Forum Class for February 20, 2005
The Five Leavens
Churches are called to guard the content of their teaching and to be alert for false teachers and heresy. Each church should teach the "whole counsel of God" --so that the entire flock is well taught in the entire Bible. The church is also to be alert to protect the fellowship (koinonia) of the congregation. Christians are a holy people, called to live life styles of purity and separation from the world. The enemy of our faith constantly works within the church to deflect quality teaching of the word, and to introduces sources of pollution which ruin the fellowship. The latter corruption is symbolized by "leaven" (yeast) in the Bible. Ray Stedman says,
"In the New Testament you find five distinct usages of leaven and they all mean something bad. Never, ever in the Scriptures does leaven symbolize something good; it is always a type of something evil. Jesus frequently spoke of leaven. He said to his disciples, "Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees," (Matthew 16:6, 16:11, Mark 8:15). And, lest we misunderstood what he meant Luke adds: "The leaven of the Pharisees is hypocrisy" (Luke 12:1), i.e., pretending to be something you are not, pretending to a status before God which you don't actually possess, being phony, putting on an outward garb of religiosity but inwardly still having the same old evil thoughts and angry moods and bitter attitudes. That is the leaven of the Pharisees -- hypocrisy.
Then Jesus spoke of the leaven of the Sadducees (Matthew 16:6-12). That is rationalism, the idea that life consists only of what you can taste and see and touch and smell and hear and think about, that there is nothing beyond that, no supernatural activity of God in life, no resurrection, no angels, no life after death. That is the leaven of the Sadducees -- rationalism.
And he spoke of the leaven of the Herodians, the followers of King Herod. Their leaven was materialism. They taught that the great value of life is to be powerful and wealthy. If you can acquire wealth and power then you have the secret of life. Many today are following the philosophy of the Herodians, holding the attitude that what makes life worthwhile is the possession of things. That is evil, Jesus says. That is not the way you properly measure manhood or the value of a life.
In his epistles the Apostle Paul spoke of leaven. In First Corinthians 5 he cites the case of a man who was actually living in incest with his father's wife and Paul says that sexual immorality is leaven within the church, destroying its fellowship." (http://pbc.org/dp/stedman/behind/0456.html)
The fifth insidious form or leaven in the church is legalism, a subject addressed in depth in Galatians.
Christlike Love, Intimacy, and Small Groups, by Ray C. Stedman
Christ like love is the answer to the great problem of our age the pervasive mood of meaninglessness and worthlessness that afflicts so many in our society. Why do so many people feel insecure and worthless? And why do they try to hide their insecurities by boasting and seeking status symbols and scrambling after success? Because, deep inside, they feel rejected and unloved. They are seeking a kind of love and acceptance they can't understand, and in the words of the old country-western song, they are "looking for love in all the wrong places."
God offers the most complete love anyone could ever know. It is agape love, unconditional love, a love which does not demand performance or beauty or intelligence or anything else. It loves without asking anything in return. It loves even the unlovely and the sinful.
When our love is like that of God, people see God through us. They feel loved and accepted. They learn that they no longer have to prove themselves or earn God's love. Our message to the world is, "God loved you so much He sent His Son to die for you. You are precious to Him. He wants to affirm you, make you whole, and give you back your humanity." People respond to that love. When they find that kind of love, they want to know Jesus and love Him back.
Not only does Jesus command us to love, and tell us how to love, and exemplify love, He goes on to say what that love will look like. Certainly, there is more to agape love than mere words. There is more to love than joining hands on a Sunday morning and singing, "They will know we are Christians by our love." The love Jesus commands is a love that is manifested not only in words and song, but in deeds.
"Greater love has no one than this," says Jesus, "that one lay down his life for his friends." Those words are inscribed on the headstone of Dawson Trotman, founder of the Navigators, who drowned while saving lives after a boating accident in upstate New York. To lay down your life is to love to the uttermost. You cannot demonstrate any deeper love than that.
That kind of love was demonstrated by a British explorer, Lawrence Oates, during Robert Scott's disastrous expedition to the South Pole. As the Scott party was returning from the Pole, they encountered a raging blizzard. Due to the bitter cold, Oates' feet became frostbitten. As they trudged on, his frostbite turned to gangrene.
"Leave me here," he begged his companions. "Save yourselves." But the other men refused to leave him, and they struggled onward for another day. The party pitched a tent for the night, and the following morning Oates said to his friends, "I'm going outside. I may be some time." He walked out of the tent and never returned.
Oates' act of self-sacrificing love is known only because it is recorded in Robert Scott's diary of the journey. Scott and the rest of his party died before reaching their base camp. Even though Lawrence Oates' sacrifice did not succeed in saving the life of his friends, it was an act of love to the uttermost, the kind of love Jesus talks about when He says, "Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends."
But there is even more to what Jesus is saying than that. He is not only talking about dying on another person's behalf, because death is a once and for all event. Jesus was talking about love as a lifestyle. He was talking about laying down one's life as part of a continual process.
Jesus goes on to say, "You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you." Notice how He elevates these men from the level of mere servants, who must obey in order to avoid punishment, to the level of friends who want to obey because they have been admitted into the inner secrets of another person's life.
What is the difference between an acquaintance and a friend? Acquaintances are people who know us on the outside, on the surface. With friends, we share what we are going through joys, hurts, failures, the secret places of our lives. Jesus has let these eleven men approach Him, closer than the level of servants, closer than the level of acquaintances, all the way to the innermost level Of friends. He has shared His secrets with them. He has shared the secrets of the Father's nature and of His plan for the world. More than that, Jesus had shared His own struggles, His pains, His emotions with these disciples. Very soon, as they enter the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus will say to Peter, James, and John, "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death...Stay here and keep watch." That kind of honesty and openness is love the sharing of yourself with another human being, the act of removing the facades and exposing the reality of your heart. Jesus loved His disciples with that kind of love.
One way we can express this kind of Christlike love is by being open and honest in sharing ourselves with others. I don't mean that we should tell our secrets to everyone on the street-corner! Rather, we should expose the reality of our hearts with a few trusted believers in a small group setting, just as Jesus shared Himself with the Twelve.
I believe all Christians should be in small groups, studying the Bible together, worshiping God together, fellowshiping together, serving Jesus together, sharing their lives together. Small groups were the essential building blocks of the first-century church, and they are the essential means to transcend the bigness of big churches today. If you have never been involved in a small group Bible study, I urge you to find one or start one right away. Find a few like-minded believers and agree to meet together on a weekly basis, agree to do some ministry together, agree to spend time sharing yourselves with one another, learning about God together, and really loving one another as Jesus commanded.
I liken Christian small groups to a flock of sand hill cranes those great long-necked birds that fly south every winter in a majestic V-formation. A bird-fancier once told me three remarkable facts about these birds and their aerial migration habits. First, there is always a leader to the V-formation. That leader sets the direction for the entire formation. Second, it is never the same leader! These birds instinctively share the leadership among themselves, taking turns being out in front and setting the course for the group. Third, whenever they fly, the rest of the birds encourage the leader, honking all the way: "Honk! Keep it up! Honk! Good going! Honk! Lead on, MacDuff!"
To me, that's what a great small group ministry is like. That's what our Lord is describing here to His eleven remaining friends. He is telling them that mutual sharing is a form of love. (Ray C. Stedman, God's Loving Word: Exploring the Gospel of John, Discovery House, Grand Rapids, MI., 1993)
Notes on Present-Day Cultural Christianity
"Only Christ is the source of divine life. Each member must follow Jesus daily to learn his divine life. Each member must shoulder the responsibility to work out his or her salvation and not expect the community or its leaders to do it for him or her. In Christ, we can learn together, serve together, grow together, love together, etc. But we must first and foremost follow Christ into his life. And to do this we must abandon the distorted and addictive version of the consumer church in order to be free to become Christ's Church." (Jason Zahariades called, Detoxing from the Church, http://www.theooze.com/articles/article.cfm?id=669).
This writer suggests that traditional church may do more harm than good! A retired PBC elder comments as follows on "Detoxing,"
"The article hits at the very core of why churches are 'dead' and what fundamentals must be in place for the Spirit of the Lord to permeate the gathering together of believers to worship. The 'how to' of a truly God-honoring and Spirit-led worship on Sundays is to be found in personal devotion to knowing and loving God ourselves, first. When we bring with us on Sundays our walk with God from the past week, we are bound to encourage the self-sacrificial service to the body that Christ Himself has given us all week long."
A friend of many years, a Professor of English, wrote,
"Many pastors are conscious of the fact that they are merely copying the success of [a predecessor]. Some think of it as replacing the liturgy of church service that was so 'comforting' for so many generations, and it is assumed that the 'empty' traditions have been replaced by 'real' ones. Everyone can enter a 'familiar' surrounding. But, it does become a cocoon of sorts, and quite quickly. I feel, because of the simplicity, that many weeds pop up among the wheat because it is so easy to copy the talk and the walk. Master just a few words of jargon and stop overtly smelling like a bar patron and presto chango! That's got to be some part of the 'kosher meat exchanges' where Christian divorced folks go to meet each other. Too bad people assume it's such a safe environment. It must be heart-wrenching when people realize that it isn't. Why do we act so surprised when we find hypocrites among us? Yes, sometimes it's a real good thing to nurture our relationships with the real and living God in a real and living world. We can't afford to restrict our lives to Christian country clubs--yes, I'm somewhat cynical. At least we should never lose track of the insulated nature of the Christian sub-culture. One prominent pastor e-mailed me a (rhetorical?) question about, 'How can we make the church more relevant to pop culture?' What a question. He assumed that I, a free-thinker and insightful person (his perception of me), would have something novel to say. Why does 'church' have to be so predictable? Why do we always have to do things the same, proven way? What happened to the Jesus Movement? Tradition is interesting to observe, but aren't we advised against the traditions of men? [Has] anybody read Frank Viola's book Pagan Christianity?" (see http://www.ptmin.org/pagan.htm)
Dave Wilkerson says,
"The principle is this: God will not begin a new thing in his church until he does away with the old. As Jesus put it, he won't put new wine into old wineskins. Why is this so? It's because God has a controversy with the old thing in his church. You see, with every new work He raises up, only a few generations pass before apathy and hypocrisy begin to creep in. Soon God's people become idolaters, with hearts bent toward backsliding. And, eventually, God chooses to bypass the old work in his church. He forsakes it completely before He introduces the new."
People often ask me why Heresy Harold Camping, president of Family Radio Inc., is so popular these days when he teaches that God is finished with the church altogether and people in "the church" should just leave altogether. Camping is wrong, as usual, but that doesn't fix the problem of dead and lifeless churches all around us. All sorts of people listen to this man on the radio, but he is not even very entertaining.
It is highly likely that the church in America, by and large, is now fully "Laodicean." This is the direction history has been moving for a hundred years or so. When we don't do things God's ways, God just picks up and leaves. A holy God can not dwell in the midst of a sinful people. Just as Christ indwells the individual believer, so also it is His desire to indwell the collective community when they gather together (1 Peter 2:5). The main collective sin of the church today, surely, is worldliness. We have largely adopted the lifestyles of the pagan world around us and taken all the idolatry of the culture into Christ's church and called it good. By and large I think the Lord has "left the church" --as far as manifested power and blessing are concerned. Of course the Lord never really "leaves" His people--if they really are "His people." But He can certainly shut down the power and life at a given time and place so that all we do becomes drab, dull, boring--in spite of all our best plans and efforts to make things happen.
Ezekiel Chapters 8-11 present a very vivid illustration of God leaving His people in the history of Israel. After blessing Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem with His supernatural presence for almost 400 years, there came a time when God picked up and left on His glorious chariot throne. God "left" Jerusalem for 70 years, the city was destroyed, but He stayed close to the scattered remnant in Iraq. God never gives up on His covenant people's so that is always an encouragement when the externals of our faith aren't going so well. In 1985 Ray Stedman wrote,
"Last week I went through the yellow pages of the telephone book and counted the number of Christian churches in Palo Alto. There are 36 of them, all claiming to be Christian. I did not even attempt to count the churches in the cities on the Peninsula. If we were to include all the cities that ring the Bay Area we would probably find that there are thousands of churches in this part of California alone.
Surely this forces the question upon us, "If all these churches were like the churches in the book of Acts, do you think life on the Peninsula would be different than it is today?" There is no doubt it would be tremendously different. The book of Acts lists a mere handful of churches, made up of slaves and working class people for the most part. As Paul said to the Corinthians, "There are not many mighty, not many rich among you," (1 Cor 1:26). Nevertheless there was such a dynamic at work in those churches that within 25 years after the day of Pentecost, when Paul and his companions, Timothy, Luke and Silas came to Thessalonica on the outskirts of the empire, the people sent a delegation to the city fathers saying, "These who have turned the world upside down have come here also," (Acts 17:6). It is recorded that the city fathers were very disturbed by the news. That was the impact of the early church.
What has happened in the meantime? Why are churches in general today so weak and ineffectual, having little impact upon society? Why is society degenerating while churches are increasing in number and in size? I agree there are dynamic churches here and there that are making an impact and reaching people. But we have to admit that churches like that are relatively rare. While this may sound like an oversimplification, I believe the reason for the change can be put in a very brief form: We have changed the strategy of the church. We no longer are operating as the Lord of the church instructed at the beginning. The church has filed away the original strategy and come up with one of its own which seems to be much more suitable for our day. That is why the church is steadily decreasing in power and influence." (The New Strategy, http://pbc.org/dp/stedman/john/3872.html)
The church was invented for Jesus Christ. It is His church, not "our" church. The true church is His virgin Bride--the Father's love gift to His Son. "You are not your own, you were bought with a price..." sort of thing. God's involvement with the calling out of a church occupies a short internal of history of only a couple thousand years. After the church has been completed the Lord has other work to do. The church is not "all in all." We are only one part of a grander plan. God did not call us out of a lost world so we could do as we please and live happily ever after according to our own pagan dreams and goals.
At the first church council in Jerusalem, James announced, "Men and brethren, listen to me: 'Simon has declared how God at the first visited the Gentiles to take out of them a people for His name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written: "After this I will return And will rebuild the tabernacle of David, which has fallen down; I will rebuild its ruins, And I will set it up; So that the rest of mankind may seek the LORD, Even all the Gentiles who are called by My name, Says the LORD who does all these things.'" 'Known to God from eternity are all His works.'" (Acts 15:13-18)
The Elect of the Church Age: A certain, fixed number of Jews and Gentiles, gathered out of the world during the last 2000 years constitute the true church (which is surely now nearly complete). For the sake of discussion we might say that the church will finally number perhaps a billion persons, with every nation represented. Each and every person who ends up in the church will be found to have been "chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world." Each will have been called and brought into the faith by God. Every Christian is hand-picked and uniquely called, regardless of the circumstances of his or her conversion experience. The guarantee that this fixed number of persons will end up in the church is implicit in the high priestly prayer of Jesus in John Chapter 17. In that sense whether a church does thing right or not, the elect will find salvation because Jesus Himself if the one who finds.
The Call to spread the Gospel Near and Far (Evangelism): Romans 3 assures us that people do not go looking for God. If He did not seek us out as "the Hound of Heaven," no one would be saved. God is greatly hated everywhere. He is ignored, vilified, blasphemed and insulted day after day. Man's first efforts are to deny and suppress what they do know about God (Romans 1). If that fails, we all have ways of reinventing God to make Him less threatening, less dangerous, less intrusive. (This latter move is what generates the great religions of the world. Religion, too, is vanity).
God seeks out His elect one by one. He brings them into a personal relationship with Himself in many different ways. He retains His sovereignty in all He does and He does not delegate His authority. Primarily God has chosen to save people through the world-wide proclamation of a straightforward message called "the gospel." The greater part of Paul's letter to the Romans explains what this gospel is and isn't. He says more in Galatians--and throughout the NT for that matter. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul emphasizes that the content of the gospel has to do with the life, death, burial and resurrection of God's Son, Jesus Christ. That's the central focus.
God does not wish the world at large to remain ignorant of who He is. Therefore Christians are called to tell the world all sorts of things about God--as made known to us in the Bible. Most people won't believe, but at least they can't say they were never told when judgment day rolls around (Acts 17:22-31).
How the gospel is announced makes a big difference, of course.
It is announced in words, but also in the life-styles of God's
people. We Christians are asked to show forth the love of God
and represent His character in all we do and say. Let's just say
that evangelism in all of its forms is a major activity of the
local church. If evangelism comes about spontaneously because
of the overwhelming "body-life" of the church, all the
better. The NT does not tell us how to keep up with changes in
the culture we live in. It's all just pagan anyhow, and the only
fix is for people to know the living God as He is. Obviously every
generation has to relearn appropriate communication skills or
no one will hear us at all.
The Purposes of Local Churches
When God saves a person He has a radical transformation waiting for each and every one of us. Only a small fraction of all the people on earth will ever be added to the church. This is not God's fault. He is "not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance." (2 Peter 3:9) But He can not force people to believe. Any love relationship involves the consent of two parties. Just a few believe in every generation. Most people stay lost.
The reality the entire Bible speaks of constantly is this lost-ness of man and the precious nature of the salvation God offers everyone. Most everyone we know around us will not make it to heaven and will eventually be banished forever from the very presence of God when Jesus returns to reclaim the earth as His inheritance. (2 Thess. 1:6-10) Christians live in this tension, seeing things as they really are. Blindness and self-deception accompanies the rejection of Christ from one's life. Most people we know will not be persuaded to come to Christ no matter what--come hell or high water. We ought not to be so naive about the state of the lost--we should be heart-broken and grief-stricken about them because that is how God feels about people who don't know Him. "The Son of man came to seek and to save that which was lost."
For the love of Christ compels us, because we judge thus: that if One died for all, then all died; and He died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again. Therefore, from now on, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ's behalf, be reconciled to God. For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2 Corinthians 5:14-21)
The presence of local churches--of Christians--in any society brings the dual functions of "salt and light" into that culture. Evil is restrained, wrong behavior is checked, moderated, even reversed. Biblical truth permeates all levels of society. But the world isn't getting better every generation--it's clearly getting worse. This (predicted) downhill spiral will happen even if the church were as godly as she could be. Things won't change for the better until Christ invades the planet. The church is only the advanced guard--holding down the fort until the Lord comes. (There's a War On Folks, http://ldolphin.org/war-on.html)
The Family of God: Christians are a family--brothers and sisters. Describing Christians as the family of God the Father is especially meaningful when many people come into the church from broken homes and dysfunctional families. The church is a healing community. When the church meets, it probably ought not to be compartmentalized by age groups and special interests the way traditional "Sunday schools" have done it for years. Young and old, new Christians and mature believers, should all have ample time to get to know one another whenever the church gathers. In other words, traditional Sunday schools divided by ages and presided over by a specialized minister for that age group should probably go away. Why should Sunday school classes be merely be support and entertainment classes to keep kids out of trouble? Young people need to be taught the entire Bible from an early age like all others in the family of God.
The Body of Christ: The church is also described in the NT as the body of Christ, with Christ the Head and all Christians "members one of another." Spiritual gifts are given to each member of that body upon conversion with the goal in mind that each and every member is to engage in the work of the ministry. This clearly stated objective for the church (Ephesians 4) is widely ignored in favor of a clergy-laity (unbiblical) division of labor. Usually, "the people" hire paid professional, well-trained pastors, youth leaders, supporting staff to do all virtually all the work of the ministry! In this popular view of the church, all is needed from the people--the consumers of religion--is money in the offering plate to pay for the staff and buildings and facilities. The dedicated servants of God who are the overworked and underpaid ministers in most churches ought not to be blamed for this state of affairs. This state of affairs arises because the average Christian wants to sit back and be part of a spectator sport not part of the active team.
"When we compare present-day churches to the original blueprint, it is strikingly apparent that many deviations have been permitted which have been detrimental to the life of the church. Through the centuries, the church gradually turned away from the simple provisions which made it such a powerful and compelling force in its early years, and terrible distortions entered into the church which continue to weaken the church today. Popular thinking fastened onto the church building--the physical stone-and-glass edifice--as the identifying symbol of the church. Emphasis was placed upon great imposing structures, massive ornate cathedrals with stained glass windows and flying buttresses.
In the beginning, "working in the church" meant to exercise a gift or perform a ministry anywhere within the far-flung body of Christ--even in a home, out on a mission field, or in a hospital. Gradually, however, "working in the church" came to mean performing some religious act within a specific building which was called "the church."
At the same time, there was a gradual transfer of ministry responsibility from the people (whom we now call the "laity") to the few pastor-teachers (whom we now call the "clergy," a term derived from the Latin clericus, meaning a priest. The scriptural concept that every believer is a priest before God was gradually lost, and a special class of super-Christians emerged who were looked to for practically everything, and who came to be called the "ministry." Somehow, the church lost sight of the concept, so clearly stated in Ephesians 4, that all Christians are "in the ministry." The proper task of the four support ministries we have examined is to train, motivate, and strengthen the people--so-called "ordinary lay people"--to do the work of the ministry.
When the ministry was left to the "professionals," there was nothing left for the people to do other than come to church and listen. They were told that it was their responsibility to bring the world into the church building to hear the pastor preach the Gospel. Soon Christianity became little more than a Sunday-morning spectator sport, much like the definition of football: twenty-two men down on the field, desperately in need of rest, and twenty thousand in the grandstands, desperately in need of exercise!
This unbiblical distortion has placed pastors under an unbearable burden. They have proved completely unequal to the task of evangelizing the world, counseling the wounded and brokenhearted, ministering to the poor and needy, relieving the oppressed and afflicted, expounding the Scriptures, and challenging the entrenched forces of evil in an increasingly darkened world. Pastors were never, ever meant to do it all! To even attempt it is to end up frustrated, exhausted, and emotionally drained--which, of course, is exactly the state in which you find many pastors today!
Further, this distortion has resulted in a sadly impoverished church which has made little impact on the world and increasingly withdraws into weakness, irrelevance, and isolation. We desperately need to return to the dynamic of the early church. We can no longer defend our ivy-clad traditions which leave no room for the original, power-packed New Testament strategy. Pastors, particularly, must restore to the people the ministry which was taken from them with the best of intentions.
The work of the ministry belongs to the entire body of believers, who should be equipped, guided, and encouraged by those who are gifted by God to expound and apply His Word with wisdom and power. The entire body has received gifts from the Spirit, and it is the task of those in the pastoral ministry to encourage the entire body to discover and exercise those gifts. When we rediscover the pattern and strategy of Ephesians 4, when we have given all Christians in the body their God-given role as ministers of God's eternal plan, then the entire body comes alive with resurrection power. Lives are changed. Ministries explode. Communities are touched and healed. The church becomes healthy and vital and exciting again.
If we can recapture God's original strategy for the church, then we will again see churches that are modern extensions of the church of Acts. The trademarks of the true, living church of Jesus Christ are boldness, power, transformation, and love, lived out in act after act of Christian service. There is no place in this world more exciting to be than a church that operates as God designed it to!" (Ray C. Stedman, Body Life, http://pbc.org/dp/stedman/bodylife/body07.html)
A Holy Nation; A Separated People: The Apostle Peter calls the church "a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light" (1 Peter 2:9) This hardly a description of any church I have ever visited. As Frank Viola points out in Pagan Christianity, the Protestant Reformers fixed some things that were wrong with the Roman Catholic Church dating from Constantine's day. But many fixes were only partial and other unbiblical church traditions were merely given a fresh coat of whitewash.
Up Building: Local churches can and should have a dedicated staff, but strictly speaking no "clergy." Specially gifted servants are appointed by God in local churches with two distinct goals in mind. First, the staff is in place "to equip the people of God for the work of the ministry." Second, the staff is in place to build up the local body of Christians very specifically: "for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head--Christ--from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love." This second calling of the local church means that every new convert needs to become acquainted with the entire Bible--the whole counsel of God--and then every Christian needs help in the application of this knowledge in order to become mature in Christ. Paul said the same thing in Colossians about his own goals, "Him we preach, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus." (Colossians 1:28)
The staff is not in place in the local church to do the work of the ministry, as Ray Stedman so clearly taught. But as we all know, that is the default mode of most of today's churches. This fact of life should not be blamed on the "clergy." The real default is the apathy of the average Christian who would prefer to pay someone else to do this task. Christian living by proxy is everyone's fault, it's been the status quo for generations. Pastors know all too well how difficult it is to get any of the members involved in "ministry" -- even in minor ways such as setting up chairs.
In short, the church is not supposed to have a clergy. It follows that churches should not have programs or program managers or activities that merely entertain. Most of the work in a local church should be making sure that everyone knows the entire Bible well. Is everyone walking with God? Is comfort and encouragement and prayer to be found at all levels of the congregation? Church family life and body life together provide the fellowship for knowing each other closely so we function as a family--a local microcosm of the greater macrocosm of the church universal.
Having said all this, it is obvious that life of churches everywhere depends on the devoted caring service of godly pastors. Ray Stedman expressed the view that pastor-teacher was one of the commonest gifts of the Spirit. So we need more pastors not fewer--scattered through the Body. Surely some pastors should be supported by the people they serve, to allow them optimum use of their time and gifts. We are a rich nation. Christians are known for their generous giving. So the church can and should support missionaries and teachers and prophets and pastors and evangelists. This is certainly taught in the NT.
There are practical problems in the ministry-of-and-by-the saints. God's people are usually plenty busy. Jobs are demanding. Families deserve as much time and attention as we can spare. How does the ordinary churchgoer gain the knowledge and the experience to be of much use to the Lord in ministry? Is the work of the ministry not done much better when it is put into the hands of trained, skilled, motivated professionals? The Bible does not teach the latter approach. If God tells us to do things a certain way, then surely he knows how to make His approach work in real life? Again, we can not set up our own well-engineered programs and plans and then invite God in to make things happen. He doesn't work that way.
Elders: Elders were appointed (not elected) in the early church. Elders are mature pastors--shepherds of the flock. Their main function is to guard the doctrine--the teaching--of the church. They are also watchmen guarding against the various forms of leaven which creep into the church to produce doctrinal and behavioral compromise. Elders are not supposed to be business managers, planning committee members, program managers, department heads. They don't run things. They are shepherds.
Deacons: The internal life of the church of Jesus Christ has two main branches: teaching and service. As elders are called to guard the teaching, so deacons guard the "serving" aspects of the life of a church. This suggests that the deacons, not the elders, should be the stewards over the church finances. This change in how things are usually done would free up the elders to do more teaching and be more involved with the entire flock in small groups and counseling. Acts 6:2-4: "It is not desirable for us [elders] to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word."
Finances: The people of God are encouraged by the NT to give regularly and to give in proportion to the regular blessings received from the Lord. Giving should be thoughtful and prayerfully--giving should be personalized so as to meet specific, known needs of God's people. A historical distortion of Biblical giving is for people to merely put money in the church offering plate thoughtlessly week after week, thus empowering church leaders to spend perhaps a million dollars a year as "stewards" over "God's" money. Actually the money in the church coffers is there because people have contributed for all sorts of reasons--God only knows the motives and intent of the givers. Church leaders who spend this money are often not trained for this task nor will they necessarily spend this money on the work in the community that God really would like to see undertaken. If God's people returned to giving only after thoughtful prayer--giving to known needs they care about--excess church income might soon be pruned away (but giving to the church might also be increased). God's people would be automatically more involved with the individuals they care about in a more direct, less impersonal way. The encumbrance of managing a "fat old useless church," would be lessened--in many cases streamlined and even downsized by wiser, prayerful giving to meet known needs. With God, quality is much more important than the number of members or the size of a budget anyway. See Paul Winslow's article on tithing, http://ldolphin.org/tithing.html.
A Diffuse Church: For the first three centuries there were no central church buildings. The church was a network of home churches. Ordinary people mattered most, as one sees for instance in all the names mentioned by Paul in his letter to Rome (Chapter 16). The real church is always, in every generation, a network of ordinary people from all walks of life. The church is never called an organization in the NT and the real church is certainly never a building--it's always people, connected people. "By this all know that you are my disciples because you have love for one another."
The early church could not help being neighborhood oriented. That allowed people to know one another because they all lived close by. Today's churches often draw strangers from a thirty of a fifty mile radius. This means that the "members" of the church almost never get together except on Sundays and then only for an hour or so. Surely this suggests that neighborhood centered home groups should be a key feature of the local urban church? Rather than having all their offices at the central hub, the pastors of a big church could in many cases have home offices and be neighbors to those who live nearby. On Sundays the various home groups and fellowship groups should continue to come together for teaching, body life, prayer, fellowship. There would be less need for church "staff meetings" and central office work if the leadership were diffused throughout the community.
Eschatology: The New Testament does not suggest that God is preparing us to live happily and prosperously in this world, so we can die and go home to our heavenly reward. Quite the opposite. The Bible's concern is in preparing us for the grander life that is to come when Christ returns. (Developing Christian Priorities in Life, http://ldolphin.org/priorities.html). Biblical illiteracy is so great these days that few ordinary Christians have a working knowledge of Genesis, so they don't know much about where we came from--not enough to debate the prevailing secular scientific naturalism. The Book of the Revelation is seldom studied except by prophecy freaks, so most Christians don't have a clue about what God is doing in the world right now related to the fast approaching end of the age we live in. Obviously ignorance of the Word of God this deep and this serious can not be corrected by a few homilies and four-verse sermonettes on Sunday mornings at 11 o'clock. "Behold, the days are coming," says the Lord GOD, 'That I will send a famine on the land, Not a famine of bread, Nor a thirst for water, But of hearing the words of the LORD.'" (Amos 8:11)
Jesus Runs His Church: One key feature of the Church of Laodicea is that Jesus is seen as marginalized in this last-of-the-seven churches. He is actually outside this church knocking--asking to be invited in. But, He's not really needed. The church runs perfectly without Him. Jesus is not seeking to visit merely as a guest. He is the legitimate Lord of the Church, so He wants to run the whole show. Many churches today are program-centered, orchestrated, and micromanaged, even featuring such things as "worship rehearsal." But whoever heard of rehearsing for worship?
"If you do not worship God seven days a week, you do not worship Him on one day a week. There is no such thing known in heaven as Sunday worship unless it is accompanied by Monday worship and Tuesday worship and so on," says A. W. Tozer.
The real God is dangerous and won't fit into any of our boxes,
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does any-one have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. (Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk, Harper & Row, 1982)
No Church is Perfect: There is no way to guarantee that everyone who attends church is a Christian. There are many observers, seekers, inquirers who show up for services -- for various reasons. (This is one reason the church is not a democratically-run institution, but elder led instead). It is right and proper for a local church to be friendly and attractive to all. People do come to the Lord "in church" though the main place for evangelism is clearly outside the church, during the week.
Frank Viola points out in Pagan Christianity that virtually ALL of the features we take for granted in the traditional Sunday morning church services are actually of pagan origin! This includes traditional sermons (oratory), choirs, the offering system, the liturgy, communion, and on and on. (Web site: http://www.ptmin.org/).
A Disclaimer: The visible life of a local church assembly is not a good indicator of what God is or is not doing in that church. The real work of God is usually hidden. "How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways beyond finding out." God is also not given to displays of power, force, and might. He prefers a low profile, a lowly path. His strength is in weakness (1 Corinthians 1-2). The true history of the church is being written by God's recording angels as a continuation of the Book of Acts--it isn't finished yet. A dear friend reminded me some years ago that God is weaving a great tapestry of our lives with all our daily choices being part of the warp and woof of what will eventually be a magnificent finished masterpiece. But she reminded me, "Let's not get involved in the tangled threads on the backside of the tapestry."
The Bottom Line: It seems likely to me that most American churches should heed the Lord's call to the church of Laodicea. No amount of internal fixes of the ways and workings of the local church will solve the root issue which is probably to be found in our deep estrangement from the Lord of the church. The church in America has at heart been ignoring the real God for a long time. I believe Jesus has a lot that He wants to say to us when He gets our attention. First, we have to open the door and let Him back in.
A note from Elaine Stedman: "I think WE shut down the power and life [of the church]. I just read a prayer delivered by Richard Halverson in the US Senate 1982:
"Heavenly Father, here we are in the place of power--greater power than any other legislative body on earth. Yet we are essentially powerless. Law after law is passed--nothing changes. We wield our great power, and probably more often than we like to think, impress only ourselves. We forget we are always only a heartbeat away from total powerlessness. Great God, help us understand that Thou art the source of all power, and that only as Thy power works through us do all things really change. Deliver us from human pride that deceives and seduces and corrupts mankind. In the name of the One whose power was supremely manifested on a cross."
Isn't this parallel to the powerless, lifeless institutional church? Simply substitute programs and gimmicks for legislation, and you've effectively eliminated the cross, from which flows both the power and the grace of Christ. I think the Lord never departs His Church, which after all is His Body. The man made trappings and power plays are denials of His Presence and power, and that puts us "only a heartbeat away from total powerlessness" and emptiness.
But in the end, the true Body is us. It has little effect on the "mixed multitude" to disassemble the towers of Babel. They will quickly be redesigned and replaced: "Let us build ourselves a city (church), and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves." I think the problem is the church has largely reversed the first and second commandments. First us/we/me - then God, as addendum. Prayer is the great missing dimension, I believe. Prayer changes God's people, puts us in right relationship to the source of Power.
One more thought. I suppose it could be expected from an un-hippie. There is so much disorder and chaos in our culture that I expect there are some who are consoled by a certain amount of order. I don't think we want to throw out all semblance of order, do we? That could get quite messy, and in its own way replicate the state of the world.
An email from a friend in Spokane:
Do you know the book The Present Future by Reggie McNeal? He is a leader in a statewide Baptist Convention somewhere in the South. He analyzes the North American church and makes recommendations within his denomination. For a denominationalist, his observations are downright RADICAL. Here are some quotes. See if they ring true to you. "A growing number of people are leaving the institutional church for a new reason. They are not leaving because they have lost faith. They are leaving the church to preserve their faith. They contend that the church no longer contributes to their spiritual development. In fact, they say, quite the opposite is true." (The Present Future, p.4)"The North American church is suffering from severe mission amnesia. It has forgotten why it exists." (The Present Future, p.15)
Notes from A. W. Tozer: The Church: The Self-effacing Saint
"In this day when shimmering personalities carry on the Lord's work after the methods of the entertainment world it is refreshing to associate for a moment even in the pages of a book with a sincere and humble man who keeps his own personality out of sight and places the emphasis upon the in-working of God. It is our belief that the evangelical movement will continue to drift farther and farther from the New Testament position unless its leadership passes from the modern religious star to the self-effacing saint who asks for no praise and seeks no place, happy only when the glory is attributed to God and himself forgotten....
Within the last quarter of a century we have actually seen a major shift in the beliefs and practices of the evangelical wing of the church so radical as to amount to a complete sellout; and all this behind the cloak of fervent orthodoxy. With Bibles under their arms and bundles of tracts in their pockets, religious persons now meet to carry on "services" so carnal, so pagan, that they can hardly be distinguished from the old vaudeville shows of earlier days. And for a preacher or a writer to challenge this heresy is to invite ridicule and abuse from every quarter. Our only hope is that renewed spiritual pressure will be exerted increasingly by self-effacing and courageous men who desire nothing but the glory of God and the purity of the church. May God send us many of them. They are long overdue."
The Church: The Striped Candy Technique
"Without Biblical authority, or any other right under the sun, carnal religious leaders have introduced a host of attractions that serve no purpose except to provide entertainment for the retarded saints. It is now common practice in most evangelical churches to offer the people, especially the young people, a maximum of entertainment and a minimum of serious instruction. It is scarcely possible in most places to get anyone to attend a meeting where the only attraction is God. One can only conclude that God's professed children are bored with Him, for they must be wooed to meeting with a stick of striped candy in the form of religious movies, games and refreshments.
This has influenced the whole pattern of church life, and even brought into being a new type of church architecture, designed to house the golden calf. So we have the strange anomaly of orthodoxy in creed and heterodoxy in practice. The striped candy technique has been so fully integrated into our present religious thinking that it is simply taken for granted. Its victims never dream that it is not a part of the teachings of Christ and His apostles."
The Church: The Old Cross and the New Cross
"The old cross slew men; the new cross entertains them. The old cross condemned; the new cross amuses. The old cross destroyed confidence in the flesh; the new cross encourages it. The old cross brought tears and blood; the new cross brings laughter. The flesh, smiling and confident, preaches and sings about the cross; before that cross it bows and toward that cross it points with carefully staged histrionics--but upon that cross it will not die, and the reproach of that cross it stubbornly refuses to bear.
I well know how many smooth arguments can be marshaled in support of the new cross. Does not the new cross win converts and make many followers and so carry the advantage of numerical success? Should we not adjust ourselves to the changing times? Have we not heard the slogan, "New days, new ways"? And who but someone very old and very conservative would insist upon death as the appointed way to life? And who today is interested in a gloomy mysticism that would sentence its flesh to a cross and recommend self-effacing humility as a virtue actually to be practiced by modern Christians? These are the arguments, along with many more flippant still, which are brought forward to give an appearance of wisdom to the hollow and meaningless cross of popular Christianity."
The Church: Higher Expectations
"The treacherous enemy facing the church of Jesus Christ today is the dictatorship of the routine, when the routine becomes "lord" in the life of the church. Programs are organized and the prevailing conditions are accepted as normal. Anyone can predict next Sunday's service and what will happen. This seems to be the most deadly threat in the church today. When we come to the place where everything can be predicted and nobody expects anything unusual from God, we are in a rut. The routine dictates, and we can tell not only what will happen next Sunday, but what will occur next month and, if things do not improve, what will take place next year. Then we have reached the place where what has been determines what is, and what is determines what will be.
That would be perfectly all right and proper for a cemetery. Nobody expects a cemetery to do anything but conform....Everyone and everything in a cemetery has accepted the routine. Nobody expects anything out of those buried in the cemetery. But the church is not a cemetery and we should expect much from it, because what has been should not be lord to tell us what is, and what is should not be ruler to tell us what will be. God's people are supposed to grow."
Note: The Nimrod/Babylon, Pergamum, Etruscan Mystery Religion Connection (From Hislop's Two Babylons).
After the death of Belshazzar in 539 B.C., the Persian Emperor Cyrus conquered Babylon and forced the Babylonian princes to flee to Pergamum. So, the seat of Satan was Babylon, but it was defeated by Media-Persia whose capitol was Pergamos. The Persians brought the Babylonian priesthood and rites to their capitol. They continued their reign there as priest-kings of Babylonian paganism. In 133 B.C., Attalus III, the last Babylonian King to rule in Pergamum, willed his dominions to the Roman Caesar, and the kingdom of Pergamum merged with the Roman Empire along with Satan-Nimrod's throne and the title "Pontifex Maximus." When Attalus, the Pontiff and King of Pergamos, died B.C. 133, he bequeathed the Headship of the Babylonian Priesthood to Rome. When the Etruscans came to Italy from Lydia (The region of Pergamos), they brought with them the Babylonian religion and rites. They set up a Pontiff who was head of the Priesthood. Later the Romans accepted this Pontiff as their civil ruler. Julius Caesar was made Pontiff of the Etruscan Order in B.C. 74. In B. C. 63, he was made Supreme Pontiff of the "Babylonian Order," thus becoming heir to the rights and title of Attalus, "Pontiff of Pergamos." Thus the first Roman Emperor becomes head of the "Babylonian Priesthood" and Rome the successor of Babylon In 63 B.C., Julius Caesar, who had been elected Pontifex Maximus, became emperor of Rome and was vested the office of Roman emperor with the priestly powers and functions of the Babylonian Pontiff. Henceforth, the title Pontifex Maximus was used by the Roman Caesars as illustrated on a Roman coin depicting the image of Augustus Caesar (27 B.C.-14 A.D.) with his title "Pont. Max.," which is an abbreviation of Pontifex Maximus. Thus, the Roman emperors, like the preceding Babylonian emperors, now served as priests of Babylonian paganism, and bore the title Pontifex Maximus. For centuries, Pergamum remained the site of Nimrod's throne. With the appearance of Christianity, Babylonian paganism threatened the early Christian church of Pergamum as related in the Revelation given by Jesus to His Apostle John, who referred to Pergamum as the seat of Satan's throne which is Nimrod's throne: Revelation 2: 12 And to the angel(messenger or servant as an authorized minister in the Priesthood -- Bishop) of the church in Pergamos write; These things saith he which hath the sharp sword with two edges; 13 I know thy works, and where thou dwellest, even where Satan's seat is: and thou holdest fast my name, and hast not denied my faith, even in those days wherein Antipas was my faithful martyr, who was slain among you, where Satan dwelleth. 14 But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to cast a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication. 15 So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate. Other "Gentile" nations were infected from Satan's powerful Seat of Mystery Babylon that radiated out from Pergamum. Cities in Asia Minor were soon afflicted with the church of Satan. The Apostle Paul, and others who were divinely called and sent, went on many journeys and missions to Gentile areas in Asia Minor and Southern Europe - enduring great peril and persecution. Furthermore, we see later, in the book of Revelation, the Lord continues to point out the devil's church among Gentile Civilizations warring against The Church of Jesus Christ. (http://philologos.org/__eb-ttb/default.htm)
Class notes and mp3 audio are on Lambert Dolphin's web site: http://ldolphin.org/cleanpages/