A Rebuttal of Transformationalism

I’ve been extremely busy here of late, and tired. So my pace of blogging has fallen on hard times. I have written one post in the last three weeks, and one draft.

Several things caught my eye that are worth mentioning. The first is that I was listening to the Mortification of Spin podcast the other day and finally heard a great rebuttal of transformationalism. Transformationalism is the idea that the church is going to take the culture by storm and transform it for Christ. The idea comes from Abraham Kuyper, who had the means to be very transformative in that he was the prime minister of the Netherlands, owned a large newspaper, and was the head of a college. The idea is that through the gospel, and enough Christians in the culture, we can transform culture.

You see this kind of thinking in many churches’ mission statements, like the following one from a local church:

That we exist to extend the transforming presence of the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ in Dallas and to the world.

The problem with this kind of thinking from my point of view is that it is not the role of the church to transform culture, redeem culture, or make culture more Christian. Only God can do that. It is the role of the church to worship the LORD. We do that by faithfully preaching His word and working through the means of grace He has given to us. This is the area in which we must be faithful. Trying to change the culture is beyond our means and ability. If culture is going to be changed, God will do it through the church being faithful to our first calling. While reaching the culture with the gospel is a part of that calling, we are not to be about redeeming culture for the gospel. In fact, when the gospel goes forth, it redeems those who are saved from the culture. The elect are plucked out of culture to be holy and blameless before Him, to be His prized possession, to be His trophy of grace.

We may or may not have an effect on those around us. That is not our goal. Our goal is to be faithful in our calling, waiting on the LORD to bring about the results.

As for the podcast above, transformationalism is declared as a complete failure. Abraham Kuyper had no lasting effect on his countrymen. Just spend some time in Holland today and you can see the legacy. Yet even with that, holding up Kuyper as a model of what Christianity should be is quite myopic. R. Scott Clark writes:

The Netherlands was (and remains) a very small place. The Netherlands are 16,000 square miles. Nebraska is 77,000 square miles. It is one thing to talk about a a pervasive, transforming Christian influence in a small country like the Netherlands. It is quite another to talk about transforming the United States (3.7 million square miles), in which one could fit the Netherlands about 250 times, the West, or even the world.

Yet many hold Kuyper up as the model to follow. If Kuyper had any real impact in his day, it was God’s doing, not Kuyper’s doing. The mistake is thinking because God worked one way through a certain person in history, that if we follow that one person in their thinking and actions, then we can duplicate or go beyond what they did in their day. I’m quite certain that Jesus never said, “Follow Kuyper.”

This movement has been afoot in earnest now for at least 20 years, maybe longer, and our culture is no better now than it was when the movement began. We have lost the culture wars. We have lost our way. We have been so busy trying to change the culture, that the culture has changed us. We are not holy. We are not above reproach. We do not stand for God’s Law, or His gospel. We are too busy trying to be like the culture to have any real impact.

Given that, the church needs to return to the old paths of our calling and let God worry about the culture. If we think we are going to be about the business of changing the culture, then we really have an issue of pride and we need to repent of such thinking. Just as we are at God’s mercy concerning our own salvation, so too are we at God’s mercy at changing the culture in which we live. It is HIS doing, not ours.

The other thing that caught my eye over the past week was the pronouncement by Andy Stanley that if you go to a church of 200 or less, you are being selfish. Andy did apologize on Twitter once he stuck his finger in the wind to find it was not blowing in his direction. I think Todd Pruitt does an excellent job on laying out the deeper problem with his post Andy Did it Again. You can also read my post Andy Stanley Proves His “False Teacher” Status Again.

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10 thoughts on “A Rebuttal of Transformationalism

  1. Pingback: Timothy nails Transformationalism | GalacticSlackerHQ

  2. Hi Timothy,

    Dominionism, transformationalism, social gospel, the Jesus Hermeneutic, all of these things share their rejection of the one true gospel of Jesus Christ. We are saved by faith in God’s work, not in our own efforts. And, “My kingdom is not of this world,” said Jesus (John 18.36).

    Why are we being “selfish” if we don’t attend a megachurch? Because we are rejecting Druckerism and the attempts of his followers to transform the culture by redefining the church.

    So glad to read your post, Timothy.
    Alec

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    1. Hi Alec, thank you. Your words are encouraging. I’m finding it very difficult to blog, so when I do, it’s good to know it is appreciated. Will try to drop by your blog when I can. Thank you again.

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  4. Rob

    I don’t think your little essay is helpful. It just states your opinion but doesn’t show any effort to actually advance the discussion. Genesis 1:26-28 is still in the Bible and hasn’t been abrogated. Furthermore, you seem to neglect that history does show a quite massive Christianization of culture in many parts of the world. I think of how the gospel changed the culture of Europe in relation to family and marriage, slavery, economics and many other areas. As Christians live Christianly in obedience to the Word of God, they will be salt and they will be light and culture will be changed over time. As for the Netherlands, an arid secularization set in because Reformed people ceased to be the salt and light they once were. They accommodated themselves to the culture and hence the culture regressed. The way I see it, if you are trying to think about art, music, economics,science and technology and even things like health care etc. in a Christian way, you are setting yourself up for irrelevance. If you think the gospel doesn’t speak to life in the world, if you feel it doesn’t shed light on our human task in this world, if it doesn’t give direction for helping to solve the problems of the world, in short, if it doesn’t inspire a cultural vision, don’t be surprised if people tune out the message you are trying to share. The gospel, in fact, is of great significance for our human culture endeavors. It is of much value for this life and for life in the age to come. One more point: a lot of people today are in the habit of dissing Kuyper without having read a word of his writings. That’s a pity and a loss.

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    1. My comments are in bold

      I don’t think your little essay is helpful. It just states your opinion but doesn’t show any effort to actually advance the discussion. I could make the same about this response. Your assertion is just your opinion and not helpful.

      Genesis 1:26-28 is still in the Bible and hasn’t been abrogated. Furthermore, you seem to neglect that history does show a quite massive Christianization of culture in many parts of the world. I think of how the gospel changed the culture of Europe in relation to family and marriage, slavery, economics and many other areas. You are making my point. It was the gospel changing the culture, not the church setting out to change culture. That is my point. Those involved in this transformational movement have gotten it backwards in thinking that they are agents of change, that they have any control over the culture, that they make a difference. Notice who is at the center of that last sentence. It’s the people who are burdening the church with a task it was not given to do.

      As Christians live Christianly in obedience to the Word of God, they will be salt and they will be light and culture will be changed over time.Again, that is a result of the gospel in their lives, not them setting out to do so. Only God can change the culture, not you, me or any church that has set out to do so. Notice the lack of effect of the churches who have set out to do so in the last 30 years? But you wouldn’t.

      As for the Netherlands, an arid secularization set in because Reformed people ceased to be the salt and light they once were. They accommodated themselves to the culture and hence the culture regressed.The same thing the transformationalist are doing today. The way I see it, if you are trying to think about art, music, economics,science and technology and even things like health care etc. in a Christian way, you are setting yourself up for irrelevance.I agree.

      If you think the gospel doesn’t speak to life in the world, if you feel it doesn’t shed light on our human task in this world, if it doesn’t give direction for helping to solve the problems of the world, in short, if it doesn’t inspire a cultural vision, don’t be surprised if people tune out the message you are trying to share.I agree. They find the true gospel a stumbling block. The gospel is that Jesus saves sinners, not cultures, not us from our petty problems, etc. Transformationalist are under the opinion that the church saves, changes cultures and becomes “relevant” to culture.

      The gospel, in fact, is of great significance for our human culture endeavors. It is of much value for this life and for life in the age to come. One more point: a lot of people today are in the habit of dissing Kuyper without having read a word of his writings. That’s a pity and a loss.I think the greater pity is to let Kuyper inform your view of the world and Scripture instead of letting Scripture inform your view of Kuyper and the world. One doesn’t have to read Kuyper to see the effects of his teachings on the church.

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      1. Rob

        Hi again.

        First of all, I noticed an error in my original post. The word “not” is missing in one sentence. It should read like this:

        “The way I see it, if you are NOT trying to think about art, music, economics,science and technology and even things like health care etc. in a Christian way, you are setting yourself up for irrelevance”

        So I guess you don’t agree with me, after all, not even on this one sentence.

        Secondly, I have read a lot of the literature which you describe as ‘tranformationist” and I don’t see in it what you do. I don’t see people pretending they can change culture. I do see people thinking deliberately about what a Christian view of different spheres of life really looks like. I see them thinking hard about trying to honor Christ the Lord in their work as science, art, political life, economics and the like. As they honor Christ the Lord in their own calling, they inevitably become “agents of change.” Really, every human being on the planet is an agent of change. We can’t help but affect our culture for better or for ill. Every human being is living out a certain vision of life and, over time, this has massive cultural consequences. The question is not whether we will be agents of change but only what kind of change …

        You seem to believe that the so-called transformationist approach is responsible for increased accommodation to the world. I think that’s hard to prove. In any case, my counter-observation is that the world of American Baptistic culture, while being primarily “retreatist,” to use your categories, has not escaped secularization. Why is it that America has a relatively high concentration of evangelical Christians but those Christians seem to have such little effect on national life? Could it be due to these Christians living a dualistic life? They have faith but their faith does not touch their jobs, their policies, their approach to government, economics, science and art? Why is it, for example, that American evangelicals line up so solidly behind government when government once again wants to go to war against some foreign nation that it has decided needs to be taken out? Such generalized support for war undermines the witness of the church and reflects a painful lack of careful reflection about how the claims of Christ our Lord should affect our foreign policy.

        In the end, a failure to take Gen. 1:26-28 seriously will lead and has led to the secularization of the church. If the church doesn’t have an alternative cultural vision, then the culture of unbelief will swallow it up alive.

        As for not reading Kuyper, that’s bad enough, but defending this omission is worse. If you want to use terms like “Kuyperian” and also want your opinion to be taken seriously, you need to know something about what this man actually thought.

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  5. I appreciate your comments and agree that God and His gospel transforms and not anyone (e.g. Kuyper) or any institution (e.g. the church). That is a great starting place. But it feels like you are drawing a false dichotomy. Can’t we be faithful and proclaim the gospel but also be used by God to see lives and cultures changed? L’Abri has a wonderful statement that I have always appreciated: We make the distinction between those who seek to build God’s kingdom and those who pray for God to use them to build His kingdom.

    You seem to go too far and suggest that no transformation should be expected through preaching the gospel. If a man who is a drunk professes faith wouldn’t I walk with him in transforming that aspect of his life. If I am a politician wouldn’t I vote for laws that are in accord with biblical doctrine. Wouldn’t that have some impact? Also are nations to be discipled (Matt 28:18-20)?

    Rob above posts that he has read extensively and hasn’t found where people say they can change the culture. I concur. Are there some who try to be ‘transformationalist’ that leave out that only God can transform? Sure. But I haven’t found the authors and serious theologians writing about it. Do we need to focus on being faithful and not counting numbers or transformations? Yes! But we should celebrate when God does bring numbers and transformations. My ministry is measured in my faithfulness and not by the transformation brought about. However, I expect fruit.

    I do appreciate what you affirm in the post.

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    1. Hi Steven,

      I agree with a lot of what you say. I think Rob and I are talking past one another, so I’m leaving that alone. My point, as I have been trying to say, is that transformationalism is not to be our goal as the church and yet is by many churches in my denomination. I think it’s backwards. When cultures have changed, that is by God’s grace alone, through the gospel. But it’s not to be our goal to redeem the culture so to speak. Jesus didn’t die on the cross to redeem culture. He died to save sinners. Again, not saying that God cannot use us as the church to do so, but that should never be the goal. Our primary goal is worshipping Him through the ordinary means of grace. I believe when we do that, then if God chooses to, He can reach more. But that is HIS prerogative, not ours. We are changed people as new creations, so we do walk in culture. But to put this on our shoulders and say we must also change that which we have no power to do, is adding an unnecessary burden. To put it simply, we are called to be faithful as believers. What happens to those around us is in HIS hands, not ours.

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