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Archive for Church

The Church in Decline

by Dick Hill

 

I was sitting with a good friend on the porch at the Ponderosa years ago. He asked me a very searching question. “Spiritually speaking, where do you think local churches are today?” This was long before the Covid pandemic which has been devastating on the church. I have thought about his question many times. I could only answer from my observations as a pastor of many churches here in the south over the last forty years.

 

Jesus Christ has not ceased to build His church – His spiritual kingdom – and will do so throughout history. That thought comforts this writer (Matthew 16:13-17).

 

  1. There are Birds in the Branches (Matthew 13:31-32)

 

There are many birds (unbelievers) positioned in the branches of the tree (or bats in the belfry if you please) that Christ is building. The birds represent unbelievers (verse 31). We are to continue to preach the gospel. Why? There are many who comfortably sit in the congregation year after year who have never embraced the gospel of God’s magnificent grace. They have learned to speak often repeated Bible language – I call it “Christianese” – but do not know the meaning of the language. They can use words like saved, redemption, regeneration, justification, or sanctification; but have no clue what they mean or where they are found in the Bible. They have become comfortable with their “profession of faith in Christ” – punched their ticket to heaven – but in truth they may be clinging to a different gospel (Galatians 1:6-9). They would be numbered in the category of those mentioned by Jesus who had said to Him “Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in your name (taught in your name), cast out demons in your name, and in your name done many wonderful works. Jesus responded, “I never knew you” (Matthew 7:21-22). This confirms to me that God’s great adversary Satan is very good at blinding people to the truth of the gospel – very good (2 Corinthians 4:3-4).

 

  1. Babes on the Benches

 

There are many who have truly embraced the gospel but have remained baby Christians. They have failed to grow to maturity. Peter wrote, “As newborn babies desire the pure milk of the word that by it you may grow” (1 Peter 2:2). Note the phrase “the pure milk of the word.” The Greek word “pure” means unadulterated or not watered down. Many in the local church have become dependent on what others say the Bible says and have come to lean on that alone as their source of Bible truth. These teachers may have watered down the pure milk of Scripture. Weak Christians are drawn first to one teacher then to another. They vacillate and are never able to come to a knowledge of the truth. Many have never truly learned the doctrines of grace. This prevents other believers from ever receiving the necessary milk. Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, “And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual (people) but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able; for you are still carnal (1 Corinthians 3:1-2).  The word “carnal” is translated “fleshly.” Paul had taught the people the ABC’s of grace and they received it quickly, but when he began to feed them solid food, they spit it out. He had given the people ample time and necessary teaching for them to have grown up and become profitable to God, but they had failed to do so on all counts.  The result was constant division and strife in the body. Some claimed to be followers of Paul; others claimed to be disciples of Apollos. According to Paul, the indication that there were babes in the congregation is that there was jealousy and the tendency to follow human leaders. This becomes the source of constant turmoil.

 

The writer of Hebrews speaks of this same truth. The subject was Melchizedek. This teaching is hard truth. It would be considered by Paul to be strong meat of the word. The result was the same. The hearers did not understand the truth of Melchizedek. They had become “dull of hearing” (Hebrews 5:10-11). They spit out the meat. The people had been given sufficient time and teaching to have become teachers themselves, but they still needed someone to teach them again the first principles of the oracles of God.  They had never learned the ABC’s of scripture. They still needed milk and not solid food. Those who receive only a steady diet of milk are unskilled in the word of righteousness, for they are babes. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil. I’ve heard these words repeatedly from congregations: “That teaching is too hard.” The result should be obvious.  Christians have become content with drinking the milk of the word time and again and never have moved into the realm of spiritual meat – the steak.

 

  1. Blending with the Bandits

 

Go along to get along! We, the church, have failed to so live our lives and speak the gospel so that the Holy Spirit can use us to convict the world of sin, of righteousness, and a coming judgement (John 16:8). We have failed to become salt and light. We have lost our savor and our shine. We no longer convict the world; we are in competition with the world. We are here to impact the world with the gospel of God’s grace and the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit. As Dr. Donald Barnhouse used to say, “We are never commanded in the Bible to clean up the fishpond, we are told to fish in it.” Many people that I have had the privilege of sharing the gospel with and seeing them come to faith in Christ have been people that were members of local churches for many years, but they had missed the gospel. We are living with these results in many local churches today. How do we motivate the congregation to keep coming?  We entertain the sheep! We compete with the world for their attention and their loyalty. When we stop entertaining, the sheep quit coming. We are supposed to change the world; but the world has changed us.

 

Illusion, Confusion, and Delusion

The Lord Jesus commissioned the church to go into all nations and preach the gospel and make disciples (Matt. 18:20). He promised that they would be baptized with the Holy Spirit, and this baptism would give them the power to become witnesses in Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8). But, in fact, believers had grown comfortable with home – with Jerusalem. God used Satan to bring persecution into the church through the Roman emperor, Nero. The persecution began with the stoning of Steven by the religious crowd (Acts 8:51-60). God never wastes His people. He always has a plan. God used the stoning of Stephen to awaken believers from their lethargy and energize them to move out. Luke records that a “great persecution began in the church which was at Jerusalem” (Acts 8:1). This pressure, far from suppressing the gospel, scattered it like dandelion seed in the wind – everywhere (Acts 8:4). Thousands of Christians died during this persecution that was ignited by Stephen’s death, but God was using the death of His saints to propel the gospel around the world.

 

Fast forward several years. The apostle Paul was excited. The church at Rome was thriving. Persecution continued, but the gospel was moving, and many were coming to personal faith in Christ (Rom. 1:8). At that time, Rome’s major religion was the worship of paganism.  How does Satan slow the progress of the gospel? He is the master of illusion, confusion, and delusion. These are his greatest weapons. The great Roman empire was winding down. There arose an emperor, Diocletian, who decided that the empire had become too large for one man to govern. He divided the empire into Eastern Rome and Western Rome. A leader named Constantine declared himself to be the emperor of the West and Galerius of the East. Constantine wanted to reunite the mighty Roman empire. He had a challenger to his Western throne – Maxentius. 

 

Constantine, the first Roman Caesar to claim to have become a Christian, most likely had no evil plan to destroy the church of Jesus Christ. It is this writer’s opinion that he was simply a narcistic ruler who saw a way to elevate himself in the eyes of the people by unifying a divided Roman Empire. Maxentius stood in his way. Maxentius also declared himself to be the emperor of Rome.  He led Rome into a civil war against Constantine. Constantine did not have enough men to take on Maxentius. He needed more. This is when his identity as a Christian payed off. He went after the support of the Christians. This could tip the scale in his favor. He promised the Christians that if they would fight with him and restore Rome, he would free them. He would elevate Christianity on a par with the state religion of Zeus, Aphrodite, Cupid, Venus, and more.

 

This sounded wonderful to Christians who had been meeting in the sewer system – the catacombs of Rome – to escape persecution. Again, myth and truth collide. Constantine supposedly had a dream. In his dream, these words, Hoc Signo Vines (the sign of the cross) came into his mind, coupled with the words “by this sign you will conquer.” The first letters of the name Christ were painted on the soldier’s shields in Greek, chi rho – CHR. Constantine won!

 

Maxentius died at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 AD in Rome. After his victory, Constantine met with Licinius, his brother-in-law who had become the emperor of the East. Together they wrote the famous Edict of Milan in 321. This freed the Christians from persecution. It did not make Christianity the state religion; it just allowed Christians to live their faith alongside the state religion of the worship of the Babylonian fertility gods and goddesses. Said clearly, it blended the two together. There were approximately 50 million people in the Roman Empire. Fifteen percent were Christian (7 million), and the rest followed the gods of paganism. Christianity remained a majority in Turkey (ancient Anotalia), Asia Minor, Armenia. It was a minority in Egypt, North Africa, Rome, Syria.

 

It is my view that the church began to include many of the flashiest forms of the worship practices of the fertility gods and goddesses and blend them with the services of the church of Jesus Christ – there was a mixing. Constantine, Christian or not, loved the show. The church moved out of hiding in the catacombs and meeting in houses and moved into beautiful ornate cathedrals. Constantine and the Greek words en touto nika, “in this victory,” tells the story. The church began to move away from “not many strong, not many wise, not many noble” (1 Cor. 1:26-31) and enter an age of the strong, wise, and noble.  The result of the marriage between the queen of heaven and the church of Jesus Christ was the birthing of the Holy Roman Catholic Church. This action began the end of the mighty Roman empire and plunged the gospel into an age of religious confusion and delusion. The gospel remained the power of God unto salvation, but for the next one-thousand years of the medieval age (the dark ages) – it was submerged into a sea of religion.  Blessings!

Formula for Church Growth

Some of the most famous words spoken by Jesus Christ are “I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). Some of the most important words penned by Paul are “Now you are the body of Christ and members individually” (1 Corinthians 12:27). So what?  As an individual part of Christ’s body, we are on this earth to help build His church. We are not talking about a physical building made of wood and steel, lined with soft carpet laced with padded pews, with stained glass windows, and of course, the steeple on top. We are talking of a building made of people. We are here on this earth to be used by God to build His people building. God did not leave us here for the task without the proper equipment. Oh no! As Jesus ascended back into heaven, He gave gifted people to the church: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers (Ephesians 4:11). It was not Paul’s desire here to mention all the gifted. He was teaching why the gifted. He gave each His specific purpose – and there can be no mistake.

Here is his major point. “We are here to equip the saints for the work of ministry for the building up of the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12). This is clear! Let’s elaborate on this for a moment. The word equip means “to train or to prepare.” How are we equipped to equip? The Bible is eerily silent on information concerning seminaries or Bible colleges. Well then, who teaches the teachers?  The Bible is not silent on this one. God gave us His Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth. Does it really say“all truth?” Yep! (John 16:13-14). He obviously does not mean all truth as in the arts and sciences, but all truth concerning the Bible.

There are many passages that instruct the church to take the gospel into the world, share the gospel, then bring believers to a local assembly to be trained.  Don’t get me wrong! Bible colleges and seminaries have been used of God in very significant ways – my own life included – but only because the church has long since stopped doing a major work of the church. The local church is the school of the Holy Spirit, just as the desert in Arabia was for Paul.  The local church is designed to train Christians. Notice, we are to equip the saints for the work of ministry.

Work is the Greek word ergon. It implies energy being used. Ministry is the word diakinos. It means “to serve.” Paul was not speaking specifically of elders, pastors, or deacons but of the special contribution of every member of the body. Every Christian has a work of faith to do, and they are to be trained in the local church to do it.

Note that the ultimate goal of God’s gifted people is to edify the body. Edify is a combination word made up of oiko, “to build,” and dome, the “top or roof.” Together, the word means “build from the ground floor all the way to the top.” We are to grow believers from spiritual infancy – up to spiritual maturity.

Spiritual maturity is to be measured against the stature of the fullness of Christ. The characteristics of our lives are to reflect the characteristics of His life – love, compassion, servanthood – serving the body.  How will we know when this is being achieved? When church members no longer act like children – fussing, fighting, throwing temper tantrums over little things – just like the world. When we are no longer tossed here and there by every wind of teaching that blows our way. When we are no longer taken prisoner by deceitful teachers and fabricated teaching led by Satan to corrupt our Lord’s ministry (2 Corinthians 11:13-14). Appealing? Yes! Moving compassionate words? Yes! But deadly. We are to be trained until we are solid in what we know to be true – true to the gospel, true to the Bible, true to the doctrines of grace. And we stand firm in them. When we learn to speak the truth in love (not in a condescending way) and grow up in all things into Christ (become mature in Christ).

Here is God’s no-spin formula for church growth: “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.” Please note the words “grow up” and “every joint supplies.”  There are to be no perpetual bystanders or spectators. And now this is it: “According to the effective working by which every part (please note – every part) does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love (Ephesians 4:14–16). In summary, every believer knowing their part and faithfully doing their part will always result in growth. It is my opinion that we have totally abandoned this formula and the church of Jesus Christ is reaping the result. We now are left with the entertainers and the entertained. Stay safe and stay tuned.