The Church and the Individual Christian

Dear Church Family,

This past weekend was our first annual Midland Reformed Theological Conference. The audio recordings of the lectures are available online here. If you were not able to attend, I encourage you to take some time and listen to these lectures in which Dr. David VanDrunen talked about what it means to be In the World but Not of the World: A Reformed Two Kingdoms Perspective on Christianity and Culture. Even if you were able to attend, you might want to review and listen again.

By way of introduction to the two kingdoms doctrine, I wrote last week about the definition of the two kingdoms (redemptive and common), as well as how these concepts help us to see both the cultural commonality and the spiritual antithesis that Christians have with unbelievers. At this point, I won’t try and summarize everything that was said in the conference, but over the next several weeks, I thought it would be helpful to just touch on one key concept from each of the lectures – at least what I perceived to be some of the key concepts. All Christians, whether they consciously recognize it or not, must wrestle with how they relate to various cultures and societies, how they ought to think about their jobs and vocations, how they ought to engage in everyday, common activities, etc. These lectures and the two kingdoms doctrine offer a very practical and helpful way to think about such things.

The Distinction Between the Church and the Individual Christian

In the first introductory lecture, “Christian Identity in a Fallen World: The Search for a Solution,” there were many helpful topics addressed (including some reflections on how Christians have historically thought about Christianity and culture); however, I want to highlight one particular idea that is often missed when Christians have conversations about the relationship between Christianity and Culture: the distinction between the Church and the individual Christian. Without making this distinction, many people talk past each other. This distinction between the Church as a visible community of believers (an institution) and Christian believer (an individual) helps to bring clarity – and often, agreement among Christians who might otherwise disagree about such things.

For instance, a very influential and much read book on the relationship of Christianity to culture is H. Richard Niebuhr’s book Christ and Culture, published in 1951. In that book, Niebuhr describes five options that have been held by Christians throughout church history: (1) Christ against culture; (2) Christ of culture; (3) Christ above culture; (4) Christ and culture in paradox; and (5) Christ the transformer of culture. While somewhat helpful, one of the core problems with these categories is that when Niebuhr is speaking about is very broad and undifferentiated. When he speaks of ‘Christ and Culture’ he is speaking about Christianity and civilization. He does not clearly differentiate between the responsibilities of the Church and the individual Christian.

So, it is helpful – as well as biblical – to differentiate between these two. Dr. VanDrunen made this point in his lectures, and he also emphasizes this point in his book, Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture: “Believers and groups of believers do not constitute ‘the church’ in everything they do.” (p 117) To flesh this out a bit more, let me quote from another book which addresses this topic – a book that I believe deserves a wide reading: What Is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission, by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert (this is a bit of a lengthy quote, but very helpful):

…you can see the difference between the church and an individual Christian just by looking at the way Scripture talks to each – that is, by looking at the commands it gives. Think about it. There are some commands given to the local church that an individual Christian just should not undertake to obey on his own. An individual Christian, for example, can’t excommunicate another Christian; but the local church is commanded to do so in certain situations. Nor should an individual Christian take the Lord’s Supper on his own; that’s an activity the local church is to do ‘when you come together’ (1 Cor. 11:17-18, 10, 33-34). In the same way there are commands given to individual Christians that are clearly not meant for the local church as an organized group. A Christian man is commanded to ‘give to his wife her conjugal rights,’ but the church institutional better not try that! (Roll your eyes – but it makes the point!) There is a difference between the individual Christian and the local church, and therefore we can’t just say that whatever we see commanded of the individual Christian is also commanded of the local church.

To put perhaps a finer point on it: If I am commanded to do justice, does that mean ipso facto that it is the church’s mission to do justice? By the same token, if I am commanded to love my wife as my own body, does that mean it is the church’s mission to love my wife as it loves its own body? What sense would that even make? Our point is simply to say that defining the mission of the church institutional is just not as simple as identifying all the Bible’s commands to individual Christians and saying, ‘There, that’s the church’s mission.’ The mission of the church, as we’ve been arguing throughout this book, seems to be somewhat narrower than the set of all commands given to individual Christians – it’s proclamation, witness, and disciple making (which includes teaching everything that Jesus commanded). This is simply another way of saying that bearing witness to Christ is the church’s unique responsibility in a way that film making or auto repair or tree planting is not, though all of these may be examples of ways in which an individual Christian follows Jesus. (pp 232-233).

 

The Two-fold Benefit of this Distinction

The benefits of making this distinction are two-fold. First, it protects the church’s mission from becoming sidetracked by various things that are good, but not her mission. I’ve previously written about the danger of mission-creep in the church here. The mission of the church is defined in the Westminster Confession of Faith: Christ has given the Church “the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life to the end of the world” (WCF 25:3, emphasis added). Simply put, the church’s God-given mission is to conduct evangelism and discipleship through the ministry of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, and prayer.

Second, this distinction between the purpose and responsibilities of the Church and the various callings and responsibilities of individual Christians frees the individual Christian from the burden (often placed upon them by others) to ‘transform’ their workplace, culture, or government – or to find uniquely ‘Christian’ ways of doing ordinary tasks. Christians are called to obey God at all time and in all things. They are to do all things from faith (Romans 14:23) – for the purpose of bringing glory to God (1 Corinthians 10:31), and as service for the Lord (Colossians 3:23). However, they are not called to these tasks in an effort, or for the purpose of, transforming the world into the new heavens and new earth. This is something that only Christ can do, and will do, on the last day (Revelation 11:15 – “Then the seventh angel sounded; and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ: and He will reign forever and ever.’”

Conclusion

Again, much more was taught in the first lecture from our conference this past weekend; I’m simply highlighting one small point, but a point that I believe to be critical in understanding this whole topic of Christianity and culture. May the Lord bless us as a Church as we proclaim the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ and make disciples of all peoples. And, may the Lord bless us as individual Christians as we seek to honor and glorify Him in everything that we do.

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch