Thursday, August 12, 2010

A MALIGNANT DISEASE.

One of the advantages of being retired is to realise the amount of time wasted in times gone by. Mind you, one can also get more of those little things done which were always put on hold because of being too busy. I’ve found retirement has been advantageous because there is more time to think about things we were always too busy to think about.

During my years as a pastor, my waking hours, and sometimes the hours when I was supposed to be sleeping, were absorbed with my work, especially sermon preparation, and writing weekly printed studies, preparing material for the church bulletin. Twelve hour days were common.

Personal matters, and many needy others, received little attention.

One thing that stands out to me like a beacon is the fact that pastor’s wives are, without doubt, greater heroes than their husbands could ever be. My precious wife was much neglected during a large part of my ministry.

I’m not telling you this because I feel a need for confession of such, but to illustrate a terrible malaise, a sickness, which has invaded everything which calls itself “Christianity” in today’s world. Very few, if any, escape this affliction, both pastors and their beloved congregations.

This disease is so insidious, that we don’t realize we are afflicted; and yet it leads, not only to the malfunction of the individual, but of whole church bodies.

In my case, as with most pastors, my total absorption in the traditional forms of ministry masked the symptoms, as does life’s involvements of the other members of Christ’s Body, for whom a combination of formalities is often involved; work, family, entertainment, hobbies, the positions we are entrusted with in the running of the church, other voluntary church work, etc., etc.

I want to share some thoughts about the extremely serious issue of this disease in the church family.

The words of Chrysostom, apply to what Paul said, and are as true today as ever,
Just as the fountains, though none may draw from them, still flow on; and the rivers, though none drink of them, still run; so must we do all on our part in speaking, though none give heed to us.


At the outset, I must declare my love for the church of Jesus Christ, of which all genuine followers of Christ are a part. We are His betrothed, His Bride to be.

Having made that declaration, I'm asking you to please be careful of how you read what I am about to write, simply because it is far too easy to have the attitude expressed in the following poem, of which I am unaware of whence it came:

PREACH A SERMON, PREACHER

Preach a sermon preacher, make it short and sweet,
Our stomachs strike at 12 o'clock a hungering to eat.

Preach a sermon preacher, with words both smooth and fair,
For psychology we are thirsting, for scripture we don't care.

Preach a sermon preacher, punctuate it with jokes,
Fill it with your yarns and tales and entertain us folks.

Preach a sermon preacher, we care not what you say;
As long as you leave us alone and fire the other way.

Preach a sermon preacher, but don't get too specific;
As long as you will generalize we think you are terrific.

Preach a sermon preacher, make it good and plain;
But don't you dare get close enough to call sin by its name.

Preach a sermon preacher, preach it round or flat;
We love to play at hide and seek and guess just where you're at.

Preach a sermon preacher, make it what we like to hear;
We'll pat you on your spineless back, while you scratch our itching ear.

In 2 Tim. 3:1-5 the apostle Paul warned Timothy, about the sickness of which I write. It was already becoming common in his day, but would become more virulent as the age of grace, in which we live, progresses:

In teaching Timothy about this malaise, Paul told the young pastor what symptoms to look for.

In v.5 Paul indicates how the disease will finally manifest itself: “They will hold to an outward form of godliness but deny its power.”

There is no doubt that the visible church is being devastated by this insidious disease. Its more obvious manifestation is in what would best be called “formalism”, which is rooted in much of what is accepted church practice.

My concern in this regard began more than thirty years ago, when I was an elder of a denominational church .

We were blessed to have two consecutive pastors, who were used of God to encourage my wife and I to enter full time pastoral ministry. I had found two brethren who shared my concerns. Interestingly, one was an Arminian who had little love for reformation doctrine, and the other, like myself, was thoroughly convinced in regard to the doctrines of grace, but, we three, held a common love and concern for the Church of Jesus Christ.

They were both the gentlest, unassuming, humble men.

Uppermost, in our many discussions, was that many of the central concepts and practices associated with what we call 'church' are not rooted in the New Testament, but in ideas and habits that formed after the apostolic times.

We found mutual agreement on four crucial points of church history portrayed by Jon Zens:
1. The church portrayed in the New Testament was a dynamic organism, a living body with every member a functioning part. From somewhere around 150 years after the establishment of the church, the church gradually became, increasingly, more and more governed by an established hierarchy, even though that hierarchy was unofficial. The church became institutionalised.
2. The early N.T. church was marked by the ministry of every believer, under the leadership of a plurality of elders. The building up of, and the meeting of needs of the church, was accomplished through the spiritual gifts of everyone who were the local church. People didn’t go to church, they were the church.
After the early years of the apostles, the church became more and more under the control of people claiming to be called to particular church offices. This had the catastrophic effect of separating the so-called 'laity' from the so-called “clergy”. This negated, the significant, and essential ministry of the average church member, leaving it in the hands of a so-called ‘clergy’ class.
3. Most of the first 150 years of the church were characterized by periods of intense difficulty and persecution . Indeed the church was a suffering body, and yet, under these conditions it flourished.
The time of Constantine changed all that and the church became formalised, favored and ultimately sanctioned and protected as the official religion of the Roman state. Because preachers did not teach otherwise by example and precept, the church became, as a rule, an institution at ease, which it continues to be to this day.
4. During the first 150 years the New Testament church was perceived as a real threat to the ungodly political and religious structures and powers of the day. Believers had no official protection and depended on the Holy Spirit to hold them together, to lead them in ministry and to protect them.
After Constantine’s intervention and sanction, the church became a very powerful institution, along with its many rules, rites and offices which had a specific design. That design was not so that the Lord of the church would be glorified, but to ensure an unassailable faithfulness to the institution, and an apparent visible unity among its adherents.
This was the beginning of the malignant cancer of formalism which affects most churches of today.


Formalism is the scrupulous adherence to prescribed or habitual outward forms.

to be continued

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