The Western Church is in Need of Revision
I have spent much of my adult life convinced that if church leaders just discovered the nature of the church as God has wonderfully designed it, we would see a release of the inherent power to multiply contained therein—to multiply righteousness in the lives of Jesus followers and to multiply local church bodies in the places where these people gather. I have been certain that maturing believers would become the norm if more leaders in the church and followers of Jesus would discover the power of the Bible as it is used by the Spirit of God to transform His people into the image of Jesus. Not that every person in our culture would become a Christian in this scenario, but everybody would have the opportunity to hear the gospel in their own language, understand the implications of the words they hear, and see the gospel in living and diverse Technicolor in the followers of Jesus who live in their neighborhoods.
I no longer believe it is that simple. From the standpoint of God’s intended design for mankind, it could be, but many of us in leadership in the Western world do not cooperate easily with God.
The church in our day has lost the vitality of being an organic body of people on journey with God the Spirit—the journey each believer is on until we are restored to the presence of God and the righteous kingdom Jesus has prepared for those who belong to Him. Instead, we have become the church made by man! We have become loose in our biblical convictions, lazy in our morals, and largely useless to the redemptive task Jesus left us to carry out together until He returns. All the while we have become obnoxiously haughty, thinking that our wealth of golden-tongued preachers and palace-like buildings are signs that God is satisfied with us. As leaders, our egos and our laziness are forever getting in the way of God’s design for the church! I, for one, don’t like it. And I don’t believe the Lord does either. If we are truly His, God must surely be full of righteous indignation at the state of His church and will either use the world that we have come to love too much to purify us or, worse, abandon us to ourselves.
I have become much more convinced in recent years that in order for the Western church to be brought to its knees, discover its shame, find forgiveness, and recommit itself to the only course of action God asks of us—obedience—something catastrophic needs to occur.
I am inspired in rereading the words of John White in The Golden Cow and agree with them wholeheartedly. White’s decades-old words are even more deserving of shock today than when he wrote them in the late 1970s. Let me share with you a few of his thoughts, starting with this one: “The church today is a prostitute and needs to be brought back.”1
He continues, "We Christians are too often like sponges soaked to capacity with the value system of the society we live in. Whether we sympathize with labor or industry, whether we are Republicans, Democrats, conservative, liberal, socialist or whatever our value systems, in practice we are one. We may argue fiercely with one another but we base our arguments on the same premise: the greatest good in life is a bigger (or better-cooked) slice of this world pie, a pie to which we all have an inalienable right."2
Finally, “Persecution from the powers of darkness is sure to come. Divine judgment on those who are unfaithful is equally certain. God takes no sadistic pleasure in it. Rather he is a God who weeps over our sins, who grieves over our waywardness. He yearns for us to realize that there is no place for two treasures in our hearts.”3
Will the catastrophe we need be a physical one? I have no idea, but generations of people in the Bible indeed suffered physical and economic privation as a result of God’s loving commitment to discipline those He loves. White believes that persecution from the powers of darkness will surely come. Only time will tell if it will include tangible physical and economic difficulty.
The apostle Paul wrote his first letter to Timothy in a day similar to ours, giving Timothy a prescription for the church in Ephesus that he was leading. The instructions apply to us in our day as well. Most of my life I was led to believe that books like 1 Timothy were descriptions of how we were to organize our churches—“Just do things this way, and you too will be a church that God has designed.” In my younger epoch people focused on the distinction between elders and deacons: “If we could just get that distinction right,” I have heard, “wow, we would see things really take off.” Since then the body of Christ has been flooded with other failsafe ideas about church and how to organize it ad nauseam: add a Saturday-night service, hold two services on Sunday morning, expand the parking lots, introduce smoke and dark lights into our services. The result? Many of us stink to high heaven when we lay almost any biblical criteria next to our lives as we actually live them during the week!
What I am about to say in the chapters that follow come from Paul’s instructions to Timothy regarding the Ephesian church. In light of this, I want to point out several important things about the book of 1 Timothy and what it means to us today. First, this book and others like it have nothing to do with how to organize a church. I assume that godly leadership in each and every demonstration of the church will read 1 Timothy and other Scripture, learn how to listen to the Holy Spirit, and then act to design the expression of their local churches accordingly. Second, both letters by Paul to Timothy are love letters from a veteran to a young man he loved deeply. Third, while Paul addresses a number of concepts in this book, he does not do so exhaustively; the issues he covers, however, are as germane to the life of church today as they were when he wrote them. A few of them, I would even say, are explosive in their roots and implications. Fourth, having said that 1 Timothy is not a pattern for church organization, I do address in various places throughout this book the matter of structure, or more correctly said, structures. For if, as I believe, the Holy Spirit expects leaders to be daily connected to His Word and filled with His Holy Spirit and thus figure out most of their ministry expressions locally, then we must first ask, what are the non-negotiables for every church, and what implications follow?
With all this in mind, I would like to plumb the issues Paul addressed in the book of 1 Timothy and see what they mean for our local Western churches today. While every matter Paul touched on has a biblical standard, Paul was not exhaustive on any of them. He was clear enough regarding each issue, however, to convey the perspective God expects from His people—a perspective that is upside-down from that of the world. In every matter Paul discussed are some highly instructive details for us to search out and take to heart. They will not help those of us who are leaders organize Christ’s people, but they will help us call believers to the direction implied by new birth and the residency of the Holy Spirit within us.
We do not have time to focus on church “improvements” that look more like the world than the church of Jesus Christ. Like Timothy, church leadership today must embrace wholeheartedly the call of God to lead the church well and in the fullness of God’s plan and purpose. Only then will we see our people growing as they should—spending time in God’s Word, listening to the Holy Spirit’s prompting, and being used of the Lord to reach the people around them wherever they live among the nations. We must become the church made not by man but by God
Excerpts from The Church as God Designed It available on Amazon