Hymn books give way to Powerpoint slides. Church organs to electric guitars. Offering bags to online transfers. Local churches to bible study groups, online communities, the metaverse? Is an insistence on local churches simply a clinging on to an outmoded way of the Christian life?
Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Today I review “The Local Church: What It Is and Why It Matters” by Edward W. Klink III. 176 pages, published by Crossway on October 2021. This book review is made possible by Crossway’s Blog Review Programme. I get the book for free but Crossway has no input in the review. On to the review!
Online Services Are Great! Or Not
Have you asked or heard this question before: “Why should the church meet physically when online services are just as good?” How do you answer?
“It’s different, physical is better, online is not what God intended.”
The conversation can go back and forth with no end in sight. Everybody has an opinion, experiences to share. Everyone has their own ideas of what a church is, what a church service is, and sometimes, just sometimes, they might put forward Bible verses to support their position.
And that’s the wrong way of doing it. Don’t start with a position and search the Bible to support it. Start with the Bible, what does the Bible say about the church?
Cutting through the noise, anger, frustration, confusion, in this book Klink offers theological clarity and pastoral assurance: what does the Bible say about the church?
His biography reads:
Edward W. Klink III (PhD, University of St. Andrews) is the senior pastor of Hope Evangelical Free Church in Roscoe, Illinois and part-time professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. He previously served as associate professor of New Testament at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
PhD. Part-time professor. Associate professor. Is this a tough book to read? You have got nothing to worry about. Klink explains in his introduction:
Although much of my writing thus far has been for scholars or the trained pastor, this book was written with the layperson in view, the average Christian. That does not mean it avoids all meat, for I certainly intended to push readers to broaden their biblical and theological categories as they think about the Christian life and the church. Yet I spend time in the book explaining key concepts and practices, and even include analogies and stories to help make the material more accessible. This book was written with the pastoral intention of offering a resource for “catechizing” Christians by explaining the church to them. It is an introduction to the local church.
Structure of Questions and Alliteration
Listen to the structure and hear for yourself how accessible this book is.
After the introduction you have the first chapter and there are six chapters in all in this 176 page book. The first chapter is titled, “What Isn’t the Church?” Right off the bat, Klink corrects a few wrong ways to think of the church. After explaining what isn’t the church, in the next chapter Klink explains what is the church. Then the third chapter is, “Why Does the Church Exist?”, followed with “How Does the Church Function?”. After the Christian understands the what, why and how of the church, Klink poses the most pertinent question today, “What is the Connection between a Christian and a Church?” The last chapter is titled, “Twenty Common Questions about the Local Church.”
Klink loves his alliteration. Every chapter title has a P-letter word next to it. Thus, the chapters can be understood as: Problem, Principle, Purpose, Process, Participation and Practice.
By organising the book as a series of questions, the reader immediately sees the relevance. These are not ivory tower abstract ideas. Although you should not skip chapters to read the answer to that one question because each chapter builds on the chapter before it. Even the last chapter, “Twenty Common Questions about the Local Church”, his answer makes better sense if you read the preceding chapters.
Stop Looking At The Church Wrongly
Let’s now look at the first chapter, Problem: “What Isn’t the Church?”. Klink breaks it down to four common misperception:
- The Church is not a Metaphor
- The Church is not Coffee with Friends
- The Church is not a Human Project
- The Church is not a Voluntary Society
Get ready to be corrected here. Not only on your wrong way you have looked at the church but on the wrong way you have looked at your favourite Bible verses.
When Klink says that the Church is not Coffee with Friends, he points out that this idea is derived from a mistaken reading of Matthew 18:20: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
Wrong interpretations lead to wrong applications. By taking Matthew 18:20 to mean that Jesus or the church is wherever two or three Christians gather it has lead some to think: “I don’t need the church. Or at least the church as those rigid traditionalists think of it. I just need to gather two or three together and Christ is with us. We don’t need organised religion. We just need each other.”
This is Klink’s response:
… too often the way Christians speak of the church is really another way of talking about any gathering of Christians that involves aspects of fellowship and biblical-spiritual topics. But the church is more than the cumulative collection of Christians, no matter its spiritual fruitfulness.
Notice a few things. He acknowledges that there is fellowship, there is biblical-spiritual content and there is spiritual fruitfulness. He is not denying any of these good things. Klink is just telling us firmly that the church is not coffee with friends. And it’s not because Klink, the pastor-theologian, said so. “Come.” He invites us to read the Bible.
He zooms out of Matthew 18:20 and shows us the surrounding verses, verses 15-20. He writes:
The context makes clear that it is not a magical number gathered together that makes Christ present but that a symptom of Christ’s authoritative presence in the church is a proper handling of sin in a local church.
He continues on in his exposition. Klink emphasises that Matthew 18:20 summarises one aspect of what the church does. He later writes:
… the order is important — what the church is (in principle) comes before and explains what the church does (in practice).
If you don’t know the difference between what the church is and what the church does, you can easily make, what Klink says is, a category mistake. If church is understood to simply a place where you do things, a place where you fellowship, worship, hear a sermon and pray, then it’s easy to just replace it with an alternate form of Christianity community, a loose gathering at Starbucks or an online chat group. You can be a Christian without going to church! I have more to say on this but let’s move on to another flawed notion.
And that is to see the church as solely or primarily a human project. We are very quick to say that the church is not a building but the people.
A mob crashes through the gates. Mobs with paint brushes and pots of paint. They chant: “My church, my colours. The only colour on the wall must be… “
Then a brave soul comes between the mob and the sacred church walls. “Hold on! Remember! Remember the church is not the building, it is the people!”
The mob return to their senses, return their paintbrushes and return to their homes.
The statement that “the church is not a building but the people” is true. We can point to the Greek word ekklesia and show how every time the NT authors speak of the church, they were not speaking of a building.
However, that statement while true does not mean that the church is of the people, by the people, for the people. I can imagine some people thinking, “It isn’t?”
No, it isn’t.
According to the Bible, the church is a divine institution because of the necessary connection between the Lord Jesus Christ and his body, the church. This connection is the theological ground upon which any understanding of the church stands. By saying “theological,” I mean that the significance of this connection requires a summary of Scripture’s message on the topic. Scripture teaches us that the church has a necessarily derivative character, which means the church is not original (it is born from the incarnate body of Christ), it is secondary (it is under the lordship of Christ), and it exists because of another (its power is based on the death and resurrection of Christ).
Later, Klink quotes John Webster who says:
The church is not constituted by human intentions, activities and institutional or structural forms, but by the action of the triune God, realized in Son and Spirit.
This is not just mouthing banalities. This impacts the way you live as a Christian. On one side you have people promoting how to be a Christian without going to church. On this side, the biblical side, Klink says that the church is a divine institution, better understood as the church of God, by God, for the glory of God. Klink closes off this section with this strong message:
Any minimization of the church or disassociation from the church by a Christian is actually a rejection of God himself, for the church is his institution and his ministry.
I’ve only shared two of Klink’s correction here: The Church is not coffee with friends and the church is not a human project. Depending on how you were brought up or what you see as the problem of the church, you could find the other sections: the Church is not a metaphor, the church is not a voluntary society, to be a big eye-opener, scales may drop from your eyes. You have been reading those bible verses wrongly. You have been seeing the church wrongly. So what is the right way to see the church?
Start Looking At The Church As God Sees It
Having stated the negative case of what isn’t the church, Klink moves on to the positive case of what is the church. This he does by explaining the seven attributes extracted from the Bible, centred on God. As I read the seven attributes here, I invite you to think what it might mean in relation to the church. The seven attributes are:
- The Pleasure of God
- The People of God
- The Presence of God
- The Power of God
- The Proclamation of God
- The Provision of God
- The Purpose of God
Klink loves his alliteration. He loves P-letter words. Alliteration is a useful memory device which you can test for yourself. I’m sure if you pause this podcast now, you will remember some if not all of the seven attributes of the church just listed.
These seven attributes did not emerge from a man’s vision of what the church should be, like some Christian version of Plato’s Republic.
Consider, when Klink says the church is the pleasure of God, he quotes part of Isaiah 43:1-7 which says:
I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine… For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior… You are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you… whom I created for my glory.
When Klink says the church is the provision of God, he quotes Matthew 25:31-46, which begins with Jesus saying:
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.
As he expounds from the biblical text, he draws from other commentaries and resources which he footnotes. In the second chapter, he cites John Calvin, the London Baptist Confession, J.I. Packer, John Frame, just to mention a few. So you can see, he offers the meat he promised, neatly diced, seasoned and grilled for easy chewing.
Inward Loving Reflection
No matter how much you know or think you know about the church, you will appreciate the insights, even if it’s just the way Klink puts it together. Let me share another one.
We are familiar with the vertical and horizontal aspect of Christian relationship. Vertical is us and God. Horizontal is us and others. Klink puts it differently. Upward, outward and inward. Upward is us worshipping God. Outward reflects God’s missional focus while inward reflects God’s affection to his people.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about the inward aspect Klink mentions here, the loving one another part of the church. Maybe it’s because of the arguments within the church on how to respond to Covid or seeing people in the church suffering due to the economic downturn.
When we strongly disagree with others, do we disagree in a way that demonstrates love? When we see people suffer, do we help? Do you know if anyone in your church is suffering? Are you comfortable sharing your trials and needs with someone in the church?
Unlike the other -ologies: Christology, soteriology, eschatology, I find ecclesiology, the doctrine of the church, to be the most reflective because it is the most people-facing doctrine. No Christian thinks they are in a perfect church. And if they think so, they probably haven’t been there long enough or haven’t served in ministry. So when you read a book on the church, and a good book shows you how God sees the church, you naturally reflect on your own church and your own church practices.
And since I mentioned church practises, by the time you reach the end of the book, you may have a lot of question on church practises. Questions like: How does a church help a person grow as a Christian? Why are churches so different? How do I find and join a church? And many more. Klink poses 20 questions in the end and its worth hearing his thoughts on many common questions asked about the church.
Careful Criticism Controls Crankiness
If I can offer one criticism on the book is that it is a bit too neatly diced for my liking. This may be a personal preference but I am suspicious of alliteration. Have you tried doing them before? You have your text. You have your points. Now you try to be fancy and turn those points into easy to remember alliteration points. But what happens when your last point resists. It doesn’t want to be turned into a word that begins with the letter P.
If you can’t find the right word that begins with the letter P. Do you choose the closest word? Even if that word does not exactly or fully convey the point you are making?
Or do you change the point? You adjust what you want to say so that the content better fits that word?
Or do you give up on alliteration? Throw away all the work you have done before?
Or do you start over? Find a new letter. Would A or B or C work?
Due to my own experience, I don’t do alliteration in my teaching or preaching. The gains, memory recall, are minimal compared to the compromises I almost always make. I read Klink’s 6Ps in the Table of Contents: Problem, Principle, Purpose, Process, Participation and Practice; and in chapter two the 7Ps to define the church: Pleasure, People, Presence, Power, Proclamation, Provision and Purpose. When I ponder how he managed to produce and present such a perfect list, I could only pontificate, praise and pillage?
In making the alliteration, is there a missing attribute, perhaps important but not so important, that didn’t make the list simply because there was no convenient P-letter word for it? To be clear, Klink gives no hint of such omissions. Nor do I deny his alliterated points are thoroughly substantiated from Scripture. My question is perhaps academic, but how did he arrive at this seven attributes? Why not six or ten?
If I’m spending much time on this it’s because I greatly appreciate this distinction between what the church is and what the church does. When I first learnt it, a light bulb came on.
Other Books on the Church
For this, I owe a debt to “Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church” by Gregg R. Allison. Allison gave me theological categories that helped me think on the seeker-sensitive, purpose-driven life, small group model and many other church models. Each model promises church growth and greater proximity to the biblical church.
The key takeaway I got from Allison is there are ontological models of the church and there are functional models. Ontological models build on what the church is. Functional models are driven by what the church does. Does this sound familiar?
Allison’s definition of the church, he also has seven points, is, in my opinion better than Klink’s. Allison explicitly shows the nature of the church with respect to God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit. The boundaries between the points are clearer. Not so mushy as Klink’s. Klink’s alliteration may help me remember that the church shows the power of God, the proclamation of God and the provision of God, but having remembered the P-words, I struggle to distinguish between the power of God and his proclamation and provision.
You can hear that I am profuse in my praise for Allison’s book, but it’s a tougher book to read. So I find it hard to recommend to the everyday Christian.
A more accessible book that has gone into a fourth edition is Nine Marks of a Healthy Church by Mark Dever. Similar to Klink’s Local Church, this book is targeted towards the everyday Christian. Dever’s book is helpful. No doubt about it. Especially for the busy pastor. The busy congregation member. It has a no nonsense feel to it’s organisation.
However, between the Klink’s and Dever’s, I prefer Klink’s because I think first principles are more important in the long run. For example, as churches everywhere struggle with online services: “is it good, is it bad, is it biblical?” Dever’s nine marks indirectly address the issue. Klink’s does better. But Allison reads the best even though his book was published in 2012. One of Allison’s seven definition is: the church is spatio-temporal and eschatological, it means the church is located in space, time and destiny. And with this definition of the church, a church is located in space and time, we can explore the Bible of whether a YouTube anytime, anywhere service is an acceptable replacement or complement to the church.
All the books I mentioned are good and all have their place. None have the last word. To illustrate this, look at Crossway’s six month publishing schedule. Local Church, the book I am reviewing now, by Edward Klink was published in October 2021. “Rediscover Church: Why the Body of Christ is Essential” by Jonathan Leeman was also published in October 2021. “The Loveliest Place: The Beauty and Glory of the Church” by Dustin Benge will be published in February 2022. No doubt there will be more books written and published as we the church try to make sense of what is happening around us and what is meant to happen to the church, in the church, for the church.
In conclusion, you need to read not just one book on the church. But if you are a new Christian or if you are a Christian who has grown indifferent or hostile against organised religion or the church, then you should read Klink’s book and consider the this humble pastor-theologian’s answer to the question, “Why should I go to church?”
This is a Reading and Readers’ Review of “The Local Church: What It Is and Why It Matters” by Edward W. Klink III. It’s available in Amazon Kindle for USD16.14 and in Logos it’s priced at USD13.99.
If you like this episode, perhaps I could persuade you to promote it to your preferred friends and family members. Reading and Readers is available in Apple Podcast, Spotify and other podcast services. You can also listen to the episodes in the website: www.readingandreaders.com. That’s www.readingandreaders.com. A podcast, where I review Christian books for you.
I reviewed this book as part of the Crossway Blog Review Programme but I didn’t receive any benefits other than the review copy.
- “The Local Church: What It Is and Why It Matters” by Edward W. Klink III. Amazon. Logos.
- “Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church” by Gregg R. Allison. Amazon. Logos.
- “Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (4th Edition)” by Mark Dever. Amazon. Logos.
- “The Loveliest Place: The Beauty and Glory of the Church” by Dustin Benge. Amazon. Logos.