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by Don & Joy Veinot & Ron Henzel

(Originally printed in the Winter/Spring 2003 Issue of the MCOI Journal beginning on page 1)

In a world awash in new religious movements-or what could properly be termed the “repaganization” of the world-Russell D. Moore raises a very important question regarding the future of the Church:

…the questions over evangelical identity are not ultimately about turf wars over publishing houses or academic guilds. They are about one question: Will evangelicals be able to preserve an authentic Christian witness for the next generation?1Moore, “Christianity and Liberalism at Vacation Bible School,” The TIE (Southern Seminary Magazine), Vol. 69. No. 4, Winter 2001, 11.

church in crisis graphicTo answer Moore’s question, we need to explore the role of the Church in the world and the necessary qualifications of pastors and other church leaders to lead the Church into the twenty-first century. How do we choose a pastor, and how do we assess a church? Many times the choice of a pastor hinges primarily upon how well he “entertains” us rather than any truly biblical criteria. Similarly, churches are often chosen mainly for such things as the quality of the music or how good we may “feel” when we leave.

Like buying a house, which is something most people do only a few times in their lives, calling a pastor is a major decision that quite properly absorbs much of a congregation’s time and resources. Unfortunately, also like buying a house, that decision is often made on the basis of its ramifications for a church’s collective felt needs and ego gratification. Too often, the ultimate question seems to boil down to: Will our pastor make us look good as a congregation and, hence, make me look good for attending here?

It’s difficult to correct these pervasive attitudes because there’s a tragic dearth of training available to teach us what to look for in a pastor or church. We are unsure what a healthy biblically-based church should look like and how it should function. Thus, these very important questions are seldom addressed: What impact should the Church make on culture, and do I have a role and responsibility in carrying that out?

It seems as though the cry-baby-boomer generation (of which the authors must admit membership) have transitioned from “If it feels good, do it” to “If it feels good, believe it.” Instead of our faith being “all about God and His will,” it seems increasingly to have become more “about us and our feelings.”

The Road to Faithlessness is Paved with Good Intentions

Frankly, much of the blame for this must be laid at the feet of the “Church Growth Movement.” True, it didn’t invent the problem. As one Lutheran pastor, Curtis A. Peterson, notes,

“Since human nature tends to be self-centered, congregations tend to become preoccupied in their own efforts and concerns to the expense of missions at home and abroad.”2Curtis A. Peterson, “A Second and Third Look at Church Growth Principles,” paper delivered at the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod’s Metro South Pastors Conference, February 3, 1993, Mishicot, Wisconsin, 4.

We had churches-even Bible-believing churches!-that sinfully had neglected evangelism and missions long before the Church Growth Movement came along. Peterson recognizes that the original intent of the Church Growth Movement was to shake the Church out of its introspective slumber. But, in the long run, it exacerbated the problem by its tendency to emphasize style over substance and presentation over purpose. While its various approaches were initially based on the good motive of winning the lost to Christ 3Ibid. Peterson writes: “We applaud the Church Growth emphasis on evangelism and missions as ‘the greatest and holiest work of the church.’ From the beginning {Donald} McGavran and his disciples have emphasized the lostness of the lost, and have taught that salvation is only through Christ. John 14:6 and Acts 4:12 are part of their vocabulary and theology. Outreach to the lost is an irreplaceable function of the church. Since so many are satisfied when the church looks nice and the bills are paid, we need this continual reminder.” somewhere along the way that motive got lost in all its deference to demographics, its emphasis on arcane concepts such as its “Homogeneous Unit” principle,4Ibid., 8-9 Peterson believes the “Homogeneous Unit” principle-which asserts “that missions flourish best in single ‘people groups’”-has been misunderstood by critics and, therefore, unfairly caricatured as racist and exclusionary. In fact, says Peterson, “it is designed to do the very opposite-to make sure that certain groups are not overlooked in our mission and evangelistic strategies.” Unfortunately, however, with so many Church Growth Movement practitioners using the Homogeneous Unit principle to specifically target white, middleclass suburbanites in the U.S., its original intent seems to have been reversed. its preoccupation with pragmatism, and its general capitulation to consumerism. During the last quarter of the twentieth century, the Church Growth Movement has been largely responsible for removing the task of fulfilling the Great Commission from missionaries and committing it to marketers, and relocating Christianity’s confrontation with culture from Mars Hill to Madison Avenue.

Throughout this process of progressive commercialization, the Church at large has been subjected to several different “models” of how to “do church” over the last 30 years. For a while in the early ’70s, Gene Getz was the model to follow. Get rid of the pulpit; get an overhead projector, bar stool, and leisure suit. Ray Stedman’s “Body Life” concept also became popular in some places. Have a separate service in which the pastor recedes into the background becoming a facilitator rather than an instructor, and the people in the pews (or, perhaps, in theater seats) spontaneously give testimonies, prayer requests, a sharing of “this Scripture means to me…,” and so on. Robert Schuller’s highly successful (in terms of generating nickels and noses, at least) walk-in/drive-in church emphasized comfort-thereafter, informality became the rage. More recently, it has been the Willow Creek “seeker-sensitive” church or the Saddle Back “purpose-driven church” model which has captured the spotlight, generating countless spin-offs and clones. Nothing succeeds like success, it seems.

We should emphasize there is nothing inherently wrong about utilizing testimonies, overhead projectors and comfortable surroundings, bar stools, or even wearing leisure suits while engaged in furthering the Gospel. There is certainly nothing wrong with seeking to appeal to the lost in words and with illustrations they might understand.NONE of these things are inherently good or bad but are essentially cosmetic. In any case, the Gospel itself must never get displaced by the methodology. To rephrase a popular metaphor: The Gospel is the “baby” that should not be drowned in the bathwater.

It is worth noting that a number of these “success” models have already gone out of fashion, and some have even spawned reactions among Christians who believe such practices sacrifice a biblical sense of the awesomeness and transcendence of God on the altar of appealing to the masses.

The Church Growth “principles” formulated by such gurus as Donald McGavran, C. Peter Wagner, and Win Arn have also begun to fall out of favor and with good reason: They haven’t produced! According to Peterson, this has not escaped the notice of the movement’s founders, who are at least honest enough to admit their failures.

C. Peter Wagner is quoted as saying, “Somehow they [the Church Growth principles] don’t seem to work.” In spite of everything, they have taught and advocated, he sees the percentage of American adults attending church remaining almost the same, while Protestant church membership is actually declining.5Ibid., 3.

It wouldn’t be true to conclude there are virtually no “points of light” amidst this darkness. As Peterson notes, “On the other hand, the rapid growth of several mainly independent mega churches is one of the most important developments in modern church history.”6Ibid. However, as a pastor of one of those mega churches, Bill Hybels, might say: When you “net it out,” the Church Growth Movement has over-promised and under-delivered while separating many Christians from a critical part of the church’s raison d’être: Teaching.

While the C. Peter Wagners of the world may be honest enough to admit when their principles don’t “work,” their admissions are purely academic in nature. Their failures merely prompt them to resume their search for something that “works.” They do not seem to have grasped at all the consequences of pursuing numeric growth at the expense of doctrinal edification. Peterson recalls:

At a crowded seminar I once heard C. Peter Wagner confess that he was not a theologian, adding, only half in jest, “That is a Church Growth principle!” How sad it is that his lack of theology leads people away from the very Gospel which alone can feed the multitudes.7Ibid., 13.

How sad, indeed! Theology is simply a shorthand expression for the study of God. In addition, since Christian theology is rooted in Scripture, it means that our proper source for learning about God is the Bible. Therefore, for Christians to toss out theology is the same as tossing out God’s Word. Why would a Church Growth guru want to do something like that?

We’re not saying they intentionally denigrate Scripture, but they clearly misunderstand the proper relationship between the Bible and theology. They also have a dangerously naïve faith in the notion that what Ronald Reagan called “the magic of the marketplace” holds the key to evangelistic success. Moreover, once faithful pastors (of whom, thank God, there are still many!) begin to help their congregations sink their roots into Scripture, they begin to absorb truths that call into question any marriage between evangelism and marketing. As Craig Parro warned:

Marketing solicits, woos and entertains. But the [Word of God] confronts; it calls to repentance and commitment. There is a judgment to be avoided, a hell to be fled, and thoughts to be taken captive. In the words of Lesslie Newbigin, “We must not leave our hearer’s worldview intact.”8Parro, “Church Growth’s Two Faces,” Christianity Today, June 24, 1991, 19. Cited in Peterson, ibid., 12-13.

A marketing mentality, however, begins with the assumption we can use our hearer’s worldview as the ground on which to stand as we “sell” him our “product” (which in this case, by mere coincidence, is the Gospel). It doesn’t warn him to flee from the ground on which he’s standing because that ground will be consumed by God’s judgment. Such a mentality will not risk offending the “customer” by advising him that his worldview itself is what makes him an enemy of God (Eph. 2:1-3; cf. Rom. 1:18-33), because it doesn’t want to risk losing the “sale.” Moreover, once the deal is closed and the sale is made, all that is left is to recruit the “customer” onto our sales force. Thus, evangelism has not only been reduced to marketing, but multi-level marketing at that!

Despite a lot of talk about how believers should cultivate their spiritual gifts and grow in the faith, we’ve observed that many in the Church Growth Movement at least act as though these goals can be pursued without a serious emphasis on teaching. Not only that, some have even taken an unbiblical separation between evangelism and doctrine to an extreme that deliberately disparages doctrine which, in turn, unwittingly jeopardizes evangelism.

Oliver Twist Goes to Church

Quite a number of years ago-in our younger days, we (Don and Joy) attended a Willow Creek Church “clone” for a time. This church had much going for it, and it seemed to have so much to offer. The music was professional, the dramas were well done, and the pastor was quite gifted in evangelism. Soon, however, it became apparent that, although this church was focused on evangelism, there was no real substantive teaching. At first, we told ourselves that, even though we were not learning much (aside from “Psychology 101”), there were plenty of opportunities to serve, and it seemed the perfect church to invite others who might not go to a more traditional church. We thought, perhaps, we were being too critical and our doctrine-heavy background might make us extraordinarily hard to please in this area. But it soon became obvious the church was bringing in new (and often very young) believers in droves, but it didn’t really seem to know what to do with them once they came to the faith other than call for greater commitment to evangelism, the church, and its leadership. There was a great hole in their scheme of things, and that hole was in the area of teaching. This was due, in part, to the senior pastor’s view they didn’t want to be, as he put it, “doctrinaire.” He viewed doctrine itself as divisive and arrogant and considered doctrine almost a dirty word. The result of this mentality was his church became little more than a giant spiritual orphanage-well-intentioned, but poorly administered. It was a perfect church to take people who didn’t like “traditional” church, as long as we didn’t mind that they remained almost as ignorant of the faith as they were before they came!

The church also had a revolving door problem-almost as many were leaving out the back door as were coming in the front, and no one seemed to keep very good track of the “sheep.” As a consequence, like Oliver Twist, some left the “orphanage” and fell in with thieves and pickpockets. There are plenty of “Artful Dodgers” and “Fagans” out there ready and willing to “take in” and “take care” of the sheep who wander away from our churches and go forth untaught into the world. Without the discernment that comes from sound Bible teaching, the babe in Christ will not be able to identify the thieves and wolves of the world and will often find themselves in dire spiritual danger. Most Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Wiccans are former members of Christian churches who had no defense to offer (as to why Christianity is true) when they were approached and seduced into these groups and belief systems.

After a time, we left that particular church, but we learned a very valuable lesson about the absolute necessity of doctrinal instruction. SOUND TEACHING-there is no substitute for it! Of course, we are not saying all non-traditional-type churches lack sound teaching, just as there are many “traditional” churches where sound doctrine is not emphasized. Indeed, lack of sound doctrinal teaching is reaching epidemic proportions today.

In congregations that have an aversion to doctrine, it eventually becomes unclear as to who really is a Christian and who is not. This is true even in churches that focus intensely on evangelism, because everything associated with evangelism – from the content of the Gospel itself, to the nature of saving faith and regeneration – is defined by doctrine! The very notion evangelism can be separated from doctrine is itself a false doctrine, as Peterson notes:

As a matter of fact, it is precisely the evangelism texts of the Bible that exhort us to sound doctrine. The Bible forever joins the concern for sound doctrine with the mission mandate of our Lord. The Great Commission itself, (Matt. 28:18-20) commits us to teach “everything I have commanded you.” In Acts 20:18-35, Paul reminded the Ephesian elders of “how I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance, and have faith in the Lord Jesus.” Later he says, “I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God. Guard yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock.” Even as an evangelist and missionary, Paul was concerned about false doctrine and especially on the mission fields!

Another, example of the marriage of evangelistic zeal with sound doctrine is seen in 2 Timothy 4:5, where the great apostle urges Timothy to “do the work of an evangelist” in a context (3:14-4:4) that is concerned about maintaining sound doctrine based on the Scriptures in the face of false teachers. When dealing with its theological underpinnings, Church Growth proponents are prone to put the cart before the horse. Experience and observation too often determine their conclusions rather than Scriptural exegesis. Reformed missiologist Roger Greenway complains: “Most of church growth missiology’s theological bases have been worked out after the methodological insights and mission principles were arrived at through field observation and experience.”

It’s a bit like writing a sermon and then looking for a text.9Peterson, ibid., 2-3.

As we move into the twenty-first century, experience and observation are beginning to confirm the need for biblical truth rather than church-marketing practices. Nearly every day, we deal with the consequences of modern churches that bring spiritual infants into the world and leave them to fend doctrinally for themselves. They’re almost immediately “blown here and there by every wind of teaching, and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming” (Eph. 4:14, NIV) until they turn to us or ministries like ours for help. As the tide of culture flows back into the sea of spiritual ignorance, it is sweeping away countless professing believers who were never taught how to swim.

Culture Transforming the Church

As we look across the landscape of the Church, we can begin measuring the effects and degree to which culture is impacting the Church rather than the other way around. According to pollster, George Barna:

Over the past 20 years, we have seen the nation’s theological views slowly become less aligned with the Bible. Americans still revere the Bible and like to think of themselves as Bible-believing people, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Christians have increasingly been adopting spiritual views that come from Islam, Wicca, secular humanism, the eastern religions and other sources. Because we remain a largely Bible-illiterate society, few are alarmed or even aware of the slide toward syncretism-a belief system that blindly combines beliefs from many different faith perspectives.10“Americans Draw Theological Beliefs From Diverse Points of View,” Barna Research Group, October 8, 2002, 3-4.

The result-of what seems to be the abandonment of sound teaching and practice-is that we are moving ever farther from the biblical faith and very few seem to notice:

Barna indicated that the passing on of a Christian heritage from one generation to the next appears to be rapidly dissipating in America. “Our continuing research among teenagers and adolescents shows that the trend away from adopting biblical theology in favor of syncretic, culture-based theology is advancing at full gallop.” Citing a wealth of statistical evidence drawn from his books on teens’ lifestyles and religious beliefs, Real Teens, Barna noted that, “relatively few adults are alarmed by this trend, since teens and adolescents are merely reflecting the trail that their parents and teachers have already blazed.11Ibid., 4.

It is as though much of the Church climbed on to a great ship and has become so busy with making everyone comfortable and providing entertainment, they don’t realize the ship is detached from its moorings, has no fuel for its engines, and is adrift in an ocean of relativism. How very different is the Church in the third millennium than the Church in the first three centuries. It is almost as though we are looking at bookends in time. The Church on this end is being transformed by culture. The Church of the first three centuries influenced culture and transformed civilization. What did the culture of the first century look like? Human life was not a high value. The gladiatorial games and bloodshed were very popular. Suicide was commonly practiced and encouraged. Abortion and child abandonment were socially acceptable. Homosexuality, bestiality, and sexual promiscuity (including sex in public and orgies) was part of the fabric of society. Young girls were viewed as the property of the father who at his own discretion arranged his daughter’s marriage and sold her to her future husband. The father was his children’s authority either until he gave them permission to be out from under his authority or he died. The Church rejected this pagan practice as well and,

…the validity of marriage without the consent of the father began to be recognized. Soon this practice was widely accepted with the support of the church’s theologians. But apparently because patria potestas had been entrenched for centuries, the practice of getting married without the father’s consent required periodic reinforcement.12Alvin J. Schmidt, Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization, HarperCollins/Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 2001, 111. Defining and regarding patria potestas Schmidt writes, “The most severe deprivation of a Roman woman’s freedom and rights had its roots in table 4 of the Twelve Tables of Roman law that originated in the fifth century B.C. Table 4 spelled out the law of partia potestas, which conferred rights of paterfamilias on the married man. In his role as paterfamilias, the man had supreme, absolute power over his children even when grown, including grandchildren.” p. 100. It is interesting to note that there is a growing movement within the Christian church attempting to re-lay the foundations of this pagan practice under the guise of Christianity.

This Christian view of the equality of women, rather than regarding them as property, brought about a new family standard. The marital bed became a sacred place where a husband and wife partook of conjugal acts. They were private acts between the husband and wife which excluded their friends, neighbors, and family pet.

Obviously, the Christians were not admired for rejecting the sexual immoralities of the Romans. St. Augustine in the early part of the fifth century said that the Romans despised Christians because they opposed their unrestrained sexual lifestyles ( The City of God 1.20). Tertullian said that the Romans so despised the Christians that they hated the name “Christian” ( Apology 3).13Ibid., 93-94.

Not only was the view of sexuality changed, but the role of women was raised significantly.

A respectable Athenian woman was not permitted to leave her house unless she was escorted by a trustworthy male escort, commonly a slave appointed by her husband. When the husband’s male guests were present in his home, she was not permitted to eat or interact with them. She had to retire to her woman’s quarters (gynaeceum). The only woman who had some freedom was the hetaera, or mistress, who often accompanied a married man when he attended events outside his home. The hetaera was the man’s companion and sexual partner.14Ibid., 98.

Who Were Those Guys?

Who were the people that changed civilization? Professional church planners? Church-growth experts? Christian psychologists? Hardly!

Jesus’ disciples originally were plain, ordinary Jewish citizens. Several were fishermen, one came from the socially despised tax collectors, and the others similarly came from low-ranking occupations. They had different personalities and temperaments. One was over confident, two craved special recognition, another was skeptical, and still another was a self-serving miser.15Ibid., 16.

Not a pretty picture of an army of well trained, well dressed experts-just regular folks armed with the knowledge of the saving transforming Gospel of Jesus Christ. Clearly not the type our modern Church would look to for guidance in crafting growth plans. But it didn’t stop there.

The power of Christ’s Gospel to transform individuals did not begin and end with his handpicked disciples. It also transformed countless others, and these individuals in various ways left their mark in history. There were individuals found in Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Rome, and other places throughout the world.16Ibid., 19.

Their lives, their beliefs, and their willingness to confront culture-even to the point of being martyred-caused the culture around them to take notice. These simple folk really believed what they claimed to believe to the point that it really affected how they really lived. The transformation eventually extended into the arena of political leaders including emperors Galerius, Constantine, and Licinius. We catch a snap shot of what this looked like in Scripture as Peter and John are standing before the well-trained religious leaders and governing officials of their day:

Now they observed the confidence of Peter and John, and understood that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were marveling, and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus. [Acts 4:13, NASB]

New Testament Christianity

Many cults and false movements claiming to be Christian contend they are trying to restore New Testament Christianity. By that, they generally give the impression the original Christian congregation was in lock step, trouble free, united in belief and action, and unquestioningly submitted to a pristine authoritarian hierarchy. The problem is one can hardly read the New Testament and see anything even closely resembling this ideal. From its inception, the Church has been wrought with problems, and most of the New Testament was written to correct faulty teaching and/or behavior. That being said, we still need to answer the question as to how this uneducated, unprofessional rabble so deeply affected those around them that civilization radically changed as a result.

It Begins With the Leadership

In many ways, the format of the church is less important than the heart, gift mix, and view of leadership. Is the scriptural model “seeker sensitive,” “purpose driven,” or something more “traditional?” None of them are essentially better or worse than the other-there is freedom of choice when it comes to “form.” The overall effectiveness of a church depends on the people involved, and how God has gifted and impassioned the individuals who are carrying out their “vision.” Unfortunately, we as humans tend to look for programs, and step-by-step instructions which, if followed to the letter, produce the same results every time. This works in McDonald’s where you are making French fries, but it doesn’t translate as well in spiritual pursuits. Dealing with people is less predictable and far messier. However, there are some things the Church of the third millennium can draw from the Church of the first century beginning with the leadership. In some cases today, the pastor has been made the corporate CEO whose job it is to broaden the market base. In other cases, the pastor is the authoritarian leader who cannot be questioned. In still other models, the pastor is the paid, professional Christian who is expected to do all of the work of the church (preaching, teaching, hospital and home visitation, heading up all committees, etc.), and the rest of the church fills the role of spectators who deposit their weekly entrance fee in the offering plate. We have a few glimpses in Scripture as to how leadership functioned in that bygone time which might be helpful in answering the question as to how the Church so radically challenged those around them.

“Eets Not My Job, Mahn!”

One of the first glimpses we get into the early Church occurs in Acts chapter 6:1-7. The Church in Jerusalem was growing in number and a segment of “disgruntled” members went to the Apostles to register a complaint with the expectation the leadership would jump right in and straighten out those evil doers. The Apostles’ response and solution is quite revealing in its simplicity. They called the congregation together and said:

It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. But select from among you, brethren, seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word. [Acts 6:2-4, NASB]

Several things should be noted. First, the Apostles had a clear vision and description of their role in the body. They were not the supreme authority to whom everyone else was accountable, but there was a plurality of leadership. Second, even though there was a real issue to be resolved, they refused to have their energies redirected away from their basic job description-prayer and ministry of the Word. Third, the responsibility of choosing who would direct this other aspect of the ministry was given back to the congregation. Fourth, the people chosen to direct this aspect of ministry were to be spiritual men-not just popular or charismatic leaders or men with a good head for business-but individuals whose faith was outwardly observable. After they were chosen, they were commissioned by the Apostles and the result of this was:

And the word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith.(Acts 6:7, NASB)

How would this translate into the life of the Church today? The basic job description of the pastor is to pray for and teach the church. It is not to broaden the market base. The “market base” is already there. It is called lost souls. Jesus said the “field is white for harvest” and prayed for harvesters. The job of the pastor is not primarily to make hospital visits, engage in pre-marital counseling, referee between Sister Jane and Sister Sarah, or Brother Bob and Elder John, oversee the purchase of new pews, or otherwise be distracted from the business of praying and teaching. That does not mean the pastor cannot do any of these other things as extra-curricular activities. He may be very gifted or have a particular passion for one of these areas, but he would be involved in these areas as time permits, because all members of the Body of Christ should be caring for the sick and visiting the imprisoned, etc. Realistically, the pastor and elders should be training and commissioning those who the congregation identifies to head up these various areas of ministry. The result would be a well-trained, actively-involved body of believers. The Apostle Paul lays out a similar theme in Romans 12:3-7. Each member has something to contribute to the life of the body as well as ministry to non-believers. They need to be trained and used in their areas of gifts and prayed for as they use them, which is, as it happens, the job description of the pastor and elders.

The Timothy Factor

The Apostle Paul wrote a letter to a young pastor by the name of Timothy in 63 AD. After his greeting, Paul reminded Timothy of the reason he had asked him to remain at Ephesus. His task was to teach or instruct “certain men not to teach strange doctrines” (1:3). It is apparent these “certain men” were straying away from the central doctrines of the faith and replacing them with speculative myths which were only serving to distract and mislead (1:4). Thus, we should think of false teaching as anti-evangelism, because its goal is to undo the work of evangelism. The only biblical antidote for it is a proper focus on doctrine.

Do we want to preserve the fruit of our evangelistic efforts? Then we do well to constantly remind ourselves of Paul’s charge to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:28-30, cited above by Peterson:

Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them.NASB]

Again, the concerns the Apostle addressed in his charge to the Ephesian elders are the very things he is addressing in his reminder to Timothy. Guard the flock from the wolves who creep in from the outside and from those who rise up within to drag away the sheep.

Sometimes it is not outright heresy, but hokum, that distracts the Church from her mission to win the lost and instruct the saved. Remember the Y2K crisis that was supposed to end civilization as we know it? Many Christians were distracted by this greatest nonevent of our times. Twenty years earlier, David A. Lewis persuaded thousands of believers that Ronald Reagan was in imminent mortal danger because early in the nineteenth century a disgruntled Native American had supposedly placed a curse on the White House so that every president elected in a year that ended with a zero would die in office.17Lewis, The Presidential Zero-Year Mystery, (Gainesville, FL: Bridge-Logos Publishers, 1980). Of course, Reagan not only survived the “curse” (despite a nearly-successful assassination attempt in 1981) but lived long enough to see yet another president elected during a “zero-year” (George W. Bush). Lewis still stands by his curse theory, credits the prayers of believers with preventing it from doing in Reagan, and now urges people to pray the same way for Bush. But even if we grant Lewis’s theory a modest level of plausibility (which is far more than it deserves), the real “mystery” is: why does the curse only apply to presidents elected every 20 years, and thus only when elections occur during years that have zero as their final digit? Even more mysterious is the question of how so many Christians bought into this zany idea.

Then there are mythical Bible codes, widely circulated rumors of Satanic baby killers, internet-spread nonsense concerning now-deceased Atheist Madelyn Murray O’Hair’s supposed campaign to get Touched by an Angel off our TV sets, “holy” laughter, phony faith healers and fraudulent healings, and gold-dust revival meetings, and well, we could go on and on, but we don’t wish to depress you.

How many of these embarrassing examples of Christian naiveté (to put it as kindly as possible?) could have been avoided with a healthy dose of biblically-informed skepticism? Some might say, “Well, that stuff’s not heretical; it’s just hokey,” and, perhaps, there’s some truth to that observation. We should keep in mind, however, that when Christians earnestly embrace false rumors, religious con artists, false hope, or alarmism (as we so often seem to do), it inevitably makes us all look foolish and gives our critics yet another opportunity to ridicule, not only us, but our faith and our Lord as well. And that just makes it much easier for the lost to dismiss Christianity out of hand as a bastion of kooks. These types of errors cause much division in the body and are the result of lack of teaching and a tendency to accept whatever some “celebrity” Christian tells us is the latest, greatest, or most fearsome thing. It is sadly reminiscent of the Pagans in ancient Athens of whom Luke remarked, “All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.” (Acts 17:21) The Athenians spent their time “doing nothing…”. And that is our point-Christians have better things to do with their time … or they should! At the very least, we must point out our tendency towards hokum is a sign of a serious deficiency of discernment, which then frequently leads to the embracing of out-and-out heresy.

A case in point is religious con artist/“healer” Benny Hinn’s “revelation from God” that there are “nine of them” (i.e., nine persons) in the Godhead. Here’s where “Brother Love’s traveling salvation show” slipped from hokey farce to outright heresy. How many of his admiring listeners even CAUGHT that? And how about Hinn’s ridiculous boast (made on “Christian” television) that Jesus Christ would appear on stage at his crusade, and people would be raised from the dead if their coffins were placed near television sets with Trinity Broadcasting Network on? Please tell me that some discerning soul at TBN laughed out loud-before showing this humbug the door! And then we had Kenneth Copeland explaining that God is really just a big man-about six-feet-two-inches tall, weighing a couple of hundred pounds; and God and Adam were exact duplicates of each other to the point that one couldn’t tell the difference between them. How many walked out in disgust that a supposed man of the cloth would speak such things? Turned their sets off? Withheld their money at least!? Then we have Bill Gothard with his endless lists of principles, steps, and rules which if strictly applied guarantee, not only moral, but successful living (i.e., health and wealth), but not necessarily regeneration through the work of the Holy Spirit. Grace, he says, is earned; and circumcision is a moral requirement for Christians. Where is the outcry? The Gospel within the Church becomes packaged and “sold” as a health and wealth “elixir” or as a means to impose or infuse supposed “Christian values” upon the general culture.

Today, however, our temptation is to use the Gospel as a prop for the higher pursuit of “Christian Values,” for children as well as for adults. Too often in our preaching and teaching, we fail to communicate to our people the preciousness, not just that the Gospel “works”, but that it is true.18Moore, Ibid., 14, emphasis in the original.

How does one guard the flock from such shenanigans, false teachings, and faulty thinking? By instructing and teaching and, in some cases, naming namesas the Apostle Paul does:

…keeping faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and suffered shipwreck in regard to the faith. Among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have delivered over to Satan, so that they may be taught not to blaspheme.(1 Timothy 1:19-20, NASB)

Clearly, a part of guarding the flock is pointing out who the false teachers are in order for the sheep to know who to beware of. It appears Paul was unconcerned about appearing “divisive” and was not especially “tolerant” in the American twenty-first century sense of the word. Protecting his flock from the ravenous wolves was far more important to him than artificial “unity” at the expense of truth. He was also concerned with nurturing believers-giving them a strong grasp of the truth through sound teaching. We suspect the Church loses enormous credibility when it focuses on judging those outside the Church while turning a blind eye to the false teachers in their own midst.

In 1 Timothy 2:1-8, Paul focuses on prayer. We see in the first two chapters of this pastoral epistle the very things which the apostles claimed as their role in Acts 6, but Paul didn’t stop there. In chapter three, he gives the qualifications of elders and deacons. Why did he take time to do this? Because the spiritual maturity of leadership is the measuring stick for determining who should fulfill those positions, not their business acumen, prestige, or fame. Why are these qualifications important? Paul warned that the future would bring more false teachings, teachers and dangers to the faith (4:1-5). Paul makes a full circle from the theme he began in chapter one and reminds Timothy in verse 4:6:

In pointing out these things to the brethren, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of sound doctrine which you have been following.

And again in verse 11 he writes, “Prescribe and teach these things.” Here we go again. Teach, Timothy,teach! What a doctrinaire character this Paul is! One would get the impression he honestly thought sound biblical teaching took priority over “feel good” theology.

Russell D. Moore from Southern Baptist Seminary also seems to be convinced this is important if the Church is going to be relevant in the future:

In all of this, it is appearing more and more likely that the future of evangelical conviction will not be decided in a denominational convention, or a theological society meeting. It will be at Vacation Bible School. The next battleground over evangelical conviction will center at the place where it matters most, the local congregations. 19Moore, Ibid., 11.

He is correct in this assessment. As the local congregations assume their role of training their people, they will influence both their denominations and the culture around them.

Don’t Abandon Culture!!!

The early Christians didn’t abandon the world, but they left a legacy which transformed civilization for the last two millennia. The early Church and early Church fathers earned the right to confront culture because they took the responsibility to correct error within the Church. They did the work of training believers to think and articulate why the Gospel is true and how to communicate that to the religious pagans of their time. They focused on doing two things very well. Teaching and praying. If the Church today really desires to win the culture war, we may need to consider following this biblical model.In our day, we’ve begun to witness our culture trending in the opposite direction and the Church’s influence over it declining. To make matters worse, the Church of our day is also trending downward along with its surrounding culture. It doesn’t matter whether we speak here of the institutional church (or churches), or of the Church as the spiritual body of all true believers – the diagnosis is the same: since we have relinquished cultural influence abroad by neglecting doctrinal instruction at home, we have produced a generation of spiritual orphans. Thus, instead of providing a challenging contrast to the world around it, Christians are gradually blending in, and their collective worldview is becoming indistinguishable from the pagans who surround them. Sociologist Robert Wuthnow paints a picture of what happens to people without spiritual moorings in a culture that lacks a biblical foundation:

Although some individuals work out highly coherent religious orientations that have internal consistency and integrity, it appears that the more common result of living in religiously pluralistic settings is a form of personalized eclecticism. People become heteroglossic; that is, they gain the capacity to speak with many religious voices. Their religious orientations may not provide a guiding philosophy of life that maintains an orderly view of the world. Rather, religious orientations become tool kits, assembled from a variety of personal experiences, social contacts, books, sermons, and other cultural repertoires, from which the individual is able to draw as he or she is confronted with the challenges of life.20Wuthnow, Christianity in the Twenty-first Century: Reflections on the Challenges Ahead, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 107-108. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to tell at what points Wuthnow’s own spiritual moorings connect to Scripture.

We don’t have to worry about the day when many in our pews might become spiritual eclectics who subsist on a smorgasbord of spiritual fare ranging from the latest pantheistic bestseller, to an occasional out-of-context Bible verse, to transcendental medical quackery, to the current tabloid offerings at the checkout counter. That day is already here.

God has given pastors and elders the responsibility to care for the flock and grow them up into mature Christians. But we all have our parts to play. If good pastors lead, will we follow? If they faithfully study and forthrightly teach, will we replace them with someone we feel may be more “comfortable” with, or one who may be more “available” to serve us and meet our emotional needs? If you have a good and faithful pastor-who preaches the Word, fervently teaches the faith, and exhorts you to Christian holiness (as so many of us are blessed to have)-are you supporting him? (Not blindly, but kindly at the least.) Are you praying for him and his family? Do you recognize how difficult it is to lead an often wayward flock of saved sinners? Are you grateful for his efforts on your behalf?

The responsibility to improve the grave situation of the Church in the world rightly falls upon us all. Black conservative economist Walter E. Williams likes to point out that we can complain all we want about our dishonest politicians, but in many cases, we the people would not tolerate any politician who would dare to tell us the truth! Yet, it is the truth we desperately need to hear … especially from our spiritual leaders. God Bless all of you pastors who labor long and without proper recognition for all the good you do. And may our great God grant all of us courage and great strength for whatever lies ahead.Ω

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