21st Century Idols

1. Image
These are the days of the spin doctor, of marketing and “it’s who you know, not what you know“? There’s no doubt about it, these are powerful cultural influences that we grapple with. This is my first personal website; my circle of influence is small. There’s no doubt about it, having a name which is well known in the Christian world gains attention, for good or ill. It’s a sad reflection on society but image counts, in fact, it’s probably more influential than ability or character. Look at the political or the entertainment world. Do we have to fall prey to the world’s ways of doing things? What about the local congregation that markets itself as, for example, the friendly church, or the church with good music? So what if they are friendly and have excellent music? What about the preacher who promotes his “anointed ministry”? I wonder how God views them? Let’s take a look at what the Spirit had to say to the church at Sardis,
“I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God”. (Rev.2:1-2).
The Spirit said to the church at Laodicea,
“You say, “I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need anything”. But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked”. (Rev.3:7).
Things are not always the way they seem. What is it to be, image or a character which gains God’s approval?
“I know your afflictions and your poverty—-yet you are rich!” (Rev.2:9, Smyrna).
“See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name”. (Rev.3:8, Philadelphia).
2. Specialization
The Church is divided. There’s little hope of true unity, It’s a rare congregation that is well represented in the area of gifts, so we specialize in the areas that we believe we are good at. Diversification stretches us too thinly and we cease to be effective, so again we concentrate on the areas where our gifts are. Sounds fine doesn’t it? In practice, what usually happens is the area of specialization is found in the strongest gifts of a congregation’s key leader. In many cases, the leader will attract other like-minded key people and so the specialization intensifies. The problem is, we are not running a business. More and more churches are adopting the business model for the local church. It works well in the world; it makes for profitable companies but it is a false culture for the Church. The area of specialization becomes the reason for being. It is justified under the idea that God has designed it that way. In other words, each congregation is perceived as being like an individual with certain gifts. It is excused under the label of diversity. However, we can’t treat local church like individuals. That’s not a Biblical model. The Biblical model gives us a complete expression of the body, the diversity being expressed through the diversity of gifts among the people. Specialization wrongly affirms division. It marginalizes people within a congregation who do not fit the church profile. Because of the drive to demonstrate the integrity of the model and because it is outside of God’s ordained pattern for the Church, grace is limited in its function and has to be replaced by some other method. So we devise structures and organization to achieve the goal. Before long the goal and organization have a life of their own. They become all consuming, the reason for existence. People must be sacrificed for the cause, and dissatisfaction and disillusionment set in.
3. Co-operation
Division has become so much a part of the expression of the Church, that it has become difficult to image what unity could look like. Division has been reinterpreted as diversity and, of course, diversity is good. However, there is something deep within the corporate psyche of most of the church that can’t settle with the way things are. Somewhere the principle of unity must surface, it must be voiced. So we have cooperation. Cooperation is marketable. It looks like unity, at least superficially. Co-operation allows joint action where a common purpose is described. A cause is found and it is paraded as the Church working together as one. It could be a form of social action or something as simple and basic as having a joint service once a quarter. Here’s the heart of the problem. We embark upon our joint venture but outside of it we retreat back into the vested interests of our belief systems and structures, excluding others from partaking. One of the difficulties with co-operation is deciding the areas where we can co-operate and with whom. One approach is to discover the areas of common ground. What statements of belief can we agree on in order to make the alliance? In other words what is the lowest common denominator? What articles of faith can we leave in and what can we leave out? What is deemed to be essential for one is not for another. What if some essentials can be agreed upon but other aspects of belief compromise the essentials? Let me suggest an example where co-operation is sometimes sought: evangelism. Many small congregations do not have the facilities to evangelize effectively so it seems to be a good idea to share the task with others. However, the problem arises when contacts or converts are made. How does, for example, the congregation that believes in the continuing use of spiritual gifts, today, rest easily with another group that is opposed to the idea? Can the congregation which believes that the Word of Faith movement represents a serious departure from the truth, pass on converts with integrity? In the end it all hangs on the issue of truth. Co-operation without truth falls outside the boundaries of the Church. If a sufficient level of agreement on truth can be established, how can division be justified? In the end, co-operation is the enemy of unity and reinforces the divisions which already exist. You might say that it is better to co-operate than to do nothing; that co-operation might lead to unity. I would have to concede that in some cases, it might just be a possibility but in those cases I do not doubt that there would have to be a forum already in place, where belief issues can be examined and there is a willingness to change. Otherwise co-operation serves as a band aid, masking the underlying sore.
Are you ready for a challenge? Aim high, don’t settle for less than God’s purpose, which is, unity based on truth. It’ll cost you. You’ll be marginalized, which, of course, doesn’t feel like unity. Actively seek out those of like mind. Resist the urge to build new structures but,
“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace”. (Eph.4:3).
Peace exists where the kingdom principles of Christ are at work in the hearts, minds and relationships of God’s people. It is the rule of Christ which comes from heaven, superseding external structures; allowing the grace of God to empower without the restriction of the traditions of men.
4. Formulas
If it works it must be right. Many years ago, I was a financial consultant, which is a fancy name for a sales representative. In the industry, they spoke much of having a positive mental attitude, which is fine in itself but must not be confused with faith. There was a formula for success. In simple terms it was achieved by learning a script and repeating the sales method consistently for a period of time until it entered the subconscious and became automatic. Apparently, repetition for 28 consecutive days forms a habit, which then becomes the fall back position. They called it a gestalt. It’s difficult to prove whether it works or not but some say that it does. If it works for them, then that’s the best way for them to work. Now let’s turn our attention to the Church. Is it correct or permissible to say, if it works it must be right? For Christians, the only acceptable way to live is by faith. The formulas and gestalts have their equivalents in sectors of the Church. How many books have been written in recent years, promising success if we follow the formula? In the case of the Christian, it’s the magic 40. Let me say this; this way of viewing living for Christ is, at best, positive mental attitude but, at worst, pagan magic. It appeals to the superstitious mind. Our formulas include the use of certain words said in a particular way. Usually they are taken out of context from scripture and are said to have power. Blessings are said to come from positive confession, while curses are said to come from negative words. Let us be absolutely clear, words in themselves have no intrinsic power; they are vehicles of communication. If there is a power in the words, it is because of what they portray or it is from some other source; perhaps the speaker, himself, or the power that stands behind the speaker. Perhaps the most common formula is that which is done in the name of Jesus. The belief is that if we say, or prophesy, in His name, then the result is guaranteed, because there is power in the name of Jesus. Of course, there is power in the name of Jesus. Remember the Jewish exorcists in Acts 19? They tried to expel demons by invoking His name. It didn’t work! Let’s examine their belief system for a moment. They recognized that there was an unseen realm and in that realm there are all kinds of powers. They believed that Jesus was a higher power than the demons that they were trying to exorcise. So, they try to capture this power by invoking His name. The belief system is that by knowing and using the name of a power, the power comes under the control of the speaker. It’s called name magic. It’s pagan. What then, does it mean for the Christian to say, “in the name of Jesus”? Biblically, whenever we see the word “name” we should replace it with either “nature” or “authority”. Name almost always represents nature but, often it includes the idea of authority. If we understand correctly that when we say “in the name of Jesus” we are acknowledging His higher authority and, therefore, we are submitting to Him. We seek His approval and we are privileged to own His name. Then, there is only real power but no formula.
5. Manifestation; three balloons and a garden shed
I’m glad that I didn’t live as an Old Testament Jew in the times before Christ but I would have liked to have seen some of the manifestations of God’s presence. Have you ever wondered what the pillar of fire looked like? What about the glory of God in the sanctuary, or in the cloud which covered mount Sinai? Moses was in conversation with the Lord about his task of leading Israel. The Lord promised that His Presence would go with him. Then He said to Moses,
“— you cannot see my face, for no-one may see me and live.—- There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a left of a rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.” (Ex.33:12-23).
In the Old Testament there are many references to the glory of God, which is another way of saying a manifestation of His presence, in a form that could be seen, heard or felt. In the New testament we have a different picture. Jesus is the greatest expression of the glory of God. Now we see that because Christ has ascended, that the glory of God is within His people. This is both a great mystery and a challenge for the Church to present to the world the glory of God, pointing towards the day when His glory will be fully revealed. We live in the tension of continuing the suffering of Christ until the final day, when the ultimate expression of glory will be revealed. The truth is this, the present expression of the glory of God is greater than all of the manifestations that we read of in the Old Testament times. The glory of God is now in the sanctuary of His people. This is difficult for us to fully accept; we seem to have a need to look for evidences of that glory in some form of outward expression. Does that mean that God will never show His glory in similar ways to those recorded in the Old Testament? I don’t think so. God can and does so whenever He wishes. We noted that, in Old Testament times, His glory could be seen, heard and felt. In New Testament times, he reserves the right to manifest Himself in any way that he chooses. For example, on the Day of Pentecost and afterwards, the Holy Spirit came upon the believers and His presence was seen, heard and felt. We have no reason to limit the manifestation of the glory of God to the examples we have in Acts. The oncoming of the Holy Spirit is a continuing manifestation of the glory of God throughout the whole Church Age. Paul teaches in 1st Corinthians, that the manifestations of the Holy Spirit are given for the good of the whole Church. Supernatural gifts are among the ways in which God shows His glory in the present day. When Paul wrote his exposition regarding the use of such gifts, he was addressing disorder in the Corinthian church. We need to keep this closely in mind. In our desire to see God at work we are in danger of becoming open to manufacturing manifestations, whenever there is a gap between expectation and experience. This is especially so if the belief system denigrates the intellect; when there is a disconnection between the mind and spirit.
I am reminded of an occasion some time ago that took place in Manchester, England. I had taken a group of people to a meeting which was held in one of the major charismatic churches. The service went well and then, it was ministry time. A man went up to the leader and asked permission to share something with the congregation. He proceeded to relate a vision that he had seen. This is how it went. There were three balloons locked in a garden shed; someone opened the door and they sailed out into the sky. Apparently, the three balloons represented three men in the congregation. God was about to release them into significant ministry. The leader called three men forward and proceeded to prophesy over them. One was pushed over, another seeing the first man decided to kneel. A wise move; he couldn’t be pushed. Now it was time for the third. All kinds of bold statements were made about how he had a heart for the city and how God was going to use him. Problem! The third man was the music leader from my church and he had no connection with, or particular heart for, Manchester. What should I do? Should I step forward and bring correction? Should I leave it to play out and see what would happen and address it later? Sometimes discretion is the better part of valour and I decide to wait it out (prompted by my wife). My man was a big guy and was not for going down. Eventually the leader left him alone and Mr Big went back to his seat, relieved that he wasn’t a balloon. In my discussion with the leader afterwards, apparently the vision was fine but it appeared that they had got the wrong man! That’s the trouble with God, He doesn’t always give the full information.

I am more and more convinced, that we as the Church, need to demonstrate the glory of God. Sometimes we can do that through the use of gifts given at the will of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes God makes His presence felt. It’s like the glory which is described in the Old Testament, a sense of the weight of His presence which comes upon a people who remain still and quiet as He makes Himself known. Above all, His glory is shown when the Church is in a place of complete submission to Him, giving an accurate representation of Him to the world outside.
6. Tolerance
Surely tolerance is a virtue? Should we not tolerate our differences? Can we not make allowances for our diverse doctrinal positions and practices? Let’s make this clear; forbearance is necessary. Forbearance accepts the fact that we are all on a journey, none have arrived at the destination yet. We do not know all the truth and sometimes we are weak and fail but we love our brothers and sisters in the Lord and desire their very best. Forbearance come first from a place of unity, a desire to uphold each other until the journey is complete. Tolerance, on the other hand, turns a blind eye to error and sin, on the basis of a false understanding of peace and love, or, maybe downright cowardice. This is what I can’t understand, if I suggest that we all seek to come together to common understanding, then I am not tolerated. If I seek to bring godly discipline to someone who has fallen prey to sin, I am not tolerated. There seems to be a double standard here. The Christian cries injustice when the tolerant world treats the Church in this way but does the very same thing to fellow believers. When we suffer injustice from the world for the sake of the Gospel, then we are blessed. We ought not to make judgment on the world, that’s Jesus’ task. We must make judgment on the Church, otherwise she might stray into error or sin; in which case how can we truly say that we love each other.

Let me give you an example of where tolerance might lead. Turn with me to the Revelation,
“Nevertheless, I have this against you: you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways. I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds.” (Rev.2:20-23, my italics).
God takes error seriously. Error leads to wrong practice and even immorality. When these kinds of issues are not tackled in local gatherings of the Church, the Church comes under His judgment and He may choose to withdraw His presence.