After my last article on the Rise campaign and the Redeemer City to City church planting, I received comments that fell into two main categories. One group expressed concern over the churches that have been planted so far. The other group saw no problems and were happy that the gospel is being spread in New York. In this post, I’d like to address both groups.
First, yes, I am concerned about the churches that are being planted through Redeemer City to City and for various reasons. The majority of the churches that have been planted so far are outside our denomination (PCA) and our sister denominations (NAPARC). Many of the churches hold to doctrines and distinctives that are at odds with what our denomination teaches. The evidence from the Rise campaign and the various church websites is that the gospel being proclaimed is more social justice gospel and less Biblical gospel.
When I say that the majority of the churches are not PCA (or other NAPARC denominations), my concern is not promoting my “tribe.” The spread of the gospel through faithful churches is a very good thing. I view other Christian churches, not as competition, but as brothers and sisters in Christ. I’m thankful for the work they do and the people they reach. I’m willing to pray for them and to work together with them in taking care of the needs of our communities. I recognize that godly men and women can disagree on various theological distinctives, and I don’t lament the need for denominations.
What concerns me is that when elders in our denominations take their vows they vow that they believe that the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms “contain the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures.” If you believe that to be true, why would you want to plant churches that teach views contrary to “the system of doctrine taught in the” Bible? And these are not minor disagreements.
On the issue of baptism, the Redeemer City to City churches cover a wide range of beliefs. Some are paedobaptist. A couple have statements that indicate a level of belief in baptismal regeneration. Most are credobaptist. They believe that in order to be a Christian you must be baptized, by immersion, after making a profession of faith. Those who are baptized by sprinkling and those who were baptized as infants are not considered properly baptized and would have to be rebaptized in order to be received as members.
What that means is that my children who were baptized as infants and who have made professions of faith and been received as communing members could not become members or take communion at these churches. Why would you plant churches that would deny your children were baptized Christians? Despite the talk of cooperation and unity for the city, ultimately our covenant children would be excluded.
The other concern with planting churches outside our denomination is the issue of oversight. What happens when a Redeemer City to City church misbehaves? Is there any structure to protect the members of the congregations from a wicked pastor? Is there any protection of the other Redeemer City to City churches if one of the churches becomes known for rejecting Biblical truth?
I know that church polity and church discipline are not well-liked topics these days, and I know that discipline can be abused. But the structures that we have in Presbyterian churches were designed to protect the congregations and to protect the purity of the Church. Given the Redeemer City to City church that sees no problem with a gay man leading the Pastor’s small group, the concern over oversight is not merely academic.
Some will ask why these things matter as long as the gospel is being proclaimed. In answer to that, I have two points. First, if we believe that our doctrines and distinctives are faithful to Scripture, wouldn’t we want others to be taught in the most faithful way? Don’t we love others enough to want them to understand the Scriptures as we’ve been taught? Not to build our “tribe,” but so that they would worship and glorify God through their faith. Doctrine matters, and it has a profound effect on our lives and our relationships.
Second, what is the gospel being spread through the Redeemer City to City churches? I do believe that Redeemer and many of the other churches love the Lord and proclaim salvation faithfully. But in the Rise literature and in the materials from many of the City to City churches, the message is one of flourishing, justice, and making New York a better place.
Those are not bad goals. In fact, who would disagree with them? These are extremely popular ideas right now regardless of religious background. If you asked a pagan, an atheist, and a Buddhist, very likely they would all agree with a message of cultural renewal and social justice.
The Rise campaign explains their vision and purpose for planting churches:
We’re doing this for our city. Our longing is to see New York—and everyone in it—flourish. We believe the best way to serve the city is to embody the gospel in every neighborhood. The gospel doesn’t just change individual lives; it advances the common good. The increase in philanthropy, mercy, justice, racial reconciliation, integrity, and hope that occurs when more and more people live out the gospel is good for all of society, not just the body of Christ.
“Philanthropy, mercy, justice, racial reconciliation, integrity, and hope” are good things. But ultimately none of these things are the purpose of the Church. We are to be ambassadors for Christ calling people to repent and believe. Without reconciliation with God, which is only possible through faith in Christ, all the good things in the world are worthless. Our deepest needs are forgiveness of sins and peace with God. We cannot forget our mission as believers and as the Church.
All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corithians 5:18-20, ESV)
As these verses say, God is reconciling the world to himself, but our message is to implore people to be reconciled to God through Christ for the forgiveness of our sins and for His glory. What good are we as the Church if we are simply one more improvement program for the city?
And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. (Luke 9:23-26, ESV)
If we aren’t preaching a message of salvation by faith alone, through Christ alone, by grace alone, we are not doing the lost around us any favors. What does it matter if the city is a lovely place if the people are still going to die and go to hell? Yes, let’s work towards better cities, but not at the expense of the souls of our neighbors. That’s not love.
The last thing I want to consider is the disservice we are doing to the people in our congregations if we are preaching a message of social justice and not one of salvation by faith through Christ. In the coming years, professing faith in Christ is likely to become more and more dangerous. Standing for the faith may mean losing your job or home or family.
If we are bringing people in with a popular message of social justice and flourishing, what preparation are they going to have for persecution? Are they being prepared for suffering because they are Christians? And not suffering in the sense of sacrificing their time and money, etc to minister to others, but being reviled and hated by the world simply because they serve Christ.
We should not forget that the world is going to hate us because it hates Him. No matter how kind we are or how much good we do, we are believers and the world is at enmity with Him. Let us love our neighbors enough to tell them the truth of their separation from God and their need of salvation from their sins. And let us love our congregations enough to prepare them for suffering.
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And “If the righteous is scarcely saved,what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good. (1 Peter 4:12-19, ESV)
I would love to see Redeemer City to City focus all of their resources to planting and training pastors in our denomination. There is such a need for Reformed churches throughout our country. We need good churches proclaiming the gospel. There are so many lost people who need to hear the good news of salvation and forgiveness of sins.
A day is coming when our work will be tested. Are we building on His foundation?
For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Corinthians 3:11-15, ESV)