Talking about Total Church (Part 2)

Simon, Steve and Tony continue their conversation (which began in our last Briefing) about Total Church. (Read Parts 1 and 3.)

From: Simon Flinders

Dear Tony and Steve,

The discussion about ‘arguing out from the Trinity’ has been very helpful for me. Your response, Tony, has reminded me of how easily a theological argument can appear sound (in our circles) when it has ‘trinitarian’ shape. It does seem to me that ‘trinitarian theology’ is the ‘sexy’ (can I say that?) end of the theological market these days (perhaps especially amongst evangelicals), and we certainly need to work hard to continue to think sharply about it

Certainly I agree with Tony that there is a real danger of arbitrariness in that kind of argument. However, the thing that keeps stretching my mind is exactly what Genesis means by us being made in his (or should that be ‘their’) image? If there is something of God’s nature as Trinity in the context of Genesis 1 (and I think there is), then the relational capacity of the human creation (for the love of God and the love of others) must say something that at least borders on being ‘central’. Moreover, to take Tony’s point about observing how the Bible itself theologizes out from the divine nature to the nature of life, society and humanity, I have been preaching through Ephesians lately and have been struck afresh by the corporate dimensions of God’s eternal purpose (Eph 1:9-10, 3:10-11) and of Christ’s work on the cross (Eph 2:14-16, 2:22). The nature of God himself doesn’t seem to be far from the front of Paul’s mind either (Eph 3:14-15). For these reasons, I do find Steve’s arguments about the importance (even if not ‘centrality’) of human inter-relationship (even if we steer clear of the word ‘community’) pretty compelling.

However, I do want to come back on the issue of the definition of church. You seem in your last email, Steve, to assume theological continuity between Israel and the church. You also seem to use the phrase ‘people of God’ as a synonym for church. I wonder if the New Testament uses the language with more nuance? Perhaps I can take the three of us as an example: we are brothers, engaging over God’s word in real koinonia, and we trust that our engagement with one another like this will serve other believers in due time. There is no doubt in my mind that we are God’s people enjoying something of the richness of who he’s made us to be in relationship with others—even in this very process. But are we ‘church’? Would the Bible use that language to describe our relationship? And if not, then why not?

The reason I’m sticking with this issue (tell me when it gets annoying!) is because of the related issue of the purpose of church. If we think everything that the Scriptures address to the people of God is addressed to the ‘church’, then we will unavoidably draw the conclusion that mission is central to the church’s purpose. But if we think the church is something more precise in the New Testament, then we may need to settle on a more precise notion of purpose for the church too. Clearly, I’m not going to argue that the people of God ought to have no interest in the mission of God. But I do wonder about the agency of the ‘church’ in God’s mission. If I’m permitted another email before Tony blows the full-time whistle, perhaps I’ll spell out further what I mean by that. But for now, I think I need to let someone else have a go.

To sharpen the point, I guess I’m asking if your book, Steve, makes ‘church’ a transcendent category of theological thought (a metanarrative perhaps?), when something else ought to be. For example, when it comes to the three passages in the gospels that you both see differently (Matt 10:34-37, Mark 3:31-35, Luke 11:27-28), is it possible that there is an issue at stake in those verses that is bigger than which community people belong to? Should your book have been called Total Lordship or Total Loyalty to Jesus (which isn’t as catchy, I know!) instead of Total Church?



From: Tony Payne

Hi Steve and Simon,

It’s my turn next, but I don’t want to ask any additional questions of you, Steve! I think there’s more than enough for you to respond to in Simon’s email.

I might simply say that Simon has captured one of my core concerns really well. There’s no doubt that in our modern discourse about these sorts of matters, ‘church’ has become the overarching category for anything to do with our corporate life, or indeed anything to do with the life of God’s people in the world. This is very understandable, but it isn’t always helpful. And I think it might be one of the weaknesses of your otherwise excellent book, Steve, even though you’ve changed the word (to ‘community’).

One illustration may help. In your chapter on evangelism, you argue quite strongly that the centrality of community (which, in this context, seems to mean one’s ‘church’ or ‘congregation’) means that this is where the action should be evangelistically. But then in your superb little section on gospel intentionality you say this:

Major events have a role to play in church life, but the bedrock of gospel ministry is low-key, ordinary, day-to-day work which often goes unseen. Most gospel ministry involves ordinary people doing ordinary things with gospel intentionality. Whether it is helping a friend, working at the office or going to the cinema, there is a commitment to building relationships, modelling the Christian faith and talking about the gospel as a natural part of the conversation. People often ask if they can come to see our ministry at The Crowded House. But all there is to see is ordinary people doing ordinary things. There are no projects, no programmes, no ‘ministries’. (pp. 60-61)

You go on to describe how some Christians in your area have taken to hanging out in Kurdish restaurants, drinking sweet tea, playing backgammon and building relationships, and that many gospel opportunities have followed.

This, it seems to me, is absolute gold: it’s a brilliant description of what evangelistic ministry can and should be. But if ‘community’ essentially means ‘church’, and refers chiefly to the local congregation, surely this evangelistic action is taking place not in the community (that is, in the congregation), but in the world; it’s Christians getting out there and spreading the gospel.

Now, they are doing so in fellowship with their brothers (presumably the ones they are with in church/community). And the church/community is supporting them, training them, praying for them and, indeed, firing up their hearts with the gospel so that they have gospel intentionality. But the primary location (or context?) of this evangelism seems not to be the gathering/‘community’; it’s the world.

The reason I think this is important is that if we say evangelism is the purpose of the gathering (or the community, viewed as community), then it may actually work against the kind of outward-looking, gospel intentionality in everyday life that you so helpfully describe. It tends to make us think that evangelism simply means bringing people to church. I think that in the New Testament, gathering people into the community of Christ (into the church or gathering) is seen as the fruit and consequence of evangelism, not as its mechanism or agency and certainly not as its content. (Our love and godliness adorn the gospel, but they are not the gospel.)

But I said I was going to let you answer Simon’s question; why don’t I do that?!

Warm regards as ever,


From: Steve Timmis

Hi Simon and Tony,

Thanks for not adding any additional questions, Tony, although your email demonstrates that there are more ways to raise issues than to simply ask questions!

Thank you for your email Simon, which was helpful because I do think you’ve identified the core issue, and Tony’s follow-up confirmed that suspicion. The emails from both of you have indicated, at least to me, that for all of our discussion, we will probably not come to a common mind. I then find myself wondering if it matters or not, and so, if there is any benefit in continuing our discussion beyond the enjoyment of warm and godly debate among three brothers. However, it is Tony’s final paragraph which spurs me on because I think it shows where it actually does matter. So I’d like to begin by engaging with that as a way into addressing Simon’s central concern.

Your understanding of what we’re saying is that “evangelism is the purpose of the gathering”, which you think may work against gospel intentionality. At a pragmatic level, Tony, I can state unequivocally that such an effect has never happened. In fact, the very opposite is true. I am convinced that the primary reason (beyond the Holy Spirit capturing our hearts by the gospel) why living gospel lives and speaking gospel words (as illustrated by hanging out at the Kurdish cafe) are so much part of the culture of The Crowded House is precisely because of our convictions regarding church. The irony in your fear is that for most people in (for want of a better description!) standard evangelicalism, evangelism almost always defaults to bringing people to church. But if church is essentially an event when Christians formally gather to hear the word of God taught, then such a strategy does not seem inappropriate.

But that is not how we see church, and this takes me onto the questions Simon poses. Allow me to explain our framework. I guess we understand church as an activity that is defining of our identity. The people of God is the overarching category, and ‘church’ is one of the ways in which they are described. This might work as one of those working definitions: “a company of God’s people called together by the gospel, to live under the gospel and make the gospel known by her life and her words”. God’s strategy has always been to have a people who by their shared life, will make him known to the nations. He did that with Israel; he does that with church. Churches—companies of God’s people—are scattered throughout the nations as communities of light. I am particularly fond of this analogy because it is profoundly biblical: Israel was to be a light to the nations, Jesus fulfills that function because he is the light of the world, but his light shines as his people live under his rule. Church is that to which we can point and say, “This is what it means to live under the reign of King Jesus. This is the life that his death produces.”

To go back to something Tony wrote, if I may, I don’t think we come anywhere near confusing church with the gospel. I use the language of fruit a lot when we speak of church as the fruit of the gospel. But the fruit is that which indicates the virtue of the tree that produces it. We know that the good news of God in Christ crucified and risen is good news because of the way it captures the hearts of sinners and transforms us from God-hating, self worshipping sinners into lovers—lovers of God and lovers of others. That shared life in which we display the power of the gospel is how we function as that city on a hill: others see our good works and give glory to our Father in heaven.

We talk about church as God’s mission strategy for these reasons. When people see us living and loving, we are the phenomenon that defies explanation other than the gospel. God’s grace works in us and through us to draw people to himself.

But I think we’ve been over this ground before and, as I wrote earlier, I suspect we’re not going to come to a common mind on it. I could stop using the word ‘church’ to describe our shared life if it would mean we were more likely to agree that our life ‘in Christ’ is corporate and dynamic. But I suspect that it wouldn’t do the trick because, in my experience, this debate often has more to do with an unintentional individualism than etymology. As I’ve suggested previously, it’s a cultural blind spot.

However, on the basis that “wisdom is justified by her children”, what I can do is invite you to come and see! Spend time among our churches and see what difference this corporate understanding makes to life, godliness and evangelism. Allow me to give you one brief example: 15 people in one of our churches got together and wrote the names down of all those with whom they were in ‘gospel contact’ (by which we mean explaining the gospel, exposing them to the gospel community and praying for them). The 15 people listed 87 such ‘relationships’, and I think that is an impressive and telling statistic. Our desire is to live our lives openly, out there, in the world, where non-Christians can see how we love one another, and hear a clear gospel explanation!

I’m not sure where we should go with this, as I am a little reluctant to keep focussing in on this at a theoretical level. If church is primarily an event when the people of God gather, and in that gathering they are equipped to take the gospel as individuals out into the world, then praise God for that intent and consequent action. If church is an identity which is ours as a people who gather around the Word and who live together under that Word so that the world might see the fruit of the gospel in adorning lives and hear the gospel spoken as the explanation, then praise God for that!

However, as I write this, I wonder if one of the areas where the practical implications of these two views might be seen is in church planting (and please understand that I’m trying to grapple with this to see where it really matters). For us, church planting is the forming and scattering of these gospel communities into the nooks and crannies of our cities, so that the light of the gospel word and life might infiltrate and transform at street level. For you, it is the happy and necessary consequence of individuals being converted who are then sent back into the world to live and speak for Christ. In your framework, church is a congregation of individuals being equipped through the Word and, by the Spirit, for life in the world. For us, church is a community being shaped by the Word through the Spirit for its shared life in the world.

Okay, I could obviously go on. And on. And on! The temptation is to keep trying to refine this so that every ‘i’ is dotted and every ‘t’ is crossed, but I don’t think that is a helpful strategy nor a healthy attitude. So I’ll stop here and see where you want to take it next.

Keep enjoying grace, brothers.



From: Simon Flinders

Steve and Tony,

Sorry for my tardy reply. It’s been one of those weeks. And, quite frankly, I would much rather write this email than do many of the things I’ve been doing over the past week! What a joy this dialogue has been. I’ll be sad when it ends (although I hope we can continue to sharpen and encourage each other in other ways).

Let me begin by saying thanks again for your latest email, Steve. I particularly appreciate your eagerness for us to be practical as well as theoretical. And as you describe your church community, I’m certainly drawn to it. I’d love to come and see some time! But whether that ever happens or not, I have to say that your description of it is still deeply attractive to me.

Thanks for trying to clarify the disagreement between us. In some ways, I think you’ve captured it, but in other ways, I’m not sure. For example, when you say that in our framework “church is a congregation of individuals being equipped through the Word and, by the Spirit, for life in the world” but for you “church is a community being shaped by the Word through the Spirit for its shared life in the world”, the key distinction seems to be between individuals engaging with the world and a shared life of Christians in the world. My problem is that I believe in both! I believe that individual Christians should engage with the world, but I also believe that they ought to do it corporately, as a team, and even, in some ways, when they gather. But where I disagree with your framework (as you describe it) is that I’m nervous about always calling this corporate engagement with the world ‘church’. This, for me, comes back to whether the church is as all-encompassing a category in biblical thought as it is in your mind.

I realize that this may seem to be annoying pedantry with respect to words, but the reason this matters so much from my perspective is because even if you’re right about church being an identity more than a meeting, the fact remains that most Christians (although your church may be genuinely full of exceptions) think of church as a meeting (that’s assuming they’ve got past seeing it as a building!!). So when we make statements about the purpose of church, I think they hear it in terms of the meeting (including the readers of your book?). What I’ve learned through this dialogue is that that’s not what you mean: when you say church is the agent of mission, you don’t mean that what we do when we meet together is God’s methodology for saving the world. When you say ‘church’, I think you mean a community of Christians engaging with the world. But the problem from my perspective (apart from not being persuaded that your usage is consistent with the Scriptures’ usage) is that I’m worried people will hear what you say about the church’s purpose and will start to think unbiblically about our gatherings.

To get more concrete (as you’ve been helpfully encouraging us to do, Steve), my concerns are about such things as: pastors/
teachers feeling constrained to be evangelists/missionaries as a first priority and to squeeze the work of shepherding the sheep in around seeking the lost; church services being tailored to seekers in such a way as to dilute proper praise, prayer and preaching; Christians feeling like they are sub-standard members if they’re less evangelistically able than others; and even the undermining of the importance of the gathering in the minds of Christians so that engaging with the world starts to feel more important than engaging with God (e.g. is church just a pep talk to get us moving for the real action?). These are just a few examples of where I think the rubber hits the road when we’re talking about the purpose of church. These are my practical concerns.

But I have one remaining theological concern that I want to raise before I sign off. It’s the same issue Tony raised about whether the ‘church’ has replaced the ‘gospel’ in the theological framework of your book. That thought did occur to me as I read Total Church. When you say things like “God’s primary missionary method is his covenant people” (p. 45) and “the church is God’s mission strategy” (p. 101), don’t they look like overstatements in the light of Romans 1:16, and so on, and the fact that many people (even in the pages of the New Testament) come to Christ through the witness of an individual, or even the unadorned reading of Scripture? Is the ‘church’ really a common denominator in every life transformed from darkness to light in the same way the ‘gospel’ is?

Since this looks like my last ‘contribution’ to this conversation, let me conclude with some words of appreciation. Firstly, I want to express real gratitude again for your book, Steve. Notwithstanding the theological questions I’ve raised, I still think it’s a terrific book—more stimulating than anything I’ve read for ages. Moreover, it’s where this conversation began, and we owe much to you and Tim for your hard work with it. I hope many Briefing readers will buy it and read it, and think through the issues for themselves. Secondly, thanks to both of you for the brotherly and warm way you’ve engaged in this dialogue with me. I feel deep joy in the thoughtfulness and godliness of these emails back and forth. Finally, let me say that I think this conversation has helped me. My thoughts are more nuanced, more careful and less simplistic than they were at the start. In particular, I want to thank you, Steve, for pushing us on the issue of whether our individualism (and its seepage into our theology) might be a cultural blind spot. Despite our disagreements, I think that particular point has been (and continues to be) a searching thing for me to think about, and I thank you for courageously suggesting it. I reckon you’re probably right.

As David Hume once said, “Truth springs from arguments among friends”.

In friendship and the pursuit of truth,


(Read Parts 1 and 3.)

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