” paper delivered at the Biblical Worship section of the Evangelical Theological Society annual meeting, November 15, 2012.
5. Gregg R. Allison, The Baker Compact Dictionary of Theological Terms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2016), s.v. “contextualiztion.”
6. Timothy Keller, Center Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012),119.
7. Darrell L. Whiteman, “Contextualization: The Theory, the Gap, the Challenge,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research (January 1997): 7; journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/239693939702100101
8. For an example of this confusion as applied to the metaphysics of womanhood, see Gracilynn Hanson, “Establishing a Framework for Female-Gendered Embodiment in a Redemptive Context,” Ed.D. diss., (The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2020).
9. Gregg R. Allison, Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012).