October 31, 2017 is the 500th anniversary of an action that sparked a movement that changed the world. On All Saint’s Eve in 1517, Augustinian monk Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg, Germany. The document challenged the Roman Catholic Church with regard to its abuse of authority and departure from biblical teachings.
Today, 500 years later, the American evangelical church needs a reformation of its own. I do not pretend to be a second Martin Luther, but out of love for God, love for the church, and a love for truth, I am compelled to offer my own list of
95 Theses for the Protestant Evangelical Church in the 21st Century.
It’s important to note that these trends and practices are not evident in all Protestant evangelical churches, but in many of them—and in some cases most of them—they are.
Recalling Lincoln’s words, “with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right,” let us work for biblical change where it is sorely needed. May God purify, bless, and direct His church in these challenging days!
Soli Deo Gloria!
—B. Nathaniel Sullivan, October 31, 2017—
For years I have spoken about what I consider to be the worldliness of the liberal churches, accusing them of four things: pursuing the world’s wisdom, embracing the world’s theology, following the world’s agenda, and employing the world’s methods. What has hit me like a thunderbolt in recent years is that what I had been saying about the liberal churches at the end of the 1960s and in the 1970s now needs to be said about the evangelical churches as well, since many of them have become as liberal as the larger mainline denominations before them.…Evangelicals have embraced worldliness in the same ways that it was embraced by the liberal churches.
—James Montgomery Boice (1938-2000)—
- The church has focused on attracting people and keeping people, and it has failed to challenge them. This corresponding “focus and failure” often is manifested in the church’s efforts to entertain. Chuck Swindoll said, “Some time ago a group of church leaders decided that they didn’t want to be hated. They focused just on attracting more and more people.” He also said, Today, “many churches masquerade as entertainment centers, where the leadership primarily concerns itself with making people feel good.”1 These teachings of Jesus are excellent examples of the kinds of challenges believers need.
- The church has equated loving people with not offending them (see Mark 10:17-22; Eph. 4:11-16).
- One specific manifestation of this last point can be found in the church’s reluctance to uphold biblical marriage for fear of offending those who have been divorced, those who have been divorced and remarried, and homosexuals and their friends and loved ones (see Hebrews 13:4 NIV). Here is an exception; the exception, however, does not negate the rule. We will consider the matter of the institution of marriage more fully in items 51 through 63.
- The church has failed to address the issue that represents the front lines of spiritual warfare today—homosexuality. The Bible is clear about this issue, but the culture sends a completely different message. Not only is there an urgent need to encourage, assist, and equip homosexuals’ loved ones (especially parents) to cope with and deal appropriately with the challenges they and their families face, but there also is a critical need to help everyone dealing directly with this issue within themselves, from those struggling with same-sex attraction to the person who identifies and lives as gay. See these helpful websites for more information—here and here.
- The church tends to focus on how to help its members succeed and achieve fulfillment rather than how to pursue godliness and engage unchurched people with the gospel (see 1 Tim. 6:6-16; James 1:27; 1 John 2:15; Mark 16:15).
- The church has emphasized God’s love to the point of effectively neglecting His holiness and wrath. Hyper-grace churches manifest this trend most strongly, but many others lean in this perilous direction.
- The church says very little about hell, yet hell is very real. Vance Havner once said, “When I pastored a country church, a farmer didn’t like the sermons I preached on hell. He said, ‘Preach about the meek and lowly Jesus.’ I said, ‘That’s where I got my information about hell.’”
- Related to point #7, in its evangelistic presentations, the church emphasizes the themes of purpose and meaning in life and fails to appropriately uphold the certainty of God’s judgment of sins.
- The church has endeavored to win converts and failed to make disciples.
- The church has upheld the benefits of salvation and avoided talking about its demands. Here are a few of them (also go here and here).
- All too often, the church has emphasized that salvation comes through faith without clarifying that saving faith must have a specific object. This omission has contributed to a critical lack of understanding of biblical faith. This failure has several aspects to it. The church has neglected to emphasize, among other things, the truths reflected in items 12-14.
- Strictly speaking, it is not faith that saves, but faith in Jesus Christ and His substitutionary work on the cross to pay for humanity’s sins.
- Furthermore, biblical faith isn’t just believing in one’s head the truth about Jesus’ death; it is actively relying on Him as sufficient to save, and relying on His death as adequate payment for one’s sins before a holy God.
- In addition, the Christian faith is not a blind faith, but a reasonable faith that is warranted by adequate evidence. Watch speaker and author Jonathan Morrow explain what biblical faith is. Christian apologist Greg Koukl gives a more thorough explanation in this article.
- The church quotes Ephesians 2:8-9 while ignoring the “good works” portion of the context of this passage—verse 10 (see 2:8-10). Salvation is free—a gift from God. However, once we partake of it, we become the property of Jesus Christ. That truth has profound implications for the way we live our lives.
- The church has failed to acknowledge or emphasize the principle found in James 1:27: “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.”
- The church effectively has redefined the word worship. This term used to apply to every part of the church service; now it refers exclusively to music.
- The church has presented Christianity in terms of its implications for individuals alone and overlooked its benefits for the culture.
- While recognizing that Jesus was compassionate, loving, and kind, the church has largely ignored the fact that He was controversial.
- The church has failed to emphasize the true meaning of repentance and the critical need for believers to live holy lives.
- The church has failed to stress the need for repentance in its evangelistic presentations.
- The church has failed to see just how serious it is that followers of Christ are at war with the forces of evil.
- The church has failed to equip God’s people for spiritual warfare. Moreover, it hasn’t effectively engaged in spiritual warfare itself. Usually it fights defensively and rarely is on the offense. This is not how Jesus portrayed the church. In warfare, both offensive and defensive maneuvers are essential.
- The church has failed to understand that the forces of evil never will be appeased (also go here).
- The church has failed to understand the ominous implications of a belief that random processes resulted in the origin of life, and eventually humanity. The idea that these processes gave rise to life, especially human life, has atheistic implications. In other words, the church has failed to understand the self-contradictory nature of the idea that God used random processes in creating the world and humanity. Any processes that are directed by God cannot truly be random.
- The church has been quick to try to make Scripture fit the so-called “scientific evidence” for an old earth rather than weighing the theological implications for an old earth and acknowledging its problems. For example, if the earth is millions of years old and “evolutionary” processes led to man’s existence over a super-long period, then death must have entered the world before humanity sinned. This is not what Scripture teaches.
- Yet ironically, the church has failed to emphasize scientific, archaeological, and historical (also go here) evidences for the reliability of the Scriptures. The principle of “Sola Scriptura,” or “Scripture alone” does not preclude pointing to evidence of the Bible’s reliability. In fact, it welcomes it.
- In relation to item 27, it is no wonder Christians compartmentalize their faith, treating it as applicable only to things that have been deemed “religious.” The church has modeled how!
- The church has failed to understand that taking a stand for righteousness, even though it is unpopular at the moment and can incite accusations of hatred and bigotry, actually can attract people to the Christian faith. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “When the church is absolutely different from the world, she invariably attracts it. It is then that the world is made to listen to her message, though it may hate it at first.”
- The church has failed to understand the important role of apologetics in winning converts.
- The church has failed to understand the important role of apologetics in making disciples, including those who are teens and young adults.
- The church has failed to understand and defend the biblical nature of truth.
- The church thinks in terms of individual issues rather than foundational belief systems from which the issues arise. In other words, for the most part, the church neither understands worldviews nor thinks in terms of the biblical worldview. The situation is urgent. Church leaders must become proficient in the biblical worldview to a point of being able to train its people in it. Here is an article introducing the subject. Here is an informative video that explains.
- The church has failed, even in appropriate contexts, to affirm America’s Christian heritage and to show the relationship between this country’s affirmation of Christian truth and the freedoms its people have enjoyed (here is but one example). Patriotism as expressed on holidays like Independence Day, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day does not count, because such patriotism is not the same thing educating the people about America’s Christian heritage.
- The church has failed to train its members to be good citizens. This includes but is not limited to failing to emphasize the principles set forth in items 36 through 42.
- Any government’s authority is delegated by God and therefore not absolute.
- The primary role of government is to promote order by affirming right behavior and punishing wrong behavior.
- Rights are God-given. Here is but one example. Government is not authorized to bestow rights; nor is it authorized to take them away. It is responsible to protect and maintain them.
- Rights from a biblical perspective are freedoms that afford citizens opportunities; not “entitlements” that result when governments engineer outcomes. The former are referred to by social scientists as “negative rights”; the latter as “positive rights.”
- Governments overstep their God-given authority and trample on the legitimate negative rights of their citizens when they seek to implement positive rights for a select few. Obergefell, the Supreme Court decision that redefined marriage nationwide, is a prime example of judicial overreach.
- Biblically speaking, governments are responsible to protect and preserve God-given rights. For a thorough study of rights from a biblical perspective, go here.
- The church always has a duty to promote the ideals of righteousness and to eschew evil within and outside its walls, but this is especially true when government no longer understands the difference between right and wrong behaviors.
- The church has failed to understand the difference between liberalism and leftism, and it has failed to see the threat that leftism poses to its own work and ministry.
- The church has all too often used the excuse that an issue should not be addressed because “it is political.” Since when does the fact that an issue is being discussed in Washington or in the halls of local government move it off the table for discussion by church leaders and congregants?
- The church has been all too quick to support non-controversial charities and ministries while being basically unwilling to support and participate in biblical, but controversial, ministries and efforts.
- The church has failed to understand, appreciate, and teach the biblical concept of civil disobedience—what it is, its biblical and historical bases, and when and why it may be necessary.
- The church has essentially neglected the fight to preserve religious liberty in the United States, including the fight to preserve laws and policies that make civil disobedience unnecessary. The names of champions of religious liberty like Barronelle Stutzman, Aaron and Melissa Klein, Jack Phillips, Carl and Angel Larsen, Joanna Duka and Breanna Koski, and others should be on the lips of evangelical Christians everywhere, but most believers don’t have a clue as to who these people are. Jack Phillips’s case will be heard at the Supreme Court on December 5, 2017.
- “But the church just needs to ‘stick to evangelism,’” someone will say. “Only the gospel can change people’s minds and hearts.” When seen against the backdrop of a clear understanding of what is really happening in our culture, these statements demonstrate that the church, as well as individual Christians, need to think of evangelism in broader terms.
- The church has failed to see the connection between the threat to conscience rights (as in the cases represented by the names mentioned in item #47) and its own right and the right of individual Christians to share the gospel.
- The church, generally speaking, has failed to become aware of and failed to educate her people about the legal work involved in preserving and defending marriage, life, and religious liberty. Groups like Alliance Defending Freedom, Liberty Counsel, the American Center for Law and Justice,” the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the Rutherford Institute, and the Pacific Justice Institute are on the front lines in these important battles. The church must encourage and support them. We said earlier the church needs to see evangelism in broader terms (see item #48). This includes being engaged in the fight for religious liberty and supporting in appropriate ways organizations that are on the front lines.
- While being ready and willing to help couples improve their individual marriages, the church has been not just reluctant, but all too often silent in defending and upholding the institution of marriage as one man and one woman committed to each other for life. Hebrews 13:4 does not say, “Marriages should be honored by all,” but “Marriage should be honored by all” (emphasis added). The Bible does not just affirm marriages, but also marriage as an institution.
- While it’s true that same-sex parents can be, and often are, very loving; and while they absolutely do meet a great many of their adopted children’s needs, the church has failed to speak for the children of same-sex parents regarding a critical need that all of them have and that no same-sex couple ever can meet—the need for both a mother and a father.
- The church has failed to understand the strong connections between marriage and the gospel.
- Related to the above item, the church has failed to understand that one of the most important ways to uphold and advance the gospel is to uphold the biblical definition of marriage, because…
- …it has failed to see that losing the definition of marriage as a lifelong commitment between one man and one woman means losing a means by which non-Christians—including the individual who appears to be totally uninterested in the Christian faith—can get a glimpse of the gospel.
- The church has failed to emphasize evidence that God Himself designed marriage. This includes but is not limited to its failure to emphasize, in appropriate contexts and ways, the principles set forth in items 57 through 61.
- Marriage is the lifelong union of one man and one woman, attested to by the way the male and female bodies fit together physically, in sexual intercourse.
- Marriage is the lifelong union of one man and one woman, attested to by the way the male and female bodies work together during and immediately after sexual intercourse to enhance the chances of pregnancy.
- Marriage is the lifelong union of one man and one woman, attested to by the fact that only a heterosexual union can result in a pregnancy and the birth of a child.
- Marriage is the lifelong union of one man and one woman, attested to by the theological truths that (1) God created both males and females in His image, (2) men and women are different, and (3) in marriage a man and woman can present to the world and to their children a more complete picture of God. This includes depictions of unity and diversity within the triune Godhead, as well as God’s attribute of faithfulness.
- Marriage is the lifelong union of one man and one woman, attested to by the fact that marriage is a picture of Christ’s relationship with His bride, the church.
- The church has failed to teach the next generation of Christians (teenagers and young adults) the rich theology of marriage and why, from theological and biblical perspectives, marriage can only be the lifelong commitment of one man and one woman.
- The church naïvely assumed that with the definition of marriage redefined, gay rights activists now have what they want and hopefully they will allow Christians to follow their religious convictions in this matter. Princeton Professor Robert George refutes this assumption in this clip from a 2015 speech. (See item #24.)
- Even as it has expressed legitimate concerns about the need to reach younger people with the gospel, and even as it has made efforts to do so, the church has all too often failed to appreciate history and heritage, including the contributions of its own faithful senior adults. Throughout Israel’s history, God established reminders to help His people recall His mighty deeds. It’s also important to be familiar with church history. Apart from the Lord’s Supper, the evangelical American church has very few “memorial stones.” This does not make the establishment of memorials an ordinance like the Lord’s Supper, but God’s people surely need reminders of His past blessings.
- The church apparently is content to teach Bible stories to children without emphasizing that the stories represent events that really occurred. In fact, the term story often carries an unintended connotation at church. A great many stories a child hears didn’t really happen. Bible stories, however, are different and should be presented as historically true.
- The church has failed to understand and educate its people about the difference between biblical justice and social justice, a term that essentially means government redistribution of wealth to achieve desired outcomes.
- The church honors celebrities rather than servants.
- The church has ignored its duty to issue biblical warnings to the culture or to its own people.
- The church has failed to appropriately emphasize that Christian training is primarily the responsibility of the home—not the church. The church has a role, certainly, but it is a supplemental and supportive role—one that involves, but is not limited to, coaching and equipping parents. The church never can provide adequate Christian training when it is lacking at home.
- The church speaks of “full-time Christian service” as if ministry vocations were the only avenues to serve God through one’s vocation. Actually, every honest vocation is an avenue for Christian service and ministry. J. Gresham Machen declared, “For Christians to influence the world with the truth of God’s Word requires the recovery of the great Reformation doctrine of vocation. Christians are called to God’s service not only in church professions but also in every secular calling. The task of restoring truth to the culture depends largely on our laypeople.”
- The church has failed to emphasize that God didn’t just reveal Himself through the prophets, His Word, and His Son, but also in various divine acts in history. This is important because it underscores that God is engaged in the “big picture” of what is happening in the world, not just in individuals’ lives.
- The church has failed to adequately educate its people regarding the facts and lessons from church history—not just in Acts, but beyond it as well. There are appropriate times and places for churches to do this. This doesn’t mean abandoning Scripture. In fact, studying what God has done in the past is one way we teach lessons learned in history about the Bible and Christianity as a whole. The Protestant Reformation, for example, is brimming with these kinds of lessons. In this one-minute audio clip, Dr. Erwin Lutzer, Pastor of the Moody Church in Chicago for 36 years, explains the importance of knowing church history.
- The church is more interested in being liked than in being respected for its convictions.
- The church appears to equate success with large numbers, and failure with small or declining numbers. Jesus gained followers during His ministry, but He also lost them. Moreover, He had just 12 in His inner circle, and one of those betrayed Him—yet the eleven who were left changed the world.
- The church has failed to comprehend or address the problem of biblical illiteracy. It must do so.
- The church has failed to understand and train its people in solid principles of biblical interpretation. Here are a few such principles.
- The church typically does not encourage its people to read good books. Great books, however, challenge God’s people to love Him with all our minds. Go here, here, here, and, here for a few suggestions.
- The church has failed to encourage the study of the lives of great Christians (also go here).
- The church has been too willing to jettison hymns from its worship services.
- The church has failed to see the value of hymns in teaching deep theological truths to God’s people, including the next generation of Christians.
- Without any biblical justification, the church darkens its sanctuaries, hiding natural, God-given light and even turning down electrical lighting. Does it do this to create a more “intimate” atmosphere? This is worldly thinking. This is what nightclubs do. This is not to say the lights never should dimmed, but to dim the lights as a habitual pattern seems contrary to the spirit and message of 1 John 1:5: “This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all.”
- In its worship services, the church tends to cultivate and present an atmosphere of upbeat celebration and effectively neglects the need for qualities such as fear and awe in the hearts of its people before God.
- The church selects music for its services that is, generally speaking, upbeat and celebratory in sprit and tone. There is a place for this, but this type of music should not be used exclusively.
- Typically, if a hymn is sung, it is a hymn in a major key. There should be room in worship service for the more serious moods elicited by hymns written in minor keys.
- Typically, if a church uses a contemporary style of music in its services, if hymns are sung at all, they have been “retooled” with a new tune, a new rhythm, the addition of a musical bridge, or some other new feature. On what basis are all other hymns jettisoned and never used at all? Read “8 Reasons the Worship Industry Is Killing Worship.”
- Related to items 82 through 85, the church, through a variety of actions and inactions, promotes the idea that God can be approached in a thoroughly casual fashion. Note that this failure is not tied exclusively to music styles or lyrics.
- The church has lost the ability to avoid applauding after a baptism or musical presentation. Sometimes, however, silent reflection (also see Psalm 37:7, CSB) and meditation are the most appropriate responses to these and other elements in the worship service.
- The church has abandoned a specific time for Scripture reading as a part of its worship services. Yes, the pastor or preacher usually will read Scripture as a part of his sermon, but as a general rule, a separate time of Scripture reading no longer is planned.
- Generally speaking, responsive readings of the Scripture no longer are a part of worship services in the American evangelical church.
- Personal testimonies are presented less frequently in worship services today than in years past.
- The reporting of God’s work around the world must not be neglected, and all too frequently, it is.
- Fearing that they might offend Christian parents who send their children to public schools, Christian educators who teach in the public school system, or other Christians involved in the public school system in some way, church leaders have failed to become knowledgeable and to warn parents about the powerful evil influences their children will encounter and are encountering in public schools. While it clearly is not the job of the church to dictate to parents where and how to educate their children, the church does have a duty to inform, encourage, equip, and warn parents and families when the danger is real—and it is real. Go here for more information.
- Related to item #92, the militant LGBT movement is targeting America’s children and is succeeding in indoctrinating them. The movement is using America’s institutions, including the public schools, in their quest. The church has failed to educate itself regarding this specific threat, has failed to warn parents, and has failed to equip them to protect their children from the onslaught. Again, for more information go here, here, and here.
- In part because of love of various college athletic teams and in part to refrain from offending supporters of various schools and Christian families who are involved in them, the church has failed to warn parents, older students, and young adults about the evil influences surrounding students in both public and private colleges in America. Go here, here, here, and here for more information.
- The church has failed to stand with and pray regularly for its persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ.
Recommended reading: 10 Theses for a New (Critically Needed) Reformation by Dr. Michael Brown
Copyright © 2017 by B. Nathaniel Sullivan. All rights reserved.
1Charles R. Swindoll, Hope for Our Troubled Times, (Plano, TX: Insight for Living, 2009), 8.
Unless otherwise noted, Scripture passages are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture passages marked CSB are taken from The Christian Standard Bible, copyright © 2017 by Holman Bible Publishers. Christian Standard Bible®, and CSB® are federally registered trademarks of Holman Bible Publishers, all rights reserved.
Scripture passages marked NIV are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
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