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by Dr Richard Mayhue, The Master’s Seminary, California.

Based on an address at the 1999 Metropolitan Tabernacle School of Theology


‘Wherefore I take you to record this day, that I am pure from the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God. Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears’ (Acts 20.26-31).

In order to forecast the future of the church-at-large, we must first establish some biblical standards for her good health. This is the only basis for judging whether the church is sick.

Later we will observe the symptoms of the patient, and then attempt a diagnosis. Finally we will prescribe the remedy for the patient’s recovery.

We begin with the biblically revealed marks of good health for the church of Jesus Christ. These marks rise above culture, history, ethnicity, and religious traditions.

The five main metaphors for the church in the Word of God show that the church’s health is dependent on her relationship with the Lord. The church is seen as a person, Christ being the head, and the church being the body. The church is also seen as a union, Christ being the groom, and the church His bride. The church is seen as a temple, Christ being the foundation and cornerstone, and church members being living stones. The church is seen as a flock, Christ being the shepherd, and we the sheep. It is also seen as a plant, Christ being the vine and we the branches. This close, inseparable, directive relationship of Christ to His church is the chief mark of health.

To scan the metaphors again, we note that a healthy marriage is marked by a bride who is honouring and submitting to her husband. In the case of the temple, we see that it is a place where spiritual sacrifices which are prescribed and well-pleasing to God are the sole offerings. The metaphor of the flock emphasises the obedience of the sheep to the shepherd. The vine points to the fruit that the branch should give to the vine, in terms of submission and holiness to God. These qualities describe a church that is in good health.

But let me be a little more specific and think about some prominent biblical themes that define a healthy church. Sound doctrine is such a theme. We get our English word ‘hygiene’ from the Greek word which is translated sound. Ten times in his Epistles to Timothy and Titus, Paul admonished these men to retain the standard of sound doctrine. Sound doctrine is sound health.

The themes of purity and holiness come to mind if we are thinking of good health, and we are reminded of Paul’s words about the church in Ephesians 5.27: ‘not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing’. Similarly in 2 Corinthians 7.1 Paul speaks of ‘perfecting holiness in the fear of God’.

When Christ addressed the seven churches of Asia His three top commendations, appearing with equal frequency, were (i) strong teaching and preaching, (ii) prayer, and (iii) endurance. His condemnation fell on false doctrine and immorality. Here is a gauge or measuring stick with which to discover the health of any church. Is it sick, or is it healthy in the sight of God?

Having established some signs of health, we now survey the symptoms of the patient, as noted by several observers. A major secular commentator has reported in a leading periodical that culture is having its sway with Christianity instead of Christianity having a decided influence on culture.

Francis Schaeffer, now with the Lord, wrote a book entitled, The Great Evangelical Disaster. In it he decried the failure of the evangelical world to stand for truth as truth. David Wells, who has written a landmark book for this decade entitled, No Room for Truth, states that in the evangelical world there has been a shift from God to self as the focus of faith. George Marsden, a noted historian, warns evangelicals of the intrusion of humanism into the church. Others speak of the church becoming like the world, and undergoing secularisation.

A striking observation was made by a mainline denominational spokesman, who wrote: ‘Evangelical pastors and theologians can learn from the mainline experience of placing relevance above truth. We must avoid the lure of novelty and soft sell which we are told will make it easier to believe. Methods may change, but never the message. We are called to be faithful stewards of a great and reliable, theological heritage. We have truths to affirm and errors to avoid. We must not try to make these truths more appealing or user-friendly by watering them down. We must guard against a trendy, theological bungy-jumping that merely entertains the watching crowd.’

In 1992 a highly significant book gave the results of interviews with twenty-five evangelical leaders in America, when these were asked their view of evangelicalism. Listen to how pessimistic they were! They said that it has an uncertain identity; suffers from institutional disenchantment; lacks leadership; experiences at the same time growth up and impact down; is culturally isolated; resorts to political and methodological responses when confronted by the problems of society; and has changed from being a truth orientated church, to being a market-response church.

When I discuss these things with well-known evangelical leaders, seminary leaders, pastors, or even non-church religious observers, they all say that the evangelical world has major problems.

These general observations bring us to a closer examination of the patient. We will focus on four well-known writers in the modern church-growth movement in America, some of whom you may know of.

Let me begin with George Barna. He is the George Gallup of the church world, because he is forever taking a poll. And wherever the poll goes, George Barna wants the church to go. He has written such books as User Friendly Churches. His most recent is The Second Coming of the Church, which has nothing to do with eschatology. We see what he means by these words: ‘Today’s church is incapable of responding to the present moral crisis. It must re-invent itself or face virtual oblivion by mid-twenty-first century.’

Leith Anderson may be the least known of all the men referred to here. However, he is an immensely influential pastor among the ‘mega churches’ in America. He has written a book entitled, A Church for the 21st Century. Significantly he acknowledges as his mentor in the ministry Harry Emerson Fosdick, an extreme liberal in America in the 1920s. Leith Anderson thinks that McDonald’s and Wal-Mart are the best models for new churches. The shopping centre is the ideal. What he provides us with is a man-centred approach. He advances a needs- based philosophy, and a consumer mentality. In the 260 pages of his book, 250 pages have nothing to do with the Scriptures or with Christ. It is entirely Leith Anderson’s mind about how the church should be.

The third author to be mentioned is Rick Warren. His best-known book is The Purpose Driven Church. He says: ‘Growth occurs when the type of people in the community match the type of people that are already in the church, and they both match the type of person the pastor is.’ Given time we could examine that statement, but it is enough to say that if it were true, then every city in the first century would have needed separate Jewish and Gentile congregations. It is, of course, untrue and unbiblical.

The fourth name is very well-known, and that is the name Bill Hybels, senior pastor of Willow Creek Church near Chicago. (He, incidentally, looks to Robert Schuller, famous for his glass cathedral, and by no means an evangelical.) In Rediscovering Church, Bill Hybels explains that what worked with teens in the streets of Chicago in the early seventies (the hippie generation) is what has been done for adults in the church in the eighties and the nineties.

I would warn you that Hybels sounds better than he is, and Willow Creek looks better than it is. If you are curious about it you need to get the book, Willow Creek Seeker Services by G A Pritchard, published by Baker in 1996. It is a devastating analysis of what Willow Creek Church is in relation to what the Bible says the church of Jesus Christ ought to be. At the end of this book there is a section dealing with unintended consequences. In Bill Hybels and his imitators, we have people who might be sincere in their desire to reach the lost, but by the methods employed they have done anything but that.

In all these writers, and many others like them, there is almost nothing about being God- focused. There is little or nothing about going to the Word of God for our instructions as to what the church ought to be or how it ought to be built. There is only a consumer mentality, with little about sin and redemption.

The state of affairs just described may be elaborated in the following way. First, these writers and their churches elevate culture to be more important than Scripture, both in understanding the world around them and themselves. This is a violation of Colossians 2.8 where Paul warns us about being taken captive by the empty deceptions and deceitful philosophies of the world.

Secondly, they market image and appearance rather than reality, so pleasing men at the expense of pleasing God. In 1 Thessalonians 2.4 Paul says, ‘But as we were allowed of God to be put in trust with the gospel, even so we speak; not as pleasing men, but God, which trieth our hearts.’

Thirdly, they substitute practical atheism for biblical godliness, and are moving perilously near to the position of those ‘having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof’ (2 Timothy 3.5).

Fourthly, they engage in false advertising at best, and malpractice at worst, by promising unbelievers the fruit and reward of Christianity without first introducing them to repentance in Jesus Christ. By doing this they cruelly mislead them. To put it another way, they either water down or pervert the Gospel.

Fifthly, they sacrifice truth on the altar of love and unity. Ephesians 4.15 says that we are to speak the truth in love.

Sixthly, they also create a me mentality rather than a He mind set. In other words they build man-centred churches, and not God-centred churches in which Christ has pre- eminence in all things (Colossians 1.18).

Seventhly, they starve the souls of true believers with their watered-down Gospel.

All this is not new in church history. These tendencies constantly recur. Spurgeon said of similar inclinations in his day - ‘The new views are not the old truth in better dress, but deadly errors with which we can have no fellowship. I cannot endure false doctrine however neatly it may be put before me. For would you have me eat poisoned meat because the dish is of the choicest ware?’

In the light of all this, our overall diagnosis of evangelical churches in general, both in America and around the world, is that they are shallow - half-an-inch deep and a mile wide. They are superficial biblically, and void of discernment in the realms of both truth and error. They are eternally irrelevant to both sinners and saints, unfruitful in both word and deed, and like most of the churches of Asia Minor will be condemned by Jesus Christ unless something happens quickly and decisively to bring them under the Word of God.

If there is any hope for the church to be what God wants it to be, then it must seek all its fruitfulness in ministry by depending on the power of God’s Word and God’s Spirit, and not on the power of man’s wisdom.

Listen to Paul writing to the Corinthian church. He said, ‘For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: but God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are: that no flesh should glory in his presence’ (1 Corinthians 1.26-29).

It is my conviction that ministry worthy of being called both biblical and contemporary in any generation must be shaped by biblical mandates. Christ must build His church - and He must build it His way. If we desire to see God-pleasing fruit in our ministry, it must come from planting the good seed of God’s Word by diligent pastoral labour according to the Scriptures.

In saying these things I could, perhaps, be misunderstood. I am not calling for a user- unfriendly church. I am not calling for a culturally ignorant church. I am not calling for a seeker-insensitive church. I have no desire to promote an irrelevant dinosaur of a church, or to ignore effective evangelism in a post-modern culture. But on the other hand, neither do I want to substitute the latest theories of sociology and psychology for the truth of Scripture. Nor do I want to confuse the common sense benefits of demographic statistics and analysis of culture with the far more important understanding of God’s will for the church.

A great segment of evangelical churches (and a growing proportion of evangelical literature) is virtually embarrassed by biblical priorities. Here is a list of ways in which this is happening:

1) There is an over-emphasis on man’s reasoning and a corresponding under-emphasis on God’s revelation in Scripture. The replacing of God’s wisdom with man’s wisdom is rife in the modern church-growth movement.

2) There is an over-emphasis on human need as defined by man and a corresponding under- emphasis on God’s definition of man’s need (that of a Saviour from sin).

3) There is an over-emphasis on the temporal side of life and a corresponding under-emphasis on the eternal side.

4) There is an over-emphasis on satisfying contemporary culture and a corresponding under- emphasis on God’s pleasure.

When it comes to the late-twentieth-century evangelical church as a whole, techniques have replaced truth; style has supplanted substance; convenience outdistances consecration, and modern church-growth ideas receive more attention than biblical church-growth truth. This was never God’s intended state of affairs for His lovely bride the church. The man-centred approach to the church spells out a gloomy future for what ought to be as bright as Christ’s glory.

Having arrived at this historical fork in the road, evangelicals must decide between two alternatives. The first is an approach to ministry that is characteristically need based, man centred, consumer driven and culturally defined. The second option is a ministry centred on redemption, focused on God, defined by the Bible, following biblical priorities.

If the contemporary church continues without repentance it will grow increasingly displeasing to Christ, and it will become a dead church like the church at Sardis. This church said, ‘We are alive,’ but Christ said, ‘You are dead.’

If the contemporary church will acknowledge Christ’s displeasure with her, repent, and return to her first love and former deeds, there is a bright hope for her in the twenty-first century. Those were the instructions of Christ to the church at Ephesus - Repent, return and I will bless you. Remember the alternative! Continue on your present path and I will take the lampstand out of your city.

Evangelicals desperately need to repent of their worldly approach to ministry, return to the Scriptures, and catch a fresh glimpse of their majestic Lord. We need to be re-acquainted with His revealed plan and purpose for us.

The next article will lift us back up from this depressing view of the church, and call for positive remedies. But every believer must understand that there is a battle, and that the enemy is in the camp.

Robert Murray M’Cheyne said of his time and his country: ‘Everything I meet with, and every day I study my Bible, makes me pray more that God would begin and carry on a deep, pure, widespread, and permanent work of God in Scotland. If it be not deep and pure, it will only end in confusion, and grieving away the Holy Spirit of God by irregularities and inconsistencies. Christ will not get glory, and the country generally will be hardened, and have their mouths filled with reproaches. If it be not widespread, our God will not get a large crown out of this generation. If it be not permanent, that will prove its impurity, and will turn all our hopes into shame.’

Charles Haddon Spurgeon had the right prayer: ‘May we live to see Thy church shine forth clear as the sun and fair as the moon, and terrible as an army with banners.’

Part 2: The Cure for the Church’s Sickness

I AM GLAD that the diagnosis is out of the way. But that is the sad reality. That is where evangelicalism is today. As Paul told the elders of Ephesus at Miletus - Be on the alert, because harmful influences will come from without and from within. My remedy or prescription for this state of affairs was that Jesus Christ must be restored to the position of pre-eminent lordship in His own church. We will now consider seven significant features of Christ’s lordship in the church.

The last address that C H Spurgeon gave at the Pastors’ College is published in the little book, The Greatest Fight in the World, which I like to read often just to remind, energise and encourage me. He said -

‘We must more and more acknowledge the church which God has committed to our charge; and in so doing, we shall evoke a strength which else lies dormant. If the church is recognised by Christ Jesus, it is worthy to be recognised by us; for we are the servants of the church.’

Tragically, the church has been pummelled and bombarded. It has been redefined, culturised, politicised, modernised, paganised, pluralised, privatised, contextualised and experi entialised. And if that is not enough, it has been compromised, editorialised, pragmatised, revised, relativised, psychologised and ecumenised.

In Revelation 1.9 we hear the words of John, the last remaining apostle, saying - ‘I John, who also am your brother, and companion in tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ.’ Most men in their eighties and nineties believe that it should be a time for a little reward for what they have done well. But such was not true for the apostle John. The other apostles had been killed for their faith, and John was the only one alive. He was now imprisoned, as it were, on the Isle of Patmos, an extremely small, barren island that received about two inches of rain a year. He was there ‘for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ’ (Revelation 1.9).

It was his conviction that the Scriptures were the true and only Word of God, and that the testimony of Jesus was the only saving message for mankind. And for that he was imprisoned by the Romans.

‘I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day,’ he tells us, ‘and heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet, saying, I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last: and, What thou seest, write in a book, and send it unto the seven churches which are in Asia.’

It must have been a spectacular moment for the apostle John, given the bleak nature of his surroundings and the dim prospect of his ever leaving that island. It was now decades after the earliest days of the church, and now the seven churches with whom John would have been familiar were not in the best condition.

Sardis was a city dominated by the cultural elite, and the church there had attempted to become culturally relevant. Laodicea was drowning in materialism and practical atheism. Pergamos was tolerating heretical groups, and had lost her sense of sound doctrine. Thyatira had compromised with both idolatry and immorality. Ephesus was a fickle, distracted church.

Out of the seven churches there were only two for which Christ had solely good things to say. The majority were condemned either in part or in whole. Only the suffering church at Smyrna was willing to die for the cause of Christ. And Philadelphia, the church that had only a little power, and which did not appeal to businessmen, or educators, or sophisticates of the day, was told she would be blessed because of her obedience. John, like Paul, had been weighed down by the daily concern for those churches.

In the midst of all of this the Lord Jesus Christ appeared. Having heard the great voice, that sounded like a trumpet, John turned to see the voice that spoke with him - ‘And being turned, I saw seven golden candlesticks.’ The text later interprets itself, telling us that the seven lampstands are the seven churches. These were made of the purest material, portraying the perfection of redemption for those who are in the church, and also showing that their primary purpose was to provide light in the midst of darkness.

Jesus Christ stood in the middle of those lampstands, showing that His presence is in each of His churches. I see Christ here in His role as prophet, revealing Himself to the church for Who He is, and showing what His involvement in the church will be.

The time of this revelation could very well have been the darkest hour of John’s life. But Christ came and gave him a dazzling glimpse of His glory and lordship in the church. The church of John’s time definitely needed a wake-up call, just as we do today.

As we examine the description of Jesus Christ from the fourteenth verse of Revelation 1, we shall consider what the Lord is saying to us in each of the seven features mentioned.

To determine the meaning of each feature should be quite easy because all the symbolic language used here has been used frequently in the Old Testament, and would have been known by John. There are only two elements in the entire chapter that John would not have known from the Old Testament, one being the significance of the seven golden lampstands, and the other the seven stars in Christ’s hand. However, in both cases the Lord tells him the meaning.

In verse fourteen we are told that ‘His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow.’ The Old Testament background for that picture is Daniel 7.9 which portrays the Ancient of Days. The significance is, I believe, that Christ is showing His eternal wisdom. Now the New Testament points us to the eternal wisdom of Christ, first in 1 Corinthians 1.24 and 30, and also in Colossians 2.3, which says of Christ, ‘in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge’.

What does this mean to you and me? Simply this, that we are to build the church according to the eternal wisdom of God, and not according to the foolish wisdom of our age.

There is an interesting statement in each of the seven letters. In each one there is a little phrase at the very end which says, ‘He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.’ Churches is plural. Remember that each letter was written to an individual church, but all the churches are to hear what Christ said to all the other churches. These words had eternal implications beyond any one particular congregation.

The church at Corinth was perhaps most noticeable for preferring human ideas to Christ’s wisdom. Paul said to them - ‘My speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: that your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.’

May we first recognise Jesus Christ as the One Who is God and man, and Who is eternally wise, and Whose church is to be built on His unchanging, eternal truths as revealed in the Scripture.

There is a second feature of the Lord described in verse fourteen. ‘His eyes were as a flame of fire.’ What reality of God do fire-like eyes portray? Throughout the Old Testament the eyes of God portray His omniscience, or His ability to know all things at all times. 2 Chronicles 16.9 mentions the eyes of God roaming throughout the world. What is the application of this? For those who obey the Word it is a tremendously comforting truth, but for those who disobey (either individually or corporately) it is a frightening truth. It is that Christ knows all about us. He knows all about our church. Therefore, we need to live and to build the church with the highest sense of accountability to Jesus Christ, because one day we shall stand in His presence and give an account for the work we have done on earth.

All seven letters to the churches contain the words - ‘I know’. I often wondered about this letter to the church at Ephesus. You can imagine the letter being read out at Ephesus, where the people may have begun to think, ‘We are as good as we thought we were.’ Then, suddenly, the Lord said, ‘Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee.’ Jesus Christ knows it all. Can you imagine what the churches of Jesus Christ would be like today if they understood the high level of accountability to which they will be held by Christ?

A third characteristic of Jesus Christ is described in verse fifteen. It is said He had ‘feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace’. Metal glowing red-hot! What does this mean? It is Daniel 10.5-6, and it pictures a messenger coming - most likely the Lord Jesus Christ. Those burning feet portray, I believe, the uncorrupted purity of the person of Christ.

What does this mean to the church? Surely it means that Christ is strong enough to conquer sin and pure enough to judge it. The church is not the place to harbour sin. Sin should be the exception not the rule. That is why Scripture says that the church would be a pure virgin, unblemished, unwrinkled and unsullied.

Put another way, Christ condemns liberty in lifestyle. Becoming a Christian is more than just making a decision to avoid hell. It is embracing Christ as Saviour and Lord and beginning our heavenly pilgrimage here upon earth, while we are behind enemy lines. It is a lifestyle. It is a submitted commitment that begins at the moment of conversion and lasts for all eternity. The church needs a healthy view of that. She desperately needs to emphasise holiness rather than worldliness, throughout her very being.

The fourth characteristic is again in verse fifteen, describing - ‘His voice as the sound of many waters’. Ezekiel 43.2, Daniel 10.6, and Psalm 29.3 so describe the voice of God. The thunderous roaring voice portrays His omnipotence or His all-reaching, total, mighty power. The contemporary application is that we are to build the church by faith in the mighty power of God, and not by fear. We are to be reminded that nothing is too hard for Christ, and no obstacle is too great.

Whatever problem we face in the church, we need to allow Christ to solve it on our behalf. 2 Corinthians 12.9 reminds us that our strength is made perfect in weakness.

In addressing the Philadelphian church the Lord said, ‘Thou hast a little strength’ - just a little. It was not a great, strong church. It did not have a great reputation. It did not have a lot of money. It did not have numerous strongly-gifted workers. But if they embraced Christ as Lord of the church, looked to Him to supply the strength, and followed His directions, He would build a church that would exalt His name. The Philadelphian church was the obedient church.

The fifth feature of the Lord Jesus Christ in this vision is described in verse sixteen: ‘And he had in his right hand seven stars.’ In the twentieth verse we are told that the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches. The Greek word basically means messenger and it could refer to heavenly messengers or to God’s earthly messengers. I believe that there are powerful reasons for concluding that it here refers to human messengers, and I would suggest that they are the leaders of the seven churches.

These leaders are in Christ’s right hand, which portrays the victory that Christ will win. In Psalm 98, we read - ‘His right hand, and his holy arm, hath gotten him the victory.’ The figure points to His sovereign authority and control over the church through human leaders.

Those who feed and lead the flock of God must always honour the fact that Christ has sovereign control of His church. We must therefore build our churches by obedience and submission to Christ’s authority, rejecting any other authority, whether it be institutional or individual.

The sixth view of Christ is given in verse sixteen - ‘Out of his mouth went a sharp twoedged sword’. Isaiah 11.4 says - ‘He shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth.’ The sword portrays Christ’s invincibility and His ultimate victory. By obedience to Him, our work will succeed. He will be ultimately victorious.

Therefore we can build the church with courage, confidence and endurance. Like Paul, we can fight the good fight. We can finish the course. We can keep the faith. There is no need to capitulate or to compromise to or with anything or anyone.

The final characteristic of Christ described here is at the end of verse sixteen - ‘His countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength.’ John had seen this before on the mount of transfiguration, where he had captured a glimpse of Christ’s glory.

Ezekiel 43.2 speaks about the earth shining with the glory of God. Daniel 10.6 uses the same figure speaking of God’s majestic glory. This would have been the light that blinded Paul when he encountered Christ on the road to Damascus. Christ said, ‘I am the light of the world’ (John 8.12; 9.5), and so today it is Christ’s presence in the church which is the true glory.

We must build churches with a high view of Jesus Christ, and a significant sense of true worship in spirit and in truth. Christ must always be the centre-piece of the church. His eternal wisdom, omniscience, uncorrupted purity, omnipotence, sovereign authority, invincibility and majestic glory must always be paramount. And if we will only promote and uphold these seven lessons from the vision of Christ on Patmos, then the ship that is now off course will come back and sail in the direction that God intended her to sail.

The church today treats Jesus Christ in such an offhand, cavalier manner. But look at how John responded to Christ in verse seventeen. ‘And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead.’ He was overwhelmed with the glory of Jesus Christ, and we also need to become overwhelmed with the glory of Christ. We need to focus far more on His Deity, and the richness of His incomprehensibility. We need to honour Him Who is both transcendent and immanent at the same time. So the church needs to re-cultivate a consuming preoccupation with Christ as Lord of the church.

The hymnwriter wrote:-

The church’s one foundation
Is Jesus Christ, her Lord;
She is His new creation
By water and the Word;

From Heav’n He came and sought her
To be His holy bride,
With His own blood He bought her,
And for her life He died.

And as a result, Christ must reign supreme as Lord of the church.

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