Nestorianism and the Church Growth Movement, by Pr. Klemet Preus

(This is part five of a seven part series on Christollogy.)


Seminex may have gone the way of all flesh and the Charismatic movement may have pulled in its horns in the last decade but that does not mean that the latent Nestorianism which characterized these two movements has diminished with them. Most recently the Church Growth Movement has tended toward Nestorianism in a more traditional Zwinglian manner by limiting the attributes and capabilities of the human nature in Christ.


According to Kent Hunter (Confessions of a Church Growth Enthusiast, [Corunna Indiana] 1997) the cross of Christ has two sides, “the suffering side and the mission side of the cross.” (p. 69) How do these “two sides of the cross” explain the person of Christ?


Jesus, through His death on the cross, moves from the limitation (self-imposed) of being in human form. As God in man (the incarnation), Jesus was limited in His presence. He could only be in one place at one time and impact only those few around Him at that particular moment. However, through the cross event, God’s plan of salvation moves to the Spirit at Pentecost. (p. 75)


This rather convoluted doctrine of Christ seems to suggest that it was because of his humanity that Jesus was not able to be in more than one place at a time (Omnipresence). Such a view is repudiated by the Formula of Concord which says that all of the divine qualities are communicated to the human nature of Jesus. To Hunter, the crucified Jesus is far away from the ministry of the church except as the content of the message. Hunter’s Zwinglianism is quite apparent in this. In mission work Jesus is no longer speaking the message. It is not the incarnate God who still feeds us, washes us and speaks to us today. Rather his presence is attributed to the superabundant gift of the Spirit. “The Spirit is the bridge between the suffering side of the cross and the mission side of the Cross” (p. 76). The bonds between the church growth movement and the charismatic movement are obvious. Jesus is replaced by the Spirit when it comes to mission work.


Hunter’s spiritualizing Missiology continues. To him, the great commission informs us that “we are in partnership with God” (p. 70) because of “the multiplication that comes about through His death and resurrection. It moves the mission of God from the one (Jesus) to the many (His disciples).” (p. 76)


Jesus emptied Himself. He stripped away all of His heavenly culture in order to meet human beings where they are. He did away with all the things that were comfortable for Him, putting His target audience at such an important priority that He literally emptied Himself of those things that were comfortable for Him. Of course He didn’t empty Himself in the sense of denying His values or the essentials of the theological issues connected with the mission of God. But He emptied Himself of everything else because he had a purpose in mind.   (p. 169)  


When I first read this I thought it was just a really lame attempt to squeeze biblical Christology into the Church Growth Scheme of missions. The whole passage is so tortured I couldn’t, charitably, explain it in any other way. But either I have become less charitable or I have seen again the Nestorian tendencies as they flow and ebb within the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.   I tend to think it’s the latter.


Hunter’s book has the strong endorsement of 27 pastors and administrators within the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. They call it a “must read” (John Heins), “the answer” (Robert Scuderi),”a breakthrough and challenge to return to our Reformation roots” (Dale Olson), “a textbook to train pastors” (Dave Anderson), “the expression of my own feelings regarding Church Growth” (Bill Thompson), “solid theology” (Phil Bickel), “a fine job” (David Luecke),   “a marvelous service to the church” (Stephen Carter), “a high quality book” (Elmer Matthias), “a milestone in Lutheran evangelical writing” (Erwin Kolb), “worth its cost several times over just for the definition of Church Growth principles from a confessional viewpoint” (Norbert Oesch),   and “one of the most significant writings of these latter days of the twentieth century” (Gerald Kieschnick).


I have elsewhere attempted to explain the endorsement of these leaders charitably. Maybe they asked someone to read the book on their behalf. Maybe they skimmed it and just missed the Nestorian section. Or maybe they simply cannot spot Nestorianism when they see it. I can and I hope that by now you can as well.


So the Church growth movement has created a new Jesus who, not surprisingly, is a model of the church growth philosophy.  


There is one more manifestation of Nestorianism that is fairly common in our church. That is the story for next time.

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