Monday, January 26, 2009

Can Christianity be "Christless"?

(Notes from Glen Ellyn Bible Church's January 23, 2009 College Class)... If you're in town, join us! Whether you are or not, feel free to comment below.

Week 1: Introduction

“’Christless’ Christianity” – Is that possible?
“What would it look like if Satan really took control over a city? Over a half century ago, Presbyterian minister Donald Grey Barnhouse offered his own scenario in his weekly sermon on CBS radio. He speculated that if Satan took over Philadelphia, all of the bars would be closed, pornography banished, and pristine streets would be filled with tidy pedestrians who smiled at each other. There would be no swearing. The children would say ‘yes, sir’ and ‘no, ma’am’ and the churches would be full every Sunday… where Christ is not preached.”

I’m tempted to think the main threat to Christianity is something like Bill Maher’s movie “Religulous.” But I’m convinced, like C.S. Lewis suggested in his book "The Screwtape Letters", danger exists when we add to the Gospel as well as when we subtract from it. In this class, we’ll not be focusing on the danger or conflict from outside the church… Without minimizing that problem, we’ll focus on the more significant, insidious danger from within (for example, the book of Jude).

1. The Message of Christless Christianity

What is the Message of Christless Christianity? It is “Christian” religion which isn’t centered on Jesus and His work. It comes in lots of forms, but it is “Man-centric” rather than “Christ-centric” – ultimately, it is the “Christianity of Me” vs. the “Christianity of He.”

  • It may emphasize what we do as compared to an emphasis on what Jesus has done for us (works vs. faith). Americans are pragmatists – they love something to do.
  • It may emphasize a reaction to others, either against what they do or for what they do. These messages may feel like their coming from fundamentalist separatists (like the SNL Church Lady) or liberal “tolerants” (like SNL’s Stuary Smalley). Either form shares a type of judgmental attitude and behavior that may take on even a religious look and feel, but is distinctly different from the person and work of Christ.

In any case, it’s Man Centered. The focus becomes us and our (happiness, purpose, fulfillment, or work, responsibility, mission) rather than on Christ and His work. We’ll see that this is related to our desire for the law over the gospel, and is rooted in the Palageian heresy that is ingrained in American popular thinking. It’s evidenced whenever the question addressed in the message is primarily “Would Jesus Do?” rather than “What Has Jesus Done?”

Here’s one example… notice the more recent drift from churches organizing around a set of doctrinal beliefs to organizing around methodology and practice. Increasingly, some in the Evangelical movement are redefining classic, historical Christian theology, using the same words in a way different from their historic meaning. For example, when people preach about:

  • Jesus: Is He Lord and Savior, or Example and Life Coach?
  • The Bible: Authoritative in actual practice and application, or merely mined for quotes and largely irrelevant on its own terms?
  • Salvation: Is it “Our Best Life Now,” or are we saved from God’s judgment and wrath by God Himself?
  • The Holy Spirit: Is He the One who reveals Christ and His work or an electrical outlet we plug into to meet our agenda?

Anything that distracts from the centrality of the message of the Gospel can give rise to a “form of godliness which denies the power thereof.” This, in its essence, is “Christless Christianity.”
When everything is measured by our happiness rather than God’s holiness, the sense of our being sinners, lost and in terrible danger becomes secondary, if not offensive and an embarrassment. (Watch Joel Olsteen squirm under Larry King’s question about the exclusivity of the Gospel!)

We’ll talk also about theological “drift”… which certainly is increasingly evident even in Evangelical thinking. There is a rise in neo-liberalism in the writings of some… for example, Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy (which I believe is neither orthodox or generous) where he questions not just peripheral issues, but the very basis of our historical faith. Just as one example, citing Steven Chalke and The Lost Message of Jesus describing the cross – and the Biblical doctrine of substitutionary atonement - as “cosmic child abuse.”

We’ll talk about the marked decline in biblical literacy – both among lay people and, perhaps more astonishingly, even at the ecclesiastical/pastoral level. We’ll observe the loss of common understanding – even comprehension – of basic biblical terms like justification, propitiation, imputed righteousness, sanctification… concepts which represent the HEART of the Gospel message!

We’ll also discuss the growing lack of concern over doctrinal precision and clarity. Consider Rick Warren’s popular mantra of “deeds vs. creeds,” which (at best) assumes a common understanding of at least the issues within the creeds.

While we will talk about the widening borders of what is acceptable thinking in Evangelical circles, this is a symptom of the problem rather than the problem itself. Mike Horton says this:
“My argument in this book is not that evangelicalism is becoming theologically liberal but that it is becoming theologically vacuous.”
There is certainly evidence of error, but even as great is the evidence of silliness and the trivialization of the Gospel.

A church’s message is only authoritative to the extent it speaks with a common voice and conviction. All too often, churches are becoming PRACTICE focused – at the expense of a common doctrinal message – and the point of commonality in theology is really become anthropological – man-centric rather than Christ-centric!

William Wilimon said this:
“Lacking confidence in the power of our story to effect that of which it speaks, to evoke a new people out of nothing, our communication loses its nerve. Nothing is said that could not be heard elsewhere… In conservative contexts, gospel speech is traded for dogmatic assertions and moralism, for self-help psychologies and norcotic mantras. In more liberal speech, talk tiptoes around the outrage of Christian discourse and ends up as an innocuous, though urbane, affirmation of the ruling order. Unable to preach Christ and Him crucified, we preach humanity and it improved.”

So, in thinking about the “Message” we proclaim, we’ll ask this question: To what extent does American subjectivity and individuality infect our understanding and proclamation of the Gospel?

2. The Practice of Christless Christianity
We’ll see that – far from being neutral – our practice can be the vehicle which creates the distraction from the true message of the Gospel. We’ll discuss a number of practical elements, including:

  • The drift towards the subjective (inward) at the expense of the objective (external) reality of Christianity. For example, rather than addressing the question “What is the Gospel? (the objective, historical facts), we frequently ask “What is the Gospel TO ME?” (that is, what do we experience or feel). When witnessing, we’ll talk about why it is frequently more comfortable in our culture to share “our testimony” (that is, our experience) as opposed to giving THE testimony (about the facts of what Jesus did and why He did it).
  • Our Sunday gatherings, including how “Worship” is being redefined and becoming about our service – even performance – for God rather than His provision for us in the Gospel
  • The drift in membership process expectations from “Believe, Belong, Become” to “Belong, Become, then Believe”
  • We’ll talk about how our methodology reveals and supports our theology, which we will argue is becoming therapeutic rather than theological in focus
  • We’ll discuss the individualization of what we believe combined with American entrepreneurialism has fostered an explosion in new churches – many with little historical/theological or even personal leadership accountability.

In examining the “Methodology” we use, we’ll ask these questions:
  • Is American Evangelicalism increasingly a movement with political, environmental, psychological, or other TEMPORAL focus (along with a sentimental attachment to the image of Jesus) more than a witness to Jesus Christ and Him Crucified?
  • Are we more about Kingdom building than Gospel proclaiming?
  • To what extent does the American “pragmatic” mindset infect the American Church and its practice?

I disagree with those who say that we have the correct doctrine but are not living it out. As an evangelical movement, though, there is growing evidence that our doctrine has been forgotten, assumed, ignored and even misshapen and distorted by the narcissistic culture in which we live.

3. To be clear, we are NOT saying that:
… we have “arrived” at Christless Christianity
… there are no good people or works or
… many people aren’t zealous in what they are doing.
… we will deal with ALL of the issues – for example, identification with right or left wing politics is a symptom, not THE problem

4. We will deal with these questions:
  • Is Jesus Christ and the Gospel proclaimed? (even in a culture which polls tell us over ½ of which is Evangelical)?
  • Is the “Gospel” commonly understood?
  • If it is correctly identified, is it a means to an end – like personal transformation or social transformation, love and service to our neighbors, the least and lost, etc. – or is it THE END in itself?
  • Is what is proclaimed in the pulpits today “The Gospel”?
  • Do we need “The Gospel” preached after conversion?
  • To what extent to “mission” and “relevance” trump or overshadow the Gospel?

In conclusion, I’m not coming at the from a “High Horse” position. In many respects, the Evangelical church is what I spent much of my life helping to build. John Stott, who’s ministry has been a hallmark of Evangelicalism, has “embodied [the] integration of Christ-centered proclamation with missional passion” over the post World War II period. When asked, though, by Christianity Today to describe how he would evaluation the Evangelical movement to which he spent so much of his life and ministry contributing, “Stott could only reply, ‘the answer is growth without depth.’”

There have been, over my adult life, many calls to “reformation in the Church” from Robert Schuller’s call in the 1980s for a reformation of Self-Esteem to Rick Warren’s more recent call this decade for a reformation of “deeds vs. creeds.” I’m convinced that we are at a turning point in the history of the American church – and it will be up to you to decide where we go… will we continue on the road we’re on now (to which history may suggest dire consequences) or will we return to the message of the Gospel itself in our proclamation and practice?

So join us when you’re in town or available at Glen Ellyn Bible Church at 11:10am Sunday mornings as we explore Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church. If you’d like more information about the book, go to

Supplemental reading: Christless Christianity: Getting In Christ's Way by Michael S. Horton

Additional materials and podcast available at the White Horse Inn (

(Quotes above from Chapter 1 of the book.)


“’Christless’ Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church”

(Jan 25) Introduction - Can Christianity be “Christless”?
(Feb 1) The American Church in Captivity: Naming the Issue
(Feb 8) The Message of Christless Christianity, Part 1: What’s Man’s Problem?
(Feb 15) The Message of Christless Christianity, Part 2: What’s God’s Solution?
(Feb 22) Biblical Authority and “Your Own Personal Jesus”
(Mar 1) Bringing Christ to Our Culture, Part 1: The Message – Law vs. Gospel
(Mar 15) Bringing Christ to Our Culture, Part 2: The Medium – “Doing” Church
(Mar 22) Conclusion – A Way Forward

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