The Fundamental Heresies of Church Growth and Leadership Movements: Reductionism, Relativism and Positive Tolerance of Error

Ralph Tate


"There is a way which seems right to man, but in the end it leads to death."

Since mankind's fall, he repeatedly set aside God's laws to follow his own plans. Human history is littered with debris from man's shattered monuments to himself, often built atop those of prior generations. Our own century supplies innumerable examples with the demise of Stalinist communism and Nazi fascism. It would seem that history's purpose is to provide gainful employment to future generations of archeologists. Today, our graveyards testify to the nihilism and narcissism of a society without a moral center in God, "A Culture of Death".

Likewise, God's people suffer repeated catastrophe whenever religious movements exchange God's principles for worldly precepts. We can immediately recall Montanus, Zwingli, Menon or Koresh. Contemporary American Christianity has never recovered from the havoc wrought by Charles Finney. ELCA's apostasy owes much to Schmucker's embrace of Finney. Now, men or movements again claim our attention building great campuses and evangelistic networks only to bring disillusionment and disappointment - not to mention broken psyches and empty wallets.

Yet, many an LCMS missiologist again kicks Christ out of His Church, giddily oblivious to history's tragic litany, when embracing methods and practices promoted by Church Growth gurus and Pastoral Leadership Initiative aficionados (hereafter CG/PLI). Grounded in evangelical revivalism, the CG/PLI paradigm denies Christ's active presence to His Bride both personally and thru His Word and Sacraments. Within the church, then, CG/PLI's fusion of romanticism, pragmatism and spirituality constitutes reductionism, whose immediate corollary is relativism. That is, CG/PLI practice is a frontal attack upon theology's formal principal, sola scriptura.

Without this objective standard, CG/PLI protocol excises judgment and discernment from the Church. Hence, the Church may neither identify nor correct error. Human worldviews or esoteric experience may then dominate Christ's Church, not propositional Truth. Thus, CG/PLI practices mute the Gospel proclamation and remove comfort to troubled consciences, because they treat man phenomenologically, as he is in the world, not coram deo. That is, CG/PLI practice assaults theology's material principle (sola gratia) consequent upon dismissing its formal principle.

CG/PLI therefore, manifests a three-fold heresy: reductionism, relativism and positive tolerance of error. CG/PLI insinuates the principles of the "radical" Reformation and is thus counter-Reformational. Missouri's CG/PLI advocates disclose themselves as sniveling little antichrists, Merchants of Death in Gadarene riot, who must be deposed as teachers, officials and leaders within the Christian Church. Paul warned Timothy to beware of such professional religious hucksters, who devour like the "beast of the earth". For such fraud seeks to disembowel Christ's Bride and entomb Her embalmed in human tyranny.


"And I believe in one Holy Christian and Apostolic Church."

The existence, perseverance and nature of the Church are Divine mysteries. These are to be believed and confessed just as the other articles of faith. Scripture even calls our pastors "stewards of the mysteries". In contemporary parlance, we call such mysteries, paradoxes. In his seminal essay, "The Ways of Paradox", Wittgenstein articulates the concept of paradox: two seemingly contradictory notions which something may be said to its favor. For example, since Jesus is fully God yet fully man, only he could become the bloody oblation, our go'el, to be our Christ. The Church is likewise just such a mystery: the Body of Christ yet all who hear the voice of the Good Shepherd.

The "Jesus Seminar" provides an excellent model to explicate CG/PLI's basic errors. Seminar scholars commit reductionism by separating Christ from His Word when applying pseudo-scientific methods to Scripture. The scientific method infers from observed regularity the nature of physical phenomenon. But Scripture itself is a revealed mystery, a paradox, that is, it's Christ's Word yet man's word. The Seminar's form of reductionism is called scientism, which severs the paradox's human pole from the Divine pole. Hence, Scripture is viewed humanistically, that is, psychologically, socio-politically, historically or philosophically, to wit, subjectively. Such relativism is readily demonstrated in Seminar's divergent interpretations. Gadamer, Truth and Method, observed the scientific method inappropriate in humanist studies, because they cannot reveal their nature. Such methods are much less appropriate to reveal Christ and His Will in Scripture! No, the "Jesus Seminar" scholars simply propound the reductionist positivism of scientific atheism, scientism.

A second "scientific" model is found in contemporary pastoral counseling. This form of reductionism is called psychologism. While psychology is valuable, it only treats our animal nature. Psycholgy can only deal with our "dis-ease". Psychology cannot penetrate into the Will to bring us to grips with our soul's sickness. Only Scripture can do this. But modern pastoral counseling virtually excludes Scripture except as a very remote structural matrix.

Actually, what the "Jesus Seminar" and counseling psychologism do to Scripture, CG/PLI does to the Church, that is, the "scientific" method is applied in a destructive way to the identity and work of the Church. As special revelation in Scripture must be apprehended Christologically so too the Church. It is only within this mystery of paradox that this indestructible Truth subsists by radically intensifying and amplifying its polarity. So, what is the Church? It is, again, all who hear the Good Shepherd's voice and it is the Body of Christ. The Church Militant is at once comprised of men yet it is also Christ. It is flesh and blood yet spirit. Nevertheless, the Fathers called the Church the Una Sancta, the one Holy. Hence, the Church must be apprehended Christologically, if its manifold complex is to be explicated at all.

CG/PLI commits the same reductionism as the "Jesus Seminar" and counseling psychologism by breaking the paradox when embracing revivalistic and methodistic practices. The human side is once again severed from Christ's presence, activity and nurture. CG/PLI then likewise comprehends the Church subjectively thru humanistic means, e.g., socio-politically. These pseudo-scientific secular traditions impose atheistic worldviews upon the Church, because method yields a particular set of outcomes and establishes goals based on presumed impersonal laws, and thereby displacing Christ's Word as the norm of faith and practice. B-school metrics and therapeutic regimens simply cannot fathom human nature much less that of Church - they're simply inappropriate. Under CG/PLI the Church devolves into mere social organization, a cult of narcissistic expressivism, rather than a divinely constituted organism! It's quite amazing that our evangelical churches have embraced a sham form of Deism!!


"We believe, teach and confess ... We reject and condemn ...."

The preeminent responsibility of the Church is to proclaim the pure, Gospel, that is, the Truth. The corollary to this proclamation is the identification and correction of error. Our Confessors were not simply involved in some arcane pedantic dialectal exercise in order just to be mean-spirited, ornery and irascible. No, they understood a fundamental principle, that is, something cannot be said to be right if its contrary cannot be cited as wrong. The antithesis resonates as the antiphon to the thesis thereby amplifying and intensifying the thesis. The prevailing Marxist dialectic of thesis, antithesis, then synthesis breaks this antiphonal synergism. Truth becomes a negotiation. All issues become politicized along factional lines. Essential issues are treated just like aesthetic issues. "Style" replaces "sub-stance". Palliatives for our "dis-ease" supplant cures for our soul's "disease". Peripheral profane things displace central holy things. Relationships become an end unto themselves. Process reduces to the will to exert power over another faction, to wit, fascism. Nietzche trumps Christ. Ernst Roehm, Ezra Pound and Eric Fromme ensnare us. Christians are commanded not to imitate these worldly ways. Even a civilized society frowns on such uncivil behavior. Yet, such incivility is a necessary concomitant to CG/PLI practices. Having rejected Christ and Scripture as normative de facto, error remains undisciplined and the Truth surfeited. Therefore, all manner of schism and sectarian strife may break out without hope of resolution. Issues in the Church can only be resolved by referring to "thus saith the Lord", "to the law and testimonies" and our Confessions grounded therein. No other voice may be heard within the Church but that of the Good Shepherd. But this is what CG/PLI does: it allows another voice. "Have it your way!" "Customer is always right!" "What does the poll say?" The "results" oriented and "market centered" Church always follows the ways of the world into the avenues of power and influence. That shabby, suffering, "Cross-centered" church knows only one set of results, that is, the Word purely preached and the Sacraments strictly administered according to the Divine command. Thus, we reject and condemn CG/PLI as a patent falsehood, because it tolerates and insinuates false doctrine thru false practice.


"I am the Vine and you are the branches."

Luther presented us with a remarkable picture of Christ's Church using Christ's own imagery of the Church as His vineyard. The various branches hate pruning, but the vintner knows that he must husband them lest wild growth permit disease and rot to spoil his harvest. Moreover, such pruning stimulates fruiting growth. So, the dross gets cut away and burned, the roots hoed and the vineyard plied with manure. But what is the vintner's foremost concern? The vine stock in which the vintner grafts the varietal branches! Emphasizing the branches while neglecting the vine results in disaster! Such is always the result of reductionism, a heresy, regardless.

The irony is that Christ tricks Satan into tending His Vineyard. Furious with Christ, Satan flails at the branches, he weeds poorly, if at all, and he over-fertilizes so to sabotage the Harvest. Nevertheless, this is the crop Our Lord wants to harvest, which the world despises and reviles and in whom he may display His Glory -- that harvest grafted into Christ. Yet, CG/PLI would never even look at that crop God claims Holy unto Himself. [Can't you just imagine the upturned brows at that wine and cheese tasting party?] Using worldly tools and methods, CG/PLI harvests crops the world would be most proud. But in time their root will wither, canker consume their branches and the Lord shall mock their foolishness, while warming Himself upon their pyre.


Excursus and Closure

A few years ago, the world laughed at a man named Desai, then Prime Minister of India. On CBS' 60 Minutes, he highly recommended drinking one's own urine. He confessed imbibing his own several times per week. Now, we all know that urine consists of concentrated toxins laced with detrimental bacteria, you know, waste! It's just these toxins that rapidly weaken and kill the body during kidney failure. CG/PLI does the same thing, because it cannot operate on man theologically. Such practice simply applies "cultural feedback" using a cocktail of distilled cultural poisons rather than the pure waters of Life. Having weakened and poisoned so many, is it any wonder that these fall ready prey to even more insidious influences? Is this what the Church is about? Is the Church some spiritual Buchenwald, a broad passage to something worse like the occult, or the narrow door to Salvation?

CG/PLI's revivalistic and methodistic practices are manifestly heretical in that they embrace reductionism resulting in relativism and positive tolerance of error. Hermeneutically and epistematically, CG/PLI enforces a liberal ecclessiology upon the Church which vitiates the formal and material principles of Christian theology, that is, the sola scriptura and sola gratia, respectfully. Furthermore, these practices ultimately result in pagan human tyranny over Christ's Bride. Yet, there exist many conservatives who commit virtually the same error by simply being reactionary curmudgeons. Each generation must then claim the Confessions for itself unless it wishes to become fundamentalist. CG/PLI's metastasizing popularity should then compel Lutherans to look afresh at issues in the light of Scripture and the Confessions to remove artificial impediments to the Gospel.

But CG/PLI's prevailing philosophy is wholly inapplicable to the Church. In breaking the Church's paradox, CG/PLI places the Church under Law (and often human opinion, too), rather than subsisting entirely in the Gospel's grace. A congregation must augment this "gospel" thru its own efforts thereby looking inward (incurvatus a se) and away from Christ. Consistent application of CG/PLI can only result in despairing cynics or confirmed Pharisees, because it is a paradigm at home in the world and not beneath the Cross. A cultural feedback program cannot bring sinful man to face his core problem, that is, his estrangement from God as a condemned sinner. A personal therapy regimen cannot substitute for the proclamation of the Kingdom of Grace. Moreover, expecting predictable empirical results causes us to lose hope in the Gospel. Finally, mimicking reformed and evangelical worship practices places any Lutheran immediately in confessional conflict. Hence, CG/PLI stands along side the great heresies of the Church as perhaps the most pernicious fraud ever perpetrated upon Her. Therefore, because it renders the Gospel message surfeit, and if for that paramount reason alone, CG/PLI must be denounced and her advocates summarily deposed. Crux probat omnia.


Acknowledgement: The author would like to thank the Rev Hal Senkbeil for his sage counsel, penetrating suggestions and general advice while preparing this article. I would also like to thank my friends and acquaintences and their stimulating conversation while reviewing this article. This article is not particularly original in that it's my distillation of the works of confessional theologians, whose books were my teachers although I never sat in their classes.

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