John Crotts. Loving the Church: God’s People Flourishing in God’s Family. Wapwallopen, PA: Shepherd Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-9824387-4-9. No price on cover.
In Loving the Church, John Crotts, a pastor-teacher (Faith Bible Church, Sharpsburg, GA), university and seminary graduate (Liberty University, The Master’s Seminary), and association board member (Fellowship of Independent Reformed Evangelicals, FIRE), seeks to counter an epidemic, documented by pollster George Barna (26-7) and journalist Julia Duin (27-8), of Christians leaving the church. The book is a brief, biblical, subtly Reformed (Calvinist), theologically conservative, practical ecclesiology interspersed with a (presumably fictional) framing narrative of five friends meeting to discuss the relevant issues in their local coffee shop.
Disregarding the framing narrative, which happily comprises a small fraction of the word count, I would give the book 4.5 out of 5 stars for its uncompromising conservatism and overall consonance with my personal biases. (Unquestionably, I having my own axes to grind and an agenda to promote; I in no way aspire to “objective” reviews, though I do seek to make all I say accurate and, if possible, useful to potential readers.) Since Amazon does not accept partial star ratings, I’ve rounded up to a full 5.
As already noted, my rating disregards the “five friends” tale. This narrative may well allow some of today’s story-obsessed sorts, who simply can’t tolerate straightforward expository prose for any length of time, to remain engaged. I hope that will be the case, since the book merits wide reading. Personally, I found the “five friends” episodes an irksome distraction from the exposition and could have done without them. (Were I a beer drinker, perhaps I would find the froth there as annoying as the froth here.) I’ll speak no further of the framing narrative; read it if it suits your taste.
Loving the Church is divided into two sections of six chapters each. The first section (to page 74) is the ecclesiology proper, describing what the church is and how it should be organized and function; the second section (remainder of text) sets forth the practical application, offering guidance to Christians (strongly emphasizing Christian families) on how to bring their own practice into agreement with Scripture through proper involvement in a soundly biblical church.
Section I exposition begins with chapter 2 (25-30), “The Church/Family Disconnect” (chapter 1 is introductory framing narrative, illustrating in story form some of the attitudes behind the leaving church epidemic). Here Crotts summarizes the above-mentioned findings of Barna and Duin and notes how a combination of factors—Christians being “consumer-minded” and focused on “their wants and felt needs” when looking for a church, a dearth of “vibrant, God-centered, biblical” churches, etc.—have encouraged more and more Christians to leave rather than love the (institutional, local) church.
Chapter 3 (31-40, exposition 32-39), “The Value of the Church,” concisely presents “nine reasons to raise your estimate of the church’s value” (32). These are: (1) “The church is designed for the glory of God,” (2) “Jesus is building the church,” (3) “Jesus loves the church and died for it,” (4) “Jesus is the foundation for the church,” (5) “The church is made of precious building materials [individual Christians],” (6) “the metaphors for the church [Christ’s body, bride of Christ, household of God] reveal its worth,” (7) “the church is the pillar and support of the truth,” (8) “God designed the church to spread his glory to the nations,” and (9) “God designed the church for your spiritual life, growth, and health.” Crotts’ exposition is soundly biblical and I commend it to you.
Noteworthy chapter contents include a subtle statement of particular atonement (also, unfortunately, known as “limited” atonement). Point 3’s heading (Christ died “for the church,” not “for everyone”) and its exposition (“The death of Jesus accomplished [not ‘made possible’] salvation for everyone who would ever believe [not ‘everyone’ period],” 34), both express the doctrine. Since I’ve found that non-Calvinists (and even some self-labeled “Calvinists”) are weirdly obsessed with evading particular atonement and promoting universal atonement (as though it makes sense for God to atone for persons whom he knows with certainty will never place faith in him, predestination or no), Crotts’ particularism may offend some. It is, however, rather subtly stated and might be missed, at least by the majority of readers who never see this review.
Also noteworthy: under point 1, Crotts offers some remarks helpful to those who wonder how it is possible for finite creatures to “give glory” to an infinitely glorious God. Some quite profound thinkers, such as Cornelius Van Til (from whose writing I learned the phrase), have called this a “full-bucket difficulty”: God’s bucket of glory already being full (one can’t get more full than infinitely full), how could any creature “give” God glory? Crotts, however, shows he understands that what creatures do when they “give” God glory is simply make known his already infinite glory: “The church was designed by God as a prism, drawing in his radiance and reflecting the rainbow of his perfection among his people and outward to the world” (32). My rigorous temperament would have liked the connection to have been made even more explicit, such as by a direct statement that “we humans can only be said to ‘give’ God glory in the sense of making his already infinite glory known to other creatures,” but it’s good to see the point made all the same. (Since I mentioned Van Til, I should not that Van Til sees this as a “difficulty” only one for autonomous, non-Christian, thinkers. Van Til might well be unsatisfied with the “making his already infinite glory known” explanation, since it solves the difficulty in a way even a would-be autonomous thinker should find satisfactory.)
Chapter 4 (41-46, exposition 43-45), “Defining the Church,” very briefly lays out the two senses of “church,” universal/invisible and local/visible. One essential point: “The Lord Jesus intended for every one of his children to be connected to one of these local churches. There are no examples of free-floating Lone Ranger saints in the New Testament” (45). True, this is very basic stuff, but the widespread exodus of Christians from the institutional church suggests that Crotts is right not to assume his readers already know it. As well, those of us with personalities strongly inclined to go it alone may find that regular review of such basic stuff keeps us motivated to endure community involvement we, unlike our more social brothers and sisters, don’t find pleasant in itself and so would never seek out for its own sake.
Chapter 5 (47-59, exposition 49-59), “Describing the Church,” presents Crotts’ understanding of proper church organization. In brief, under the Lordship of Christ, each local church is to be ruled by elders, of whom the pastor is one among equals. Thus, Crotts argues for a Presbyterian rather than Congregational or Strong Man Pastor polity; however, he does not argue for any judicial authority above the local assembly, so he cannot be construed as arguing for Presbyterianism in the full sense found in Presbyterian denominations. Given that Crotts is on the board of directors of an organization describing itself as “a unifying network for independent Reformed (and Reforming) baptistic churches” (FIRE Web site’s “About FIRE” page, accessed 18 January 2013), none of this is surprising. While I confess to never having had much interest in debates over polity, and so to not having studied the issue, Crotts’ argument for elder rule does strike me as persuasive and scripturally sound.
In addition to polity, the chapter notes what the New Testament has to say about the office of deacon, and the qualification for both elders and deacons. One noteworthy statement in this chapter comes during Crotts’ unpacking of the implications of Ephesians 4:13 (56): “The combination of unity and the knowledge of Christ shows that Paul is not maximizing superficial togetherness by minimizing doctrinal content. Voices calling Christians to forget about doctrinal differences and just love Jesus do not represent Christian maturity.” Further: “Community-wide gatherings or projects that merge churches that don’t believe in the Bible, Jesus, or salvation with churches that do, are a hollow shell of what the Lord intends when he commands us to be in unity around the truth.” Crotts’ remarks merit close attention and wide publication. Though undertaking joint projects with non-Christians (or professing Christians who are not sufficiently biblical) is certainly permissible where values and objectives are shared (even when the religious or philosophical sources of those values and objectives differ), one must never mistake such projects for expressions of Christian unity.
Chapter 6 (61-74, exposition 63-74), “Filling Out The Body,” wraps up the biblical church “blueprint” by discussing such topics as spiritual gifts, ordinances (baptism, communion), and responsibilities all church members share to serve one another. Noteworthy chapter contents include this welcome statement countering one trend in today’s church: “Since the Bible does not provide detailed surveys and tests to help you determine your spiritual gifts, you can be sure that you don’t need such things to discover and use your gifts!” (64) Can I get an “Amen!”?
The remainder of the text seeks to provide practical guidance to Christians, particularly Christian families, in light of the established blueprint. The chapters are as follows: chapter 7 (77-88, exposition 79-88), “You and King Jesus,” concerning the need to commit to a soundly biblical local church and how to go about doing so; chapter 8 (89-99, exposition 90-1, 93-4, 94-6, 97-9), “You and the Elders,” concerning scripturally sound interaction with, and respect for the authority of, church elders; chapter 9 (101-7, exposition 101-3,104-5, 105-6, 107), “You and the Deacons,” about scripturally sound interaction with, and assistance of, the deacons; chapter 10 (109-125, exposition 110-14, 115-125), “Building the Body,” concerning service between and among church members generally; chapter 11 (127-131, exposition 127-8, 131), “No Body Part Left Behind,” a final call not to leave but to love the church, and to return if you’ve already left, realizing that “Jesus died for church forsakers” (131); and chapter 12 (133-35), “Digging Deeper,” an annotated bibliography of suggested reading.
The material in these closing chapters is fundamentally sound and worthwhile reading for any confused about how to find and become involved in a local church. (Though “five friends” interruptions of the exposition are more frequent in this section, they are also more brief.) A possible flaw for some readers will be the strong emphasis on Christian families rather than on individual Christians. As Crotts notes in his introduction, “the writing of this book was prompted by concerns about trends in American Christian families” (12), and this family emphasis shows throughout the text, especially in these final chapters. Crotts does note that the book’s “message about the value of the church to a believer’s life certainly applies to every believer, regardless of marital status” (Ibid.); however, such a general statement hardly compensates for the lack of balance. Since we “Lone Ranger” types are often single (lone) rather than married, the book falls short as an outreach tool to genuine loners. Crotts should take this into account if he writes a new edition.
Some noteworthy content in this section is the following. Dovetailing nicely with the above-quoted statement about spiritual gifts tests are these remarks: “When a church succumbs to the foundations of worldly wisdom (like psychology, business techniques, marketing methods, and survey results) to determine how to do ministry, this contaminated fruit will be passed down to poison all aspects of the church” (83). Church leaders, please print this on card stock, matte and frame it, and display it prominently in your study, in the sanctuary foyer, and anywhere else you can think to post it! If such action seems a bit extreme, at least consider Crotts’ words before aping some new practice lauded by Mega Church luminaries.
Also noteworthy is this statement: “The chief way a church demonstrates its commitment to Jesus as the Head of the church is that its people are willing to go where the Bible takes them….For example[,] if the Bible says that women should not teach men publicly (1 Timothy 2:12), such a church doesn’t have women teaching mixed Bible studies, no matter how good Sister Jones may be!” (81) In today’s environment, such a simple statement may not be sufficient, since many women and men have convinced themselves that either historical data or certain hermeneutical maneuvers make evading the ostensible implications of 1 Timothy 2:12 possible and permissible (more on this shortly). Nevertheless, I appreciate Crotts’ willingness to assert his position with clarity.
Though I’ve judged the book worthy of 4.5 stars, rounded up to 5, it does have some minor weaknesses I hope Crotts might correct in a future edition.
One such weakness is Crotts’ failure to be sufficiently explicit and detailed as to what doctrinal positions and practices are essential for a church to qualify as sufficiently biblical to justify one’s commitment. Crotts says that one should either join the best biblical church in one’s area or, if no sufficiently biblical church can be found, either move to a new location or gather with some other families and start a new church (81-2). Yet, actual description of what sorts of errors can be tolerated is mostly lacking, a deficiency sure to make it easier for “Lone Rangers” to apply perfectionist standards that keep them always looking for, but never actually finding, a church to join.
One example of this deficiency, oddly enough, is in a place where he does explicitly identify an error one cannot tolerate: Crotts’ mention of churches where women teach men, ostensibly violating 1 Timothy 2:12. Crotts makes clear his opinion that such egalitarian churches are not biblical churches because they violate 1 Timothy 2:12 by putting women in the pulpit or in other roles where they are teaching men. His discussion of why this is a problem does not go beyond the 1 Timothy 2:12 reference, however. Egalitarian theologians, such as those promoting and promoted by Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE), offer arguments claiming one can submit to Scripture’s authority and ordain women to teaching and preaching posts, and these arguments are increasingly popular. Crotts offers no suggestion that he finds any of these arguments sufficient to let an egalitarian church off the “unbiblical” hook; but, then, he does not discuss the arguments at all. Given the currency and prevalence of the issue, more discussion seems advisable. While this could consist primarily of references to solid resources on the issue, Loving the Church itself should at least answer the objection that every egalitarian-tolerant reader is going to want answered, namely, “Why should I assume a church is unbiblical simply because it does not interpret the Bible the same way you do?” I personally agree with Crotts (or, with what I assume to be Crotts’ view) that egalitarian hermeneutics do not comport with faithful submission to Scripture’s authority as clear and authoritative revelation given for the equipping of all believers in every station of life. (If an interpretation is only open to advanced scholars or a mystically adept religious class, that interpretation must be rejected.) In today’s theological environment, however, one cannot simply assume that readers will share this viewpoint, or that readers will not have alternative readings of Scripture that they find plausible and believe make egalitarianism sound biblical practice.
Additionally, many issues are not mentioned that probably should be. For example, what views can a church hold on interpretation of the Genesis creation account? Which currently popular hermeneutical moves are permissible, leaving a church sufficiently biblical, and which are not? To my eye, the Young Earth Creationists make a case as cogent against alternative readings of Genesis as the case complementarians (named for the complementarity, as opposed to equality or sameness, of the sexes) make against egalitarianism. (Terminological aside: egalitarians, occasionally labeled “equalitarian,” sometimes call themselves complementarians and identify their opponents as “hierarchicalist.”) Of course, my eye is not every eye, and many who join Crotts in solidly opposing egalitarianism nevertheless embrace alternative Genesis readings like Progressive Creationism. It seems to me a book calling one to find a biblical church needs to address this issue.
While he’s adding topics to his next edition, perhaps Crotts should also tell readers whether support for one or another mode of baptism is necessary for a church to be biblical, and whether or not churches that baptize infants can be biblical. Is only “believers baptism” acceptable? (Recall that Crotts is on the board of directors of a “baptistic” association.)
Further, would simply holding the wrong position on one of these issues make a church unbiblical, or would an “unbiblical” rating only be awarded to churches who adopted these positions by wrong means? In other words, could a “sincere” but erring conclusion about what Scripture means, a conclusion believed faithful to Scripture but simply incorrect (egalitarianism, perhaps), still permit a church to qualify as biblical? Do certain errors, no matter the ostensible sincerity with which they are based on Scripture, automatically make the church holding them unbiblical? If so, what is the full list of those errors? While a “biblical/unbiblical church shopper’s checklist” could annoy many, our contemporary situation might make it necessary. Just something for Crotts to consider if he writes a new edition.
Bottom line. While not without minor defects meriting a half-star penalty, Loving the Church is a concise and persuasive text addressing an issue of some urgency in the contemporary church. Its brevity, along with its inclusion of a “five friends” story to hold the attention of those who (unlike the reviewer) find pure exposition hard to endure, may make it an excellent gift for a Christian friend who’s stopped attending church. Bible study classes and small groups might even consider working through it, though admittedly those most at risk of leaving the church, and so most in need of the book, are also those least likely to be attending Bible study classes and small groups.
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