Some of the leaders of my home congregation are reading a book called Simple Church over the summer and invited others to read and join the conversation. So, I got a copy and read it. Here are my thoughts on it.
Rainer, Thom S. and Eric Geiger. Simple Church. B&H Publishing (Nashville): 2006.
There are countless books on how to fix what is wrong with churches. So, after years and years of different books, different theories, different strategies, why do many people conclude that there are still problems with churches that require additional approaches, additional books, additional theories? What makes Rainer and Geiger’s Simple Church the long-awaited return to “God’s process for making disciples”?
At one level, there is much praiseworthy to be said about Simple Church. Inasmuch as the it serves to call churches away from inundating themselves and their members with innumerable programs and opportunities. If it were possible for Lutheran Christians to take only this premise away from the book without also swallowing the false teachings that lie under the surface, the book would be safe to read and recommend.
But that’s not possible. Simple Church comes with too much bad-theology baggage. These false teachings are inseparable from the overarching themes of the book. You can’t buy just part of what Geiger and Rainer propose. You can’t import their thinking about what makes an effective church without also believing that churches can be more or less effective.
That’s where Simple Church presents an unhealthy view of “Church” for Lutherans, and it manifests itself in two ways: synergism and asacramentalism.
Synergism means “working together.” In most realms, working together is a good thing. In matters of salvation, when the co-workers are God and us, it’s a false, pernicious doctrine.
Rainer and Geiger have a synergistic view of the church that cannot be separated from their proposals to make the church simpler. The entire book rests on the premise that there are things church leaders can do to make the church more effective.
Ministers cannot be effective. Only God, working through His means of grace, is effective. Pastors and people can only be faithful.
Any suggestion that we can help or hurt the work of God through His Church is synergistic, implying we work alongside God in His work. We don’t.
A discussion like Rainer’s and Geiger’s cannot be had withough this false, synergistic premise at the beginning. In Rainer’s and Geiger’s proposition, who makes the church simpler? Who brings clarity? Who creates movement? Who fosters alignment? Who provides focus? You do. That’s synergism, and it’s false.
Lutherans have always confessed this about the church: “The Church is the congregation of saints in which the Gospel is purely taught and the Sacraments are correctly administered.” (Augsburg Confession, XIV)
Lutheran clergy simply cannot ask, “What can I do to be more effective?” They may ask, “Am I preaching and teaching the Gospel purely?” and “Am I administering the Sacraments correctly?” In short, “Am I being faithful?” If the answer is “yes,” that’s as much “effectiveness” as he’s been given to do.
Although the singer of the spiritual probably expects the answer to the question “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” to be “yes,” Lutherans have always answered “no.” None of us was there at the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus. So how do we get the benefits of Jesus’ death on the cross delivered to us today?
Luther wrote, “If now I seek the forgiveness of sins, I do not run to the cross, for I will not find it given there. Nor must I hold to the suffering of Christ, as Dr. Karlstadt trifles, in knowledge or remembrance, for I will not find it there either. But I will find in the sacrament or gospel the word which distributes, presents, offers, and gives to me that forgiveness which was won on the cross.” (Luther’s Works, v. 40, p. 214)
There’s a difference between where forgiveness is achieved (on the cross) and where it is delivered (in the Gospel and the Sacraments). So Lutheran churches and Lutheran worship has always placed these means through which God delivers to us the forgiveness of sins—the Gospel and the Sacraments—at the center.
The highest worship of God is to receive His gifts. (Apology of the Augsburg Confession, IV, 155:310) Thus the point of “church” is continually to be drawn back to receiving the Lord’s gifts. For Rainer and Geiger, though, who don’t believe that in the sacraments God bestows His gifts of forgiveness and eternal life, the point of the church is to foster growth in discipleship.
There’s nothing wrong with talking about discipleship. What’s wrong is letting those who don’t believe that a Christian’s highest calling is to receive God’s gifts to enable him to live in love toward his neighbor instruct us about making churches more effective and producing disciples.
The Church is as simple as the Lord has made her. Rainer and Geiger cannot presume to speak for God, telling others God’s plan for making disciples, without acknowledging what our Lord Jesus says is the way the Church makes disciples. “Therefore, go and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey all that I commanded you.”
What is God’s plan for making disciples? Baptizing and teaching. Sacraments and the Gospel. That’s the simple Church.