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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
Davis W. Huckabee
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New Testament churches do not naturally die; they are so-constituted that they cannot die a natural death. They may, however, be killed, but even in this they can hardly be killed by outsiders except by the annihilation of the entire membership. Churches are most often killed from the inside; their own members kill them.
A church is not just an organization; it is also an organism — a living thing, and as such, it has the potential of either growing and thriving, or languishing and dying. The Lord promised that His church, considered as an institution, would not die, Matt. 16:18, but this only means that there will be a continuity of churches like the Jerusalem church until his return; it does not guarantee the continued existence of any individual church. How then may a church be killed?
I. BY STAYING AWAY FROM IT
The Scriptures liken church members to the members of a physical body, I Cor. 12:12ff, and just as certain organs of the human body cannot be removed without death coming to the body, so it is with the church, the body of Christ. When the members of the church start staying away from it, this soon leads to its death.
This is generally a gradual tiring, starting first with the neglect of the business meetings because "it doesn't matter whether I am there or not. The others are going to run things to please themselves."
The night services are really the acid test of a church member's love for the Lord, for many people come to church for the morning services simply because there is nothing else to do except stay home.- Of Course, there are many professed Christians who will even forsake the House of God Sunday morning in order to sleep in; these are the very most unfaithful kind. But of those who attend the Sunday morning services regularly, many could not be gotten out for evening services for anything. But the same excuses that are thought valid for staying away from church services will not do when one is invited to a party, or when money is to be made by being in a certain place, etc. But the Lord will one day settle up the accounts.
"All the ways of a man are clean in his own eyes; but the Lord weigheth the spirits," Prov. 16:2.
Some church members permanently forsake the church, never more to return; but if we consider the connections between the two verses in Heb. 10:25-26, we find that this is an indication that the individual was only a false Christian. The same is true in I John 2:19, "They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us."
II. BY STARVING IT
A church lives and grows only by conversions and the additions of those converts to its number, and therefore if it is not nourished by conversions as a result of preaching and praying, it will soon die off from lack of additions. Souls being saved are a blood transfusion to any church. "And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved" Acts 2:47. God does the adding to the church, yet He does it through the prayers and the preaching and the witnessing of His people.
A church may be killed by starving it of spirituality; we must remember that the degenerate Church of Rome was once a New Testament church until it lost its spirituality. Heresy in doctrine is first preceded by heresy in practice; i.e., by a carnal life. How may this be prevented? By its members living a sanctified (dedicated) life from day to day (not week by week, nor month by month). But dedication requires self-denial, and all too many professed Christians are unwilling to do this.
Then it is possible to starve a church to death by not supporting it with one's prayers and finances. A church is a business — the grandest, most worthwhile business in the world, and therefore it must have money to operate. Because it is a heavenly business, it needs, in addition to money, the prayers of the Lord's people. Some professed believers are much more diligent in running down the church, the pastor, and those who are faithfully working in the church, than they are in praying for these and helping them.
The same thing is true of Christians as it is of mules: They can't pull while they are kicking, and they can't kick while they are pulling. As to the failure of God's people to support the church financially, Mal. 3:8-10 is still in the Bible, and it calls the withholder of the tithes and offerings just what he is — a thief. Nor will it do to say "But that's in the Old Testament." The division of the Bible into the Old and the New Testament is strictly a man-made division; the Scriptures themselves know nothing of this. But in any case, I Cor. 9:1-14 obligates believers to support the church in precisely the same way that the Tabernacle was supported — by tithes and offerings. See especially v.14.
III. BY STRIFE IN IT
Strife has probably killed almost as many churches as any other one thing When two people are in disagreement, and both are utterly selfish, it will cause a strife which will grow until it consumes the whole church, unless the church takes steps to end the strife. Strife is a mark of spiritual immaturity and carnality: "And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ...For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men?" I Cor. 3:1, 3
Strife generally has its roots in pride, for where there is strife, both parties proudly assume that they are right, and will not admit even the possibility of being wrong. At the same time, neither will try to see the other's point of view, nor will either admit that the other could be right in the least degree. It is a fortunate church which does not have such an undercurrent of strife.
Strife is also promoted by self-righteousness in that one looks down upon others, while exalting self in his own mind. He takes the attitude of the Pharisee in Luke 18: 9ff. Pride stands in the way of humility, which is always the first step toward repentance.
One of the most tragic forms of church strife is when a member, or group of members, get their feelings hurt by the preaching (which is very common when the preacher is faithful to preach against sin, and to declare the members' duty). Often the dissident members will mount a campaign to run the preacher off, and the most common excuse used is that he is a "dictator." Now we have no sympathy with a genuine dictator in the pulpit, but ere a man of God is stigmatized as a dictator, men had best consider what the preacher is commissioned and commanded to do: he is to "Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine," II Tim. 4:2. "Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear," I Tim. 5:20. "These things speak, and exhort, and rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith," Titus 1:13.
On the basis of these, and the many other similar texts, the preacher has a duty to not only declare the truth, but also to rebuke those members who are living wayward lives, and no one has a right to call him a dictator for only doing his duty. This is not to say that he may use the pulpit to chide members for personal differences of opinion, nor that he should jump upon and spur every one for every little misstep. The wise pastor will quickly learn to use Christian psychology even in the most serious breaches of Christian ethics, and that "A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger," Prov. 15:1. A belligerent or overbearing preacher will produce only heartache for himself and discouragement for the church.
Strife between the members of a church and the pastor often destroys a church for the simple reason that by rebellion against the pastor, the members are rebelling against the Lord, for though the church may vote to call a man as pastor, yet if they are led of the Lord in doing so, the pastor is made the superintendent or overseer (Grk. "bishop") over the flock, Acts 20:28.
Not only so, but the preacher, when he stands to declare the gospel, is an ambassador for Christ, beseeching men in the stead of Christ to be reconciled to God, II Cor. 5:18-20. And yet more so, when he preaches Christian responsibility to believers, they are obligated to obey and submit themselves, for the pastor is accountable to God for them, and thus it is a solemn thing to disobey when the pastor is only endeavoring to lead one on to serve the Lord better and more faithfully. "Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief- for that is unprofitable for you," Heb. 13:17.
Some churches degrade the pastoral office to that of a mere figurehead, and treat the pastor with less respect than any layman in the church; sometimes they let their independency and autonomy go to their heads, and they think they can run the preacher off any time they don't like what he says. But it is noteworthy that the Scriptures give not a single example of the dismissal of a pastor from a church, nor of a church even challenging the authority of the pastoral office.
It is to be granted that the church has authority over its members, including the pastor, but it is also true that the pastor is a man specially called of God to his office, and he stands in a special relationship to God, and while on rare occasions it may be necessary to dismiss and exclude a preacher because of immorality or heresy, yet a church should be very slow to take any action against one of the Lord's prophets without good reason. "Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses," I Tim. 5:19. "Touch not mind anointed, and do my prophets no harm," Ps. 105:15.
IV. BY STUBBORNNESS
In the Scriptures, stubbornness is a sin that is compared t witchcraft and idolatry, I Sam. 15:22, and yet some people seem to delight in stubbornly resisting all spiritual progress any activity in the church. It is no virtue to be so set in one's ways that one hinders a church from changing for the better. No church was ever so perfect when it started but that it has room to change for the better.
Indeed, sanctification is itself a progressive changing for the better of individuals, and if the members daily change for the better, so should the church. The sin of the Sardis Church was that it stubbornly refused to repent of sin, Rev. 3:3, and consequently it slowly died on the vine, all the while refusing to admit its cold and indifferent state. There is such a thing as dead orthodoxy — a doctrinal soundness which is devoid of any real love to Christ.
Some say, "Well, it is my life, and it is my business whether I repent or not," but this is not true, for every person is an example to someone else, and his bad example will lead others astray, perhaps concerning something much worse. Besides, the corruption of a church member is a corruption of that much of the church, and "A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump," I Cor. 5:6. No one can afford to indulge any sin, because sin in church members is what kills churches.
There are many ways to kill a church, but the important thing to notice is the solemn consequences of tearing down a church of the living God: "If any man defile (`destroy'—the Greek word is the same as that translated 'destroy') the temple of God (a church, as the preceding verse shows), him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are," I Cor. 3:17. It matters not what excuses may be given, if an individual or group of individuals so conduct themselves as to cause the death of a church, they had better prepare to shortly face the judgment of God in the loss of their physical lives.
A church is of more importance than the collective rights of all the members, for a church exists, not just for its own present members, but is a witness to many who may never join it, but who may be led to the Lord through its ministry. Not only so, but the rights of future members must also be considered when taking any action that might be detrimental to the church. Many carnal church members, in their zeal to get their own way, justify their own sins, sooth their own pride and hurt feelings, do not care that they may quench the only faithful lighthouse of the truth in their community. Nor that future generations may not have opportunity to hear the gospel and to be saved because a church was destroyed by the carnality of its members.
The attitude of some is "I'm saved, so let the rest of the world go to hell for all I care." Such an attitude hardly evidences genuine salvation. If it be true that "Whoso hath this world's good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?" (1 John 3:17) How much more so is this true of those who have no concern for the welfare of the souls of others? God pity the man who destroys a church: if he is saved at all, he puts himself under the judgment of physical death for putting his own selfish wants and will above the welfare of a church of the living God.
V. BY SELFISHNESS
All of the foregoing points may be summed up in this one, but we venture to make a few more comments which fall specifically under this heading. We live in the most affluent society that this world has ever known. Add to this the fact that this generation has greater means to get the gospel to every race, nation and tribe of people than any previous generation. Radio, TV, and the press make evangelism possible as never before. But what happens? Instead of using these means for the glory of God, men become so selfishly involved in them that all of these become definite detriments to the truth.
It has been found that people spend hundreds of times more on pets than on all religious enterprises combined, and Newscaster Paul Harvey reports that for every dollar that is spent on churches, $12,000 is spent on crime. It should be obvious from this that we are working at the wrong end of the problem.
There are many foreign mission fields on which a native missionary can be supported for only $25 to $30 per month — no more than what many people spend per month, on cigarettes alone, yet how many individual Christians does one hear of doing this? Often when mission needs are presented to the church by the pastor, someone will counter with the proposition that "We ought to use some of our money on home missions."
Certainly home missions are essential, if they are truly mission projects, but unfortunately all too often the term is used to excuse the spending of the Lord's money on something that caters only to the fleshly nature of the church members, such as having the tallest steeple in town, or the most modernistic building design, or the largest organ, or the fanciest choir robes, etc. By "home missions" some only mean, "Let's spend the money locally on something that we can get the benefit of." For the money that the Lord's people have spent foolishly and for mere fleshly gratification in the last hundred years, the world could have been reached with the gospel several times.
What has all this to do with killing a church? Just this: giving to missions is the thermometer which shows the spiritual atmosphere of a church. It is generally the gauge of godliness in the church. cal it home missions or whatever one pleases, but the selfish use of the Lord's money for the gratification of the members of a church will kill that church as quickly as almost any one thing. May God give us more sound and serviceable churches by stirring up church members to be more dedicated and obedient.
Are you killing your church by your sinfulness, by your selfishness, by your neglect? Then repent before both the church and yourself are destroyed.