Why the Church Needs the Family and the Family Needs the Church (TBB)

The “TBB” in the name of this post means that it is part of The Big Box series. If you’re new to Scarlet Letters, read the introductory post to see what The Big Box is all about.

Hello again, readers! Hester is back from being “all rung out,” and ready to provide you with another installment of the Big Box. New this week is Jeff Pollard (bio here), a repeat speaker at the Uniting Church and Family Conference. As you’ve probably guessed, the terms “church” and “family” are central to his thought. Thankfully, unlike many of his associates at Vision Forum, Pollard meticulously defined these terms in his lecture, so let’s begin by examining his definitions, beginning with “church.”

I sing a song of the (visible) saints of God (on earth)

394px-1923_Toronto_StJamesPollard begins his discussion of church by claiming the word “church” has two meanings in the Bible. The first refers to the “universal church,” which Pollard defines as “all the people of God collectively, all the churches of the saints, designated by the singular term ‘church,’ all under the headship of the Lord Jesus Christ.” The second is the “local, geographical church”:

The church is not some big, invisible, foggy thing that, somehow or another, I may be related to, but the expression of the church of the Lord Jesus Christ is His gathering of people. In this sense, the church is a called-out assembly, a gathered fellowship of God’s people. The Holy Spirit calls them by the Gospel and regenerating grace. He draws them unto Christ in repentance and faith, and He transforms them into a body that worships and serves the living God according to His Word.

Pollard also gives this summary definition near the end of the lecture:

So then, let us think of the church as that visible entity that exists and functions in accord with the institution of Christ as its head, the church that is the bride of Christ, the body of Christ indwelt and directed by the Holy Spirit, consisting of those sanctified by Christ Jesus and called to be saints, manifested in the congregations, the gathering of the faithful, and which will one day be the holy, spotless and without-blemish bride of Christ, joined to her bridegroom, Jesus Christ, throughout all eternity.

Though Pollard’s definition is not too bad generally, it contains two subtle elements that concern me. The first is that Pollard places so much emphasis on the local, visible aspect of the church, and de-emphasizes its universal, invisible aspect so strongly, that we might be led to think that the church only consists of living believers on earth. It is possible that Pollard didn’t intend to address the church in heaven; but I’d have much more confidence in that explanation if he hadn’t explicitly defined the church as “visible” in the second quote above, and explicitly denied that it was “some big, invisible, foggy thing” in the first. Even Pollard’s definition of the universal church above uses the term “churches,” which has distinctly earthbound connotations.

Taking Pollard’s (apparent) definition to its logical conclusions will show immediately how preposterous it is. Consider the Apostle Paul. Paul is dead, and has been for two millennia now. Paul’s body, wherever it was, has long since turned to dust, and his soul never had visible substance to begin with. In other words, Paul is invisible to Christians today. He is also not a member of any local congregation in the sense that Pollard intends. Thus, the Apostle Paul is not a member of the church!

This should be especially bewildering to Christians of liturgical traditions, in which All Saints’ Day is often a big, celebratory event which explicitly focuses on departed Christians:

For all the saints who from their labors rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Alleluia, alleluia! [1]

The same idea appears in other hymns, including Wesley’s famous O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing:

Glory to God, and praise and love
Be now and ever given
By saints below and saints above,
The church in earth and heaven.

Suffice it to say, then, that the idea of the church in heaven is hardly some newfangled notion. In fact, in rather amusing contrast to Pollard’s description of an invisible church as “foggy,” the author of Hebrews, immediately after reviewing the lives of several departed giants of the faith, describes these men as a “cloud” surrounding living Christians:

Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us… Hebrews 12:1

My second concern with Pollard’s definition is his description of the church’s members (emphasis mine):

The church is not some big, invisible, foggy thing that, somehow or another, I may be related to, but the expression of the church of the Lord Jesus Christ is His gathering of people. In this sense, the church is a called-out assembly, a gathered fellowship of God’s people. The Holy Spirit calls them by the Gospel and regenerating grace. He draws them unto Christ in repentance and faith, and He transforms them into a body that worships and serves the living God according to His Word.

You may be wondering how anyone could have a problem with the bolded statement above. Of course church members are supposed to be true Christians! Right? Well, yes, certainly…in a perfect world (see the church in heaven I just addressed above). In our very imperfect world, churches have struggled for centuries with how to discern true Christians from false ones. Oceans of ink have been spilled about this problem, and the Bible itself is full of warnings about false teachers and “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (Matthew 7:15-20, Acts 20:28-31, 2 Peter 2). And this age-old conundrum has come to haunt even Jeff Pollard, because whether he admits it or not, what he is describing in the above paragraph is the invisible church – the church of true Christians only, which is rarely easy to spot in this life. (If Pollard believes that all members of Christian congregations on earth are true Christians by default, then we need to be having a very different discussion.)

I’m also curious how Pollard determines if a prospective member of his church has been “call[ed] by the Gospel and regenerating grace” and “draw[n]…to Christ in repentance and faith.” After all, if he doesn’t do due diligence in this matter, he could accidentally let a false Christian become a member of his church. He could follow in the footsteps of the New England Puritans (whom the other folks at Vision Forum admire so much) and require an extremely detailed public recounting of the prospective member’s journey to faith, right down to the various emotional and mental states they passed through on the way. (See Edmund Morgan’s book Visible Saints for much more detail on this topic.) Unfortunately, however, Pollard never addresses questions about membership requirements.

Another difficulty of Pollard’s extreme focus on the church as visible only is his language about believers being “added to the church” (Acts 2:47):

Now this means that those who are brought into saving union with Christ are added to His church. While they are separate, as far as what we can study, they are always joined, and they should never be separated. Unfortunately many of us think, as I’ve heard people say, ‘I can worship the Lord out there in that deer stand as much as I can in there with all them hypocrites.’ … Well, it’s true, hypocrites don’t raise a real joyful noise to the Lord, but you need His people. You need His people, and they need you. We need one another. This is the way the Lord has ordained it, He’s structured it. We cannot do in the Christian life what we’ve been called to do except first, we be redeemed, and recognize that that redemption brings me into fellowship with His church.

No one would object that new Christians become members of the church (universal), and that Christians should fellowship with one another. But the above comes awfully close to saying that a person is automatically added to a congregation when they are saved, given Pollard’s focus on worship occurring in a church building. The logical corollary is that we should, perhaps, doubt the salvation of those who profess Christianity but are not members, or faithful attenders, of a particular congregation. Pollard also seems to imply that any kind of Christian fellowship occurring outside a church structure is either not “real” fellowship or somehow substandard (emphasis mine):

Every household needs to worship and serve the Lord Jesus Christ in a local gathering of believers organized in harmony with the infallible Word of God. It’s not simply a group of people that get together and say, I believe in Jesus. It is to be structured according to the Word of God. And when we walk according to His structure, we see the beauty and the glory of our Father as He blesses us, as we see it in our homes when they are structured according to His Word as well. We can’t be mavericks. We can’t just be out there on our own. We need the church. You say, ‘Well, I’ve tried everything in my area.’ Move. Or start, begin a church under the auspices of those who can give you good guidance. But don’t neglect to meet with God’s people.

I’d like to observe a few things before examining the rest of this quote. First, though I do think fellowship in congregations is important and can be rewarding, I would not doubt a professing Christian’s salvation based solely on the fact that they’re not attending church regularly (though this could be revealing if accompanied by certain other patterns of behavior). Second, a congregation is not the only place where “real” Christian fellowship can occur. Third, I’m curious what Pollard would say to a person so badly scarred by their last congregation that they’re psychologically, emotionally, etc. unable to handle “going to church” (and a perusal of the numerous “survivor” blogs on the internet will show that this is not nearly as rare as Christians might like to think).

Fourth, I can’t tell if Pollard’s advice to move if there are no satisfactory local churches was intended seriously; but if it was, then he’s profoundly ignorant or insensitive of the situations of thousands of families. Moving and finding a new job are neither cheap nor easy. This is especially ironic in light of Vision Forum’s belief that Christian families must have lots of children, which would make such a move even less feasible.

Counterfeit church?

Now let’s take a look at the rest of Pollard’s quote (emphasis mine):

Every household needs to worship and serve the Lord Jesus Christ in a local gathering of believers organized in harmony with the infallible Word of God. It’s not simply a group of people that get together and say, I believe in Jesus. It is to be structured according to the Word of God. And when we walk according to His structure, we see the beauty and the glory of our Father as He blesses us, as we see it in our homes when they are structured according to His Word as well. We can’t be mavericks. We can’t just be out there on our own. We need the church. You say, ‘Well, I’ve tried everything in my area.’ Move. Or start, begin a church under the auspices of those who can give you good guidance. But don’t neglect to meet with God’s people.

The primary questions we should be asking after reading the above are, first, what does Pollard mean by “structured according to the Word of God”? And second, what would be his attitude toward those churches that are not (according to him) “structured according to the Word of God”?

Per the first question, the only solid description Pollard provides of a “Biblical” church structure is to quote a Baptist confession, and say that the church must have elders and deacons. But this doesn’t exactly tell us much, as most denominations have elders and deacons, or equivalent positions with a different title. So Pollard must have more in mind here than the mere presence of church officers called “elders” and “deacons” – the Catholic church, after all, has bishops (another title for elders) and deacons, but Pollard would reject Catholicism out of hand as a false religion. Frankly, in light of the fact that he’s spoken repeatedly at conferences organized by the National Center for Family-Integrated Churches, it’s likely what Pollard actually means by “structured according to God’s Word,” is “structured according to the tenets of the NCFIC.”

Which leads directly to the second question: what if your church isn’t structured “correctly” (though if we took Pollard’s statements about elders and deacons at face value, most would be)? Let’s look at the beginning of the above quote again:

Every household needs to worship and serve the Lord Jesus Christ in a local gathering of believers organized in harmony with the infallible Word of God. It’s not simply a group of people that get together and say, I believe in Jesus. It is to be structured according to the Word of God.

This could easily be interpreted to mean that if a household worships and serves in a congregation not “organized in harmony with the infallible Word of God,” then they are not fulfilling the command to join a church! After all, anything not structured “according to the Word of God” is just “a group of people that get together and say, I believe in Jesus.” It is not “the church”!

Honestly, I hope I’m wrong about this. I hope I’m connecting dots that aren’t there, and that the above is not really what Pollard believes about churches that disagree with him. But the fact remains that it’s frighteningly easy to derive from his statements – and after 16+ hours of listening to Vision Forum speakers, I can assure you that sometimes, your worst interpretive nightmares really do come true.

Spank your parishioners!

All right, so that’s not really what Pollard said. But let’s examine what he did say about church discipline:

And then, when we don’t learn well, and when we find we would rather go our own way than according to the Word of God, then the church must take discipline with its rod.

A few minutes earlier, Pollard said this about family discipline:

Now there can be no godly family without godly rule. Fathers, you are to govern your homes, as I’ve already alluded to, according to God’s Word, and godly rule includes discipline, regardless of what all the social scientists say. In its root sense, discipline means to instruct, to educate. It also means correction or chastisement intended to correct crimes or errors.

Churches have a “rod” to discipline their parishioners, just like parents have a rod to discipline their children. My main concern with this – aside from the fact that churches are never described as having “rods” in the New Testament, and that Pollard’s words could be interpreted as infantilizing church members – lies in his statement “go our own way.” At what point has a parishioner “gone their own way” in defiance of the Word of God? By committing gross sin (the answer in most mainstream churches)? By not structuring their family correctly? By disagreeing with their pastor? Pollard never addresses this – which I find somewhat concerning in and of itself.

I must also point out a rather ironic contradiction in Pollard’s position. It’s clear from his statements about parental discipline that the “rod” he has in view is literal – the mention of “social scientists” is an obvious reference to child development experts who advise against spanking – while the “rod” wielded by the church is obviously figurative (unless Pollard wants pastors to spank their parishioners!). However, if I were to suggest that parents’ rod could be figurative as well (i.e., the rod in Proverbs is symbolic of discipline, not an eternal command to hit your children), Pollard would likely throw a hissy fit and claim that I’m going against the Bible.

What’s even more amusing is that Pollard seems completely unaware of the tension here. I would think he could see the danger in admitting a non-literal rod in certain cases, as it concedes the core point that the rod can be figurative or symbolic (something many spanking advocates will move worlds to deny). But then what is his reason for insisting that parents must take the rod literally to practice “godly rule” over their children? I suspect a pre-existing attachment to corporal punishment is getting in his way.

Family vs. household

So much for Pollard’s statements about the church – now let’s look at his statements about the family. He defines the church as a “family of families,” but then refines the definition of “family” down into something that more closely resembles an old-fashioned “household”:

If we think of a family only in the modern sense of dad, mom, and various numbers of children, then we might get the wrong idea about the church, and when we use the term ‘family of families,’ have a wrong notion. However, given the broader Biblical definition that we’ve just set out, we can include then homes that don’t have a father, or don’t have a husband, such as Lydia in Acts 16. But then we might more accurately say that a church is a household of households.

He also quotes Webster’s 1828 dictionary, which defines “family” as “the collective body of persons who live in one house and under one head or manager.” Families or households can thus include not only parents and children, but also relatives, servants, and boarders.

At first this made me feel somewhat reassured that Pollard was not going to insist upon a particular family structure in every Christian home. But then I remembered Doug Phillips’ lecture a few weeks ago, What’s a Girl to Do?, in which he stated that all “virtuous women” must live “under the direct authority of a man.” Since this point is central to Vision Forum’s thought, it’s highly unlikely that Pollard disagrees with it. So we must keep this in mind as a major caveat when Pollard claims the term “household” allows for more leeway than the term “family.”

Also, just for historical perspective, Reformed Christians have put major restrictions on household structures in the past, so if Pollard believes in such restrictions, it would not be the first time, and it’s hardly impossible for history to repeat itself:

The rulers of the various New England colonies took advantage of this influx of families to place all stray bachelors and maids under the discipline of a real family governor. In 1638 Massachusetts ordered every town to “dispose of all single persons and inmates within their towne to servise, or otherwise.” In February 1636/7 Connecticut provided “that noe younge man that is neither married nor hath any servaunte, and be noe publicke officer, shall keepe howse by himself, without consent of the Towne where he lives first had, under pain of 20s. per weeke.” …

The enforcements of the laws against single persons was usually left to the selectmen of the various towns. Occasionally, however, the county courts would send instructions, specially printed for this purpose, enjoining the selectmen to do their duty. The Middlesex County Court sent such instructions to the towns under its jurisdiction in October 1668. Thirty-two offenders were reported, many of whom later recorded in court that they had made arrangements to live in a family. In April 1680 the court made another drive against single persons, but the five towns whose returns have been preserved reported that there were no offenders within their precincts.[2]

Can Bereans disagree?

Several times throughout the lecture, Pollard urges his listeners to be Bereans and “search the Scriptures to see if these things be so.” I agree with Pollard that it’s a commendable thing to be a Berean. However, whenever he said this, I wondered what would happen if one of Pollard’s listeners searched the Scriptures and came to the conclusion that Pollard and the NCFIC were wrong. Well, at the very end of the lecture, my question was answered (emphasis mine):

My prayer is that all those who hear this message will, by God’s grace, realize their need of the church. May the messages spoken here be used of Almighty God to sharpen and refine the gathering of the saints who understand this, to enlighten those who do not and provoke them to reformation – because there are many who do not, there are many who disagree with why we’re even gathering. May God turn their hearts from their blindness or their stubborn rebellions. May the sovereign God of heaven and earth raise up innumerable churches among those who have this vision and long to make it the reality of their lives.

This paragraph provides the revealing gloss to Pollard’s seemingly friendly lecture. Apparently, if you come to different conclusions than he did, you are blind, stubborn, rebellious, and need your heart turned. After that string of descriptors, if Pollard hadn’t specifically stated he was talking about “saints” earlier in the paragraph, I’d think he was talking about unbelievers!

What this adds up to, of course, is that Pollard’s talk about being a Berean is just empty words. Search the Scriptures for yourselves – but make sure you come to the same conclusion I did. If you don’t, you are blind and in rebellion against God! Turn from your wicked ways, repent and be reformed!

Sorry, Jeff. This “rebellious” blogger is unimpressed.

[2]Edmund Morgan, The Puritan Family, p. 145-146.

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4 comments on “Why the Church Needs the Family and the Family Needs the Church (TBB)

  1. Jeff S says:

    A lot of what he says regarding the church and not being outside of it is fairly typical stuff, unfortunately. In fact, in a perfect world I’d kind of agree with him. In a perfect world where there is no spiritual abuse, where it is easy to discern good churches from bad, where a local church always fits into every life situation, yeah, a Christian will want to gather with other Christians for worship and community. It is part of our identity. But that is not the case, and my previous naivete has been bursted in that regard. I’ve met people who can’t even walk in the door of a church they’ve been hurt so bad. Shoving them aside or guilting them for their pain is not the answer.

    Yes, his admonition to “move” is callous in the highest degree. If you don’t fit his construct of how life should be, too bad. I’m glad God is so much bigger than that.

    I will disagree with you on one point- I think the NT church clearly displays the use of a “rod” in 1 Cor 5. In fact, Paul admonishes the church that it must judge its own people. And of course, this is exactly what SHOULD be happening with SGM that hasn’t been. Pedophiles who have molested children should be judged by the church- that’s where the “rod” comes into play.

    I agree that a conversation needs to happen regarding exactly what things the church ought to discipline for. It seems churches want to discipline for stuff like divorce and failure to step in line rather than things like abusing the oppressed.

    • Hester says:

      “In fact, in a perfect world I’d kind of agree with him.”

      This article actually took me a long time to write because of this. I was raised in the church; I’m a church organist; I’ve never experienced spiritual abuse at the hands of a church; and most of my memories of church are really good. So it’s instinctively really hard for me to be “down on” the institutional church. But on the other hand, I know that there are a lot of wounded people and a lot of really terrible churches, so I do sympathize with the “nones” and understand why they don’t attend. I can’t conceive of my life without the institutional church – but that probably wouldn’t be the case if I had been a member of, say, SGM.

      Per the rod thing, what I meant in my head when I wrote that was that the word “rod” was never used in reference to the church…but whoops, it came off like I was against church discipline. 😦 I certainly didn’t mean it that way. So I can see what you’re saying about the church having a “rod” (as a representation of discipline). But that terminology still makes me uncomfortable for a couple reasons:

      1) Pollard linked it so closely with parental discipline that I worry someone will get the idea that the pastors/elders are “parents” to their parishioners and thus get to micromanage their lives. Thus my comment in the article about infantilizing parishioners.

      2) If pastors have “rods” and parents have rods, then in this crowd it’s only a small step toward husbands having rods to use on their wives and we all know where that ends up.

      3) Probably my biggest concern is, who’s in control of the “rod”? I.e., who gets to enact, approve, etc. the church discipline? In these guys’ churches, probably the pastor/elders. NOT the congregation. In a setup like Calvary Chapel, where the pastor = Moses and thus essentially has his own little dictatorship, the “rod” could be in the hands of only one person, which is a ticking time bomb. But if the congregation controls the “rod,” then the process has to be a lot more open by default and it would probably be harder to hijack the disciplinary procedure to suit the pastor’s personal vendetta or whatever. For example, at my Lutheran church the by-laws specifically state that excommunication happens by congregational vote.

      Hope that helps clarify what I meant.

      • Jeff S says:

        Your statement about the church and people on the outside is stated perfectly. Exactly what I was trying to say, only better. Even when I was going through the worst times, I just HAD to be in church- I couldn’t conceive of not being in church. But it was the ONLY thing I could do. I couldn’t read scripture. I couldn’t listen to Christian music. I WAS able to pray, but that was it. Just pray and go find a church to stand in on Sunday mornings. I’ve known others who have been burned and they live in the Gospels, or maybe the Psalms, but they can’t darken the doorstep of a church. They had their own ways of living the Christian life where they could.

        I wrote a song on the upcoming CD called “Stream Of Grace” and that’s the thing: we give God what we have (stand in the stream of his grace) and trust him with the rest. And if it doesn’t look like “Christianity”, then haters can hate. But what could look MORE like Christianity than being obedient where we can be and letting God take on the rest?

        That’s the big issue with guys who preach this message about the importance of being in church. They are missing the point. They’ve set up a measure of righteousness to determine who is faithful, when the measure of the Gospel in our lives is humility. Someone who says “I’m not where I’d like to be, but I’m trusting God to get me there” is a lot more true to the Christian life than the person who says “If you’re not where you should be, then move”.

        I get what you’re saying about the rod. And yeah, I agree with you about the implications that are drawn. It’s dangerous ground.

  2. Isn’t it “all wrung out 🙂

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