by Gary Bekker
I have learned much from the writings of Donald McGavran and from those of his colleagues in the church growth school of missiology. Surely few evangelicals will quarrel with the gospel’s insistence that the obedient church can expect to grow.
I have learned much from the writings of Donald McGavran and from those of his colleagues in the church growth school of missiology. Surely few evangelicals will quarrel with the gospel’s insistence that the obedient church can expect to grow. Also, the school’s emphasis on primary evangelism needs to be appreciated at a time when many organizations spend most if not all of their time and money on "nurturing" or helping ministries. Third, the church growth school’s reaffirmation of the need for cross-cultural workers counters the "missionary go home" and "moratorium on missions" talk of the 1960s and 1970s.1 Fourth, all cross-cultural missionaries ought to appreciate the school’s emphasis on church growth, thus countering the citadel mentality in many churches.
This is to say that the school views the church of Jesus Christ as a dynamically empowered organism, commissioned to preach in the world, not as a fortress behind which pure Christians smugly criticize the wicked.
Finally, I appreciate the school’s understanding of evangelism as church growth. In the face of individualistic American evangelicalism, with its "Are you saved?" mentality, the contention that one must adhere himself to a visible body of believers comes like a breath of fresh air. Nothing written below ought to be understood as mitigating my profound appreciation for the work of Donald McGavran and those associated with him in the church growth school of missiology.
I wish to examine only a few pages in the thousands written by McGavran. Although his disciples will probably soon outdistance his ideas and written work, I think that at present he remains the most articulate spokesman for the church growth school. A comprehensive study of the ecclesiology of the church growth school may be impossible because I do not think that they have one. A comprehensive study of the ecclesiological statements of even McGavran lies beyond the scope of this article. Therefore, I will analyze only those few pages in which he attempts an ecclesiology.
Although McGavran makes ecclesiological statements throughout his writings, I know of only one place in which he states an ecclesiology.2 He contends that this ecclesiology is realistic, fits the many contemporary churches, and faithfully reflects the Scriptures.3 Permit me to summarize his statements and to offer critical remarks.
For McGavran, the church of Jesus Christ consists of people. He states, "The Church is made up of the redeemed who believe in Jesus Christ, live in Him, adore Him, and trust Him."4 Although this statement may not say everything about the church that we may wish, it does echo the Protestant Reformation’s accent on the church as the communion of the saints rather than as the club of the managers of the organization. Further, McGavran’s affirmation that the church consists of the redeemed accords with the Belgic Confession, which refers to the church as "a holy congregation of true Christian believers, all expecting their salvation in Jesus Christ" (Art. 27)5
An ancient declaration of the church, dating back at least to Cyprian in the third century and appearing in the Belgic Confession (Art. 28), states: "outside of the church there is no salvation. " Does McGavran in any way confess this? He states:
The writer…holds that membership in a Church which confesses Christ before men and follows the Bible as the one sufficient and final rule of faith and practice is an essential completing step to saving faith.6
I suspect that McGavran has defined the nulla salus as well as any contemporary Reformed theologian has.
Another important ecclesiological issue concerns the unity or catholicity of the church. On this issue McGavran states his position clearly. He holds "that the Church of Jesus Christ is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally One."7 He adds:
The unity of Christians is that demanded by the biblical revelation. The diversity is that required by local conditions and conditioned by historical background, language spoken, cultural peculiarities, economic situation, and the like. The diversity must always be strictly within limits; but these must neither be defined by the Church of any one nation, country, or part of the world, not appropriate to it only. The unity of the Church is unity in Christ. He is Head of the Church – the only Head she has. He calls and appoints leaders of each Church, gives them power and authority, and requires that their understanding of the Church in their circumstances, be determined strictly according to His revelation in the Bible.8 The fact of the matter is that the embodied Church on every continent is not one; it is many. Its unity consists entirely in an internal loyalty and obedience to Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the Bible.9
These statements permit McGavran to stress the importance of "homogeneous units" and "people movements," while affirming the unity of the universal church.
It is easy to take pot shots at McGavran’s brief ecclesiological statements and certainly at the brief quotations above. Nonetheless, McGavran’s statements have much to be said for them from a biblical, Reformed perspective. McGavran confesses one, holy, universal church while acknowledging the historical and cultural diversity of the many churches. Also, McGavran stresses the crucial importance of the church. For those of us who work side by side with (often professionally excellent) independent organizations acknowledging only their own internal authority, the reaffirmation that the visible, worshipping groups called church" represent the body of Christ is refreshing.
What can be said about McGavran’s ecclesiology by way of criticism? The most comprehensive criticism we can level against McGavran’s statements is that his theology betrays a "Christomonism." This is to say that, rather than Christocentric Trinitarianism, McGavran works exclusively with a doctrine of Christ. He seems to understand "God" as being all or almost all "Christ. " Although McGavran’s Disciples of Christ background includes confession of the Trinity, I contend that a Trinitarian theology plays no role in his ecclesiology nor in his missiology. McGavran’s Christomonism becomes especially clear when he discusses New Testament images of the church. After stating that for him "the Church of Jesus Christ is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally One," McGavran writes:
Its (the Church’s) three dominant symbols are: the Bride of Christ, the Body of Christ, and the Temple of Christ.10
Here, McGavran shows the poverty of his theology and his blindness to the fall biblical description of the church. I find the following statement by Edmund Clowney to be far more satisfying:
According to the Bible, the church is the people of God, the kingdom and body of Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. It has been said with some reason that each of these approaches is favored in one ecclesiastical heritage. The Reformed family of churches is said to conceive of the church as the people of God, the sacramental churches to think of it as the body of Christ, and the pentecostal churches to think of it as the fellowship of the Spirit. No doubt we are all in danger of ignoring the rich balance of the biblical revelation, and, in particular, of focusing on one figure exclusively. There is no one figure, not even that of the human body, which summarizes the whole of ecclesiology.11
In contrast to Clowney’s Trinitarian emphasis on a multi-image concept of the church, McGavran focuses only on the Christ related images of the church. In his ecclesiology he makes only two oblique references to the "Father" and two minor references to the Holy Spirit. Nowhere in his statements do I find an understanding of the church as the Spirit-filled, empowered and commissioned specific organ of the Kingdom. Therefore, from a Trinitarian perspective, McGavran’s ecclesiology must be judged deficient.
The lack of a Trinitarian theology leads McGavran down several unhappy missiological paths. First, I think that McGavran’s neglect of the "People of God" image accounts for his depreciation of both biological church growth and of what can be called "ministries of mercy." His ecclesiastical tradition has never had much use for covenant theology with its profound understanding of the intimate relation of the family to the church. This theological error weakens McGavran’s solid insights into the function of the family as a "Bridge of God." If McGavran combined his insights into the way a family functions with what it is, he would enrich his ecclesiology and his evangelism strategy would be able to promote more rapid church growth along this crucial bridge of God, the family. Also, if McGavran held greater appreciation for the "People of God" image of the church, he and his colleagues in the church growth school might express greater respect for "nurturing" and, especially, for deaconal ministries as vital aspects of any true mission within the mission of God.
Finally, from a Reformed theological perspective, McGavran must be judged wrong simply because he omits or falls to see that all three Persons of the Trinity actively call forth people from the life of sin into the church. In the Apostles’ Creed and, therefore, in the Heidelberg Catechism the statement confessing a holy catholic church occurs in the section devoted to God the Holy Spirit. The catechism discusses this confession as follows:
That the Son of God, out of the whole human race, from the beginning to the end of the world, gathers, defends, and preserves for Himself, by His Spirit and Word, in the unity of the true faith, a Church chosen to everlasting life; and that I am, and forever shall remain, a living member thereof. (Lord’s Day 21)
I contend that nowhere in his ecclesiology does McGavran account for the work of the Holy Spirit as described above. For him, the Holy Spirit appears to be something which fills people after they become Christians rather than the One who calls us to Christ in the first place. McGavran’s neglect of the work of the Holy Spirit in his theology may account for the Arminian work ethic which pervades his missiology. Where in all of his writings does McGavran acknowledge fully the internal operation of the Holy Spirit in conversion?12
Much more could be said about the ecclesiology of Donald McGavran. I have criticized him mainly for lacking a Trinitarian theology behind his missiology. Such a proper theology would render his missiology stronger and more compelling in terms of its biblical fidelity, its utility in actual evangelistic situations and its helpfulness toward a strategy for church growth.
1. Cf. Gerald H. Anderson, "A Moratorium on Missionaries," pp. 133-141 and Federico Pagura, "Missionary, Go Home … or Stay," pp. 115-116 in Mission Trends No. 1: Crucial Issues in Mission Today, eds. Gerald H. Anderson and Thomas F. Stransky, C. S. P. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974).
2. Donald McGavran, Ethnic Realities and the Church: Lessons from India (South Pasadena, California: William Carey Library, 1979) pp. 245-249.
3. Ibid., p. 245.
4. Ibid., p. 246.
5. Also see the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 2 1.
6. McGavran, Ethnic Realities, p. 247.
8. Ibid., pp. 247-248
9. Ibid., p. 249.
10. Ibid., p. 247.
11. Edmund P. Clowney, The Church, International Library of Philosophy and Theology: Biblical and Theological Studies (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1969), p. 10.
12. For a helpful statement of the power of the Holy Spirit, see "The Lausanne Covenant," paragraph 14. Also see, Leslie Newbigin, The Relevance of Trinitarian Doctrine for Today’s Mission (London Edinburgh House Press, 1963).
13. Arthur P. Johnston, ”Church Growth Theology and World Evangelization," in Theology and Mission, Papers and Responses Prepared for the Consultation on Theology and Mission of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School of World Mission and Evangelism, ed. David J. Hesselgrave (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House 1978), pp. 199-201.
By Donald McGavran
I am pleased that Gary Bekker has focused attention on the ecclesiology of the church growth movement through discussing a few passages from my writings. If church growth is to be of any importance at all, it must be the growth of the true church. And while there is bound to be some variation in the way branches of the church phrase their ecclesiology, every phrasing must be biblically defensible.
Church growth men hold now and ever have held a high, thoroughly biblical view of the church. It is true we have not set forth an ecclesiology, but if our writings are carefully examined a correct and biblical view of the church will be discerned.
We reject the currently popular position that the church is merely one of God’s instruments by which he is bringing in Utopia, a just, peaceful and brotherly social order. No! The church is Christ’s Body, the household of God. By its very nature it does work to implement God’s moral law in all human relationships; but even when it has no power to change the political, economic and social order, as in Paul’s time, it is nevertheless the true church, loved and indwelt by God whom it worships. The Westminster Confession of Faith rightly says that the church "is the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation."
But Mr. Bekker thinks our ecclesiology inadequate, seriously lacking. What shall we say to this? If we limit ourselves, as he does, to a few passages from Ethnic Realities, which almost in passing speak of the nature of the church, then his criticisms appear reasonable. But why limit ourselves? Understanding Church Growth and my other writings are full of ecclesiological intimations that the church is God’s church, and the Holy Spirit impels her to disciple all the peoples of earth. Let me mention a few. Many more could easily be quoted.
The Bridges of God (1955 edition) says, "The peoples who can today be discipled consist of millions … whose salvation God wills" (p. 156). Understanding Church Growth (1970 edition) has a multitude of germane passages. Some of them follow. "Church growth is faithfulness to God" (p. 15). "The multiplication of churches nourished on the Bible and full of the Holy Spirit is a sine qua non in carrying out the purposes of God" (p. 16). "God sends laborers into the field . . . God gives the growth … God ripens the grain. God rewards the workmen. Before God then the number of sinners obeying the call to repentance and discipleship should influence when and where the call is issued" (p. 46, 47).
Do these quotations sound like "Christomonism"? "Revival is God’s gift. Man can neither command it nor make God grant it. God sovereignly gives revival when and where He will" (p. 166). "All we desire and hope for in the world can come only from peoples who acknowledge God as Lord, Christ as Saviour, and the Holy Spirit as Faithful Guide" (p. 370). "The New Testament Church lived in the first bright light of the revelation of God in Christ and was vividly aware of the God Who Finds" (p. 45). "Today also, Emmanuel is what every deep revival etches on the mind of Christians-God with us, marvelously present. The baptism of the Holy Spirit confers on very humble people the unshakeable conviction that He is standing at their elbow to deliver them from danger, comfort them in sorrow, and enable them to praise, witness and live as children of God" (P. 267).
Does all this sound like a "lack of Trinitarian theology?" "When the Holy Spirit has so moved on men that they resolve to become Christians. . . . it is the height of unfaithfulness for the missionary simply to remain there as a Christian. Mere witness to the love of God is not what is demanded. Then the obedient missionary must baptize multitudes in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" (p. 228, 229).
"5. The Church is Christ’s Body, the Household of God, God by His Word and Spirit creates the one holy universal and apostolic Church, calling sinful men of the whole human race into the fellowship of Christ’s Body. By the same Word and Spirit He guides and preserves for eternity that new redeemed humanity, the Church of Jesus Christ, which when formed. in any tribe or caste, any clan or culture, any class or condition of men, is spiritually one with the people of God in all ages and constitutes the Church of Christ on Earth " (Doctrine 5 in a written lecture on an evangelical theology of mission, a lecture that I have given yearly for many years.)
I need quote no more of the many passages of my writings which express clear Trinitarian convictions and a high view of the church. I trust this response will set at rest any questionings on that score which have arisen in the minds of the growing army of men and women working at church growth.
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