How Biblical Theology Guards and Guides Churches
Biblical theology is a way of reading the Bible. It is a hermeneutic. It assumes that Scripture’s many authors and many books are telling one story by one divine author—about Christ.
Sound slightly academic? It is, but… The discipline of biblical theology is essential to guarding and guiding your church. It guards churches against false stories and wrong paths. It guides the church toward better preaching, better practices, better paths.
BIBLICAL THEOLOGY AS CHURCH GUARD
Think, for instance, of theological liberalism. It recasts the narrative of salvation as God’s work to overcome, say, economic injustice or the self-centered political conscience. Such redemptive storylines may not be all wrong, but they remind me of how one of my daughters will narrate a fight with her sister. She will speak truth, but she will also omit details, redistribute emphases, make tenuous interpretive connections.
So it is with the narratives of liberalism and the Bible’s gospel storyline. And so it is with Roman Catholicism, where the priests and sacraments play a mediatorial role that smacks heavily of the old covenant. Or with the prosperity gospel, which also imports elements of the old covenant into the new, only it’s talk of blessing. Other groups don’t bring the redemptive past into the present, they bring the redemptive future into the now. Once upon a time it was the perfectionist Anabaptists who thought they could bring heaven to earth right quick. The progressive liberals tried this a century ago. Now it is those who are hopped-up on transforming culture that offer subtle re-narrations. The list is long, whether we are thinking of “Christian” cults like Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses, or movements within churches such as the social gospel, liberation theology, American messianism, or some forms of fundamentalist separatism. Some better, some worse.
The point is, imbalanced (or false) gospels and imbalanced (or false) churches are built either on narratively-mindless “proof texts” or on whole stories gone awry. Either they wrongly connect the Bible’s major covenants; or they have too much continuity or too much discontinuity; or they fail to distinguish type from antitype; or they under-realize or over-realize their eschatology. Maybe they promise heaven on earth now; maybe they disembody the spiritual life now. In each case, bad or imbalanced biblical theologies proclaim a bad or imbalanced gospel, and such gospels build bad or imbalanced churches.
Meanwhile, good biblical theology guards the gospel and guards a church. “A robust biblical theology tends to safeguard Christians against the most egregious reductionisms,” says D. A. Carson.
That means it’s a pastors job (i) to know good biblical theology and (ii) have some sense of the bad biblical theologies that impact people walking into his church. Today, many of those folk have been weaned on some version of the prosperity gospel. Can you explain why that milk is bad?
BIBLICAL THEOLOGY AS CHURCH GUIDE
But biblical theology is not just a guard, it’s a guide—a guide to good preaching, good outreach and engagement, good corporate worship, good church structures, and the healthy Christian life.
A Guide to Good Preaching
When you sit down to study a text and prepare a sermon, biblical theology keeps you from proof texting or telling an imbalanced story of redemption. It places each text in the right canonical context, and helps you to see what your text has to do with the person and work of Christ. It wards off moralism so that one preaches Christian sermons. It rightly relates indicative and imperative, and faith and works. It teaches evangelistic exposition. It ensures that every sermon is part of the big story. In short, pastor, you need biblical theology to do the most important thing in your job: preach and teach God’s Word.
A Guide to Good Outreach and Engagement
Turning to think about a church’s outreach and engagement with the world outside, biblical theology rightly balances our expectations between expecting too much (over-realized eschatology) or demanding too little (cheap grace, easy-believism, belonging-before-believing, not preaching the imperative).
Good biblical theology will not promise our best life now (whether that means health and wealth, transforming the city, winning the favor of the elite, or retaking America). But nor does it shy away from engaging culture and seeking the good of the city in deed ministry for the sake of love and justice.
It makes word outreach (evangelism and missions) primary, but it does not falsely separate word and deed. These are inseparable for the church’s witness and mission, as the storyline from Adam to Abraham to Israel to David to Christ to church makes clear.
A Guide to Good Corporate Worship
Is David’s naked ark-of-the-covenant dance normative for church gatherings? No? How about the incense used by Old Testament priests, or the use of instruments and choirs, or “making sacrifices” for various holidays, or the reading and explaining of the biblical text? A right biblical theology helps to answer what to bring into the new covenant era and what to leave in the old.
Much depends, again, on how one puts together the covenants, one’s approach to continuity and discontinuity, and one’s understanding of Christ’s work of fulfillment. It also depends on one’s understanding of what Christ’s gathered church has been authorized to do.
All this may sound academic, pastor, but your practices depend upon some biblical theology. The question is, have you thought through which?
A Guide to Good Church Structures
By the same token, the storyline of Scripture requires us to pay attention to matters of continuity and discontinuity for how we organize our churches. In terms of continuity, God’s people have always and an inside and an outside, which means we need to practice membership and discipline. In terms of discontinuity, the leaders of God’s people change dramatically from the old covenant to new. First, all of God’s people become priests. Second, God’s elders are undershepherds who feed the flock through the Word.
No doubt, the question of who can be a church member depends on biblical theology. Is membership just for believers, or believers and their children? It depends on the amount of continuity and discontinuity you see between circumcision and baptism.
A Guide to the Healthy Christian Life
Finally, it’s worth considering the significance of biblical theology for the healthy Christian life, and how that life connects to the local church.
In the story of the exodus, redemption was corporate. But in the New Testament, redemption is individual, right? Well, it depends on how one understands the relationship between the old covenant and new, and what Christ accomplishes in the new. Might one not argue that the existence of a covenantal head requires a covenantal people (see Jer. 31:33; 1 Peter 2:10)? What’s more, Paul seems to argue that the dividing wall of partition between Jew and Gentile fell and that “one new man” was created in precisely the same moment that sinners were reconciled to God (Eph. 2:11-22; for more on the corporate aspects of conversion, see here).
If it’s true that salvation in the New Testament is directed toward a people every bit as much as in the Old, even if every individual’s experience of that salvation occurs at different times and not together as in the exodus, then it would seem that the Christian life is fundamentally corporate. And growth is corporate. And life in the faith is corporate. It was dad who adopted me, but he adopted me into a family, so that being his son or daughter means being their brother or sister.
Well, this corporate reality has countless implications for everything in a church’s teaching, fellowship, and culture. A primary goal for the existence of a local church—if this biblical theological account is correct—is simply to be a church. It’s to be this new family, new people, new nation, new culture, new body. So much of spiritual growth is not about what I do in my quiet times; it’s how I learn to take on the new identity as a family member.
On the other hand, it’s easy to imagine a biblical theology that overemphasizes the individual at the expense of the body (as some conservative theologies can do) or overemphasizes corporate and societal structures at the expense of individual culpability (as some liberal theologies do).
Furthermore, your understanding of that storyline helps you to know what to expect of your fellow members: how much righteousness, how much victory over sin, how much spiritual healing for the victim of injustice, how much restoration in broken relationships. The shape of the biblical storyline—as you understand it—will shape your approach to tragedy and evil and righteousness as you encounter it in your life and others.
In other words, a right biblical theology leads to an already/not yet vision of the Christian life. It’s easy to err toward too much “already” or too much “not yet.”
Bottom line: a right biblical theology offers a trustworthy guide to the Christian life, particularly as that life relates to the local church. And it guards the church against wrong emphases, wrong expectations, and a wrong evangel.
By Jonathan Leeman
Jonathan Leeman is the Editorial Director of 9Marks, and an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church in Cheverly, Maryland.