Jim Turner is a pastor with more than 25 years of experience in a variety of church settings. He works with ChurchOneNow, a ministry focusing on “rebuilding unity and restoring relationships” for people who have been hurt and spiritually damaged by their experience in the church. Turner claims that more people have been hurt by the church than World War Two; as many as 37% of un-churched Americans say they do not attend church because of a negative experience.
The goal of So-Called Christians is to meet the suffering caused by the church head-on and offer some healing to people who have genuinely been damaged by Christians. The first two chapters of the book describe the problem of the church as an “autoimmune disease.” By this Turner means the Church is destroying itself. He uses to 1 Cor 1:10-13 and argues the Church today destroying itself with schisms. He jokingly “translates” 1 Cor 1:13 as “Is Christ divided? Was Charles Stanley crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of John Piper?” (34). Later in the book he calls this “doctrinal snobbery.”
In contrast to the divisive nature of the Church today, Jesus’ prayer for the Church is unity (John 17). In chapters 3-5 Turner describes the biblical idea for the church. Paul’s ideal for the Church is having one mind, unified around the idea of Jesus. Turner therefore examines the virtues in Col 3:12-14 as traits of Christ that would promote unity in the church if they were consistently practiced. He also examines the unity resulting from having the “mind of Christ” (Phil 2) and draws several applications to relationships within the church.
In Chapters 6-7 Turner begins to deal with the boundaries defining “Christian.” He makes a distinction between a “matter of conscience” (drinking a beer or smoking a pipe), a “doctrinal distinctive” (local church government, sign gifts, day of worship), and “essential Christian doctrine” (clear moral absolutes and defining doctrines of the faith). Anyone reading this book will likely fill in their own issues in each of those categories, but the idea that there are some things a Christian must reject and must accept is clear. It is the middle category (“matters of conscience”) where judgment and division happen. He uses the example of contemporary worship here and advises we not “argue over opinions” (citing Roman 13). It is important, however, to accept the fact that my liberty might be a stumbling block to another Christian. A person who “exercises their liberty” in a matter may need to limit themselves so that they do not cause a brother or sister to stumble (85). This is an excellent point, but I wonder how far Turner is willing to push his principle of not judging in “matters of conscience.” The examples he gives are fairly straightforward, but there are other issues that are much more difficult and culturally sensitive.
Chapters 8-10 discuss the doctrinal lines defining Christianity. For the most part, Turner is a conservative evangelical and includes a twenty-four page article from Norman Geisler on the essential doctrines of Christianity. He has a summary of “essentials” drawn from the classic Christian creeds. Following Geisler, he divides these between items necessary to be saved (Trinity, human depravity, deity and humanity of Christ, necessity of grace and faith, Christ’s atoning death and his resurrection) and items that are not necessary (virgin birth, ascension, Christ’s present service and his second coming). Lest you think he is some sort of Rob Bell, Turner is clear that Geisler’s list is correct, but he would not separate from a brother in Christ for misunderstanding the virgin birth or the second coming. His point in this section is that a “loving defense of the truth maintains unity” (122).
There are several things missing from this book. First, I would have liked Turner to be even more forthright about the real problem facing the church today. Like the church at Corinth, the real heart of our divisive spirit is sin and pride. Since he is writing to people who have been hurt, I suspect that he avoids calling disunity a sin, but that seems to be what Paul would have said to Corinth.
Second, and more perhaps critically, the book does a great job dealing with the solution, but Turner does not deal with any specific, controversial issues. For example, I agree many people stop attending church because they were “judged” by people in a local church. But in my experience, doctrinal issues are rarely the problem. In the modern American church it is very easy to find out what a church believes, simply check their website and you will likely get all the mission statements and doctrinal affiliation information you need. The people I meet who have been wounded by the church are people who have a lifestyle that just does not work in the typical evangelical church. The teenager with several tattoos and piercings who attends a typical church wearing his Slayer t-shirt and a dog-collar is going to be judged by the homeschool kids in youth group. I know of several situations where parents did not want their kids attending youth group because “those kids” were in the group, so this scenario is not far-fetched at all.
Third, sometimes hurt Christians have deep personal sins resulting in a harsh attack by the local church. The book does not address the hurt people have when they are attacked by a well-meaning (or just mean) person over a sinful lifestyle. For example, there are homosexual Christians who are in fact judged harshly by some churches and made to feel so uncomfortable they walk away from the church entirely. How can a church “love the sinner” while “hating the sin”? This is a real problem in contemporary American churches, but this goes beyond Turner’s stated goals for this book. Nevertheless, the harsh attitude towards sinners from the more conservative branches of the American Church need to be addressed and there was opportunity for Turner’s book to do just that.
Conclusion. Turner’s book was written from his personal experience in the Church and his commitment to being the Church as it is described in the New Testament. This is not a scholarly book filled with detailed exegesis; it is a heartfelt reflection on the Word of God as he observes the destructive power of divisions in the church.
NB: Thanks to Jim Turner for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.