THE CRIPPLING OF THE CHURCH
All Christians want to see the church grow and do well. The early church in the book of Acts experienced tremendous growth in spite of immense persecution. The church in the early years of the restoration movement spread like wildfire across the Western Reserve, into the South, to the plains and prairies, and on out to the West Coast as the plea for apostolic Christianity and the effort to be Christians only without denominational affiliation struck a responsive chord with hundreds of thousands of sincere people.
In the 20th century the church continued to grow, and for a period of time near mid-century it was seen as one of the fastest growing religious bodies in America. Sadly, for the last several decades the Lord’s church has not been experiencing that kind of growth. The church seems to have been crippled in its effort to articulate the plea to go back and be what people were in New Testament times. What has led to this crippling of the church? No doubt many factors—both social and religious—are involved, but as one who has been in ministry for over sixty years I have some anecdotal thoughts to offer on this very serious matter.
God has a very simple organizational structure for the church and its work. When that structure is followed the church does well. When we try to “improve” on it, the church suffers because, as Paul notes, “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (I Corinthians 1:25). God’s plan calls for each local church to be an autonomous unit, with elders overseeing and pastoring the local flock, deacons serving, preachers evangelizing, and the members faithfully functioning in their respective and individual capacities. (In verification of the preceding, the following passages need to be carefully studied and thoroughly digested: Acts 6:1-7; Acts 14:23; Acts 20:17-38; Ephesians 4:11-16; Philippians 1:1; I Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9; Hebrews 13:7, 17; I Peter 5:1-4. If you should be of the disposition to take exception to what I shall say in the rest of this essay, I respectfully ask that you make sure you have read and digested the preceding passages!)
With the passing of time, subtle and unhealthy changes began to take place in God’s simple yet effective way for accomplishing the mission of His church. Beginning roughly in the 1950s and moving ahead more persistently in the 1960s and thereafter, there came to be a push for gospel preachers to be better trained “theologically.” Some in the church wanted it to be more like its denominational neighbors and have preachers that could compete with the denominational “pastors” from the standpoint of theological standing and theological degrees. Never mind that studious, dedicated gospel preachers were scholars in the word of God! Never mind that they could in many instances preach circles around their denominational counterparts and were vastly superior to them when it came to real Bible knowledge! The cry was for “a more educated and a more sophisticated ministry.” Ironically, as the educational level of preachers increased, the growth of the church decreased! How telling! (Note: Lest I be misunderstood, no thinking person will deny the importance of preachers obtaining all of the education they can that will help them to accurately and effectively communicate the word of God to others.)
In pursuit of a smoother and more sophisticated approach, many of our preachers ceased doing much evangelizing, i.e., preaching the gospel to the lost “publicly and from house to house” (Acts 20:20). Instead, they settled into their offices to manage the affairs of the congregation and to serve as its “pastor.” And the elders (the true pastors of the church) “love[d] to have it so” (Jeremiah 5:30)! They became content to function more as a board of directors than as the true leaders and shepherds of the flock, and some Bible professors in some of our schools even began to push this as the way for the church to go.
In time, preachers became proud and competitive (see my November 13, 2018 essay on “Sins Of Preachers”), vying for the largest congregations, the most prestigious pulpits, and the biggest salaries. Preaching became less doctrinal, less distinctive, less confrontational, and less evangelistic. The members no longer wanted to hear those kinds of sermons but wanted to hear sermons that would make them feel good. As in Israel of old, the situation in many places came to be, “Do not prophesy to us right things, speak to us smooth things” (Isaiah 30:10). And thus the words of the old apostle were fulfilled once again: “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth and be turned aside to fables” (II Timothy 4:3-4).
As salaries for preachers, along with all kinds of perquisites (“perks”) began to increase (and, in fact, to be demanded), several of the wrong kind of men were attracted to the ministry. (I am not suggesting that preachers should not be adequately supported for their work, for “the laborer is worthy of his hire”—Luke 10:7). Worldly men saw preaching as an “easy” way to make a living. Some congregations began to wane in their values, their morals, their distinctiveness. Some preachers, elders, deacons, and members have lived less than morally upright lives. Worldliness runs rampant in some congregations, including among the elders and the preacher(s). As a result, the reputation of the church in many geographical areas has been stained, evangelism has suffered, growth has been stymied, and the church has been severely crippled. The desire to “be like the nations” (denominational churches) has in many instances come full circle (see I Samuel 8:5, 19-20), and we are reaping the results. Why should we expect God to bless us when we ignore His standards, either doctrinally, morally, or both?
The remedy lies with preachers getting back to what they are supposed to do—preach and evangelize. Let the elders pastor, shepherd, and serve as overseers (bishops) of the congregations. Let the deacons “deac” (serve). Let the members work in their individual capacities. Let all live “soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world” (Titus 2:11-12). Congregations do not need preachers who see themselves as “Mr. Fix-its” to come in with a bunch of gadgets and gimmicks they have picked up from reading denominational books and journals! “In season and out of season,” short-term, long-term, part-time, full-time, or interim, we need preachers who will “preach the word” (II Timothy 4:2). That is what both the church and the world need! That alone is what will make the church start to grow again!
Sadly, some preachers are extremely insecure and feel that they must know everything the elders are planning and doing. Such is not the case. If the preachers are doing their job and the elders are doing their job, there is no need for such insecurity. Let all do the work the Scriptures have assigned to them and let all work together as a united team for the Lord in the local community!
It is my firm conviction that the turn-around in the growth of the church and its future depends on preachers humbling themselves, giving up their pride and competitiveness, and returning to the real work of a humble, dedicated gospel preacher. Men who never should have been preachers to begin with need to get out and make their living some other way. Men who love the Lord and the church, who have a genuine servant heart, and who live morally upright lives will be drawn to the work. We need a lot more of the wisdom of God and a lot less of the wisdom of man!
Note: The above is not intended as a universal indictment of all preachers, elders, and congregations (far from it), but are observations regarding some subtle and unbiblical trends that, in my judgment, have developed over the last several decades.
January 22, 2019