Discerning Reader Editorial Review
Reviewed 06/04/2008 by Mark Tubbs.
Recommended. A persuasive call to evangelism tarnished by some suspect theology.
Would I recommend Unbinding the Gospel? Not really. Does it disappoint? In places, yes. Does it excite me? Oh yes. Let me explain.
I appreciate the Christ-centeredness of its title and the promise of the subtitle and cover image, a red ribbon being cut with scissors. An apt metaphor, I thought, for ‘unbinding the gospel’ and practicing real life evangelism. The Greek verb luo means ‘to loose, to unbind.’ So far so good. But for all the red ribbons I perceived, some red flags were apparent as well.
Author Martha Grace Reese’s main thesis is that mainline churches – of which she used to be a pastor and is now a church consultant – need to recover the practice of gospel evangelism, not just out of a sense of duty, but a sense of joy. Mainline churches have so much to share, so much to offer, that they are doing the world a disservice by functioning in maintenance mode, she maintains. The book’s stated purpose is to be used as a seven to ten-week small group study which aims to encourage committed leaders and laypeople to share their faith. Set out in three parts, the first part of the book asks the what, why, and how of evangelism in mainline churches, the second part gives some examples of effective mainline evangelism, and the third part suggests possibilities for churches that have yet to engage in evangelism.
First, the red ribbons. It’s always a time to celebrate when any church, movement, or denomination rediscovers the apostolic mandate to spread the good news of Jesus Christ. In the mainline denominations, evangelism has apparently been relegated to a backseat, neglected for decades and often actively discouraged by pastors and seminaries. Reese’s book seeks to remedy the widespread desertion of the core commandment in the Great Commission.
Reese makes the case that mainliners through the decades have been turned off evangelism because they see it as delivering the message that Jesus saves from hell – and they don’t believe in a literal hell. In this book Evangelicals are disparaged one too many times for believing in a literal hell, but on the whole Reese is extremely sympathetic towards Evangelicals, and even suggests that mainliners have something to learn from the evangelical spectrum, from fundamentalists to charismatics and everything in between.
Reese speaks as a solid Trinitarian:
What’s at the heart of life with God? A powerful relationship between each one of us and the Trinity. A powerful relationship between each one of us and other Christians, all of us together helping to bear Christ to those who don’t know him…Knowing it and saying it – that’s the heart of evangelism.[i]
Reese seems to possess a realistic and biblical view of the Church:
Great churches aren’t mushily, sentimentally, smotheringly “caring.” They aren’t ”damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.” They aren’t all Venus; they aren’t all Mars. They’re messy. They allow intuition, action and spontaneity while providing teaching, support, correction and accountability. They feel alive. They’re in touch with joy. God is all over them. The Spirit is palpable.[ii]
Later Reese identifies four aspects of healthy relationships in churches. They are characterized by authenticity, truthfulness, real as opposed to sentimental, and contagious – i.e., visitors can feel it when they walk in the door. Even later, Reese explains that an insider-focused church is merely engaging in chaplaincy. “It is not the vibrant ministry of the Gospel.” This statement requires nuance, of course, but her meaning is clear.
Now for the red flags. I don’t write off the mainline churches, as some do. I believe we can learn much from our brothers and sisters in the mainline churches. But this book does reveal issues that reflect so-called ‘progressive’ theological and hermeneutical stances in those denominations. Smarmy assertions of not only universal atonement but unlimited election appear in comments such as “God adores us and everyone else.” At times this book exemplifies what some theologians have termed ‘sloppy grace.’ It’s an ill-defined, unbiblical subspecies of true grace that goes hand-in-hand with antinomianism and license.
Reese sometimes makes unqualified statements. “Evangelism has no theological bounds.” Well, yes it does: biblical bounds. “It isn’t about talking people into beliefs.” No, everyday evangelism is not about belligerently talking people into beliefs, but it is about being ready to give an explanation for the hope we have, in and out of season. Evangelism without the persuasive element of talk ignores a major mode of Pauline evangelism. “At its core, evangelism is people sharing with others their personal understandings that life is better, richer, truer, if one has faith in Christ and lives in a faith community.” Political party members are constantly encouraged to stay “on message.” But if your concept of evangelism is diminished to “life is better with Christ,” then your message is at best minimized and at worst ignorant – of substitutionary atonement, of the true nature of union with Christ, of the centrality the Cross. Intriguingly, Reese brings up the evangelical cliché “Jesus is the Answer” near the end of the book and ruminates on the question it answers. She posits that its prompt question is, “From what does Jesus save us?” (author’s emphasis). She goes on:
What is the biggest problem of human existence? From what does Jesus save us? Sin? Yes. Jesus saves us from sin. Some parts of the church focus strongly on sin as the main problem. Other churches see death as the biggest human problem. Jesus saves us from death, too. Some parts of the church look at the biggest human problem as distorted human community that draws us away from God and the truth. The know that Jesus can heal community, miraculously transform isolated individuals and sick societies…Jesus is the answer to all of these human problems…
All of this is more or less correct, but Reese is making a category mistake. Whereas she differentiates between sin and death and “distorted human community” as “presenting problems,” Scripture indicates that sin is the overarching, omnipresent problem in the resultant human issues of death, broken relationships, etc. This is precisely why presenting the gospel must focus just as much on the problem of sinful man as it does on the grace of God. The two concepts are inextricable: God’s solution (grace) to man’s problem (sin). We must be as clear as possible on both fronts. Providentially, the other book I was reading for review alongside Unbinding the Gospel was R.C. Sproul’s Saved From What?[iii] Whereas Reese spends just over one page answering the question, Sproul spends 123 gospel-rich pages answering it.
Put simply, the content of the gospel matters. Reese narrates the true story of a gathering of mainline pastors in which eight pastors of mainline churches did not know how to answer the question, “What difference does it make in your own life that you are a Christian?” Silence meets the question, and the silence stretches on and on. Finally, one pastor tentatively volunteers, “Because it makes me a better person?” Elsewhere: “The typical barrier for people raised in mainline congregations is that we are foggy on why it matters that anyone be Christian.” Apparently, “Being Christian is so natural you don’t really think about it. You just do it, you just are it!” But true Christian living doesn’t come “naturally” to anybody. The flesh is always resisting the Spirit’s nudges towards holy living – this is the essence of Paul’s argument in Romans 7. It therefore follows that if we are in Christian cruise control, then we are probably foggy on the gospel. And if pastors cannot clarify the crux of the gospel, then what hope is there for the churches they lead? They will not be evangelistic churches because they do not know the gospel.
One more thing worth mentioning is the strong sense of God’s sovereignty on the author’s part. I’m quite certain Reese would take exception with much of Calvinism’s teaching on the sovereignty of God, but she shows here that she holds to it in essence:
Christ is the calmer of the waves, the master of the storm. God holds the untamable chaos of our lives in God’s hands and can calm it. Don’t stop. Keep going…Step up communication with God…Talk, pray… Don’t do everything yourself. Ask for help. Don’t panic. Sail smart. You are, now and forever, in God’s hands.
Finally, a word about Brain McLaren’s afterword. While he is right on about the need to be ready to simply talk about our lives of faith, he tries to navigate the reader in a social gospel direction that wasn’t warranted by the book itself. The contents seem to be lifted directly out of McLaren’s Everything Must Change. Of course the gospel has social implications, but his suggestion that the world will welcome the good news of Christ is naïve. The gospel is bad news to so many, because like the rich young ruler, they refuse to renounce the earthly things that vie with Christ for first place in their lives.
A cynic might say that a book like this is simply an effort to shore up the sinking ship of mainline Protestantism. Having read the book, I believe it’s much more than that. My hope and prayer is that in listening to the promptings of the Spirit, and in meditating on the Word, those who lead and attend mainline churches will locate the message of Christ not only in His universal welcome and unbridled love, but in the godhead’s unity of character and purpose, reflected in the command not to add nor take away from His Word (Rev. 22: 18-19). As mainliners “Understand the Gospel, live it out, convey it accurately to new people,” which is how Reese encourages her readers, I am excited to see the work God will do in His Church.
[i] Two excellent books on the heart of evangelism’s message are Know and Tell the Truth by John Chapman (Matthias Media) and Tell the Truth: the Whole Gospel to the Whole Person by Whole People by Will Metzger (IVP).
[ii] “The Church is messy and inefficient, but it is God’s wonderful mess – the place where he radically transforms minds and hearts.” Paul Tripp has an uncommon ability to describe the intersection of the holy and the messy in church life, in Relationships: A Mess Worth Making (New Growth Press), co-authored with Tim Lane, and in Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands: People in Need of Change Helping People in Need of Change (P&R), from whence the above quote derives. Bob Kauflin’s book on worship, Worship Matters (Crossway), also addresses the presence of what he calls ‘healthy tensions’ in churches and in corporate worship.
[iii] Saved From What? by R.C. Sproul (Crossway).