Church in Chattanooga & the ‘small-Godder’ problem

The worship service at City Church in Chattanooga is in dark sanctuary filled with mist and stabbing lights. (Photo David Tulis)

The worship service at City Church in Chattanooga is in a dark sanctuary filled with mist, stabbing lights and thumping percussions. (Photos David Tulis)

God’s people at City Church share prayer in a special room near the sanctuary at the church on Lee Highway in east Chattanooga.

God’s people at City Church share prayer in a special room near the sanctuary at the church on Lee Highway in east Chattanooga.

On the Lord’s day for several months now, I have been visiting churches in Chattanooga with members of my family, seeking to solve a problem.

The problem is that the Reformation, the 500th birthday of which we celebrate this month, has withered in Chattanooga among the Protestant churches whose origins are in the Reformation’s fierce doctrines of sovereign grace and in the claims of God upon all of the nations.

By David Tulis / Noogaradio 92.7

The most godly churches in Chattanooga seem afflicted. The Christianity shining forth among these church people, and the godly life taught by their pastors, is highly subjective and private, unstudied in the broader claims of Christianity upon America’s broken, fallen culture..

Christians in Chattanooga have forgotten that the law of God is itself an evangelical enterprise. They find the commandments of God are opposed, somehow, to grace. So we have in Chattanooga a body of churches whose teachings privatize the work of God’s grace and its fruits, and put Christianity on the margin of society, largely outside the realm of public life.Nooga Radio Logo (1)

Meanwhile, across the U.S., efforts to reform the judicial system, for example, arise from secularists and the political left.

I hold a God-ordained office as deacon in a Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga. But even in the most faithful churches, where there is a right order of worship and doctrine by exposition, there is a pervasive sense that everything stated has use exclusively in private life, and not in the courts, legislatures, universities and drinking holes of the realm.

If Christianity is to gain in Tennessee and across the United States, its adherents should magnify God and His claims, and stop living in doubt and in fear. They should be “big-Godders,” not “small-Godders,” to borrow an apt phrase from an Old Testament scholar. ‡

One topic of growing concern in some quarters of the reformed church is the legal-industrial complex in the U.S. and in Chattanooga and efforts to start dismantling it. The legal system operates largely as a social management machine of oppression and profit. I’ve explored this arena in many essays that strongly suggest the state is oppressing the poor, the alien and stranger, and in so doing depriving everybody else — that is, you and me — of their God-given, constitutionally guaranteed, unalienable and inherent rights. Read the Melvin and Hirsch stories on this website to get a flavor of how things work.

When God blesses, Chattanoogans enjoy prosperity and liberty. When God judges, he gives the great ones and the lawyers sway to do as they will.

We have a court system which grinds the poor, the weak, the fatherless and the widow. It grinds people mercilessly by its cash bail system (debtor’s prison); its system of informal, inferior courts (city, sessions); its system of prosecution and plea bargaining; its fellowship of the finger (prosecutor, cop), that being of criminal accusation; its legal fictions that allow lawyers to protect the mass evisceration of constitutionally protected unalienable rights of 4.62 million Tennessee residents who have become “operators of motor vehicles”; its promised abuse by city officials enforcing the AirBnB ordinance; its turning justice into gall and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood.

Straight line, crooked sticks

Today we visit City Church and hear a sermon by the Rev. Shannon Chapman. It is a solid presentation about Gaius, Demetrius and Diotrephes, the first two godly, the third one who “[prates] against us with malicious words.”

I leave off recounting the sermon to mention how this church, even though heterodox at several points, is one in which there is a kind of enthusiasm and interest in personal godliness that might serve to bring a larger work of reformation to Chattanooga.

My quest in visiting churches is not to find a body that has all doctrine straight, but to discern a body whose governors want the membership to deal with the larger questions of society: Can we help the family abused by Tennessee child protective services? Can we help a fearful dad make the break from Hamilton County public school? Can we help the poor Rochelle Gelpins in our fellowships or in our neighborhoods after abuse by cops? Can we overturn just a single moneychanger table in the county court plaza?

We have visited Mission Chattanooga downtown and at Red Bank, North Shore Fellowship, First Presbyterian, Covenant Presbyterian, Resurrected Reformed Baptist,  New City Fellowship, Dayton Reformed Presbyterian Church and Westminster Presbyterian in Dayton.

From churches such as New City Fellowship, reformation is promised of God, person by person, family by family, neighborhood by neighborhood, district by district. From churches such as City Church, a non-denominational fellowship with a charismatic background, it is possible to expect the Reformation impulse to widen and for the gospel to be understood as making gigantic claims upon all of society, and its government, its courts, its hospitals and its universities.

Sons of a lesser God?

But the holdup at City Church appears to be the majority report in Christendom in Chattanooga. And that is the claim that the Lord Jesus does not die on the cross to secure the salvation of His people. Rather, he gives up His life to make salvation possible for all.

“Christ died for everybody *** Christ died for every person,” a speaker prior to Mr. Chapman’s sermon declares Aug. 13. On Oct. 22, Mr. Chapman speaks: “Jesus was the full atonement for all my sin. Anybody who says anything else is false teaching. Now that’s who Jesus was. He was sinless. He was made atonement of the sins of the whole world, not some of the world, not the ones that he loves, not the ones he thought were going to just choose him. It’s controversial when you think of it that way. I don’t think His atonement was for the elect. We’ll talk about that later — can’t get into that now. ”

The question of God’s sovereignty on the point of the atonement is of vast importance because it shows how high one views God. If God is sovereign and operates through time in history by sovereign decree, then He sends his son the Lord Jesus to die on the cross for His people and for them alone, a group called “the elect” 20 times in the scriptures, or Israel or the church.

He secures their salvation. On the other hand, if Jesus dies merely to make an offer of salvation, and does not secure the salvation of any, then the agency in one’s salvation is no longer God, but us. If He does not accomplish His will, but responds to ours, He is no more the King of kings and universal sovereign. If a single atom in the creation does what it wants and is not bound by God’s will, God is overthrown.

The Rev. Shannon Chapman preaches about purposeful Christian living and God’s grace and favor to His people.

The Rev. Shannon Chapman preaches about purposeful Christian living and God’s grace and favor to His people.

This point being made, Mr. Chapman makes clear that one’s salvation is all of Christ by the Holy Spirit.

After making this point, Mr. Chapman works to secure among his listeners the certainty of salvation. But if grace indeed is not sovereign and not entirely a gift apart from merit or human agency, salvation is not secure, and our efforts at sanctification and holiness are forced to serve an end for which they are unfit — that of justification. If grace is not sovereign and God’s law not rightly understood, our good works are bifurcated. Part are aimed to securing salvation, part toward obedience and witness. If City Church makes this major error about the sovereignty of God and if it is consistently applied at every point, then faith and practice elsewhere among God’s people are weakened, corrupted or made impossible.

Or are they?

The whole American evangelical belief in a reactive God favors our economic, legal and political status quo. Under such a doctrine,  the demand for city-wide reformation is impossible, or at the very least held back. The withered creed of American evangelicalism favors the progressive state and its myriad oppressive elements. Arminian doctrine elevates the free will of man; it has been sympathetic historically to kingly prerogative and the executive state. Arminius’ position has a low view of the law of God; it deprives God’s people of the instruments for social reform.

The right uses of the law are many and the law of God is evangelical and a form of right worship. Are we not told in Deuteronomy 4:6-8 that God’s magnificent law would be studied and admired by all the pagan nations of the earth? And was it not Solomon’s wisdom that drew kings from the whole known world to Jerusalem 900 years before Christ, bringing to the pagan kingdoms monotheism and the ideas about the rule of law and an interest in public justice?

Is Christianity mystical?

The worship at City Church is marked by a great deal of sensation. The show is as much for God as it is for the speakers and singers, and those sitting beneath the stage in the rows of chairs.

Two groups are called to the front. The first is composed of those seeking a “breakthrough” from God.

Members of the second group called to the front by Mr. Chapman are prone to suffer panic attacks. Mostly they are women. Mr. Chapman promises that God works supernaturally to free those in bondage to worry, fear and panic attacks. One woman weeps.

The first part of the service is devoted almost entirely to singing songs written by moderns. They come up under the 10x to 15x repetition of a song that says, “Fall, fall, fall. Something’s changing in the spirit, something’s breaking I can feel it.” This bit of doggerel lacks punctuation, perhaps to make it the more visceral. The lights pierce through the haze, and people wave their hands in earnest emotion.

Perhaps City Church might try the psalter, used lovingly for years at churches such as Brainerd Hills Presbyterian.

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If we sing the Psalms, which are God’s words, we can bear repeating them as God often use redundancy to make a point. But to repeat badly written verses a dozen or more times suggests that there is a mystical connection to be reached somewhere behind the words, through the words, that if we just repeat them, we will find that mystical connection. The gospel knows little of this sort of existentialism, this experientialism. If we chant once more, we will obtain that psychological or metaphysical stasis, a boundless emotional centrality where God waits and embraces us. This production would to make me look inward, rather than up to an objective God.

City Church might be more fruitful in the gospel if it understands that Christianity has nothing mystical about it. It is an ethical and judicial system where the main consideration is to love God and laws, great and small; “whoever does and teaches them [the least of these commandments], he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:19).

Given the emotional fervor of City Church-stimulated crowds and its bone-throbbing bandwork, the time set aside for the sermon is anti-climactic.

Elsewhere, a private, abstracted gospel

My background has been informed by the Presbyterian form of church government and almost all of my reading and study has been through the reformed faith. This interest is that of the Puritans and the neo-puritans. Though beloved Puritan authors such as Thomas Watson focus largely on private piety, the heirs of this school today continue building a major body of analysis and application of God’s word to every system of human society. These are those issuing the minority report, the Christian reconstructionists, led by R.J. Rushdoony (Institutes of Biblical Law, 1973) whose proponents today include Gary DeMar, Joseph Boot, Jason Garwood and Gary North.

The “small-godder” problem afflicts the Presbyterians, not just the charismatic church. In one sermon, the minister discusses the debate between the foreknowledge school and the election school of thought. But election should be at the base of his work as preacher, not a daring highlight. He tells of this doctrine as if he were going out on a limb, as if it were controversial. In his context, it’s not. To whom much is given, much is required. From him who is given less, less is expected.

Would it not be controversial, perhaps, to deliver a sermon on how prisons are anti-Christian and ungodly and oppressive, as developed in books such as Victim’s Rights (North, 1990, available as a free PDF)? In the Presbyterian Church, which has its doctrine largely straight, would it not be better to explain how white people, understanding two centuries of white privilege, should work to defend all people who are under oppression by the state?

Another Presbyterian sermon is a beautiful, lyrical meditation is about Christ “as the light of God.” Very Puritan. Very proper. But the problem is that the light of Christ in that presentation doesn’t touch anything in particular; not Common Core, the duty for Christian education, the duty of the lesser magistrate to resist evil by the greater, the necessity to reform all laws once again to include “mens rea,” or guilty mind, in the indictment. In that sermon, the light of God doesn’t actually illuminate any part of the human condition or society on the whole. Big searchlight; empty sky.

Another church to which we make repeated visits seems little interested in my proposed help in encouraging Christian brothers to better understand courts, the assertion of rights, the abuse of the poor and means of redress. A reformed missionary I meet at that church says he works at a local university, but he later backs out of an interview, fearing I might ask questions for which he or a student is unprepared.

A small-groups summit at City Church chopped into part of the normal worship time and directed members to join a small group focusing on using their gifts. Are small groups a mere remedy for the problem of the big, impersonal church, or might they be engines of service in the larger city? (Photo David Tulis)

A small-groups summit at City Church chopped into part of the normal worship time and directed members to join a small group focusing on using their gifts. Are small groups a mere remedy for the problem of the big, impersonal church, or might they be engines of service in the larger city? (Photo David Tulis)

Josh Murphy, left, from a reformed Presbyterian background, talks with friends at a small-groups fair at City Church in August.

Josh Murphy, left, from a reformed Presbyterian background, talks with friends at a small-groups fair at City Church in August.

On Oct. 8 we attend First Presbyterian Church downtown and its missions conference. We hear a wonderful sermon from the Rev. Hugh Palmer, an Englishmen, discussing the idea of the world Christian. His text is 1st Corinthians 9:1-27 and his argument is that the Christian should be as much as possible like those people with whom he interacts and to whom he gives testimony of his belief. The mission field  me be Sudan, but also Dodds Avenue and Southside. “Our Sovereign God: Unfolding History to His End,” is the name of the conference. 

But missionaries influenced by pietism reject the gospel as a world-changing truth, and present a highly individualized Jesus, who cares only for individual souls, and not cultures reeking of statism, regulation, police brutality, public schools, price controls and surveillance

The Rev. Chris Sorensen and his Christian friends at the Mission Chattanooga are strong in their belief that Christianity does connect with city world of gang life, poverty and the fruit of lousy work ethic and short-term thinking. But here one remembers this group’s origins, the Church of England that hounded the reformers and sought to make wreck of the free church of Scotland, borrowing Roman Catholic practice and theology, including having at its head not Christ, but a human monarch.

Doctrine and God’s forbearance

I believe that Christians with bad doctrine cannot create a true work and true Reformation.

But I also am convinced that reformation is a work in progress, as J.H. Merle D’Aubigne shows in his accounts of Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and other reformers. Once Luther had the main doctrine right, the power of God to save souls by grace alone through faith alone, he worked to push out of his heart and mind the many errors they contained. Bad money, as they say, drives out good. So, too, the inverse: Good money, when the time for breakthrough is ripe, drives out bad, the economy is restored to soundness. Good teaching and prayerful study of the whole Word drives out the rot.

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The Reformation that God is withholding from Chattanooga and Hamilton County is one that begins to build when there is a union of truthful preaching and confidence in God’s government. In Isaiah 9:7, we are assured that “of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.” These verses and many others tell of a continued expansion of the kingdom of God among men. The Bible teaches the concept of Christendom. The history of man is a record of mankind’s shift of status, from being under judgment to being under redemption. From wrath to forgiveness and restoration. From external law and external government to Spirit-infused internal law and internal self-government.

The church in Chattanooga is made up of many bodies, with many flavors and many competing and conflicting points of theology. What is the work of the Gospel going to do for the city as a whole over time? This question is the one that I think more people need to ask. Where are the churches that teach a theory of social progress, with the law of God and the promise of God’s grace as the engine of this rebuilding?

Is there a pulpit in Chattanooga that has preached a sermon on the godlessness of prisons? Is there a pulpit in Chattanooga that has preached on the dangers of executive government such as that exhibited by police departments and President Trump? Is there a pulpit in the county that has explored the effect of God’s law on pagan societies? Is there a pulpit that has preached through When Helping Hurts; How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself, published by the Chalmers Center on Lookout Mountain? Is there a pulpit that has insisted on the lordly prerogatives of the Lord’s Day, which gives man rest and honors God’s claim on the remaining six days of the week?

Is there a pulpit that has said the Christian man should be involved in efforts to abolish the killing of the unborn, rather than merely participate in the extension of abortion by supporting pro-life organizations? Is there a pulpit in Chattanooga that has preached on the requirement of open borders rather than cross-continental walls and police state tactics against non-criminal visitors and newcomers?

Always sick, always broken, always recovering

I bring up these points as biblical distinctives, though I’m not going to argue them here. The main question is whether churches in Chattanooga will work their way past their state of hypochondria.

By that I mean the continuing personalized individualized private concerns that are addressed repeatedly ad nauseam by the minister. Christians are hypochondriac because they are continually having personal problems that require continual treatment by the pastors of the churches. God’s people are so massively and continually broken down and sin-socked and besieged by personal problems they cannot ever get to the great commission and the conversion of the nation. We are sickly self-absorbed and introspective. We are omphaloscentric — navel-gazers.

“For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food,” Paul laments. “For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil” (Hebrews 5:12-14).

Why do the pulpits not get to preaching on the ungodliness of the administrative state, or the necessity to fight criminal charges rather than plea bargain — a bold step taken Hixson’s Hanson Melvin? Now these points of practice might be best handled by the deacons. But the principles in God’s word about justice and the protection we owe the oppressed and the poor are plenteous. For a sermon about demanding an indictment rather than plea bargaining requires explicit teaching against the idol of fear, proposing that we replace it by confidence in God and the proper use of means at our disposal to obtain relief and justice.

Straight lines by God — using us

It is a cliche, perhaps, but God does draw straight line with crooked sticks. He can use churches that have bad doctrine and he can use the people in these churches to affect slow transformations of city and county. God can use Christian people in Chattanooga even though they are not well fed by their pastors and even though they are not given any kind of analysis of the larger world.

What about the Baptist church in Chattanooga that has been more than a year on Psalm 119 and yet whose minister won’t engage in any discussion about the legal system that is oppressing the poor and the ignorant in Hamilton County? Is there no one who specializes in the study of God’s word who can tell me why the 10 Commandments are light but the Tennessee code annotated in 39 volumes from Michie for F$365.17 + shipping is heavy? These are questions not for journalism merely, but for the church herself.

Churches exist in Chattanooga where the leading officer exercises a ministerial duty to declare only what God has stated, nothing more, nothing less.

The problem of pietism and privatized Christianity remains in that he keeps saying less. Sermons maybe doctrinally true, but if their scope is private and individual, they present a God smaller than he really is, one who is weak and ineffectual when it comes to questioning and overthrowing man-made systems such as schools, prisons and highway patrols. God is far greater than I imagine him to be. I’m looking to recommend a church that has this high view of God and that believes His laws are the grid and foundation for all work in our larger society..

City Church maybe heterodox, given that women preach to men some Sundays and that the use of digital screen technology saves you from having to bring your print or digital Bible to worship. But on a recent Sunday it holds a worship service and youth pastor Danny Hesterly gives a sermon about the importance of community and the desirability of church members to relate to one another apart from days of worship.

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This emphasis is important in any church where size allows for individuals to be alienated, unknown and unaccountable. City Church by the group emphasis seeks to overcome that problem. In its favor, a community emphasis and lifestyle evangelism will bring members in its fellowship closer to the larger world where cultural transformation and the use of salt and light await.

Whether these group efforts at one house of God go into beyond individual connections and into the broken structures of society depends on whether gospel preaching shines the light of Christ onto them with a view to glorifying God and saving the men and women trapped within.

  This “big-Godder, small-Godder” usage comes from Robert Wilson, an Old Testament professor. Suddenly, midway through Donald Grey Barnhouse’s message, Wilson shuffled his papers together, stood to his feet, and walked out. *** With a trembling voice, Barnhouse asked, “Where did I fail?” Dr. Wilson stopped his reading and looked up. “Fail? Oh, you didn’t fail,” Wilson explained. “I always come to hear my former students speak one time. I simply want to know if they are a big-Godder or a small-Godder. I am very pleased that you are one of our few graduates who is a big-Godder. You preach a big God. I didn’t need to hear anymore.”

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