GOSPEL DNA: FIVE MARKERS OF A FLOURISHING CHURCH By Michael W. Newman232 pp. Ursa Publishing. $8.99 Kindle / $12.99 Paperback
Gospel DNA is the latest book from Michael Newman, a full-time missiologist with the Texas District of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS). The author’s theological microscope claims to have found the system and mechanisms that previously prospered the LCMS with new members and new churches.
Using DNA as a metaphor, Newman pinpoints five “gospel markers” that the LCMS has lost touch with. If the Synod reanimates this lost or hidden DNA via Newman’s program of action, then he asserts that the LCMS will witness a new “Gospel Movement”.
Newman’s definition of a “Gospel Movement” is a continuous process of large numbers of new Christians and new churches producing ever more new Christians and new churches — disciple-making discipling. This is abbreviated to ‘multiplication’, which has become a very trendy term in the missions business.
Newman claims that the “Global South” (the politically correct term for the Third World or undeveloped countries) has taken the lead in developing “Gospel Movements” from which the LCMS should learn.
Examples of these “Gospel Movements” praised by Newman underscore a feature of his book — it maintains only a tenuous connection with Lutheran doctrine and praxis despite being targeted, ostensibly, at the LCMS. As a result, there is no obvious concern for how people become Christians or what they confess as the faith; only that they might be counted as part of the church, and that there are more churches today than yesterday.
The “Gospel Movements” admired by Newman have no common creeds, little need for fellowship, and are dismissive of ecclesial supervision. They proclaim a gospel that is not for sinners, and where Christ is obscured by our feelings and achievements.
This alternative gospel is prevalent in many of the Synod’s mission and human service organizations. Let’s call it ‘Shy Monergism’ or ‘Embarrassed Lutheranism’. There are hat-tips to Monergism in these organizations, as there are throughout Newman’s book, but they are always unconvincing, and soon dissolved by an emphasis on lending God a helping hand. An example from the author:
“DNA is a gift. It is not the result of our might or power. It is not found in us because of our planning or strategy. It is given to us. Gospel DNA is from the Spirit of God. DNA is not about principles, steps or programs. It is hard-wired, part of the package, formed at conception. But its markers can be detected, and by their detection you can tell who you are, where you come from, and what you’re made of. Your characteristics carried by your DNA can help you understand yourself. Likewise, the characteristics of the church carried by its DNA may help you rediscover the purpose of the church and the direction you are meant to go as a follower of Jesus Christ.” (Emphasis mine)
The reader or hearer of this message has to conclude that the purpose of the gospel is not salvation, but institutional and personal progress. It is a deadly message (Gal. 1:8). External, objective means of grace are de-emphasized in favor of meeting needs, developing experiences, and measuring outcomes. The focus is not on Christ and what He has done and will do for you (1 Cor. 2:2), but on what you must do for Him.
This is church by Key Performance Indicator (KPI) without any effort to guard against unionism and syncretism. In fact, it quite vigorously opposes pure doctrine when it stands in the way of community. Orthodoxy is regarded as a hostile, stale force that creates barriers to conversion.
If the KPI Church sounds familiar, that’s because it has been around for a long time. It is the social agency church of Peter Drucker and Leadership Network. As we have come to expect, the LCMS is about three decades late to the party, but insists it has found the new thing.
Newman’s book adopts the straw man common to this theology — upholding pure doctrine apparently demonstrates a critical or arrogant spirit, and lack of love for the lost. The Law portion of Law and Gospel is derided as loveless mean-spirited truth-proclaiming.
As a consequence, Newman goes so far as to redefine the Gospel away from being an announcement of good news for sinners to be an outworking of each individual’s love for their neighbor.
“…Where does Gospel DNA begin? …With a passionate and urgent love for people. This is the first marker of every Gospel movement. ”
This reversion to Law is the springboard for Newman’s five “gospel markers”, which are: People, Multiplication, Truth, Adaptability, and Self-Sacrifice.
Whilst Newman makes some effort to maintain a Lutheran veneer and scriptural basis for these “gospel markers”, they all cleave to a form of works-righteousness. Efforts to invoke C. F. W. Walther and other LCMS luminaries are forced and awkward rather than reinforcing.
There is not a single instance where the phrase ‘Law and Gospel’ occurs in Gospel DNA. ‘Lutheran Confessions’ only merits two references, one critical and the other an implied call for moderation. Likewise, there is no room in Newman’s “Gospel Movements” for the Office of Holy Ministry, only for training and discipleship. The priesthood of all believers is presented as a universal and undifferentiated office of preaching, teaching, and evangelism. There is a strong suggestion that all these roles are also open to women.
Consequently, Gospel DNA is alienated from historic Lutheran theology found in the Confessions, and a remnant of the LCMS which still maintains a full subscription to them. It is, however, recognizable as a strain of American evangelicalism or Lutheran Pietism with its emphasis on obedience through action. It also has strong Calvinist undertones with its unavoidable separation of the Holy Spirit from the Word.
Although Gospel DNA is hardly a best-seller (#741,819 in all Books; #500 in Church Growth; #153,042 in Religion & Spirituality) the inclusion of a study guide means that we can expect the book to show up in study groups within the LCMS. The Synod already has a problem with the “multiplication” movement teaching heterodoxy among its members — shadow Synod FiveTwo is a prime example, and enjoys lavish funding from districts like Michigan. This book will make the situation worse.
Gospel DNA is a theology of recruitment by any means necessary and all means possible. You are required to prove your love by making a difference in the world; demonstrate your sincerity by making relationships; justify your worth by making disciples. If it makes disciples at all, they will have a faith that is brittle and short-lived in the face of the slightest adversity.
Taken to its logical conclusion, Gospel DNA is an argument against church and religion. Since kindness, love, and civility are Newman’s benchmarks, then a church, parishioners or pastors are the most inefficient way to achieve it. “Making a difference” is the mantra of all the world and the creed of secular Progressivism. Why on earth would we offer that to sinners in need of a savior?
Gospel DNA has no place in Lutheranism and the LCMS because it proclaims another Jesus and a different gospel. Newman’s sincere concern for unbelievers cannot be doubted, but his means of converting them is false because it strays from the pattern of the Gospel proclaimed for our benefit in the sequence from Rom. 3:23 to Rom. 6:23 to Rom. 5:8 to Eph. 2:8-9 to 1 Joh. 5:12-13.
Salvation by Means of Kindness
Gospel DNA opens with the story of Whitney, a 13 year-old girl who becomes an “evangelist” after a few hours of youth ministry involving “games, cookies, small group discussion [highs, lows, life, Jesus’ love…], and prayer”.
Newman describes the conversion of Whitney as “God’s living Word doing its work” through “eager disciples”. His elaboration of the incident separates the Holy Spirit from the Word, and creates a new means of grace, kindness.
“Through compassionate followers of Christ, Whitney received a sense of acceptance and care she had never experienced before. The Spirit of God embraced her with friendship, hope, forgiveness, and affirmation. Whitney encountered the goodness of God and she really, really liked it. So, she began to speak about what she had seen and heard…”
“She knew that this good thing could not be kept to herself. It had to be shared with everyone. The love that changed her life was so good, she wanted everyone to receive it.”  (Emphasis mine)
Confessional Lutherans would immediately reject this conversion testimony for many reasons, but chiefly because it contradicts what Scripture reports about our depravity and how we are regenerated. Our Confessions make it clear that what Newman describes is Enthusiasm. Indeed, Newman admits that Whitney was only baptized some time after the youth night experience. What, then, was the love she received and evangelized with?
Luther writes in the Smalcald Articles III VIII 9:
In short, enthusiasm clings to Adam and his descendants from the beginning to the end of the world. It is a poison implanted and inoculated in man by the old dragon, and it is the source, strength, and power of all heresy, including that of the papacy and Mohammedanism. Accordingly, we should and must constantly maintain that God will not deal with us except through his external Word and sacrament. Whatever is attributed to the Spirit apart from such Word and sacrament is of the devil. (Emphasis mine)
A cruel trick was played on Whitney. Instead of being confronted with her sins, and then offered the solution of Christ’s forgiveness, she was comforted with the false comfort of good cheer.
Newman’s book never identifies sin as our real problem, so it is inevitable that his gospel is not the real one.
Dreams of a Movement
What replaces Law and Gospel? What substitutes for the Lutheran Confessions? What is better than the sacraments? Is the one true Gospel available apart from these things?
Newman’s implied answer is that there is a simple alternative to all those – love:
“So, where does Gospel DNA begin? Exactly where Whitney started: With a passionate and urgent love for people. This is the first marker of every Gospel movement.” (Emphasis mine)
This is a nonsense formulation. Scripture shows that the Gospel starts with Christ’s objective justification (2 Cor. 5:19–21), which justification frees us to properly love our neighbors (Eph. 2:8-10).
“Gospel Movement” is an oxymoron, especially when its locomotive force is your ability to love “passionately and urgently”. Newman is open to this non-Lutheran theology because his focus is on process and action. Simply put, results trump doctrine.
For example, Newman extolls the virtues of the T4T program, a synergistic evangelism effort linked with the Southern Baptist Convention. He praises the growth of the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus without any reference to that body’s persistent false teachings even as the LCMS tries to gloss over them in pursuit of altar and pulpit fellowship.
Newman’s movement is not concerned with how people receive and have faith, only that they can be counted. It is implicit throughout the book that all ‘Christian’ doctrines lead to life Christ. Lutheran theology is nothing special; a means to an end.
God Helps Those Who Help Others
Newman makes a startling assertion that contradicts Mat. 16:18, “I wonder if the decline [in the Western church] is caused by our diminishing love for people.” No. The church is in decline because it has rejected Scripture, treats Jesus as a bro, and now seeks to confront natural law.
Newman is upset that 18-30 year-old unbelievers would describe the church as “anti-homosexual, judgmental, and hypocritical”. Yet, this is entirely consistent with Rom. 1 & 2. Newman, however, turns it around to indirectly rebuke the LCMS for trying to “be right about everything” and dishing out “condemnation with arrogant authority.”
Newman’s solution is to invoke C. F. W. Walther, not as the firebrand he is for pure doctrine, but as the champion of “everyone a minister”. From there, he jumps to approvingly quote the crushing law of Philip Lange:
No individual Christian can escape his responsibility to God! The service which God requires of His children in spreading His Word and bringing many souls to righteousness is a test and proof of loyalty to Him. This duty is not transferable.
…What have you laymen done for the Church today? What have you as laymen done to prove to the world that your faith is a moving, living faith? How many of you can claim the distinction of having been the means of winning one soul during the past year? Is that a harsh and searching question? Let me ask again, How many of you have any reason to believe that directly you have been made the means this year of the salvation of a single soul? (Emphasis mine)
This is contrary to the nature and purpose of grace described in Rom. 11:1–6. This grace is no longer grace. Would you be comforted to have your pastor harangue you like this on your deathbed? The litmus test for Christians is to believe and receive the free gifts of God, not count noses of people whose hearts they think they know.
Newman’s theology creates tremendous confusion about the traditional Lutheran distinction between the office of priest and the office of Holy Ministry, the latter instituted by Christ himself. Indeed, Walther himself was explicit on this distinction, in keeping with the teachings of the Lutheran fathers and the traditions of the ancient church:
“The holy preaching office [Predigtamt] or pastoral office [Pfarramt] is an office distinct from the office of priest [Priesteramt], which all believers have.”
It is no surprise that young Whitney should be promoted to pastrix after a couple of hours of fun and games at youth night. Whitney was apparently saved by “thoughtful, meaningful, and civil dialog”, which appears to be Newman’s main project for the LCMS.
Gospel DNA has no place for the second-use of the Law, whilst promoting a full-throttle third-use that is similar to what we see in social gospel denominations and “love wins” outfits. Newman’s vision for the LCMS is both gospel and mission reductionistic with its desire not to call sinners sinners, and to “build bridges” with aggressive unbelievers.
The extract below is one of the most troubling in the book. Church is apparently for unbelievers, Christianity is about life transformation, and the Gospel is the measure of your kindness.
“As God’s people, we need to learn to truly love and care about all the people around us— people who are in the world and of the world at this time in their lives.
A significant percentage of people in our own communities are not following Christ and aren’t even thinking about Him. This reality presents questions about which we as Christ’s Church must enter into thoughtful, meaningful and civil dialog:
How can God’s family exhibit authentic care and show His life-transforming love to all people— including people who are cast aside and marginalized by our culture?
How can we develop a vocabulary that doesn’t demean people who are not following Christ? If we continue to label people in negative ways as unbelievers, sinners and outsiders, are we communicating respect and love to all the people for whom Jesus died?
How can we promote ways to be in authentic and mutual relationships with people who are not aligned with Biblical values and teaching without being afraid of forsaking our faith or being labeled as other than orthodox?
How can we build bridges to people and communities that are diametrically opposed to our Biblical confession and values?”
Freedom from Fellowship
Gospel DNA deliberately disrupts the idea of walking together in fellowship. Newman’s view of the pastoral office does not involve ordination and a call, but “training and discipleship”. He posits church as structurally indefinite and simply defined by “hearing the Gospel, sharing it with others, and serving the community”. It is supposedly a “living and breathing, sharing and difference-making organism”. A pastor is anyone who feels “stirred” to do something.
Newman’s definitive mark of the church is multiplication, not the seven marks set forth by Martin Luther.
The author holds his Synod in low regard, indirectly describing it as the institutional church that youth are disillusioned with. “They don’t want to be part of a self-serving, inward-looking, institutionally complex and resistant entity. They want to make a difference and be real.”
These confusions are amplified by the most un-Lutheran description of Jesus as a change agent rather than a propitiatory and atoning sacrifice: “Jesus changed the world and started a movement of faith unmatched in all of history.”. That is a very odd phrasing that dismantles the Holy Trinity, and divorces New Testament faith from Old Testament faith.
What is the Truth?
“Marker Three”, truth, contains the most interesting chapters of the book. Newman is clearly wrestling with an internal conflict between his desire to fulfill the Great Commission and the exclusiveness of Lutheran theology generally, and the LCMS specifically.
He quotes David Garrison, a “church planting movement expert”: “Like an invisible spinal cord aligning and supporting the movement, there runs through each Church Planting Movement a commitment to the authority of the Bible.”
Since we know that most denominations, never mind church planting movements, have a flexible commitment to the Bible on many levels, something else is going on here — this is the “no creed but the Bible” mantra. Indeed, Newman quotes Garrison at length:
“Those who have successfully navigated a Church Planting Movement are unanimous in their conviction that “it must be God’s word that is authoritative for the new believers and the emerging church, not the wisdom of the missionary nor some foreign creed nor even the local church authorities.” By continually pointing back to the source of one’s own authority, the church planter is modeling the proper pattern for the new believers who will soon become the new conveyers of the movement.”
We know where this free-for-all ends, but Newman skillfully deflects this to mean that people are being unreasonably concerned about large growth movements, and doubting God as a result. It’s a very slick move, that concludes with Möbius strip logic, “We need to recognize that the Gospel is able to produce results we can’t anticipate. If we confess the truth, we need to gratefully receive what the truth accomplishes.”.
How can anyone confess the truth if they don’t have a true confession in the first place (Acts 8:30-31; Luk. 24:31)? We are not supposed to discern, we are just supposed to get busy and applaud the results.
Bizarrely, Newman immediately contradicts Garrison by citing research that the “foremerly unchurched” hunger for doctrine. Which doctrine? Are we to abandon “foreign creeds” or embrace them? Newman tries, unsuccessfully, to resolve this by saying that the Holy Spirit creates the desire for doctrine. He is never willing to mark out what pure doctrine is, only to say that the Gospel is visible through transformed lives and communities.
It is clear that Newman believes that the LCMS and its confessional wing have lapsed into pharisaism:
“Sometimes, in the struggle for pure doctrine, truth supporters add safeguards to the truth, tools and boundary markers that help keep people away from error and unfaithfulness. Every generation adds traditions, preferences, and practices that help preserve and express the truth. Unfortunately, those additions and boundary markers can begin to dominate the underlying message and spirit of the Gospel.
…Truth is not a dour and sour-spirited proposition”
This is where Newman especially reveals a poor understanding of the Gospel. We are to believe God’s promises to us, and serve our neighbor in our vocations, but Newman demands that we do. He wants you to know that he is a better Christian than you are because, “The truth will cause distinctions, but the truth is not mean and divisive.”. That’s a cheap, divisive shot, is it not?
Newman’s failure to articulate the Gospel is stark in his statement that abiding in Jesus requires something from us rather than the grace of God. He illustrates his point with a story of a “Promise Keepers” conversion. The person is converted by “truth spoken and lived in love” with not a scintilla of Word and Sacrament ministry. By contrast, Romans makes it very clear that unbelievers are incapable of discerning God’s truth independently of Word and Sacrament ministry. Being winsome doesn’t break hearts of stone.
The theology of “meeting people where they are at” means preaching the Law in all its sternness, not coddling them or trying to reason and persuade them to come around and take Jesus out for a test drive.
Incredibly, Newman disdains his peers who labor away in obscurity to feed and tend Christ’s lambs for whom the church was instituted:
“If you shut the world out and keep learning pure doctrine, at least you can teach classes with reliable content, preach some sound sermons, and steer believers into correct teaching. But what about Jesus’ bold call to go into all the world and make disciples? What about Jesus’ invitation to deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Him?”
In fairness, Newman does describe people going off without any doctrine, but it is still a remarkable condemnation for a pastor to make of other pastors.
Errors of Fact
Gospel DNA is marred by significant errors relating to statistics. For example, Newman states that the United States population grew by just 8.7% between 1847-1870. The actual growth was 82%, or 17.4 million souls.
In a table immediately below that error, it is claimed that the US population grew 23% in 1880, 20.3% in 1890, and 17.4% in 1900. These are implausible even at face value. The real numbers are 2.7%, 2.3%, and 1.91% respectively.
No source is provided for the LCMS statistics cited in Gospel DNA, but they have to be regarded lightly given the other errors.
 Newman, Michael (2016-05-08). Gospel DNA: Five Markers of a Flourishing Church (Kindle Locations 188-189). Unknown. Kindle Edition.
 Ibid., locations 202-206
 Ibid., location 1747.
 Ibid., Locations 207-208. The full quote is: “So, where does Gospel DNA begin? Exactly where Whitney started: With a passionate and urgent love for people. This is the first marker of every Gospel movement”
 Ibid., locations 106-112.
 Ibid., locations 207-209.
 Ibid., locations 241-242.
 Ibid., locations 588-589.
 C.F.W. Walther, The Church and the Office of the Holy Ministry, trans. J.T. Mueller, revised, edited, and annotated by Matthew C. Harrison (St Louis, 2012), p. 151.
 Newman, op.cit., location 500.
 Ibid., locations 801-808.
 Ibid., location 876.
 Ibid., location 934.
 Ibid., locations 1318-1320
 Ibid., locations 1009-1010.
 Ibid., locations 1651-1652.
 Ibid., locations 1656-1659.
 Ibid., locations 1673-1674.
 Ibid., locations 1787-1789.
 Ibid., locations 1837-1838.
 Ibid., location 1842.
 Ibid., locations 2112-2114.