Foundations: No.72 Spring 2017

Defending Specificity on Doctrinal Distinctives for a Church Planting Network: Why Reformed Soteriology and Complementarianism are Important

Acts 29 is a church-planting network of over 630 churches from 18 different denominations in 30 countries. Acts 29, as well as subscribing to the Lausanne statement of faith, has five specific doctrinal distinctives which its members must accept whole-heartedly. Two of these are Reformed soteriology and complementarian relationships for men and women in the home and in the church. This article argues for the legitimacy of a network setting distinctives like these as boundaries for the network, describes how Acts 29 lives them out in its different constituencies and finally shows how they relate to the church-planting mission of the network.

Introduction

1. An aspirational and increasingly actual description of our network

Acts 29 describes itself as a diverse, global family of church-planting churches characterised by theological clarity, cultural engagement and missional engagement. That description is factual and aspirational. It is what I present to people in many countries as I travel around Europe. When people interact with the description, whether in fact or in principle, many things attract their attention, mostly positively: Diversity in terms of where and how churches get planted, and in terms of who plants them. Global in that our family comprises eleven networks across all continents (except Antarctica). Church-planting is generally well received, although some want to argue about the urgency of planting more churches when there are churches without pastors in desperate need of revitalisation (to which the answer is, we must do both – and church planting actually provides training grounds, experience, human and material resources for precisely those churches). At the other end of the tag-line cultural engagement and missional innovation are intriguing and, for the most part received positively. Evidently, some are used to traditional or mono-culturally defined forms of engagement or practice, and their reaction can be strongly against what some perceive to be laxisme or liberalism. However, in my experience as Director of Acts 29 Europe, the phrase in our factual, aspirational description that attracts the most attention and the most suspicion is ‘theological clarity’.

2. Two objections to this vision for a network

It is not that most people would say that they want to be theologically unclear. But they react against the idea that it is the prerogative of a network to define theology in the way that we do in Acts 29. Furthermore, people’s reactions are coloured by past experience of an approach to theological clarity that has resulted in factionalism, superior and judgmental attitudes and in-fighting. These are two weighty considerations that need to be answered.

3. Can bounded-set networks be justified from a biblical and historical point of view?

First the principle: is it the prerogative of a network to set clearly-defined theological markers in the way that Acts 29 does? For many, this is the domain of denominations, not of networks. This was the comment that a Russian pastor in charge of church planting for part of his denomination made: we leave the theology to the denomination and to the local church; we network for planting churches. This cannot, of course, be entirely true. People never network without any definition of the basis of the collaboration in question.  And where this is assumed rather than spelled out, there can be confusion, misunderstandings and even a sense of betrayal.[1] So the first question is, why does Acts 29 Europe feel the need to spell out doctrinal distinctives? Why these ones in particular? And what, in that case, is the difference between a network and a denomination?[2]

The rise of denominations in the wake of the magisterial Reformation had to do with unity of doctrine and uniformity of public worship in the context of the nation state. Exhaustive confessions of faith, prescriptive liturgies and orders of service were designed to describe and regulate public worship so that all the inhabitants of a particular geographically-defined locale could participate in true worship. This implies a particular view of the state and its covenant with God and therefore an understanding of how the Lord views, judges, blesses or curses states, regions or countries on the basis of their faithfulness (or otherwise) to him. It also implies a certain view of ecclesiology and how that gives rise to, or indeed inhibits, the missionary nature of the church. The subsequent proliferation of denominations within nation states and across borders, the relationship of these denominations to each other and how they interact with the world-wide establishment of free churches (often united in free associations of independent churches governed by elder boards) and the explosion of para-church organisations, is extremely complicated and beyond the remit and the expertise of this paper. Suffice to say that a network like Acts 29 has no ambition to be a denomination, but sees as legitimate and even biblical the existence of a network of local churches across national boundaries for the exclusive purpose of the planting of gospel-centred churches.

Indeed, when we look at the contours of the early church, what we see from the start looks like a burgeoning, diverse global network of church-planting churches. Clearly there were no denominations as we know them today, and it seems that there was no prescribed form of liturgy or public worship and no idea of a church denomination being attached to a people or country (even if those concepts were not the same then as they are today). But the churches were interconnected. Matthew 28:18-20 necessitates churches that were connected not just locally but across frontiers. How was the gospel to go to the ends of the earth without concerted efforts between churches to make it possible?

In the light of the Great Commission, it is no surprise to see that Acts is a story of how churches collaborated together for the spread of the gospel, the planting of new churches and the advancement of the kingdom. We see this exemplified in the generosity and vision of the church in Antioch sending out Paul and Barnabas. Even more tellingly, Luke gives us a beautiful picture of the principle in Acts 20:4, with Paul returning to Jerusalem with a team of colleagues (the apostolic band, as it is sometimes called) from recent church-plants in Berea, Thessalonica, Derbe and Asia (maybe from the plants that started around Paul’s work in Ephesus, including Colosse). In a casual way, Luke describes networked churches as part of the normal fabric of the early church.

The same picture emerges from the letters. Why did Paul write Romans? At least, in part, to get to Spain. And in Paul’s logic, the church that should be responsible for the start of the church in Spain was the church in Rome. Philippians is a letter all about gospel partnership (chapters 1 and 4), both between Paul and the Philippians, and between the Philippians and other gospel churches. 1 Thessalonians 1 shows a church whose influence and testimony was felt across a network of churches in various provinces in Asia Minor and suggests that this happened naturally and infectiously. It would seem that when the scope and scale of the gospel were preached, they produced as a necessary consequence vital and intentional networks of church-planting churches.

The church as a whole, and the regional networks of churches in particular, were concerned not just with the centre, but with the boundaries (distinctives) of the set that they comprised. It would not be too difficult to demonstrate that the gospel of Jesus Christ was that centre. The council of Jerusalem was a test-case for the Jewish/Gentile unity of the church and the grounds of that unity. When the boundary question of circumcision was tabled, Peter (who had been rebuked by Paul in the Galatian controversy) makes the centrality of the gospel clear from the start: “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe.” (Acts 15:7) In the rest of his deeply Trinitarian discourse, Peter makes it plain that God the Father, who looks on the heart, makes no distinction, but grants the eschatological Spirit to all. He concludes that all will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus. The centre has been clearly defined.

The Jerusalem Council does not stop with defining the centre, however. The letter sent to the churches from the church also defines some boundaries: abstaining from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from strangled and bloody meat. Whether these boundaries were temporary and expedient in order to ease relations locally, or whether they reference the necessity for all Christians to “turn from idols to worship the true and living God” (1 Thessalonians 1:10) is a moot point. But in either case, having a clear centre does not preclude the setting of boundaries; and in both scenarios, the boundaries have everything to do with the centre. Gentile Christians will either refrain from practices which offend too ostentatiously their Jewish brothers, for the sake of the gospel, or will eschew idolatry entirely, for the sake of the gospel.

This atmosphere pervades the letters of the New Testament, too. Their very existence shows that the centre of the gospel was in constant need of definition in terms of the distinctives it implied. When Paul addresses the controversial topics of marriage, singleness and social status in 1 Corinthians 7:17, he says, “this is the rule I lay down in all the churches”. The gospel at the centre, which radically frees us from the norms and dictates of society, allows us to accept the sovereignty of God in any number of circumstances that the world rails against, and thus defines new, life-giving boundaries. Similarly for the question of how men and women exhibit the beautiful complementarity of gender in public worship, Paul states in 1 Cor 11:16, “If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice – nor do the churches of God.” So far from undermining creation, the new creation of the gospel, in the resurrection body of Jesus, enhances and builds on it, so that orderly public worship that showcases the equality and difference of the sexes adorns the doctrine of God our Saviour (cf. Titus 2). Similar language is used in 1 Cor 14:33b-36. The peace, comprehensibility and orderliness of the gospel which edifies and saves is at stake, and so Paul states unambiguously that there is a practice in all the churches of the saints which is to be observed by all – because no church should have the pretension to think that the word of God originated from it. However we understand the limitation placed on women speaking in the church, what is clear is that Paul is providing apostolic boundaries for churches. In Paul’s mind the set of apostolic churches is clearly centred on the gospel of Jesus Christ, and that set has clear boundaries that flow out of the gospel at the centre.

In Acts and the letters we have seen that churches were networked together for the common mission of church planting. In the two examples of the Jerusalem Council and the Corinthian correspondence, we have seen that there is both a clear centre to the common identity of these churches in the apostolic teaching, namely the gospel. However, the apostles did not content themselves with defining the centre and let the boundaries look after themselves, but rather were at pains to spell out the gospel-centred contours for the boundaries of those churches who wished to belong to “all the churches”.

We have very little information about how exactly the churches organised or systematised their collaboration in mission or how they were held to the apostolic standards (either at the centre or on the boundaries). It might be argued that Paul and his apostolic band served as a kind of sodality with respect to the modality of the local church in terms of their joint mission. The picture that emerges from Acts 19-20, Titus, and to a lesser extent, from the Johannine epistles, is that elders were appointed and strengthened after being assessed and trained by members of the apostolic band. But in any case, the collaboration for mission was based on the reciprocal trust that agreement about both the centre and boundaries created. Just as faithful leaders trained other faithful leaders (2 Tim 2:2), so faithful churches planted other faithful churches. In this respect, Acts 29 sees itself as an attempt to engage the reality of the local church and the urgency and priority of planting healthy local churches in the 21st century in a way as analogous as possible to what we see in the New Testament.

4. Do bounded-set networks inevitably create tension and disunity on the ground?

One could too easily come away with the impression that because Acts 29 Europe holds these distinctives, and because we hold them passionately, that we would be divisive and ungenerous in our evangelical constituencies across Europe. This is, mercifully, not the case. In the UK, at an institutional level, Acts 29 has excellent relationships with FIEC, which does not define itself theologically in exactly the same way as Acts 29; in London, Co-mission and Acts 29 enjoy friendly and collaborative relationships. With both these entities Acts 29 makes up “The Planting Collective” – an annual conference and think-tank that works to promote and encourage church planting in the UK. With Oakhill Theological College, Acts 29 Europe has started an innovative and exciting academy, “Crosslands”, which offers gospel-centred training to people from all churches “when and where you need it”.  At a local church or even at the level of the individual planter or pastor, Acts 29 members are active and generous in supporting and encouraging church plants both within and outside our family.

This picture emerges even more clearly in continental Europe. Acts 29 Europe Francophone enjoys excellent relationships with associations of local churches, training institutes and national boards. We offer our services in media, logistics and organisation to help run national conferences on church planting; we have consulted with other organisations who want to assess or coach planters outside our network. In Slovakia, plant.sk, a denominational church-planting board, has asked Acts 29 to get alongside them as they look for opportunities to launch new plants across the country. At our expense, we offer training to groups in Eastern Europe irrespective of whether they hold our distinctives and without making their future membership of the network a condition for friendship or training.

All of this is to illustrate that we aspire to be a family of networks, at the same time committed to our distinctives and generous and warm to those who may not agree with us. This mindset is often labelled “kingdom-minded” to indicate that what concerns us most is the growth of God’s kingdom on earth and not our personal fiefdom. That is true – and yet it would be disingenuous for us, or for any other network or group that has taken the trouble to define and organise itself, to pretend that its distinctive texture and slant was not designed to be particularly effective at extending the kingdom as it truly is, as best we can tell from the Scriptures.

Acts 29 distinctives

We set out what we believe, and what we ask all our member churches to embrace in five distinctives:[3]

  1. We are passionate about gospel centrality.
  2. We enthusiastically embrace the sovereignty of God’s grace in saving sinners.
  3. We recognise and rest upon the necessity of the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit for all of life and ministry.
  4. We are deeply committed to the fundamental spiritual and moral equality of male and female and to men as responsible servant-leaders in the home and church.
  5. We embrace a missionary understanding of the local church and its role as the primary means by which God chooses to establish his kingdom on earth.[4]

Not all of these points elicit the same level of response or engagement from those who read or hear them. The centrality of the gospel seems, at least in the words the statement contains, to be banal in the extreme. Of course we are gospel centred! Yet I have experienced time and again in Europe the widening of the eyes in wonder and excitement as the true depth of what that wonderful phrase means. The Holy Spirit’s empowering presence for all of life and ministry is again a mostly uncontroversial thing to say. Some ask about whether you can be Pentecostal or charismatic (of course, so long as nothing replaces the gospel as the centre) or about whether you can be a cessationist and be part of Acts 29 (you can) – but the necessity of the power and presence of the Spirit is obvious. Again, the real bite of this distinctive is not so much the statement but the practice – do we really depend on the Holy Spirit for life and ministry? Would to God that it were so. In a similar vein, our insistence on the missionary nature of the church, and the expectation of our churches to be continually in the movement of planting the next church is an attractive proposition, if sometimes honoured more in the breach than in the observance.

However, there are two distinctives which unsettle many people, namely the sovereignty of God in saving sinners and what is commonly known as a complementarian view of leadership in the church. It is worth setting out these in more detail, so that everyone knows what we are saying and what we are not saying. These paragraphs have been reflected on deeply and carefully crafted and appear on our website.[5] We ask our members to be able to sign, without harbouring any second thoughts, the following:

1. We enthusiastically embrace the sovereignty of God’s grace in saving sinners.

  • We affirm that God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world, not on the basis of foreseen faith but unconditionally, according to his sovereign good pleasure and will.
  • We believe that through the work of the Holy Spirit, God will draw the elect to faith in his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, graciously and effectually overcoming their stubborn resistance to the gospel so that they will most assuredly and willingly believe.
  • We also believe that these, the elect of God whom he gave to the Son, will persevere in belief and godly behaviour and be kept secure in their salvation by grace through faith.
  • We believe that God’s sovereignty in this salvation neither diminishes the responsibility of people to believe in Christ nor marginalises the necessity and power of prayer and evangelism, but rather reinforces and establishes them as the ordained means by which God accomplishes his ordained ends.

(John 1:12-13; 6:37-44; 10:25-30; Acts 13:48; 16:30-31; Romans 3:1-4:25; 8:1-17,31-39; 9:1-23; 10:8-10; Ephesians 1:4-5; 2:8-10; Philippians 2:12-13; Titus 3:3-7; 1 John 1:7,9)

2. We are deeply committed to the fundamental spiritual and moral equality of male and female and to men as responsible servant-leaders in the home and church.

  • Both men and women are together created in the divine image and are therefore equal before God as persons, possessing the same moral dignity and value, and have equal access to God through faith in Christ. Men and women are together the recipients of spiritual gifts designed to empower them for ministry in the local church and beyond. Therefore, women are to be encouraged, equipped and empowered to utilise their gifting in ministry, in service to the body of Christ, and through teaching in ways that are consistent with the Word of God.
  • Both husbands and wives are responsible to God for spiritual nurture and vitality in the home, but God has given to the man primary responsibility to lead his wife and family in accordance with the servant-leadership and sacrificial love characterised by Jesus Christ. This principle of male headship should not be confused with, nor give any hint of, domineering control. Rather, it is to be the loving, tender and nurturing care of a godly man who is himself under the kind and gentle authority of Jesus Christ.
  • The Elders/Pastors of each local church have been granted authority under the headship of Jesus Christ to provide oversight and to teach/preach the Word of God in corporate assembly for the building up of the body. The office of Elder/Pastor is restricted to men.

(Genesis 1:26-27; 2:18; Acts 18:24-26; 1 Corinthians 11:2-16; Galatians 3:28; Ephesians 5:22-33; Colossians 3:18-19; 1 Timothy 2:11-15; 3:1-7; Titus 2:3-5; 1 Peter 3:1-7)

Even where one accepts the premise that a network can, or even should, have doctrinal distinctives, even quite specific ones like the five outlined above, why these two in particular?[6] Have they anything to do with the stated aim of the network, that is the massive and intentional planting of new churches across Europe’s 51 countries and 750 million population? These are the questions that we will answer in the following pages in respect of both the sovereignty of God and complementarianism.

We will see that the reason we hold to these distinctives is tightly connected to our desire to be a network that multiplies church plants across our continent, because these two distinctives have to do with:

  1. Questions of biblical fidelity and gospel centrality
  2. Questions of ministry and practice
  3. Questions of collaboration and trust

We will look at each distinctive in turn and show how this is so.

A. We enthusiastically embrace the sovereignty of God’s grace in saving sinners.

i. Questions of biblical fidelity and gospel centrality

By insisting on this distinctive, we are doing the same thing as John Owen in his “Death of Death in the Death of Christ”, and as J.I. Packer in his magisterial introduction to that work. It is at the same time positive and polemical, because when it comes to this issue, the gospel is at stake. So whilst not forgetting a humble, kingdom-minded attitude, we nevertheless think that this distinctive has biblical fidelity and gospel-centredness. Whilst the issues that Owen and Packer described were not identical to ours, the stakes are the same.

Packer contends that Owen published his work to show that “universal redemption is unscriptural and destructive of the gospel”.[7] And Packer follows this up by stating, of his own time, that “one of the most urgent tasks facing Evangelical Christendom today” is “the recovery of the gospel.”[8] Let us listen to Packer as he builds his case, because ours is, mutatis mutandis, the same. He compares the new gospel and the old gospel (the one which “enthusiastically embraces the sovereignty of God’s grace in salvation”) and says that the difference is that the new gospel

is too exclusively concerned to be “helpful” to man – to bring peace, comfort, happiness, satisfaction – and too little concerned to glorify God. The old gospel was “helpful” too – more so, indeed, than is the new – but (so to speak) incidentally, for its first concern was always to give glory to God. It was always and essentially a proclamation of divine sovereignty in mercy and judgment, a summons to bow down and worship the mighty Lord on whom men depend for all good, both in nature and in grace. Its centre of reference was unambiguously God. But in the new gospel the centre of reference is man.

What follows is no arid defence of the five points of Calvinism, as Packer points out in Part II of his essay[9] but “just the biblical gospel”.

The contention of Calvin, Owen, Spurgeon,[10] Packer and of Acts 29 (not that we deserve to be mentioned in the same breath) is that enthusiastically embracing the sovereignty of God’s grace in saving sinners is just enthusiastically embracing the biblical gospel, the one that saves. Not to do so as a church planter is thus to present an unbiblical gospel, one that sells its hearers short and deprives them of the saving, life-giving power of the gospel.

The kind of churches we plant and the kind of gospel we preach are inextricably linked; because church planting is above all a theological enterprise, unless we pay close attention to our theology we are saying that we are unconcerned with the kind of church that ends up being planted. Our gospel either bears witness to the biblical gospel of the sovereign, free grace of God in saving sinners or it does not. The churches planted either reflect that truth or they do not.

It is easy to show how this gospel is a question of faithfulness to Scripture, not as a series of proof-texts but by paying attention to the sweep of the biblical narrative. Take the gospel of Matthew: The Jesus who offers rest to the weary in chapter 11 is the same Jesus who has just said that the Father has hidden these things from the wise and learned and that no-one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. The same Jesus in chapter 13 is the prolific, successful, serenely confident sower who knows he will be rejected by some, lightly believed in by others and yet who knows he will have his record harvest in the end. He will build his church on the gospel in chapter 16. He does not need to qualify that statement, as the writer of Psalm 127 did – he will do it. He is not wondering if God has abandoned him in chapter 27; he is stating that God has abandoned him in judgment but that he will certainly rescue and raise him so that the congregation and the ends of the earth bow down and worship (Ps 22). He sends his church-planting, disciple-making apostles into the world not to try, but to do and gives as a guarantee his authority and presence. By enthusiastically embracing the sovereignty of God’s grace in saving sinners, we align ourselves with Jesus and his mission.

When we come to the Acts of the Apostles, Luke’s refrains show that the sovereign Lord was adding to the church daily through the preaching of the gospel of Jesus in the power of the Spirit. Space does not permit an exhaustive treatment of these connected themes in Acts, but Acts 13:48-49 is a brilliant summary of the principle:

When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honoured the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed. The word of the Lord spread through the whole region.

Acts 29 Europe, by its very name, sees itself in the continuity of the book of Acts. If we genuinely want to continue the same mission with the same methods as the Apostles, then we must enthusiastically embrace the sovereignty of God’s grace in saving sinners.

The letters – whether Paul, Peter, John, Jude, – are bathed in the same atmosphere. Ephesians 1:3-6, 1 Peter 1:1-3, 2 John 1, Jude 1 all address their readers as elect, predestined, chosen, called and kept. Hebrews, addressing a congregation sorely tried and tempted to return to Judaism, urges its hearers to embrace by faith the grace of God in Jesus and the author is confident that they will indeed be saved (6:9). Revelation promises that the called, chosen and faithful church of the Lamb (17:14), whose names are written in the book of Life from before the foundation of the world (3:5, 13:8, 20:12, 21:27; cf. Phil 4:3) will inherit all the promises of the gospel and reap all the benefits of the death of the Lamb. The New Testament in all its parts encourages us enthusiastically to embrace the sovereignty of God’s grace in saving sinners. It is the heart of the gospel. It is faithful to the Scriptures. It is the message we preach, the means by which we plant churches and it is non-negotiable.

ii. Questions of ministry and practice

This brings us to questions of ministry and practice. There is a clear link between how we think people are saved and how we go about planting churches. Our ministry and practice are deeply affected by how we understand our role and God’s role in salvation. It is difficult to write these points in a context where implicitly they will be read as both a defence of what we in Acts 29 Europe do and how we do it, and thus as a criticism of those who do differently. But I cannot see how we can avoid it, and I think it is absolutely vital for the health of the church in Europe moving forward that we measure the weight and importance of how practice flows out of theology. We will do this by observing how what we now refer to as Reformed soteriology functions in the New Testament in relation to church-planting ministry.

Paul was a church planter. That is an uncontroversial statement. Through Acts and through his letters we can see how his convictions about the sovereign grace of God influenced every aspect of his ministry. His motivations were governed by the glory of God alone. Because salvation was the sovereign work of the grace of the faith-giving God, no one can boast (Eph 2), not the planter who preaches the gospel, nor the sinner who believes the gospel. When we disconnect our motivations from the sovereign grace of God, we open the door for man-pleasing motivations, either the planter as he seeks his own glory, or the seeker, who becomes the centre of our attentions.

His methods were prayer and proclamation. These are the God-ordained ways of saving people, making disciples and planting churches. If we believe that God sovereignly saves sinners through his ordained means, then we will trust those means and not try to substitute other methods.

His manner was bold, persevering, transparent and honest. Because he had received this ministry (2 Cor 3 – the ministry of the righteousness of the Spirit of life) he is confident and bold (3:4, 12). He does not lose heart (2 Cor 4:1), he renounces any manipulative strategy, any underhand ways. He is not cunning, neither does he tamper with the word because it is this very unadulterated word about the sovereign grace of God in Christ (4:3-6) that shines in the hearts of blind unbelievers to give the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. This surpassing power of the saving gospel is God’s, not Paul’s (4:7). Another way to describe it is grace extending to more and more people, increasing thanksgiving to the glory of God (4:15). This gospel of sovereign grace is why Paul does not lose heart (4:16) and why he is always of good courage (5:6) and why he dares to persuade others of the glorious truth that if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation, all of which is from God (5:18) who in Christ was reconciling the world to himself (5:19). The reason I am dealing so extensively with these three chapters is that they make it abundantly clear that Paul’s manner of doing ministry was inextricably bound up with the message at the heart of the ministry, namely the good news of the sovereign, sight-giving, reconciling, ex nihilo new creation of the triune God.

To state this negatively – unless we are convinced that God saves sinners only on the basis of his sovereign will and free, unmerited grace and only by the prayerful proclamation and demonstration of the gospel, then we will lack the essential fuel for being bold, persevering, transparent and honest. We will lack proper courage and true perseverance, we will be tempted to fall into manipulative ways of evangelising, we will falsify and tamper with the gospel and biblical truth, so that the culturally unpalatable truths and ethics of the gospel will be distorted and misrepresented, if not flatly denied. My fear for church planting in Europe is that because much of it is being done in the absence of rigorous, robust theology, and in particular in the absence of a clear conviction about the nature of the gospel as the sovereign grace of God in saving sinners, we will end up with many churches being planted, with great efficiency and attention to detail in terms of teamwork and culture but lacking a solid anchor. These churches, as I look back at church history and around me in Europe today, will inevitably drift from orthodoxy in faith and in practice. In particular, in order to please man, who finds himself at the centre of our project, these churches will downplay sin and judgment in general, and will promote open and permissive ideas on homosexuality in particular.

We have only begun to scratch the surface of how a robust conviction about the sovereign grace of God in saving sinners flows into the ministry and practice of the church planter. We could add to the list an openness to takes risks, secure in the sovereignty of God; a beautiful balance between strategising and being open and flexible to the will of God; dealing with disappointment; enjoying peace and joy as we plant secure in the knowledge that God has many people in his world, and that he is calling them to himself through the gospel; humble ambition; good habits of deep rest and really hard work – these are the natural outworkings of a secure grasp of the sovereign grace of God in saving sinners. All of this, without mentioning the radically different view of pastoral care and soul cure that flows from the certainty that if God be for us in salvation, then who or what can be against us (Rom 8)? If God has sovereignly saved us and will keep us safe until that day, then suffering can really be light and momentary. If he has not and will not necessarily, then all of that, including “everything works together for the good” rings hollow and is of no use to us as planters as we not only make disciples, but grow disciples through the gospel.

iii. Questions of collaboration and trust

It should be clear that because so much hangs on our enthusiastic embrace of the sovereign grace of God in saving sinners, then our churches are determined to partner with, collaborate with – what we call network with – churches and church plants that embrace these truths with equal enthusiasm.

Our network wants to support church plants elsewhere in the world. We all commit to giving 9% of our internal giving to church plants – not necessarily Acts 29 plants, although many of them will be. It would be inconceivable, in the light of what we have just said, to promote and support what is effectively the preaching of another gospel. We collaborate equally through the training of interns, the sending and receiving of teams, the sharing of resources and tools, the assessment of the suitability of planters to plant gospel-centred churches, coaching of planters in the early years of their plant and so on. All of these activities and initiatives require trust at the level of theology and practice. Including this distinctive as clearly and as prominently as we do speaks eloquently to our desire to be transparent and honest. This is a non-negotiable for our network.

The second distinctive that raises people’s eyebrows is the one on complementarian relationships between men and women in the home and the church.

B. We are deeply committed to the fundamental spiritual and moral equality of male and female and to men as responsible servant-leaders in the home and church.[11]

i. Questions of biblical fidelity and gospel centrality

Again, this seems to our network to be a question of biblical fidelity. We joyfully acknowledge that the Bible presents male and female as equal in creation (Genesis 1:26-28) and redemption (Galatians 3:28). But anyone reading the Bible seriously is also struck by the difference between male and female in creation (Gen 2) and in church life (apostles, pastors and elders are all exclusively male in the New Testament and restrictions are placed on the way in which women may exercise certain roles and as regards which roles are open to them).

The famous passage on marriage in Ephesians 5 is utterly asymmetrical and means nothing if the roles can be reversed. And as we know, this passage is ultimately about the gospel and only secondarily about marriage. This issue is not unconnected to how we understand the gospel, and therefore not unconnected to how the gospel is central in all that we do. To put it inter-rogatively – how can the gospel be at the centre of marriage relationships in any way that denies the assumptions and instructions of Ephesians 5? And similarly, if the strength of a man’s marriage relationship and his leading of his household are to be determining factors in his eligibility for bearing the office of elder, how are we to assess that if we do not take the particularities of Ephesians 5 into account?

Our view of Scripture and our way of reading the Bible and of integrating all that Scripture says in a coherent biblical theology that bears witness to creation and redemption lead us be deeply committed to this distinctive. It is not only as we look towards the Bible that we resolve to remain committed to this distinctive, but also as we look towards culture. In our European cultures, we are moving away massively from the biblical understanding of gender, sexuality and human society. This move makes the church’s response all the more urgent and important. Who will bear witness to the beauty of “the fundamental spiritual and moral equality of male and female and to men as responsible servant-leaders in the home and church” if we do not?

Another point should not be neglected, and it is in answer to an oft-cited reaction to our position, namely that culturally, we can’t expect our churches to grow if we hold fast to this principle. Even if that were true, it would be an entirely pragmatic and therefore ultimately unconvincing argument. But in my observation, the church in Europe as a whole is already facing a challenge in attracting and keeping men. The pragmatic and culturally effective choice might just turn out to be what we see as the biblical path of com-plementarian relationships which give full honour to both sexes along God-ordained lines.

ii. Questions of ministry and practice

Flowing out of this biblical conviction is the consequence that we assess, coach, train and support church-planters who would be biblically qualified for eldership on the basis of 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, bearing in mind the instructions of 1 Timothy 2 and Titus 2 concerning women. This means in practice that we assess men to plant churches. We assess their wives and ask their wives to help us in assessing them so that the couple as a whole is encouraged to be actively involved in church planting. We cannot imagine a church-planting team that did not include women gospel workers, led by a godly man.

iii. Questions of collaboration and trust

Our churches’ convictions in these areas mean that, practically speaking, the works and the workers that we support are also deeply committed to this way of reading the Bible, this way of engaging culture and this way of bearing witness to God’s plan for humanity in creation and redemption.

So when people who are interested in Acts 29 Europe ask me what we stand for in our distinctives as I travel around Europe, I show them the five distinctives from our website. And if they raise their eyebrows at our second or fourth distinctive, as they frequently do, this is the gist of what I tell them. Nevertheless, frequently I hear people say, “You should change that. Many people won’t join Acts 29 Europe if you maintain that distinctive.” Perhaps. But if we do not maintain it, then the ramifications for the planting of healthy, robustly theological churches in Europe are significant and negative. And if we do not maintain them, then I wonder if we really mean that we are gospel-centred, dependent on the Holy Spirit and committed to the missional nature of the church – because they are all connected.

  

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