The State of the Church
Can We Make An Honest Assessment of the Present, to Benefit the Future?
We are well overdue for a critical assessment of where we are as the Church of Jesus Christ. If we were to measure the impact of the Church upon society in these times, it would seem that we have fallen short of the purposes of the Church necessary until the return of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Satan has ever used the tools of distraction, deceit and discouragement to hinder the Lord's work. It has also been a challenge and strain on available resources to simultaneously fight against error while advancing the truth of God's Word. We cannot do one at the expense of the other. Both have always been the task of the Church, but both have fallen on hard times as we have moved into the 21st century. The creeping paralysis of a bunker mentality has crippled the very reason for the Church's existence and, if not overcome, will turn our church buildings into the museums, restaurants and night clubs we can see today in Great Britain. While openly bemoaning the corruption of our nation, the corruption of the Church from within has been met by feeble protests and too many rationalizations uncharacteristic of the mighty voices God has used for righteousness in the past. In the spirit of a professed kinder, gentler Fundamentalism, we now witness a passive Church that has all but lost any significant witness to the Truth outside local church walls. We need to recapture our purpose and work, lest we fail our commission and resort to ineffective station-keeping, making little impact or difference in a lost world. Perhaps we should begin by rehearsing briefly why we are here.
God has always had a people for His name on the earth. Whether He used individuals, families, a nation or an assembly of believers in Jesus Christ, there has always been a testimony for the holiness and righteousness of God. Their constant purpose was to not only know Him but to also make Him known to others by their words, actions, values, morality, priorities and active witness. As we review examples recorded in Scripture, two things are clear: 1) Representing God in an unbelieving world was never attempted through compromise with unbelief or the adoption of worldly methodology. 2) Those who speak for God always confronted a sinful people with the absolute holiness and righteousness of God. Never in the record of Scripture can you find where the message was watered down to appease or mollify the hearers, nor was God ever represented as less than all that He is revealed in Scripture. Furthermore, the witness for God by His people has always been about Him, not us. What a contrast to those among us who are convinced that the times in which we live demand a change in both method and message in an "end-justifies-the means" rationalization for glorifying the wisdom of men to do the supernatural work of the Lord.
Consider a few examples from Scripture. Surely the days of Noah parallel the times in which we live. In Genesis 6:5 we read, "And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually." As you read further, God wanted to destroy all of mankind, except for a few, and start again. There were two particular things that marked the ministry of Noah, according to Scripture: First, we are told in II Peter 2:5 that he was "a preacher of Righteousness...." Taken together with the testimony of I Peter 3:20, it is clear that while Noah was building the ark, he was proclaiming the righteousness of God to his own sinful world. Secondly, according to Hebrews 11:7, by faith, Noah built the ark for the deliverance of his family and other creatures, in obedience to God's command. Building the ark was a massive undertaking that underscored his message of the need of deliverance from the wrath and judgement of an all-holy and righteous God. Over the many years of construction, it stood as a monument to the truth of man's sinfulness and God's righteous judgment upon sin. And yet it also clearly demonstrated the love, mercy and grace of God towards those who would heed God's warning of impending judgment and Noah's message of deliverance. Surely there were those who mocked both the man, his message and God's means of deliverance; but we know that he was faithful and was delivered by God who shut him into the safety of the ark.
Likewise, we see the ministry of the prophet Elijah, in a period where successive generations of corrupt civil leadership (Omri, Ahab and Jezebel) also introduced the hedonism and idolatry of Baal worship to the children of Israel. So rampant was the impact of heathen idolatry that, as you read I Kings 17 and 18, it is clear that the children of Israel were no longer confident in Jehovah God and the exclusive worship of Him. The message of Elijah, however, is clear; they must make an unwelcome choice:
And Elijah came unto all the people, and said, How long halt ye between two opinions? if the LORD be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him. And the people answered him not a word." I Kings 18:21
How very different from the messages we hear today that not only suggest that you can choose the best of both worlds, but also contrive an impossible syncretism between the things of God and the things of the world, in His service and worship.
Thirdly, we look to the examples in Acts and the apostles' witness before the people and civil and religious rulers of their day. Here we find again the clear proclamation of the Gospel, the honest rehearsal of history, that describes the failures of men and brings them "short of the glory of God," and the condemnation of the wisdom of men and all false religion. Their line of authority was clear when we read, "Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29). Far from lifting a finger to the wind, to determine their message; far from quoting the wisdom of recent authors rather than "Thus saith the Lord," no consequence was deemed so severe as to compel them to deny the Truth or tickle the ears of their hearers.
The mandates for the Church are clear in Scripture. First and foremost is the fulfillment of the Great Commission. The rationale behind Matthew 28:18b-20 is the fact that sinners without Christ face the eternal judgment of God in Hell. When you minimize the reality of God's judgment, you diminish his character, particularly His holiness. Where ministries diminish the reality of God's judgment, you will find a corresponding rise in emphasis upon the here and now, upon the human improvement of this world (including environmentalism) and upon God's kingdom on earth.
In a recent Easter letter from an evangelical mission agency, their task was expressed thus: "..King Jesus is calling us to carry the Good News of the Unshakeable Kingdom, ministering love, peace, and hope to all those who are lost in the brokenness." It was followed by: "Your generous gift...Will enable missionaries to continue proclaiming Christ's victory and His eternal reign - bringing hope to the world." Nowhere in the letter was there any expression of the desperate estate of those lost in sin, dying and going to Hell. While real evangelism may yet be taking place, in the eyes of the Board's International Director, it would appear that anticipation of Christ's kingdom takes precedence over the message of Christ's sacrifice for hopeless sinners.
Which brings us to the importance of Missions in the Great Commission to the Church. It has been redefined by some cliches as "Mission" or "Missionality," usually employed to hide the abandonment of worldwide evangelism for other forms of service. Observing the trends in "Missions" over the last 25 years, there are two specific issues that come to mind: 1) The growing disconnect between local churches and foreign missions, and 2) the evolution of the definition of what missionary work is. The last time I read a comment about recruiting new missionaries, it was said that we are only replacing one out of every four missionaries who are now retiring. I doubt that statistic has improved since it was first stated. The question we must ask, however, is, "What is the role of the local church in missions?" Schools and mission agencies make more of an impact on the hearts of young people for missions than local churches. It begs the question of what are local churches doing to advance the cause of missions and what challenges are made to their young people about serving the Lord. Perhaps one major problem is that full-time Christian service conflicts with the wishes of so many parents for their children's future success and comfort. That is another problem, the lack of godly parenting. The issue before us, however, is why local churches are not more intimately involved in missions, from the call upon our members to enter full-time service to the sending and overseeing of their ministries. One of the marks of change has been the imbalance that has evolved between local churches and the schools and agencies, whereby some schools and agencies no longer acknowledge the preeminence of the Church. It is yet another example where expediency has prevailed over Biblical principle.
The other significant trend in Missions has been the trend away from direct evangelism towards social ministries. We have always been building hospitals and digging wells for water; but how many people receive missionary support from local churches who have no direct evangelistic ministry, even as a part of their job description?
A Second Mandate we find in Scripture is found in I Timothy 3:15 "But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
While the first century church did not have buildings called churches, the household of God, the Body of Christ, was given clear instruction and responsibility to accurately and boldly represent the "living God" by serving as the pillar and ground of His truth before an unbelieving world. The "oughtest to behave thyself" speaks to a code of conduct for believers, reflecting their foremost responsibility to accurately demonstrate the presence and impact of God's Truth upon their lives. It echoes the words of Paul in I Corinthians 6:19 and 20, where we are told we are not our own and therefore, our task is ever to glorify God.
Likewise, the analogy of a pillar that Paul uses conveys the fact that the truth we possess is not to be hidden away under a bushel, but openly set forth unashamedly for all to see and hear. Noah wasn't building a boat in his basement. His preaching of the righteousness of God might even be considered confrontational by some today. He took his responsibility seriously and opened himself to the scorn of those who rejected his message willingly, because he believed God and there was much at stake. What we need to understand is how contradictory a bunker mentality is to being a pillar of the Truth. Consider the monuments raised beside the Jordan River (Joshua 4:21-23) or Samuel's Ebenezer (I Samuel 7:12) that bear witness to the power and glory of God. They stood tall as witnesses to all who saw them and over the years conveyed the same message that God is still able to do marvelous things for His people, from generation to generation.
Paul adds to the role of pillar the task of the Church as a "ground" or bulwark of the Truth. The role of a bulwark is to preserve and perpetuate the Truth. Altogether we might say that the Church serves as the possessor, the proclaimer, the preserver and the protector of God's Truth. That requires a peculiar honor for God's Word above all the words of men. It removes it from the realm of clay in the hands of the preacher, to shape it howsoever he will. It also makes the case that everything in the local church is to rest upon the authority of God's Word.
In Ephesians 4:11-12, Paul also gives us the means of conveying the Truth and the objective of its preaching to believers in the local church. The theme remains the same: The priority of God's Word (the apostles and the prophets), the "foolishness of preaching" (the task of evangelists and pastor-teachers), for the saints to become enabled for service, to build up the Body of Christ. It provides the means by which we accomplish what Jesus taught us about being salt and light in this world (Matthew 5:13,14). However, being salt and light is not just a characteristic of believers with each other. Both terms speak to the necessity of the Church's making an impact on the world around us. After all, neither does any good unless it is applied to what would otherwise be corrupt and dark.
Having seen in the Scriptures both by principle and example, the past role of the Church in the world, we must ask what difference we have made, either locally or globally, by our presence and message? While we have always been hesitant to move in the realm of politics, we must also acknowledge that our founding fathers held the Bible and Biblical principles so highly that they incorporated its principles into our founding documents. Surely, we have all benefitted from the blessings of God from such a foundation, but over the last 50 years the importance of Biblical Truth has been abandoned for a secular state. Humanism has all but replaced God with human government. So where is the Church of Jesus Christ in response to this crisis of faith?
The answer might well be a combination of compromise, concession and cowardice if you follow the changes made in recent years. Rather than being the pillar and ground of the truth, we have watched the methodology of the marketplace take precedence over the principles of Scripture. When people are sold a do-it-yourself religion by movements like the Emerging Church, our congregations and the world need to hear an answer from the Church based on rightly divided Scripture. When our young people become infatuated with the latest theological guru's new book or the Bible college professor's unique perspective on the Kingdom, it is time for the Church to be the bulwark of the Truth. Some of the issues we have been struggling with, such as contemporary worship, worldly styled music, casual attitudes, dress and conduct, are more symptomatic than the disease itself. While these issues and others cannot be ignored for the sake of Church purity, neither can we permit preoccupation with them to foster neglect of the other mandates that would resolve most of those issues by dealing with the hearts of our people from the Scriptures. The whole counsel of God will direct people away from the flesh to the Spirit. The word of God on every page brings our attention above the natural to the supernatural. Hearing more ‘thus saith the Lord" must help our people discern between the wisdom of God and the foolishness of men. Where in the past, the music and other parts of worship prepared hearts to receive the preaching of the Word, far too many of them have become ends unto themselves and produced admiration for the "performers" rather than praise to God. The simple truth is there will never be a substitute for Spirit-empowered preaching of God's Word. It is not just that we guard our pulpits from pretenders but also that we restore and/or maintain the pulpit as the focal point of the local church, preventing anything else from eclipsing the preaching of the whole counsel of God's Word.
That same message, however, needs to be heard beyond the wall of the local church. When our governments abandon the Biblical principles of our founding fathers, who better to speak the Truth to power but the Church? If the nation has lost its conscience and the ability to discern good from evil, is it not the role of the Church to proclaim the Righteousness that exalts a nation in answer to the sin that is a reproach to any people (Proverbs 14:30). Dare I ask, how long has it been since we've had a loud voice from among us that aggressively and publicly addressed the religious issues and government attacks confronting the Church. The compromised ministries of our day have squandered their ability to address such critical issues, having sold themselves out to worldly methods and a watered down message. They cannot speak out like an Elijah, but where is our voice in these critical times? If the Church is going to make an impact upon our society and the world, if it is going to speak to the leaders in government as well as to all people, then we must follow in the footsteps of the Apostles and our spiritual forefathers. We cannot passively watch while deceit destroys the spiritual foundations of our nation and corrupts the Church. The concept of "speaking the truth to power" is an apostolic principle only recently hijacked for socialist purposes. The voice of the true Church of Jesus Christ needs to be heard, more widely and more boldly than ever before, lest our silence be misconstrued as agreement and approval. We need to pray for boldness like the early church (Acts 4:29-31) that God would grant us the courage of our convictions and power to faithfully preach His Word.
Dr. Charles L. Dear
Editor, THE REVIEW