Tag Archives: Lord’s Supper

In Which I Am Surprised to Agree With John Nelson Darby

I just finished a book called The Scofield Bible: Its History and Impact on the Evangelical Church, by R. Todd Mangum and Mark S. Sweetham. I recommend the book. It is slightly repetitive at points, perhaps because of the joint authorship, and it might be more engaging if it offered more specific examples and fewer general observations. But it is a very informative and apparently fair discussion of both the Scofield Bible (1909) and the man who created it, Cyrus Ingerson Scofield (1843-1921).

Readers are sure to learn something new about one of the most powerful influences that have shaped the modern American evangelical landscape. I also noted parallels between Scofield’s project and the theological and publishing efforts of Mennonite fundamentalists of the same era, such as Daniel Kauffman. In both cases, I believe, the church was almost certainly better off thanks to the efforts of such leaders. Yet their best intentions and most helpful efforts were unintentionally marred by significant weaknesses only clearly visible after subsequent generations used their writings. This is both encouraging and sobering for writers today.

Scofield was a skilled Bible teacher, but rarely original. His many influences include the Geneva Bible (the first annotated English Bible, millenial in nature rather than ammillenial as Catholics of the time), James Ussher’s historical dating system (adopted by Scofield though modified by the “gap theory” in Genesis 1), European evangelicalism (perhaps including Isaac Watt’s musings on dispensations, which nearly match Scofield’s), John Nelson Darby (dispensational promoter of a two-stage return of Christ and a secret rapture), Southern Presbyterianism (turning from postmillenialism to the more pessimistic premillenialism after losses in the Civil War and advocating the curse of Ham—the idea that black people are destined to be servants), and the American fundamentalist-evangelical movement of which he was a part (which included prophecy conferences).

These are some of his most prominent influences, but I’m only providing a sample of examples of how these influences shaped Scofield.

For the rest of this post I want to focus on one of Scofield’s influences, J. N. Darby (1800-1882, a leader among the Plymouth Brethren in Ireland), and on only one of his themes, the nature of the church—since this theme directly relates to a main theme of my blog.

In short, Darby’s beliefs about the church shaped his beliefs about prophecy. And what surprised me is that, while I disagree with many of Darby’s beliefs about prophecy, I identify with some of his thinking about church.

First, some excerpts from the book by Mangum and Sweetam:

One of the most interesting things about the way in which Darby’s interpretation of prophetic Scripture emerged is that his development of dispensationalism was a result of his disaffection with the ecclesiastical status quo. Especially in light of his later complaints that those he spoke to during his visits to the United States enthusiastically absorbed his prophetic teaching while ignoring almost entirely his views on church order, it is important to not that with Darby eschatology followed from (and was an implication of) ecclesiology. (pp. 65-66, bold added)

In the years following his conversion, Darby became increasingly disenchanted with the Church of Ireland… The primary cause is clear. While studying Scripture, Darby became increasingly dismayed with the Erastian nature of the Church of Ireland—its status as the established church of the state. (pp. 64-65, bold added)

Erastian: “of, characterized by, or advocating the doctrine of state supremacy in ecclesiastical affairs” (Merriam-Webster dictionary). (The term is named after Thomas Erastus, a Zwinglian theologian who died in 1583.)

As I read this, I’m thinking: Darby sounds like a budding Anabaptist! The Anabaptists also rejected the church-state union promoted by magisterial reformers such as Zwingli.

More from Mangum and Sweetnam:

The Church of Ireland during this period enjoyed a unique position. Like the Church of England, it was the church established by law enjoying a special relationship with the apparatus of the British rule in Ireland. (p. 65)

This special relationship between the Protestant Church of Ireland and the British government led to oppression of the Catholic majority in Ireland, causing growing unrest.

Darby’s disgust and anger grew when his archbishop directed that oaths of allegiance to the British Commonwealth be imposed on anyone joining the church. Catholic conversions [which had been plentiful under Darby’s gospel preaching] completely dried up as religious faith became conflated and confused with political allegiance. (p. 65, bold added)

It was ecclesiological concern that led to Darby’s rethinking of prophecy. Up to this point, he seems to have held to [a] sort of postmillennial scheme… His own evangelistic efforts were a key part of the global spread of the gospel, which would eventually bring about the millennial bliss and the conditions for Christ’s return. His archbishop’s action and its consequences were probably not the only thing that changed this. But they did prove to be the legendary straw that broke the camel’s back. In the aftermath of these events, Darby became deeply pessimistic about the future of the world and disillusioned about the prospects of global evangelization and the growing success of the gospel…

Considerations on the Nature and Unity of the Church of Christ (1828) was Darby’s first tract, and it outlined his emerging understanding of the nature of the church. Christ’s church, Darby argued, was spiritual in nature. Its unity was not, could not, be the product of human effort—it was a work of the Spirit alone. The Church of Ireland was following a path well worn by the churches through the centuries, a path that led to involvement in human power and civil government and away from the pristine simplicity of dependence on the Holy Spirit. These churches had fallen from their original position because they had lost sight of their heavenly calling and had become mired in human mechanism…

Darby gave practical expression to these views by resigning his curacy… He was discovering an alternative ecclesiology shaped by insights similar to his own, which were emerging in the small gatherings of believers that were eventually to develop into the Brethren movement.

By the time Darby’s first writing on prophecy was published in 1829—Reflections upon “The Prophetic Inquiry” and the Views Advanced in Ithe had, in line with his pessimistic view of the health of the church, adopted a clearly premillennial position. (pp. 66-67, bold added)

Up to this point, Darby still sounds like he could be one of the early Anabaptists. They, too, insisted on separation of church and state, and at least some of them held premillennial understandings. (I am not informed enough to be more specific than this on Anabaptist prophetic understandings.)

But as Darby further developed his prophetic understanding, he developed views very different from the early Anabaptists—views which some Anabaptists today promote, however, thanks in part to the mediating influence of the Scofield Bible.

One of the most important features of the dispensationalism that developed from Darby and that would be embodied in Scofield’s notes is the recognition of a distiction between Israel and the church… The longer tradition of Reformed exegesis had postulated a supersessionist, or replacement theology, mode of exegesis. Broadly speaking, this suggested that Israel had been replaced by the church as the people of God, its promises and position handed over wholesale because of their failure of obedience. This understanding of the relationship between God’s people in the Old Testament and in the New Testament was a standard feature of most biblical interpretation from the medieval period, through the magisterial reformers, and down to the present day. (pp. 69-70)

While the Anabaptists agreed that it was now the church, not ethnic Israel, who were the people of God, they differed from the magisterial reformers in their understanding of the Christian’s relationship to the OT. The magisterial reformers looked to the OT to support practices such as military participation and infant baptism, but the Anabaptists insisted more strongly that Christ’s teachings superseded the Law of Moses.

Both the Anabaptists and Darby were concerned that the “flat Bible” approach of the magisterial reformers was a problem, and that it supported a state-church union, which was also a problem. The church did not hold exactly the same position as Israel had. But Darby’s theological solution to this misunderstanding was different from the Anabaptist solution.

In his view this conflation of two distinct groups [Israel and the church] whom God had dealt with in different ways was little sort of disastrous. It was this mistake that underwrote the Erastianism [state-church union] that had so concerned him in earlier years; it was this mistake that obscured the church’s heavenly calling and nature. Israel had been, continued to be, and eternally would be God’s earthly people—his purposes for them would be worked out on earth. The church was a heavenly entity, entirely separate from Israel, and with a prospect that was purely heavenly…

This distinction between the peoples of God and his deep pessimism about the prospects of the contemporary church led Darby to the dispensations that gave their name to dispensationalism. (p. 70, bold added)

In summary: For the Anabaptists, there was both continuity and discontinuity between Israel and the church. The continuity was rooted in the church’s identity as the children of Abraham, trusting in Christ just as Abraham trusted in God’s promise, thus becoming heirs of the promises given to Abraham. The discontinuity was found in how Christ and the apostles interpreted these OT promises, with the kingdom of God (spiritual Israel) being now not an earthly kingdom but a heavenly one. Like the magisterial reformers, the Anabaptists did not seem to see any special role for ethnic Israel after the coming of Christ. Unlike them, they did not believe that the church inherited the political and military role that national Israel had carried. (I am making generalizations here, and writing from memory as an amateur, so I invite your help if you want to add nuance to this historical summary.)

Darby’s solution to the church-state problem was different from either the Anabaptists or the magisterial reformers. Rather than positing an end to God’s special purposes for ethnic Israel, he separated the church and Israel entirely. God had contrasting but ongoing plans for both, so that the church and Israel run on separate but parallel tracks until the end of the age, each with different duties and hopes.

Thus Darby and the Anabaptists came to theological understandings that were very different. Yet both understandings accomplished one same result: the division of the church-state union.

I was familiar with Darby’s prophetic conclusions, but did not know about his concept of church. To complete this post, I’d like to share some excerpts I particularly enjoy from Darby’s first tract, Considerations on the Nature and Unity of the Church of Christ (bold added):

It is not a formal union of the outward professing bodies [church denominations] that is desirable; indeed it is surprising that reflecting Protestants should desire it: far from doing good, I conceive it would be impossible that such a body could be at all recognised as the church of God. It would be a counterpart to Romish unity; we should have the life of the church and the power of the word lost, and the unity of spiritual life utterly excluded. Whatever plans may be in the order of Providence, we can only act upon the principles of grace; and true unity is the unity of the Spirit, and it must be wrought by the operation of the Spirit… The Reformation consisted not, as has been commonly said, in the institution of a pure form of church, but in setting up the word, and the great Christian foundation and corner stone of “Justification by faith,” in which believers might find life… He is an enemy to the work of the Spirit of God who seeks the interests of any particular denomination; and that those who believe in “the power and coming of the Lord Jesus Christ” ought carefully to keep from such a spirit; for it is drawing back the church to a state occasioned by ignorance and non-subjection to the word, and making a duty of its worst and antichristian results. This is a most subtle and prevailing mental disease, “he followeth not us [Mark 9:38],” even when men are really Christians. Let the people of God see if they be not hindering the manifestation of the church by this spirit. I believe there is scarcely a public act of Christian men (at any rate of the higher orders, or of those who are active in the nominal churches), which is not infected with this; but its tendency is manifestly hostile to the spiritual interests of the people of God, and the manifestation of the glory of Christ. Christians are little aware how this prevails in their minds; how they seek their own, not the things of Jesus Christ; and how it dries up the springs of grace and spiritual communion; how it precludes that order to which blessing is attached-the gathering together in the Lord’s name. No meeting, which is not framed to embrace all the children of God in the full basis of the kingdom of the Son, can find the fulness of blessing, because it does not contemplate it—because its faith does not embrace it.

Where two or three are gathered together in His name, His name is recorded there for blessing [Matt. 18:20]; because they are met in the fulness of the power of the unchangeable interests of that everlasting kingdom in which it has pleased the glorious Jehovah to glorify Himself, and to make His name and saving health known in the Person of the Son, by the power of the Spirit. In the name of Christ, therefore, they enter (in whatever measure of faith) into the full counsels of God, and are “fellow-workers under God.”… The Lord has made known His purposes in Him, and how those purposes are effected. “He hath made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself, that in the dispensation of the fulness of times, he should gather together in one all things in Christ, whether they be things in heaven, or things on earth, even in him, in whom we also have received an inheritance” [Eph. 1:9-11]—in one and in Christ. In Him alone therefore can we find this unity; but the blessed word (who can be thankful enough for it? will inform us further. It is as to its earthly members “gathering together in one, the children of God who are scattered abroad.” And how is this? “That one man should die for them.” [John 11:50-52] As our Lord in the vision of the fruit of the travail of His soul declares, “I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will drawn all men unto me: this he said signifying what death he should die.” [John 12:32] It is then Christ who will draw – will draw to Himself (and nothing short of or less than this can produce unity, “He that gathereth not with him, scattereth” [Matt. 12:30]); and draw to Himself by being lifted up from the earth. In a word, we find His death is the centre of communion till His coming again, and in this rests the whole power of truth. Accordingly, the outward symbol and instrument of unity is the partaking of the Lord’s supper – for we being many are one “bread, one body, for we are all partakers of that one bread.” [1 Cor. 10:17] And what does Paul declare to be the true intent and testimony of that rite? That whensoever “ye eat this bread and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come.” [1 Cor. 11:26] Here then are found the character and life of the church, that into which it is called, that in which the truth of its existence subsists, and in which alone is true unity. It is showing forth the Lord’s death, by the efficiency of which they were gathered, and which is the fruitful seed of the Lord’s own glory; which is indeed the gathering of His body, “the fulness of him that filleth all in all” [Eph. 1:23]; and shewing it forth in the assurance of His coming, “when he shall come to be glorified in his saints and to be admired in all them that believe.” [2 Thess. 1:10] Accordingly the essence and substance of unity, which will appear in glory at His coming, is conformity to His death, by which that glory was all wrought…

Unity, the unity of the church, to which “the Lord added daily such as should be saved” [Acts 2:47]…, was when none said anything was his own, and “their conversation was in heaven” [Phil. 3:20]; for they could not be divided in the common hope of that. It knit men’s hearts together by necessity. The Spirit of God has left it upon record, that division began about the goods of the church, even in their best use, on the part of those interested in them; for there could be division, there could be selfish interests. Am I desiring believers to correct the churches? I am beseeching them to correct themselves, by living up, in some measure, to the hope of their calling. I beseech them to shew their faith in the death of the Lord Jesus, and their boast in the glorious assurance which they have obtained by it, by conformity to it – to shew their faith in His coming, and practically to look for it by a life suitable to desires fixed upon it. Let them testify against the secularity and blindness of the church; but let them be consistent in their own conduct.

While the spirit of the world prevails (and how much it prevails, I am persuaded few believers are at all aware) spiritual union cannot subsist… For, let us ask, is the church of God as believers would have it? Do we not believe that it was, as a body, utterly departed from Him? Is it restored so that He would be glorified in it at His appearing? Is the union of believers such as He marks to be their peculiar characteristic? Are there not unremoved hindrances? Is there not a practical spirit of worldliness in essential variance with the true termini of the gospel – the death and coming again of the Lord Jesus as Saviour?…

Unity is the glory of the church; but unity to secure and promote our own interests is not the unity of the church, but confederacy and denial of the nature and hope of the church. Unity, that is of the church, is the unity of the Spirit, and can only be in the things of the Spirit, and therefore can only be perfected in spiritual persons. It is indeed the essential character of the church, and this strongly testifies to the believer its present state. But, I ask, if the professing church seeks worldly interests, and if the Spirit of God be amongst us, will it then be the minister of unity in such pursuits as these? If the various professing churches seek it, each for itself, no answer need be given. But if they unite in seeking a common interest, let us not be deceived; it is no better, if it be not the work of the Lord. There are two things which we have to consider. First, Are our objects in our work exclusively the Lord’s objects, and no other? If they have not been such in bodies separate from each other, they will not be in any union of them together. Let the Lord’s people weigh this. Secondly, let our conduct be the witness of our objects. If we are not living in the power of the Lord’s kingdom, we certainly shall not be consistent in seeking its ends. Let it enter our minds, while we are all thinking what good thing we may do to inherit eternal life, to sell all that we have, take up our cross, and follow Christ…

So far as men pride themselves on being Established, Presbyterian, Baptist, Independent, or anything else, they are antichristian. How then are we to be united? I answer, it must be the work of the Spirit of God. Do you follow the testimony of that Spirit in the word as is practically applicable to your consciences, lest that day take you unawares?… Professed churches (especially those established) have sinned greatly in insisting on things indifferent and hindering the union of believers, and this charge rests heavily on the hierarchies of the several churches. Certainly order is necessary; but where they said, ‘the things are indifferent and nothing in themselves: therefore you must use them for our pleasure’s sake,’ the word of the Spirit of Christ says, ‘they are indifferent: therefore we will yield to your weakness, and not offend a brother for whom Christ died.’ Paul would have eaten no meat while the world endured, if it had hurt the conscience of a weak brother, though the weak brother was in the wrong. And why insisted on? Because they gave distinction and place in the world. If the pride of authority and the pride of separation were dissolved (neither of which are of the Spirit of Christ), and the word of the Lord taken as the sole practical guide, and sought to be acted up to by believers, we shall be spared much judgment, though we shall not perhaps find altogether the glory of the Lord, and many a poor believer, on whom the eye of the Lord is set for blessing, would find comfort and rest… Let believers remove the hindrances to the Lord’s glory, which their own inconsistencies present, and by which they are joined to the world, and their judgments perverted. Let them commune one with another, seeking His will from the word, and see if a blessing do not attend it; at any rate it will attend themselves; they will meet the Lord as those that have waited for Him, and can rejoice unfeignedly in His salvation…

Let me ask the professing churches, in all love, one question. They have often professed to the Roman Catholics, and truly too, their unity in doctrinal faith, why then is there not an actual unity? If they see error in each other, ought they not to be humbled for each other? Why not, as far as was attained, mind the same rule, speak the same thing; and if in anything there was diversity of mind (instead of disputing on the footing of ignorance), wait in prayer, that God might reveal this also unto them. Ought not those who love the Lord amongst them, to see if they could not discern a cause? Yet I well know that, till the spirit of the world be purged from amongst them, unity cannot be, nor believers find safe rest…

I would solemnly repeat what I said before – the unity of the church cannot possibly be found till the common object of those who are members of it is the glory of the Lord, who is the Author and finisher of its faith: a glory which is to be made known in its brightness at His appearing, when the fashion of this world shall pass away, and therefore acted up to and entered upon in spirit when we are planted together in the likeness of His death. Because unity can, in the nature of things, be there only; unless the Spirit of God who brings His people together, gather them for purposes not of God, and the counsels of God in Christ come to nought. The Lord Himself says, “That they all may be one; as thou Father art in me and I in thee, that they also may be one in us; that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them, that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.” [John 17:21-23]

Oh that the church would weigh this word, and see if their present state do not preclude necessarily their shining in the glory of the Lord, or of fulfilling that purpose for which they were called. And I ask them, do they at all look for or desire this? or are they content to sit down and say, that His promise is come utterly to an end for evermore?

Yet will He surely gather His people and they shall be ashamed.

I have gone beyond my original intention in this paper; if I have in anything gone beyond the measure of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, I shall thankfully accept reproof, and pray God to make it forgotten.


While I admit that I wish some of Darby’s prophetic teachings would disappear (including from among Anabaptists), I am thankful that this tract of Darby’s was not forgotten. I might nuance a few things differently. But what a powerful call to examine our own hearts! Are we conformed to Christ’s death in a manner that will make true Christian unity possible?

I invite your response. Did you learn anything that surprised you about Darby or Scofield? Do you resonate with Darby’s words about the unity of the church? Share your insights in the comments below.


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A Traitor Comes to the Table [Poem by Mom]

Someday, we will feast in radiance at the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:6-8)! Until then we often come to the table in clothes that are torn or stained. But we come hungry, nonetheless, needing the nourishment that is offered at the Lord’s Supper.

When we come to the table with stained clothes, and surrounded by others who do not yet shine as they ought, our participation must be an act of repentance and faith. It brings sorrow as well as humble gratitude. These emotions are shared yet deeply personal. My mother expresses some of these emotions in the following poem.

God bless you as you read—and as you eat of Christ’s flesh and drink of his blood. He can wash your garments anew as you partake of his feast (1 John 1:9).


Before Jesus died, He prayed that we who believe in Him might all be one. He left us a memorial service with emblems that typify unity and oneness. But sadly his followers have experienced disunity and division for centuries. How do we approach His table when our local body is not experiencing the communion of heart that we long for or when members have been torn away from fellowship?

I have felt betrayed at times as part of the body of Christ. I have come to the Communion table with a broken heart. But it is good for me to remember the first Lord’s Supper and what happened that night. That was the night that Jesus was betrayed into the hands of sinners—betrayed all the way to the cross. It is His body that is broken again and again when His church on earth does not experience peace. And most personally—it is crucial for me to focus on the humbling truth that it was my sins that sent Jesus to the cross. Even if there had been no other sinners to be saved, my sins were great enough to demand a Calvary, and Jesus’ love was great enough that He would have died for love of me alone.

It is my own heart I examine as I approach the table. It is my own betrayal of Christ that I acknowledge, and my own gratitude for His forgiving sacrifice that I celebrate.

–Elaine Gingrich, November 13, 2015


A TRAITOR COMES TO THE TABLE

The very night He was betrayed
Our Lord took bread and wine–
These earthy emblems, common food,
Embodied the divine.

A perfect body, perfect life
Was given to be broken.
With longing He embraced the cross
Where His love would be spoken.

The hand of him who will betray
Is with me on the table.
He hands the bread to me to eat!
“Oh Lord, I am not able!”

My sins betrayed the Holy One
To sacrificial death.
Forgiveness flowed from wounds and words
Until His dying breath.

A living bread, a bleeding bread.
My flesh gives life to you.
I, the betrayer, take and eat
And find His offer true.

—Elaine Gingrich, November 18, 2007, Communion Sunday


For the rest of the poems in this monthly series, see here.

And if you enjoyed this poem, leave a comment here for Mom, or send her an email at MomsEmailAddressImage.php.  Thanks!


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A Fellowship of Differents — McKnight (Review)

McKnight, Scot. A Fellowship of Differents: Showing the World God’s Design for Life Together. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2014). 265 pp. Publisher’s description. (Amazon new price: $15.92 hardcover, $7.99 Kindle, cheaper used.) A Fellowship of Differents: Showing the World God's Design for Life Together

This idea, that Paul’s mission was a mixed assembly of differents, lies at the core of my beliefs about how the whole Bible works… Are we willing to embrace the diversity of the church as the very thing God most wants? (pp. 89, 91, italics in original, bold added)

The need for the the Church to become more unified is, thankfully, receiving some long-overdue attention. This book is NT scholar Scot McKnight’s contribution to the topic.

A Fellowship of Differents: Showing the World God's Design for Life Together

McKnight is widely-known in at least three ways: As a blogger, as an author of biblical commentaries, and as an author of popular-level books on the Christian life, the atonement, and Bible interpretation. This book falls into the third category: books written for the church rather than the academy. Prior to this book, I had only read McKnight via his other two categories: his blog and his commentaries.

My impression of McKnight prior to this book was mixed, and so is my impression of this book. (I have enjoyed McKnights’s emphasis on the kingdom of God, some of his challenges to Calvinist thinking, and his emphasis on the social and ethical aspects of Christian transformation. I am less than happy with things like his adoption of gender role egalitarianism or his promotion of evolutionary creationism.)

So, what do I think about A Fellowship of Differents?

Some things I like:

  • The emphasis that church life shapes our understanding of the the Christian life. Examples: Highly emotional revival meetings that call people to pray the Sinner’s Prayer might teach us to think of salvation as only a one-time event. Congregations where everyone looks the same (class, ethnicity) might lead us to overlook what the NT says about the radical social composition of Jesus’ Church. What I experience in church shapes what I think Christianity is all about.
  • The challenge to consider who is invisible both in the Church and in our congregations. McKnight mentions the Hampton Ministers’ Conference, “the longest running pastors’ conference in the USA, attended by seven thousand” (p. 18). I’d never heard of it. Neither had McKnight until recently. Why? Certainly, in part (there are also theological reasons), because McKnight and I are white while this 101-year-old conference focuses on the needs of the African-American church. Closer to home: Who might be invisible in my own congregation? Widows and widowers? Children? Races? Women? The poor? Urban? Suburban? Rural? (Win!) Those with higher education? Those with less? Those battling sexual temptation or confusion? Introverts? The abused? The depressed?
  • The challenge to get our of our just-like-me comfort zones. McKnight quotes a confession from Christena Cleveland from her recent book Disunity in Christ (which is also on my wish list): “I chose to build community with people with whom I could pretty much agree on everything” (p. 32). Ouch. Or this: “Genuine friendships, which are two-way, are always transformative. One reason, then, we don’t love those unlike us in the church is because we don’t want their presence rubbing off on us” (p. 59).
  • Helpful insights on the Lord’s Supper. I enjoyed the extended quotation of Justin Martyr’s record of a second-century Christian gathering. First came the Word, then came the Table, and then came Offerings. Woven through the whole account are clauses displaying Christian unity: “We always keep together… All who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place… We all rise together and pray… There is a distribution to each… and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons… we all hold our common assembly” (pp. 102-103). “The Eucharist—as an action, as symbols, as an event—gospels to all those who observe and to all those who participate” (p. 101). The gospel binds us together, and the Supper is to be eaten together (1 Cor. 11:33).
  • Some good exegesis and pastoral advice about same-sex attraction. McKnight includes a whole chapter on sexual matters, much of it devoted to the sub-topic of same-sex matters. I didn’t think the chapter was perfect, but it does reflect a clear stance both that same-sex acts are sinful and that the Church must grow in loving and supporting repentant same-sex Christians. I am glad to see McKnight speak clearly on this topic.
  • A powerful story from Greg Boyd about transformation by grace. The words “there is now no condemnation for them which are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1) were the key that led to Boyd’s gradual freedom from pornography (pp. 152-53).
  • A reminder that “the best way to be political is to be the church” (p. 187). Both “kingdom” and “church” were political terms, after all.
  • Some good quoteables. Such as: “Joy… is a church-shaped disposition. Only folks in the church can experience what Paul means by joy” (p. 234).

Some things I didn’t like:

  • Careless or inconsistent editing. Examples: The first line on the back cover is an endorsement that begins, “This is [sic] most important book…” (Missing “the.”) On pages 40 and 72 Bible references are unhelpfully buried in endnotes, though often included elsewhere in the main text. On page 52 McKnight says, “Take Paul at his word. Love is the ‘only thing that counts.'” Paul actually said “faith working through love” is the only thing that counts (Gal. 5:6). On page 70 we read, “Some elements of our covenant love commitment of presence include spending our evenings together…” The wording suggests a list, which never comes. On page 98 a story begins in present tense but switches mid-sentence to past tense. On page 141 we are promised some italicized words in a Bible quote, but none are included. More examples of awkward syntax are found on pages 227 and 228.
  • Exaggeration. Examples: “God has designed the church—and this is the heart of Paul’s mission—to be a fellowship of difference and difference” (p. 16). Was church diversity really the very heart of Paul’s mission? Is “the diversity of the church” really “the very thing God most wants” (see above)? Might we be missing a deeper goal that makes diversity meaningful and necessary? And is inclusion of differents really “the church’s biggest challenge” (p. 25)? Don’t get me wrong, I am fully on board that church diversity is a crucial implication of the core gospel message. But these kinds of overstatements put me on the defensive, making me weigh more carefully everything else the author writes.
  • A bit of self-promotion. McKnight describes a book written by a friend, called The Gospel of Yes. “It’s the best title of a book I’ve ever seen (except for The Blue Parakeet).” Which happens to be McKnight’s book.
  • Casual tone. I’m probably just the wrong reader for this book (on page 38 McKnight says “maybe you’ve not read Paul’s story enough to know the details”), but I confess some of these kind of try-to-make-you-laugh comments fall flat with me. Another example: On page 148 McKnight introduces the “circumcision party,” “which ought to be self-explanatory (#ouch).” After describing the circumcision party, he includes this “(#intimidating).” McKnight seemed concerned not to be too formal, so sometimes this book feels like a series of extended blog posts.
  • Uninformative chapter titles. A chapter called “Teacher with the Big Fancy Hat” turns out to be about suffering. Another called “On a Walk with Kris” turns out to be about joy. This might make you curious, but doesn’t help you trace the book’s big idea, nor review content later.
  • Unclear statements about God’s love. On page 34 McKnight quotes Romans 8:31 (“If God is for us, who can be against us?”). In context, Paul writes this to those who have been justified by faith and are walking in the Spirit. But McKnight’s application sounds more general: “God loves everyone.” On the following page he elaborates (in center-justified, bold text as follows) with words that sound more like Joel Osteen than Paul the apostle:

No matter what you have done,
not because you go to church,
not because you read your Bible,
not because folks think you are spiritual,

and

no matter what sins you have committed,
no matter how vicious or mean or vile they were,
no matter how calloused your heart and soul have become,

God loves you.

Not because you are good,
not because you do good things,
not because you are famous or have served others,
but because you are you.

To you, God has said Yes,
God is saying Yes,
and God will eternally say Yes.

God is for the You that is You.

  • Missing balance about church boundaries. McKnight says he originally planned to include a chapter on obedience (see here). I think this book would be much more balanced if it included such a chapter, along with a discussion of the role of church discipline when the diverse people who join our churches don’t faithfully follow the words and way of Jesus. I felt there were too many unqualified statements like this: “As long as one was on the journey toward sexual redemption, Paul was encouraging. At the house churches they didn’t put up a sign that said ‘For the Morally Kosher Only'” (p. 129). Or this: “What Jesus and the apostles taught was that you were welcomed because the church welcomed all to the table” (p. 17). In contrast, buried in a footnote are these words about the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper) from Justin Martyr: “No one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that  the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined” (p. 252). If only McKnight had included and discussed such things in his main text! To be fair, McKnight clarifies that love does not mean “toleration” (p. 130); it means helping another experience positive change. But I didn’t notice that McKnight anywhere said what to do if a person in the church resists or seems indifferent to any such growth in holiness.
  • Lack of discussion of the universal church. At one point McKnight writes, “I hope you agree with me that the hope for the world is the local church, and that the heart of God’s plan is found in creating a whole new society in a local church” (p. 188). Interestingly, Ben Witherington, a NT scholar and friend of McKnight, pushed back on this point: “At one point in the book, you say that the local church is the hope of the world. For a minute I thought that was a slip up, and you meant to say Christ is. Talk to us a bit about the interface between Christ and his body, between Christology and your vision of ecclesiology. For my part I would prefer to say that the local church at its best is simply the local expression of ‘the one true church apostolic and universal’. In other words I would not want to talk about church with a little c without talking about church with a big C, though I would agree that, like politics, in one sense all churches are local.” In a subsequent online conversation I had with Witherington, he agreed with me that part of the problem is our tendency to read the “membership” and “body of Christ” language in the NT as referring to the local church, when really such language strongly implies the universal church. There is only one Head of the Church, right? And a head can only have one body?
  • Strong (and poorly defended) assertions about gender equality. McKnight seems to feel that any distinction in gender roles is a denial of gender equality in Christ—a position that, barring hermeneutical gymnastics, leaves Paul contradicting himself. The following quote even suggests that God’s creation order falls short of his plan for us in Christ (this despite the fact that Paul repeatedly cites creation as the basis for his statements about gender roles!): “In creation God ‘gendered’ us into male and female, but in the new creation, God makes us one” (p. 90). You’d be hard pressed to find those two ideas connected with a “but” in the Bible, except perhaps by implication in Christ’s discussion of life after death. “Sexual differences” have “been transcended,” writes McKnight (p. 91). But I’m left without help to know how to such statements to what McKnight writes later: “One in Christ does not mean Paul ceases being male, nor does Junia cease being a female” (95). True, identity, gender or otherwise, is not eradicated in Christ. But, for McKnight, unlike Paul, identity apparently has nothing to do with roles. As has often been pointed out, such a re-reading of Paul also means that one has little hermeneutical basis for denying that Paul’s words affirm homosexual role relationships when he says that “there is no male and female” in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28). Enough on this for now.
  • Salad-bowl feel. Mcknight rightly wants us to adopt a vision of the church as a salad bowl full of diversity. Unfortunately his book felt like a bit of a salad bowl to me, as if he was pulling together a handful of semi-related topics for publication. (Is this true of McKnights earlier books? Or is this the symptom of a popular author who feels pressured to keep the books coming?) The title of the book suggests the book is about diversity and unity in the church. But the back cover suggests other themes: “McKnight shares his personal experience of church and offers to the church a thorough study of what the Apostle Paul writes about the Christian life… Ultimately, McKnight raises two significant questions: What is the church supposed to be? and If the church is what it is supposed to be, what does the Christian life look like?” Wow. with those questions, you can include about anything you want. I think this book would be more compelling if it focused more narrowly on unity and diversity in the church. For example: More hands-on stories of churches wrestling with diversity would help. I think the survey of Paul’s writings could have been more focused on this topic, as well. And sometimes when wide-ranging topics were included (love, grace, suffering, joy–all main themes of either chapters or whole parts of the book), a stronger and clearer connection should have been made with the theme of church diversity. On page 43, I scribbled in the margin, “What does this powerful story have to do with the book’s thesis?” The book could also be improved by a concluding chapter that ties the disparate themes together.

This book has good sections, but is not great.
I give it 3 out of 5 stars.

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