The Church, continued...
WHAT ARE THE PITFALLS? The World in the Church
What are the greatest dangers to the institution of the church? Aren’t they the same dangers as threaten the individual believer? I believe they are. If they are, can they be better summarized than this?
I John 2:15-17(NIV)
“Do not love the world or anything in the world....For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes, and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world.”
Here I venture into a severe comparison, so if I’ve gone too far, pull me back. I realize there is some pretty broad generalization in what follows, though the analogy is common in the writing of men like A.W. Tozer.
We know the story of Israel’s repeated struggles in the Old Testament. It is the story of the “world” finding its way into the sanctuary of God. The idols of Ashteroth, Baal and Moloch ultimately replacing the worship of God at the center of Israelite life. The transition didn’t happen all at once. It was a gradual, incremental shift, undoubtedly rationalized in a variety of ways. Aaron gave the people what they asked for. Jereboam needed to secure his position and the unity of his people. In each case a golden calf was the answer.
Within the history of the Church can we see a similar pattern? This much is obvious. As the world found its way in, the Church drifted, lost its purity, influence and power. As the Church resisted the world, it revived, reformed and regained it’s effectiveness, and the Kingdom of God advanced. The pattern is visible not only in the corrupted medieval church, which in retrospect everybody loves to hate, but even within the Reformation church and it’s many evangelical offshoots. Tozer once observed that in his day even church architecture had been redesigned to "house the golden calf." It can be clearly seen today in the Emergents' embrace of post-modern trends and its drift away from biblical authority, but also in corners where other temptations prevail.
How does the world get into the church? John’s diagnosis fits. Isn’t it some combination of “1) the cravings of sinful man, 2) the lust of his eyes, and 3) the boasting of what he has and does” that gets the Christian and the Church in trouble every time? The first two are the most obvious and officially least tolerated by evangelicals. Sexual immorality in leadership and financial scandal are legendary for bringing down great men and ministries and are usually dealt with severely.
But what about the third? Older translations render it “the pride of life.” It has been defined as the desire to be recognized, the drive to gain ascendancy over one’s fellow man, selfish ambition. This may be the ministry temptation most overlooked, and most excused—often in the name of "leadership."
Historically, the trouble seems to have begun with the church's acceptance and growing legitimacy within the Roman empire. Blame Constantine. Borrowing heavily from worldly government with which it had become entwined, the early institutional church was marked by the development of a powerful hierarchy, accountable only to itself, exercising imperious authority over members. It soon became possible for men to achieve—within the church—the wealth and status of princes and kings. In what was intended to be a priesthood of all believers, a priesthood of clergy appeared, and the Roman church was born with all its attendant complications and aberrations. Centuries later when the Reformation shook Europe, ecclesiastical pride and corruption were exposed, the great truths of justification and the priesthood of the believer were again recognized, and the worst excesses began to be remedied.
And here is where the contemporary application maybe gets too severe. It’s foolish to paint with too broad a brush because the vast majority of pastors and leaders in churches today don’t think this way. But if they do, they introduce a true "pride of life" idolatry. Whenever those purporting to lead the evangelical church begin to think of themselves as above the Body, create protective rings of insiders around themselves, wield all authority and are motivated by ambition to within the body of Christ achieve a kind of ascendancy over their fellow believers, haven’t they fallen into this third trap? In a real sense brought "the world" into the Sanctuary? Whether in the name of strong leadership, or discipleship, or for the goal of reaching the world for Christ, they have compromised a fundamental New Testament principle, and the end never justifies the means. "Not so with you..." Jesus said. Mt. 20:26
But motives are difficult to discern, so Protestant congregations historically have established checks and balances within their governance to protect themselves from these excesses, and in a sense, from their leaders! Any structure that minimizes critical truths about the Body of Christ—beginning with the precious truth of the priesthood of all believers, that excludes the congregation from it's proper function, demeans and harms the church, the Bride of Christ.
So my question is this: Could it be possible while destroying the high places of Astheroth and tearing down the altars of Baal to be found, perhaps unwittingly, embracing “the pride of life” in the theory and practice of modern spiritual leadership? I Peter 5:3 has to be speaking to such a possibility.
In the words of C.S. Lewis [The Four Loves, 1960 Harcourt Brace] have we "...shouted the name of Christ and enacted the service of Moloch?"
To be continued...