John 1:17 And Its Application to Classic Dispensationalism


Among all of the biblical dispensations, perhaps none are more widely debated or misunderstood than the dispensations of the law and grace. Likewise, the distinctions between the two economies are vital to understanding the storyline of the Bible. However, the words themselves have been controversial in relation to soteriology particularly, but are necessary to understand for a thorough understanding of biblical theology. Understanding the Mosaic law and grace are important not only for biblical knowledge, but also for the daily walk in a Christian’s life. Speaking of the law’s relationship to sanctification, John F. Hart writes, “To promote obedience to the Mosaic law – even the Ten Commandments (the old covenant) – is to promote sin and defeat in the Christian…Legalism for sanctification must be replaced by an inflexible emphasis on the New Testament freedom found in living by the Spirit.”[1] First, it will be important to recognize the context of John 1:17, which states, “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Secondly, it will be pertinent to analyze what the dispensation of the law constitutes and why it is important. Thirdly, an overview of the dispensation of grace will be considered. Fourthly, practical applications of the verse at hand will be brought forth. Upon conclusion, believers will be able to see both the necessity of the law and the sheer magnitude of God’s amazing grace. Altogether, the teachings of John 1:17 provide a powerful application to Dispensational theology.

Context of John

When it comes to authorship of the fourth book in the New Testament, the Bible Knowledge Commentary states, “[There is] a good case for the author of the Fourth Gospel having been John, one of the sons of a fisherman named Zebedee.”[2] Scholars, both liberal and conservative, have proposed a wide range for the possible date of John, though between A.D. 85 and 95 is most likely.[3] When it comes to the “purpose” or “purposes” of John’s Gospel, many commentators have proposed different possibilities, though it was almost undoubtedly at the very least an evangelistic appeal and perhaps even an apologetic of early Christianity.[4] While other possibilities could be added to the list of details pertaining to surrounding context of the entire book of John, what is for certain is that Jesus Christ is the main character, and what pertains to His personhood and work is vital to the audience both in the first century as well as the twenty-first.

While the surrounding context is indeed helpful for this research, it is also necessary to observe the immediate context of John chapter one. The chapter begins with the first five verses that speak of the Logos (“the Word”) who forever existed in eternity past and through Him all things were created. Next, the author informs his audience that John the Baptist was instrumental in paving the way to having His listeners behold the Word (verses 6-8). In verses nine through fifteen is a summary of the Incarnation of the Word and His reception by those who believe in Him. Near the end of this section (verse 14), the author states, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (italics added). It is interesting to notice that in the main passage up for analysis verse 17), the phrase “grace and truth” is repeated. In fact, just before verse seventeen, John states, “For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace [χάριν ἀντὶ χάριτος].” (verse 16, italics added). Therefore, two things can be concluded regarding the immediate context of John chapter one. First, John seems to have an awareness of chronology. Beginning with eternity past, he proceeds to referring to the ministry of John the Baptist, and finally Christ Himself. Secondly, it is clear from this passage that when Christ came as the Incarnate Son of God, He brought with Himself an overflowing amount of grace. Thus, the purpose of verse seventeen fits with the overall argument that the coming of the Logos is indeed good news, for by His coming, humanity becomes a recipient of a certain stewardship distinct from the dispensation of Moses’ lifetime. The implications of the various differences between the dispensation of the law and grace, however, call for further study in order to discover an even fuller picture of John 1:17.

Dispensation of the Law

            Charles Ryrie identifies the beginning of the dispensation of the law from the life of Moses in Exodus 19:1 until its conclusion at the death of Christ, though it could be carried over until about Acts 1:26.[5] It was during this period that the nation of Israel received the “great code” often called the “Mosaic Law.”[6] The Apostle Paul asks an intriguing question with a satisfying answer in relation to the Mosaic Law in Romans 7:7, “What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin.” Again he writes, “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:12). Therefore, the Mosiac Law itself was a very good standard of righteousness, but unfortunately no one could keep all of its precepts. Paul states the crux of the matter in Galatians 3:24: “The law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.” So then, the law itself (613 commands) was indeed good and operated effectively in the dispensation of the law; however, now that Christ has stepped down into the human history, Christians are “not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14). There is a new economy, a new rule of life for believers. That is, Christians operate under the dispensation of grace, a title reminiscent of the indication of change in John 1:17: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (italics added).

Dispensation of Grace

            The present dispensation, referred to as the dispensation of grace or the church, is usually marked with the beginning of the church in Acts 2, continuing on until the inauguration of the Millennial Kingdom.[7] Ryrie summarizes the changes between the dispensations of law and grace quite well: “To be sure, the dispensationalist does not say that there was no grace ever displayed before the coming of Christ (any more than he says there is no law after His coming), but the Scriptures do say that His coming displayed the grace of God in such brightness that all previous displays could be considered as nothing.”[8] The word “grace” is translated from the Greek word, χάρις, meaning, “To show kindness to someone, with the implication of graciousness on the part of the one showing such kindness.”[9] Certainly, then, the coming of Christ is an aspect of grace (John 3:16), but in His coming there was a provision of a special kind of grace through the Gospel – salvation grace (Ephesians 2:8-9). Does this mean Dispensationalists teach that salvation was not always by grace through faith since the present dispensation is entitled the “dispensation of grace”? Absolutely not, for Lewis Sperry Chafer confirms, “There is, therefore, but one way to be saved and that is by the power of God made possible through the sacrifice of Christ.”[10] Likewise, Ryrie explains, “The giving of the law did not abrogate grace.”[11] Therefore, “John 1:17 does not mean that there was no grace before the coming of Christ, but it does mean that, in comparison with the grace of Christ, all previous revelations of grace were as nothing.”[12] Christ indeed has ushered in “grace upon grace,” and thus, the name “dispensation of grace” has been appropriately given (John 1:16).

Practical Implications of John 1:17

It seems to be that when John wrote his Gospel letter, his goal was not just for the audience to have mere knowledge about the Son of the God, but that such understanding would have a meaningful practical response for believers. Particularly in reference to John 1:17 can such a claim be made. Therefore, it is essential to carefully consider the implications pertaining to law and grace from this verse for even twenty first century Christians. First of all, then, it must be asked, “How does the law apply to a Christian’s sanctification?” Some Christians would say that believers are still under part of the Mosaic Law in some way, but the extent and specificity of that binding is usually a little unclear. Many Dispensationalists, however, approach this situation with relative ease. John F. Hart states, “If being ‘under law’ means obligation to the entire Mosaic code (1 Cor. 9:20; Gal 3:23; 4:4-5, 21), then not being ‘under law’ (Rom. 6:14; Gal. 5:18) means release from obligations to the entire Mosaic code.”[13] Thus, the law fulfilled its purpose entirely by operating as a “guardian”(ESV)/“schoolmaster”(KJV)/“tutor”(NASB) to direct people to believing in Christ for justification. But does the Mosaic Law now operate as a means for sanctification? Scofield would say “no.” He once wrote, “Law neither justifies a sinner nor sanctifies a believer.”[14] Scofield’s words appear to be in perfect harmony with 2 Corinthians 3:6, which says, “[God] made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” So then, the law is not able to produce sanctification in a Christian’s life; that is the role of the Holy Spirit. Because “living by the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23) will not produce anything less than Christlikeness in the believer.”[15]

Secondly, “How does grace apply to a Christian’s sanctification?” While the law cannot produce sanctification, there is much room for grace. In fact, Hart says, “Biblically speaking, then, a consistent theology of grace must not only be concerned about the role of grace as opposed to obedience to the law for justification. It must also be concerned about the role of grace over against obedience to the law for sanctification.”[16] Therefore, since “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4), the message of John 1:17 makes clear sense: “Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” This means that both justification and sanctification are available because of the grace of God, and through Him alone. Every ounce of a Christian’s sanctification is a result, not of obedience to the Mosaic Law, but of the Holy Spirit’s gracious power provided to the believer. That, indeed, is very good news.


One of the most helpful aspects of Dispensationalism is its ability to identify legitimate changes that have occurred in biblical history. Such a verse as John 1:17 makes it impossible to ignore the fact that certain features of a particular time in history are distinguishable from other eras. While one option would be to ignore these distinctions, a much better solution is to analyze the features (“law” and “grace”) and conclude with a balanced resolution. Based on the testimony of Scripture, the traditional explanations of Dispensationalists offer a satisfying exegesis to what John 1:17 teaches. Both the realities of the Mosaic Law and grace are inherently good, but each also serves a particular purpose. It is easy to see, then, why it is vital to understand the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit and the treasures of the God’s grace in the present dispensation. For without grace, the Christian walk would be absent of all life whatsoever, “For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6).

[1] John F. Hart, Dispensationalism: Tomorrow & Beyond, gen. ed., Christopher Cone (Ft. Worth, TX: Tyndale Seminary Press, 2008), 417.

[2] John F. Walvoord, Roy B. Zuck and Dallas Theological Seminary. The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 2:266.

[3] Ibid.

[4] See Ibid. and Robert James Utley, The Beloved Disciple’s Memoirs and Letters: The Gospel of John, I, II, and III John. Study Guide Commentary Series. (Marshall, Texas: Bible Lessons International, 1999), 4.

[5] Charles Ryrie, Dispensationalism: Revised and Expanded, 2nd ed. (Chicago, IL: Moody, 2007), 63.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 64. And just to be clear, a majority of Dispensationalists teach that while the dispensation of grace started with the birth of the church, the rapture will take place well before the end of the dispensation in order to fulfill the prophecies of the 7-year Tribulation period.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, vol. 1, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains, electronic ed. of the 2nd edition. (New York, NY: United Bible Societies, 1996), 748.

[10] Lewis Sperry Chafer, “Inventing Heretics Through Misunderstanding,” Bibliotecha Sacra 102 (January 1945): 1.

[11] Charles Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 128.

[12] Ibid., 135.

[13] John F. Hart, Dispensationalism: Tomorrow & Beyond, 399-400.

[14] C.I. Scofield, Scofield Reference Bible Notes (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1945), 1245.

[15] See Hart, Dispensationalism: Tomorrow & Beyond, 417.

[16] Ibid.


Church Discipline: A Necessary Action of Corrective Discipleship

There are many areas in the ministries and responsibilities of local churches that people find appealing and generally are easy to fulfill. Church discipline is not one of these areas. According to the Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, “Perhaps the discipline most neglected by Christians of the 21st century is church discipline” (427). Undoubtedly, there are many misconceptions to this ecclesiastical mandate, as manifested throughout church history, modern scholasticism, and practice. Furthermore, Scripture does give abundant support for instituting this practice in the way that God intends. Therefore, it is vital that local churches would adhere to the guidelines and instructions, as well as intellectually comprehending the reasoning and goals for church discipline. As it will be noted, church discipline is also an important topic of teaching for each member of the congregation to appropriately understand, not simply the staff members and church leaders. Upon properly analyzing the crucial practice of church discipline, local churches will be able to receive the benefits of pursuing God’s will, will see the differences made in a restored member to the congregation by God’s grace, and therefore will edify the members as a whole.

Ken Blue and John White offer this definition: “Church discipline is the training of the of the church by the church” (18). Gerry Breshears and Mark Driscoll state the two major kinds of biblical discipline: formative and restorative. “Formative discipline is primarily positive, instructive, and encouraging. Restorative discipline has a corrective purpose” (171). The topic at hand is referring to restorative discipline. Contrary to much of contemporary thought, discipline is in fact a good thing. Proverbs 12:1 says, “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid.” Not only is the idea or practice of discipline valuable, but God Himself takes part in this corrective action. Proverbs 3:11-12 confirms this by saying, “Do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.” Therefore, God demonstrates that discipline is both beneficial and even loving. On the contrary, to forsake discipline shows absolutely no love whatsoever. Unfortunately, “what most people think of when they hear ‘church discipline’ is excommunication, the final stage of the biblical process” (Breshears and Driscoll 171). Church discipline is much more than kicking people out of the congregation. It is a loving, God-honoring, and necessary action within a local church that is utilized to correct a lack of repentance in a person’s life. Furthermore, “Authentic biblical discipline is not an elective, but a necessary and integral mark of authentic Christianity” (Mohler). Church discipline, when instituted correctly, is very important for churches to utilize and will allow them to reap the rewards of obeying God’s commands towards an unrepentant believer continuing in sin.

The best starting point for researching church discipline would have to be Matthew 18. In this passage, we find the comprehensive, four-step process to handle church discipline. Verse fifteen says, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” This is the first step, and if repentance is achieved, then the process is finalized. However, verse sixteen continues with the second step for matters that are extended to this point. Jesus says, “But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses” (Matthew 18:16). This second step follows a very similar principle regarding confrontation of sin as found in Deuteronomy 19:15. However, if the second step still does not produce a spirit of repentance, then continuing on to the third and, if necessary, fourth step will be needed. Matthew 18:17 says, “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” The third step requires believers to take this matter to the church, which, in the Greek, is ἐκκλησία. This can be translated three ways: congregation, church, or assembly (Louw and Nida 77-78). Taking into consideration that this is prior to Acts 2, as well as simply examining the context, conclusions will probably be geared towards what Walvoord and Zuck say, “The disciples probably would have understood Jesus to mean the matter should be brought before the Jewish assembly” (62). However, it is relevant to keep in mind that the Christ’s church was already prophesied in Matthew 16:18. Thus, this commandment would not fall under Jewish law and unimportant for the church to adhere to. On the contrary, this is tremendously precise and necessary for the church to obey. Finally, if the unrepentant believer persists without change, then excommunication from the fellowship of the local church will be necessary. Following these four steps is what God truly intends for restorative church discipline.

Though obedience to God’s Word is important enough, there is sufficient, Biblical reasoning behind this whole process that God has revealed. Rolland McCune offers three specific purposes within church discipline, “To remove the offender and thus restrain the evil,” “To restore the offender and heal the offense,” and “To uphold the purity and good name of the church” (290-292). These are all definitely included in the facets of church discipline, yet Breshears and Driscoll state the purpose in a more succinct, simple, and perhaps better fashion: “One goal of all church discipline is reconciliation” (173). This inference leads back to the word “discipline” itself, in that the root of discipline is also used for the word “disciple” (171). In other words, church discipline is a corrective form of discipleship. Understanding this prerequisite is important for two reasons. First, it defines that discipline is meant for believers of a local church, not unsaved people. It is not possible, after all, to disciple someone who is unconverted. Secondly, understanding church discipline as a corrective form of discipleship helps better define the purpose or desired result of discipline. The foundational goal of church discipline should really be for reconciliation, and thus spiritual growth and maturity of the disciplined believer.  Likewise, this also helps the church determine that the discipline is not necessarily about cleansing sin within the congregation. Chapter one of first John is very clear that believers will indeed sin (1 John 1:7-10). Therefore, if a Christian within a local church commits a sin, but repents, the church is not called upon to invoke some form of discipline. The Christian at fault will certainly reap the moral or legal consequences of his sin, but there is no need to discipline since the goal of repentance has already been achieved. Such moral or legal consequences that would still exist could include marital affair aftermath, theft, drunkenness violations, etc. Gerry Breshears and Mark Driscoll define this as the fourth step of “restitution,” which places the responsibility on the offender to seek forgiveness (169). A great example from Scripture would include Zacchaeus in Luke 19. On the other side of responsibility, the church then has the duty of forgiveness (Ephesians 4:32). Driscoll and Breshears define this conclusion as “reconciliation” (170). Thus, the desired purpose of church discipline is for the Christian at fault to repent and for the church to be reconciled with him or her.

In order to have a more visible understanding of church discipline and to see how reconciliation is desired within the church, it is important to see examples found in Scripture. While Matthew 18 is probably the core passage on the process of church discipline, it has already been mentioned, and thus seeing the practical example mentioned in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians will be beneficial. The unrepentant sin involved in this situation would be as Rolland McCune defines, “Gross sins among professing Christians” (292). Paul exclaims, “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife” (I Corinthians 5:1). The verb for has is “ἔχειν,” a present, active infinitive. The NET Bible translates this phrase, “so that someone is cohabiting with his father’s wife.” What this all means is that a man is continuously, without repentance, committing acts of sexual immorality with his step-mother. Paul’s admonishment to the Corinthians is to “Let him who has done this be removed from among you” (I Corinthians 5:2). Excommunication is the final step in church discipline, so this passage is somewhat difficult in displaying every step. However, the fact of the matter is that this is both dealing with a corrective form of discipleship towards a professing Christ and there is also the goal of reconciliation. In verse five, Paul says, “You are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” It does not appear that Paul simply wants the church to be without sin altogether, but that he is disciplining continual, unrepentant sin. The person involved is not hated by Paul, but rather he has the goal that “his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” Though there are several speculative interpretations of this passage, John MacArthur says, “This is equal to excommunicating the professed believer. It amounts to putting that person out of the blessing of Christian worship and fellowship by thrusting him into Satan’s realm, the world system…The unrepentant person may suffer greatly under God’s judgment, but will not be an evil influence in the church; and he will more likely be saved under that judgment than if tolerated and accepted in the church.” Furthermore, Paul says in verses 12-13, “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside.” Likewise, it can be determined that the responsibility of the church is to discipline those who profess the name of Christ and when in the midst of church discipline, desire to have reconciliation as Paul mentioned, “So that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” While commentators differ on different aspects of this passage, Paul does seem to make it clear that church discipline is for the benefit of the church’s spiritual well-being, but especially for the disciplinary correction of the unrepentant, professing Christian.

Another passage that Paul writes about church discipline is found in chapter five of First Timothy. While the previous passage related to church discipline of sexual immorality, here Paul instructs Timothy concerning church discipline of elders. Though the four steps are not overwhelmingly visible in First Timothy chapter five, it still does give enough evidence as to patterning Matthew chapter eighteen. Paul first says, “Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses” (I Timothy 5:19). Verse nineteen alone covers the first two steps: going individually to the person and then taking along one or two witnesses. If this small meeting causes repentance, then there is no need for any further step to take place; unless, of course, the sin involves something that would disqualify the elder from a pastoral role. However, Paul says in verse twenty, “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.” Paul’s instruction perfectly matches what Jesus said in Matthew 18:17, “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.” The part that Paul does not mention in First Timothy five is the final, excommunication step. However, Paul has already mentioned the qualifications for the leadership of the church in chapter three and gave instructions about false teachers in chapter one. Additionally, Paul mentioned his actions of church discipline to the false teachers, Hymenaeus and Alexander, in I Timothy 1:20. Furthermore, Paul makes it explicitly clear that leadership responsibilities in the local church are important decisions. First Timothy 5:22 says, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands.” Therefore, while Paul does not include all of the steps of church discipline that Matthew 18 records, this does not nullify the importance of incorporating all of the steps. In all actuality, this passage gives us very good reason to continue in all four steps since a lot of the material is, in fact, repeated from Matthew 18 and absolutely none of it is in opposition to other Biblical accounts of the church discipline procedure.

In addition to the foundational church discipline passage of Matthew 18 and the instructions found in First Timothy five, it is also helpful to see the example displayed in Titus chapter three. Titus 3:9-11 says, “But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.” Since this is a Pastoral Epistle, this is very wise counsel for Titus. Clearly, men and women who cause divisions is not just a twenty-first century phenomenon, but has been a threat that pastors have been much aware of for two centuries. The Bible Knowledge Commentary remarks, “Paul’s thought here is similar to the Lord’s instructions (Matt. 18:15-17), when He taught that after giving an offender three chances to repent, he is then to be cut off.” While it is certainly true that the goal is kept in mind about desiring to restore the person and to refute false and disruptive teaching, what makes this passage a little more difficult is the numerical amount of confrontations. While Matthew eighteen speaks of the four steps, Titus three speaks of only “once” or “twice” warning. Therefore, it would be helpful to note that Paul is writing to a pastor and specific ministry responsibilities that would be possible, such as bad teaching, would be addressed. Truly, the events described in this text would most likely constitute as unrepentant sin, and thus should be dealt with church discipline. However, this is a public sin, while the context in Matthew 18 seems to be more of a private situation. After all, Jesus said in Matthew 18:15, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.” On the other hand, a Titus 3:9-11 type of situation could skip the first step since this is a serious and public issue. Paul does not really give more information about what the process includes in these one or two warnings. Though Paul is not explicit on this interjection, it is possible that steps two and three of Matthew eighteen could be instituted for repentance. That way, a small group of godly men, two or three witnesses, can confront the sinning individual first. If that is not successful in bearing repentance, then taking the issue to the church would certainly be necessary. All in all, skipping the first step in Matthew 18 for a public ordeal but still incorporating the next steps does seem to match up with Titus three. Without a doubt, much prayer should precede a difficult situation of church discipline like this one. However, the Bible is unequivocally clear that false teaching must be combatted. Paul says in Galatians 1:8-9, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.”

An additional difficult topic to tackle within the discussion of church discipline is how to administer within and outside a member’s local church. While Christians are members of the universal Body of Christ, the Congregational view of autonomy gives authority to each local church. Cross and Livingstone say this belief  “professes to represent the principle of democracy in Church government, a polity which is held to follow from its fundamental belief in Christ as the sole head of His Church. All the members of the Church, being Christians, are ‘priests unto God.’ When examining Matthew eighteen in unison with the Baptist distinctive in mind, the two certainly seem to go together. Jesus said in Matthew 18:17, “If he refuses to listen to them [the two or three witnesses], tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Upon observing this verse, it is clear to see two important points. First, enforcing church discipline beyond step one on someone must be done within the limits of a local church. After all, it is impossible to tell a matter to every single Christian within the universal Body of Christ. Secondly, if church discipline is not done within the limits of a local church, there is nowhere to excommunicate someone. The disciplinary measure taken against an unrepentant, professing believer leads up to a loss of fellowship. From a simple observation, the text certainly indicates a localized congregation even though the Church Age had not begun until Acts 2. Hypothetically, if two people are involved in a situation that is not resolvable after a personal confrontation, the Bible would seem to indicate that the next steps taken would involve the offender’s local church: two or three witnesses first, and then congregational activity if necessary. That way, unrepentant sin can be dealt with, local churches can avoid potential threats of sin and error, and by God’s grace, a positive outcome might occur in the middle of a difficult situation. Overall, this argument not only supports the necessity of a proper ecclesiology for local church governance, but also gives reasoning for disciplining within the limits of a local church.

While the Bible has clearly taught the principles and proper actions taken in church discipline, not everyone has heeded this instruction. The history of the Roman Catholic Church is one example of combining false doctrine with an assumed church discipline. Three levels of church discipline arose in times past for this establishment: excommunication, anathema, and interdict (Peterson). While forcing a member out of the church as well as warning the excommunicate about a loss of eternal life, within the first, the second was more of a threat to the individual being kicked out of a certain state. However, the interdict was an even broader influence, as “whole towns, districts, or countries including both the guilty and the innocent were affected” (Peterson). Clearly, the Roman Catholic Church’s history has revealed that they have not taken the principles for church discipline to be corrective discipleship, nor did they bear any resemblance of the proper steps mentioned in Scripture. Therefore, while a lack of church discipline can be dangerous, a misunderstanding of too much “discipline” can also amount to a disastrous result.

If a church does not participate in church discipline, it is either blessed with a congregation free of unrepentant sin or it is simply disobedient to God’s design for corrective discipleship. As it has been visibly manifested, for a church to forsake disciplining unrepentant sin it is not functioning in a Biblical and loving fashion. Contemporary culture might respond to the word “discipline” with a cringe or an unsettled feeling within themselves. However, God has spoken and He is quite clear about the importance of church discipline, even though it might not always be easy. John Leadley Dagg once remarked with some intriguing words of wisdom, ““It has been remarked, that when discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it” (274). While that statement might not be without flaw or inaccuracy, it certainly goes to show that church discipline is neither an optional nor a minor issue. Rather, church leaders should embrace this responsibility as a way to correct unrepentant sin, to be obedient to God’s Word, to promote purity within the congregation, and to ultimately bring glory to God.

Works Cited

Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible.

Biblical Studies Press, 2006.

Blue, Ken and John White. Healing the Wounded: The Costly Love of Church Discipline.

Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1985. Print.

Breshears, Gerry and Mark Driscoll. Vintage Church. Wheaton: Crossway, 2008. Print.

Cross, F. L. and Elizabeth A. Livingstone. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. 3rd

ed. rev. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Dagg, J.L. A Treatise on Church Order. Charleston: The Southern Baptist Publication Society,

1858. Print.

Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Ed. Chad Brand, Charles Draper, Archie England, Steve

Bond, E. Ray Clendenen, Trent C. Butler and Bill Latta. Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001.

Louw, Johannes P. and Eugene Albert Nida. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament:

Based on Semantic Domains. electronic ed. of the 2nd edition. New York: United Bible Societies, 1996.

MacArthur, John F., Jr. The MacArthur Study Bible: New American Standard Bible. Nashville,

TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2006.

Mohler, R. Albert. The Compromised Church. Wheaton: Crossway, 1998. Print.

Peterson, Roger L. “Discipline in the Local Church.” Central Bible Quarterly 2.3 (1959). Print.

Walvoord, John F., Roy B. Zuck and Dallas Theological Seminary. The Bible Knowledge

Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985.

An Evaluation and Critique of the Emergent Church

  1. Introduction

According to Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck, “Defining the emerging church is like nailing Jell-O to the wall” (16-17). Perhaps the most difficult aspect about this topic is the vast amount of differences existing among those who have at one point called themselves part of the Emergent Church but no longer do, those who currently call themselves Emergent Church, and those who shy away from the term Emergent Church, though are quite similar in theology and practice to those professing to be in this movement. Some have tried to divide the terms “Emerging” and “Emergent” Church to separate orthodox from the unorthodox; however, this is also a big problem because men like Brian McLaren and Doug Pagitt have adopted both terms and have essentially used them interchangeably. After observing the different members involved in this discussion, it is certainly clear that there are both evangelicals and liberals who are labeled as Emerging or Emergent. Therefore, since this overview is relative to the Emergent Church, it is important to properly clarify how this movement differs from the Emerging Church, what these members primarily hold to doctrinally, what are some commendable characteristics, and then certainly a critical analysis. Upon clarifying and critiquing this church movement, it will be overwhelming clear to see that the Emergent Church is indeed an unorthodox church movement, different from the Emerging Church, and should be properly understood in light of modern-day ecclesiology and church movements.

2. History of the Emergent Church

In the process of sorting through the Emergent versus the Emerging Church movement(s), a brief tracing of history will most likely clear up the foggy air of distinguishing one from the other. Back in 1997, a group of church leaders joined a networking ministry for reaching postmodern culture called the “Leadership Network” (Driscoll). After speaking at multiple conferences within the Leadership Network, eventually Mark Driscoll decided to leave the network based on two reasons. First, Driscoll reasoned that he should spend more time in Seattle where his recent church plant had been established. Secondly, and more significant, he left because he had “serious theological differences with some men on the team and was concerned about their drift from biblical truth” (Driscoll). Eventually, these “men on the team” that Driscoll alludes to, such as Doug Pagitt, Brian McLaren, and Dan Kimball left the “Leadership Network” and established what is called the “Emergent Village.” Therefore, it seems fairly reasonable as to why confusion exists between distinguishing an Emerging Church leader from the Emergent Church. Especially, when unorthodox men like Brian McLaren try to label themselves still as “Emerging” when he does not belong with pastors like Mark Driscoll and Matt Chandler who unwaveringly preach the Gospel as stated in First Corinthians 15. Overall, while there is probably some overlap of the two movements, some really helpful research has been made to more easily distinguish a church leader who is either Emerging or Emergent.

3. Clarification of Church Movements – Emerging vs. Emergent

Of all available charts, articles, and books, both Ed Stetzer and Mark Driscoll each have made helpful contributions for identifying both movements. Stetzer, a Baptist missiologist, categorizes this rather large movement into three areas: Relevants, Reconstructionists, and Revisionists. Relevants are “deeply committed to biblical preaching, male pastoral leadership and other values common in conservative evangelical churches” (Stetzer). Reconstructionists “think that the current form of church is frequently irrelevant and the structure is unhelpful. Yet, they typically hold to a more orthodox view of the Gospel and Scripture” (Stetzer). Revisionists are the liberals in the Emerging/Emergent Church movement, according to Stetzer. He says, “Revisionists are questioning (and in some cases denying) issues like the nature of the substitutionary atonement, the reality of hell, the complementarian nature of gender, and the nature of the Gospel itself.” Similar to Stetzer, though a little more distinct, Driscoll organizes this movement into four categories: Emerging Evangelicals, House Church Evangelicals, Emerging Reformers, and Emergent Liberals. As Driscoll mentions in his article, “What the first three lanes have in common is theological orthodoxy.” Furthermore, as each description signifies, there are differences related mostly to practice and less significant doctrines. For example, the Emerging Evangelicals are not making as much as an impact as the others. Mark Driscoll says this movement is often “doing little more than cool church for hip young Christians.” A considerable difference from among the other two orthodox lanes is that Emerging Evangelicals are neither significantly involved with house churches nor are they specifically Reformed in theology. Secondly, House Church Evangelicals, as the name suggests, propose changes in methods of reaching the culture by utilizing “more informal, incarnational, and organic church forms such as that of house churches” (Driscoll). Some of the most well-known and respected members of this “lane” would be George Barna, Frank Viola, Neil Cole, and Shane Claiborne. One common problem in this movement, though it may not exist in a lot of the leaders and advocates of the House Church Evangelicals, is that a lot of the “disciples” can be internet terrors of arrogancy against popular leaders who pastor large, institutional churches. Mark Driscoll specifies that the common critique of House Church Evangelicals is their “disgruntled” attitude toward institutional or mega-churches, yet their methods for reaching people can also be hindered due to a lack of size. Thus, this can be counter-reacting to their original goals of reaching the culture in the first place. Ben Witherington further discusses this issue in his blog when critiquing the book, Pagan Christianity?, written by George Barna and Frank Viola. Certainly, house churches can be effective, and in some areas of the world, a necessity. However, the belief that churches can “only” be planted and utilized in homes can simply be a hindrance to reaching people with the Gospel when setting limits according to these extra-biblical boundaries. The third lane of churches, Emerging Reformers, is perhaps the strongest and strictest on doctrinal issues and has been successful in church planting. Many Emerging Reformers draw their theology from present-day Reformed theologians and pastors such as Wayne Grudem, D.A. Carson, Timothy Keller, Matt Chandler, John Piper, and plenty of others (Driscoll). There is no question that the Emerging Reformers are balancing conservative, theological beliefs while utilizing creative ways in reaching out to the unsaved in the most Biblical fashion among all three orthodox lanes. Finally, the dividing line between the first three lanes and the fourth lane, Emergent Liberals, is clearly manifested in their theologically unorthodox teachings. As seen, though there might be some overlap in “methods” of reaching people among all four lanes, the “message” of the Gospel is quite different in the fourth lane alone. Thus, it is important to take into consideration the doctrines and characteristics of the Emergent Liberals.

4. Doctrine and Beliefs of the Emergent Church

If distinguishing the lanes between orthodox and unorthodox Emerging/Emergent Church lanes was not confusing enough, then surely attempting to identify the doctrines and beliefs of the Emergent Liberal Church will cause some confusion and difficulty. Upon looking at their doctrinal statements, it can be tough to point out a church that is Emergent Liberal. However, there are commonalities in this lane which can help one decipher this movement as unorthodox. First of all, there is usually an incredibly vague, if any, dividing line between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. When Brian McLaren introduced his book A Generous Orthodoxy, he said that his belief system “sees orthopraxy as the point of orthodoxy” (31). However, McLaren also was quoted in an interview to say that “Orthodoxy itself is practice…So ethics comes first, then doctrine comes second, and witness flows out of that” ( Though McLaren is subtle in this, essentially what he is saying is that doctrine does not significantly matter, but rather how one lives. This form of forsaking doctrine for “spirituality” is simply a modern-day form of what men like Jakob Beohme, George Fox, and Emanuel Swedenborg tried to accomplish in the 17th-18th centuries. Like Emergent Liberals’ writings from Brian McLaren and Rob Bell, Jakob Boehme’s writings were not understandable and were “subject to various interpretations” (Gonzalez 198). This leads to the second issue of Emergent Liberalism, which relates to their doctrine of the Scriptures. Without a doubt, Emergent Liberals “like” the Bible (DeYoung and Kluck 69). Doug Pagitt says, however, that the Bible  is “not reduced to a book from which we exact truth, but the Bible is a full, living, and active member of our community that is listened to on all topics of which it speaks” (32). According to this line of thinking, the assumption is “since words are only symbols, the truth in the Bible must be seen as ambiguous and in need of constant reinterpretation” (DeYoung and Kluck 82). Clearly, this postmodern way of thinking puts authority not in the inspired, revealed Word of God, but in the individual. Thus, truth becomes relative to the person, rather than having a sustained belief that, as Jesus Himself proclaimed, God’s Word intrinsically is “truth” (John 17:17). Finally, unlike the vague sayings in certain areas of the Emergent Liberal Church, it is abundantly clear that these men and women have discarded the Gospel. Brian McLaren, for once, does not even make this a hidden fact. He said in Christianity Today, “I don’t think we’ve got the gospel right yet…I don’t think the liberals have it right. But I don’t think we have it right either. None of us has arrived at orthodoxy” (Crouch 37-38). In contrast to this statement, the Bible actually does tell us what the Gospel is in I Corinthians 15:1-4: “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” This is the good news, and it is not about saving the planet, performing good works, or anything else. What postmodernists need is not a mysterious, social Gospel proposed by the Emergent Liberals, but the Gospel proclaimed by the Apostles and the Orthodox believers throughout the centuries.

5. Commendable Characteristics of the Emergent Church

Emergent Liberals make it quite clear that their purpose of existence is to help people. The Emergent Village’s purpose statement reads, “We believe the church exists for the benefit and blessing of the world at large; we seek therefore not to be blessed to the exclusion of everyone else, but rather for the benefit of everyone else” ( Rob Bell, an Emergent Liberal pastor in Michigan places a strong emphasis on using the church to help others ( However, as Leonard Sweet has mentioned in an email to Ed Stetzer, the Emergent Liberal Church “has become another form of social gospel. And the problem with every social gospel is that it becomes all social and no gospel. All social justice and no social gospel.”

6. Dangerous Heresies of the Emergent Church

The first dangerous heresy to mention leads back to the previous paragraph’s mention of the Emergent Liberal’s purpose statement. There is something, or specifically Someone, missing in their Ecclesiology: God. He just is not there. This is what happens when a church movement becomes all about people, instead of being about a people gathered for His glory. Though it was already criticized, the second dangerous heresy is the distorted message of the Gospel. Al Mohler questions, “If we cannot know what the Gospel really is — if we cannot know the Gospel on any definite terms — how can we know a false gospel when we see one?” Without question, the Gospel message is indeed clear. Relating to the Gospel message, men like Brian McLaren, Steve Chalke, and Alan Jones regard the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement as a form of “cosmic child abuse” (Driscoll). The Bible teaches a different story, however. According to II Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Additionally, I John 2:2 says, “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” The opinions of the Emergent Church are constantly in disagreement with what the Scriptures teach. Therefore, it is fully suitable to declare that this movement is indeed unorthodox.

7. Conclusions

What started out as a movement among individuals wanting to reach the postmodern culture has turned out to be a confusing but definable movement, including orthodox as well as unorthodox proponents. It is without question that the Emergent Liberal Christians have forsaken the Gospel, given way to postmodern thought on many matters, and are simply more of a hindrance to the Christian faith than a help. Reaching people with the Gospel of Christ should be on the hearts and minds of every orthodox believer. However, sacrificing core doctrines such as the substitutionary atonement and the Gospel message is never a legitimate option, even within a postmodern society. After observing all of the lanes within the Emerging/Emergent movement, it would probably be safest just to step aside from grabbing ahold of labels in a certain lane within the Emerging crowd. Even if one is conservative in doctrine, prefers the method of house-churches, or is confident in Reformed teachings, the confusion already existing in this movement should hinder one’s goals of taking part in one of the Emerging lanes. Thankfully, Jesus Christ is not just a good example for spiritual living, but is the eternal Son of God who has atoned for our sins and is worthy of our worship. Additionally, the Church exists first and foremost to worship God because all things were created for His glory (Isaiah 43:7). It is a wonderful privilege to be a part of the Church that Christ purchased with His blood. In conclusion, then, it should also be of utmost importance that the Church would stand firm in orthodox, Biblical, and clearly-taught doctrines that identifies the true believers apart from the heretical teachers. Church movements come and go, but God’s Word never changes and is firmly trustworthy for all generations.

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