Those who work hard at gathering new believers for the vital functions of Acts 2:42: teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayers, need to be constantly alert to dangers and pitfalls which can harm the young work. Paul’s letter to Titus warns about the threat of false teaching and the practical errors that result. God will protect His church, but He has said that he will use godly men with shepherd hearts to do so. This calls for careful attention to the Manual (Scripture) where these dangers are clearly identified and described. It is to be specially noted that many of the worst dangers will seem to bring temporary blessing, and so be popular with the untaught.
Who could ever list all the weapons in the arsenal of the enemy against the church? I would like to mention three of the most serious: emotionalism, legalism, and professionalism. We have often heard it said that these things arose shortly after the 1st century. This in not true. They have always existed wherever sinful human nature is present, and as pertaining to the church, were evident during the lives of the apostles, and have therefore been well addressed in their writings. The student must consider carefully what the Spirit of God has to say about these dangers in the epistles of Paul to the churches. The letters to the Corinthians, Galatians, and Ephesians will equip us to face and deal with these three serious threats to young churches.
Corinthians – the Answer to Emotionalism:
This type of church is often a swing of the pendulum away from cold, dead, legalism. At first, the new freedom is refreshing. But gradually, feelings can begin to guide the ship. “I” becomes central; (subjectivism). In spiritual things, this often involves an imbalance in or preoccupation with spiritual gifts. Favorite expression: “The letter kills but the Spirit gives life.” “Good” messages do not deal with doctrines but with “real life.” There are signs that a problem is developing: emotionalism (which is like drugs) requires larger doses over time to provide the same “high.” New and more bizarre things are brought into the picture “by the Lord.” Temporary blessings may include an increase in numbers of people and an apparent enthusiasm and “joy.” The long range effects will be the same as at Corinth: division, and error – both doctrinal and moral – since the objective foundation of faith (Scripture) has been neglected in favor of what feels good. Paul warned of this condition in II Tim. 4:3-4. Reacting against emotionalism, some have gone to the opposite extreme and become suspicious of the work of the Holy Spirit, and opposed to all expression of natural human feelings. These can swing back to the opposite danger of legalism. We must be careful not to discard those good and necessary workings of the Holy Spirit in the giving and use of gifts, the power and joy of true worship and service, without which the church will be dead. The safety of the church lies in a healthy balance of the Spirit of God and the Word of God, which two are complimentary and never in competition. Spiritual minds will grasp the truth that even though the Holy Spirit is the author of Scripture, the church must assign more weight to what the Scripture says than to what any persons speaks “by the Spirit” due to the deceitfulness of the human heart. Every danger the church faces can ultimately be traced back to the age old tactic of the devil: “Yea, hath God said…?” The clear warnings about false prophets in the last days alert us to the subtle shift in foundation of authority that can occur even among professing Christians, along with the desire to give credibility to new forms of emotional self expression in the church.
Church leaders need to be vigilant for anything that begins to compete with the central place of the Word of God in the church. The enemy knows that the source of all life is by the Word of God. An hour devoted to apostle’s doctrine if clearly presented and applied, is an hour of power in the church. But as years pass, things that were once brief and meant to support the main point of it all, namely that God will speak to His church through His Word, begin to compete. No longer will a few hymns suffice; the church now must have a “music ministry” that requires serious planning, major time allotment, and actually comes to be perceived by some as the basis on which to discern a “good church.” Sunday school, the once humble work of a few sisters or parents with small children becomes a major “youth ministry” which not only competes with the preaching service in the church, but often draws from the later many of the leading men and women of the church leaving whomever is not needed to hear the “sermon.” Even the announcements can become a sideshow with a master of ceremonies who enjoys taking time away from the message of the day to make the people laugh.
Galatians – The Answer to Legalism
Legalism is a serious problem, because it turns what ought to be a source of abundant joy into drudgery. It brings the church and the people into bondage, and enables the old nature to reign. Worst of all, it is at variance with grace. However, many people don’t understand the difference between legalism and obedience. So let’s start with a simple definition. Legalism is requiring obedience to what God has not commanded. Obedience is obeying what God has commanded. When some people hear a teaching on a subject they don’t like or are not used to, they quickly say “Oh, that’s legalism.” But if our definition is taken seriously, it will immediately become clear that there are very many customs, issues, and behaviors in society that are not directly addressed in Scripture but which have become subjects of rules and regulations in local churches. Often the motivation is good, that is, moved by a desire to seek holiness and avoid worldliness, the church leaders write binding “position papers” which in time can harden into policy. But as important as sanctification in the life of the believer is, there is a proper way to foster it, and that is not by adding to Scripture!
A church that has fallen into legalism often disdains any emotion or talk of the gifts of the Spirit. All may be done by the rules and the idea of spontaneity or freedom to act according to conscience is suspect from the start as possibly opening the door to unlawful actions. Now I am not appealing for looseness in the church! But a quick reading of the epistle to the Galatians suggests that whatever the proper way to maintain personal and collective holiness, it is not inconsistent with words like “freedom,” “liberty,” “being led” etc.
Before summarizing the thrust of Galatians on this subject, let us remember that legalism seeks to take control away from the Spirit of God and the Word of God, and place it in the hands of men; often certain people of influence. Those who have come from an overly permissive past life are especially vulnerable to a strictly controlled “new life.” This explains in part why so many stringent cults flourish. The reason given is that we must not break the law of God. But Galatians shows us the true place of law which is to show the sinner his need of forgiveness and salvation.
Galatians can be studied in 3 sections: the first 2 chapters are personal, in which Paul defends his calling and authority to write, as well as the foundation, source and simplicity of the gospel of grace. The middle 2 chapters are doctrinal in which Paul expounds the foundations on which salvation rests, namely the righteousness and free grace of God. The final 2 chapters are practical, and provide absolute proof that the salvation begun at conversion can never be perfected by turning back to law and self as expressed by the merit system. The believer begins by faith and lives by faith, and from beginning to end, he finds the grace of God sufficient for all things.
The church must live and walk in grace as well. Nothing of the flesh (self) will build the church. Spiritual leaders then, must feed the flock so that they will grow in grace individually and collectively. As babes are added to the fellowship, there will be much of the flesh visible. it requires wisdom to preserve a loving and accepting spirit so that the young believers will grow in grace (which is another way of saying that they will learn to obey the Lord out of a heart of love). But all this takes time and forbearance on the part of the older saints.
Ephesians – the Answer to Professionalism
Of all the dangers faced by a young church, none seems so innocent as seeking out a professional to lead. What can be more sensible than to have someone specially trained and ordained to preach and to officiate? Didn’t the Lord speak about sheep and shepherds, and what has found a wider acceptance among Christians everywhere than to have a Minister or Pastor? To question something so “normal” seems to mark out someone who at best is a bit eccentric and at worst part of a wicked cult. And yet it is nothing less than clear Biblical truth that every local church in the Bible about whose leadership we know anything, was led by ordinary men called elders or overseers; not a single example can be found of a church with one man in charge unless it be Diotrophes (III John) who loved to have the preeminence!
Other articles will deal with this issue in greater detail, but now it will suffice to note that that which the apostles were taught by the Lord Jesus in the gospels, that which they practiced in the book of Acts, and that which they taught in the epistles (whether to individuals or to churches) followed a common thread or principle throughout namely, that “one is your Master, even Christ, and all ye are brethren” [i.e., equal brothers] (Matt. 23:8). Never in the words of Christ nor in any teachings of the apostles is there the slightest hint that between Christ and the believer there is (or would be) a professional leader. On the contrary, elders were always plural, and always made up of men who were older, more experienced, and who began to do the work of shepherding the sheep before any recognition was obtained. One New Testament book, Ephesians, contributes substantially to our grasp of this truth.
After explaining the blessings which God has bestowed upon the believer in the first 3 chapters, Paul turns to the practical outworking of spiritual life among the people of God in chapters 4 – 6. He begins with an appeal for humility and forbearance in relationships, reminding the believers of the great tenets of truth which make them one in the Lord. Next he begins to speak about an area where humility and forbearance will be tested, the matter of individual gifts given for service. After listing several of the gifts ( or gifted individuals), he states that these servants are given by the Lord for the equipping of the saints, so that they – the saints – can perform the work of the ministry and the edifying of the body of Christ! In other words, the functions of the church, whether preaching or caring or reaching out to the lost will be carried out by the ordinary people of the church. Where then can we find a suitable model of these men who did this equipping?
Consider the example of the Lord. Why did he not stay awhile and run the Jerusalem church? From the first day, the work was in the hands of the apostles, and they swiftly turned it over to men called elders. They had no seminary training or human ordination and the testimony of those who watched them was that they were “unlearned and ignorant men” (Acts 4:13). Then consider the example of Paul the apostle. When did he ever take up residence in any city as Pastor of the church? He did not “install” a Timothy or a Titus in a church but rather instructed them to appoint elders in every city to which the gospel had come. Why? Because the whole idea of a Biblical priesthood of believers divided into a small inner privileged number known as “clergy” and a larger number of helpers (often spectators) called “laity” is contrary to the heart of that which the Lord came to build! Paul goes on in Ephesians 4 to show that as every part contributes, the church makes increase (vs.16).
In summary, those who lead must ever watch for dangers, but with special attention when the church is young. As it was in the early days, so it is today. There are those who cannot accept the judgment of Scripture on the flesh with its desire for subjecting all things spiritual to the test “How does it make you feel?” Emotionalism can lead a church into such subjectivism that a few can manipulate the rest. Others having the same goal will gain control through the commandments of men (legalism). Most subtle of all is the belief that by special titles, garments, and privileges, one can somehow become the servant of all when in fact he (as any child will tell you if asked), becomes the visible head of the church. May God give us eyes to see………….