Book Review: Jim Turner, So-Called Christians

So Called ChristiansTurner, Jim. So-Called Christians: Healing Spiritual Wounds Left By The Church. Greenville, South Carolina: Ambassador International, 2014.157 pages, pb., $11.99   Link

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.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Jim Turner, So-Called Christians

  1. Thanks for letting us know about this book, with a good summary and your reactions. From your description, I’d surmise it is missing or at least superficial on the problem of divisions which ARE based on core doctrinal matters. For example, his cited list of Geisler on essential “truths”. Only if one dates from somewhere early to late in the 4th century (one of the first two “ecumenical” councils), do I believe it’s reasonable to determine an orthodoxy that has a reasonable claim of defining what is “Christianity”. Even then, I don’t think what is “Christian” or following of Jesus can be limited to either Roman (“Western”) creeds or Eastern Orthodox ones, nor the interpretive paradigms (concepts of authority, etc.) of either.

    Now, of course, “modernism” and “progressive” forms of Christian faith have emerged in recent centuries which sometimes claim to follow a pre-orthodox form of faith in God via the teaching and example of Jesus (best we can determine that… fuzzily). These Turner would rule out as even Christian… am I right? On what reasonable basis? If they are to be validly called “Christian” as well, as I’d argue, then the difficulty of restoring unity, at least on the level of compassionate cooperation and mutual respect, is greatly expanded. But I retain hope, via faith in the power of love (I Cor. 13).

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    • You are right, and maybe Jim will add his thoughts here (since he is aware of the review). I see him firmly within the same evangelical world I live in, and the problem of doctrinal schism within evangelical (maybe even fundamentalist) churches is is main topic. Obviously by embracing Norman Geisler, you are making a fairly conservative statement of faith!

      My guess is he might “rule out” moderism or progressive/liberal Christianity as Orthodox Christianity, especially based on his list of “things Christians believe.” While calling for grace and compassion throughout the book (and concluding with 1 Cor 13), his application of that to doctrinal matters is perhaps “gracious separation”, agree to disagree, etc. He certainly does not say, “love everyone but burn the heretics.”

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      • Thanks for the clarification and confirmation. BTW, I keep running into more blogs and articles in which serious Evangelicals, often PhD biblical or theological scholars, discuss either the unraveling or major shifting (“end of things as we know them”) in the Evangelical world (USA mainly). As I read these, particularly the dozen or so in a series on Peter Enns’ Patheos blog, it appears that the “center” is not holding. Particularly if you consider that center the way the Bible is viewed, handled and the resulting theology. I know there are “other centers” (sociologically, in terms of spirituality approaches, evangelism, etc.).

        I don’t mean to press you here, Phillip, but I’d imagine you might be among the less-radical of such Evangelical (or former Evangelical) scholars who wish to see the Bible taken more for what it actually says, in its actual historical/social/theological settings and original audiences. That over against what Carlos Bovell considers the preeminence of “philosophy” (ala Norman Geisler, particularly), establishing inerrancy and other abstractions in Evangelicals’ minds PRIOR to their dealing directly and in depth with the Bible itself. (Unfortunately, backwards.)

        Some of these scholars, along with many lay people, have effectively switched to a progressive theology (loosely aligned with “higher criticism” as to methodology though not necessarily presuppositions), at least in part. Or they are on the dreaded “slippery slope” toward there. I’m wondering if this dynamic, and the fact that it is increasing fairly rapidly (as I see it) is also behind some of what Turner is saying. Maybe he is trying to keep such people in the “ship” of Evangelicalism, which to some, is sinking, or at least listing badly. (He’d probably think of it as keeping them orthodox/saved but to me it amounts to both a theological system and a belonging in a way of thinking/believing/living.)

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