Purity, Power, and the Missing Mark of the Church
Arguably the best general description of the effect the New Testament Church had on its society is given by Luke in Acts 17:6. When an unruly mob could not find Paul and Silas — the source of their irritation — they dragged other Christians before the city officials and declared, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also” (Acts 17:6). What was intended as a damning criticism, however, was actually an unintended accolade because unbelievers were admitting that the early Christians were having a substantial impact upon society, a society characterised by polytheism, gladiatorial combats, sex outside of marriage, divorce, infanticide, and abortion. This account sounds just like life in early twenty-first century Western civilization, doesn’t it? Well, it does, except for the bit about the church turning the world upside down.
Our postmodern, pluralistic society is not far removed in essence from first-century Graeco-Roman society. Ungodliness is still here, immorality is still in evidence, and the life-is-cheap attitude still pervades. But society in the West does not really notice or take seriously the church. Why? Could it be because the reality of the living God is not being seen in the Western church? Could it be because there is no attention-grabbing evidence of the transforming power of the gospel? Could it be because, to some extent, the sign ichabod is metaphorically hanging over the doors of many sanctuaries and around the necks of many Christians? And if all this is the case, why is it the case? Could it be because, generally speaking, Christians in the West are simply not as devoted to the Apostles’ teaching as we should be? I am increasingly convinced that this is the case.
Think of it like this. Ephesians 2:4–5 makes it clear that before a person is saved by God’s grace, love, and mercy, that person is dead in trespasses. However, once a person is saved by God’s grace, love, and mercy, that person is alive to God in Jesus Christ. Our Western society is made up, therefore, of a basic dichotomy of people: those who are spiritually dead, and those who are spiritually alive; those who follow the ways of a social value system that is opposed to the Lord, and those who follow the Lord; those enslaved to the Devil, and those who are new creations in Christ; those who gratify the desires of sinful nature, and those who can gratify the desires of the Holy Spirit; those who are not indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and those who are. Why is the difference in belief, lifestyle, and behaviour between believers and unbelievers not startlingly noticeable? Why are Christians not impacting Western society for good and God’s glory? Why are Christians not being accused of “turning the world upside down”?
How can the Western church return to a level of purity that would provide the foundation off which the transforming power of the gospel would be noticed by society and subsequently make a substantial impact on society? The answer may lie in getting our church discipline right.
Preventive Church Discipline — The Missing Mark of the Church
When he wrote to Cardinal Sadoleto on September 1, 1539, seeking to defend Genevan reform against Sadoleto’s contention that the Roman Catholic Church alone bore the marks of the true church, John Calvin referred to three things on which he considered the safety of the church to be founded: doctrine, discipline, and the sacraments. The Belgic Confession of 1561 also refers to discipline along with Biblical doctrine and the sacraments when it lists the “marks” of the church. It seems clear that both of these references to church discipline concern corrective church discipline. Church discipline, however, has two aspects to it: corrective and preventive. Preventive discipline may be compared to preventive health care—eating correctly to avoid health problems. Corrective discipline, on the other hand, may be compared to surgery—removing the problem for the health of the body.
Both of these aspects of church discipline can be seen in Titus 2:15. The Apostle Paul writes, “These, then, are the things you should teach. Exhort and rebuke with all authority.” Titus was to exhort—appeal to, urge, encourage—and he was to rebuke—reprove, correct, call to account, discipline through punishment. In other words, Titus was to exercise both preventive church discipline and corrective church discipline. Given this, it is unfortunate that many Christians have a one-sided view of church discipline. To many, church discipline, please pardon the pun, smacks of punishment, but we must not forget this other side. Preventive church discipline focuses more on teaching in order to produce holy living that does not need to be subject to the corrective disciplinary procedures outlined, for example, in Matthew 18:15–17. I would suggest that preventive discipline is the missing mark of the church today. I believe there to be three key areas where such discipline, if faithfully applied and subsequently obeyed, would result in the Western church having a marked influence on our Western society.
1. Personal Spiritual Formation
I sense that many Christians have a deficient understanding of what the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ really is. Typically, this glorious message understood merely as a message about deliverance from the guilt of sin. However, it is also a message about deliverance from the power and influence of sin. Does this not come across clearly in Paul’s epistle to the Romans? His desire was to preach the gospel to them (cf. Romans 1:15), and that is what he did in the rest of his letter as he taught them about justification by faith and holy living.
A truncated understanding about the nature of the gospel has a direct bearing on a Christian’s spiritual formation and growth in holiness, which in turn affects evidence of the transforming power of the gospel in that Christian’s life. Francis Schaeffer in True Spirituality wrote about the metaphorical chairs that all people sit on. Unbelievers sit on one chair, look out upon the world, and only appreciate the natural. Christians, however, sit on the other chair and view the world, appreciating both the natural and the supernatural. But if Christians sitting in the correct chair live as if the supernatural is not there, they are guilty of what Schaeffer calls “unfaith,” and the transforming power of the gospel is not seen in their lives. Many Christians in the West today, it seems to me, are guilty of “unfaith.” This must be addressed through preventive church discipline. In other words, Christians must be taught a holistic understanding of the gospel. They must be taught the doctrines of regeneration, propitiation, justification by faith, union with Jesus Christ, adoption, sanctification, glorification, and so on, and they must be taught how to appropriate the truths of these doctrines for themselves. Christians must appreciate what it means to live a life of continual repentance and faith — mortification and vivification in Puritan-speak – as they are taught how to identify heart idols (the sin behind the sin), tear their affections off their heart idols, and place their affections on the Lord Jesus Christ. The Puritans were men who knew themselves and knew their Lord. Today, many Christians have a deficient knowledge of these, and it is reflected in their lack of spiritual formation. However, if Christians were able to appreciate and appropriate what they are in Christ, it would ignite their spiritual formation. The transforming power of the gospel would be seen in a dark and sinful society.
2. God-centred Public Worship
An attendee at Westminster Chapel, London, in the 1960s commented that there were times, particularly during the evening acts of worship led by Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, when the sense of the presence of the Lord, His immanence, was so tangible, and the atmosphere so highly charged, that if anyone had struck a match there would have been an explosion. Such anointing is not unknown in the Western church today, but it seems to me that, generally speaking, it is conspicuously absent in most gatherings of Christians for public worship. Why? Could it be because many acts of public worship in the West are more man-centered than God-centered, and because of this God is withholding the blessing of His anointing upon the gathering?
What do I mean by God-centred public worship and man-centred public worship? God-centred public worship is worship that is fundamentally, foundationally, primarily, and exclusively focused on God. Furthermore, it is shaped according to His revelation for proper worship, which, therefore, makes it acceptable to Him. Man-centred public worship is not the complete antithesis of God-centred public worship: people are not the object and entire focus of worship, and the Lord is seen as the object of worship in singing, praying, and preaching. However, what makes it man-centred is that, despite the best of intentions, an unhealthy consideration is given to the feelings and desires of those who gather for worship. I see two main influences on the Western church that have resulted in many local fellowships becoming more man-centred in their acts of public worship than God-centred.
Firstly, postmodern cultural influence. Reverend Duncan Campbell, the Scottish Revivalist of the mid-twentieth century, described revival as the saturation of people with God. Today, we live in postmodern societies made up of people saturated with themselves. It is no surprise, therefore, that such a mindset has infiltrated many local fellowships and has resulted in public worship that is more shaped by what people think is right than by what God says is right. At the foot of Sinai, the Israelites tried to worship the Lord in a culturally acceptable way, but it was not acceptable in God’s eyes (cf. Exodus 32).
Secondly, influences from within evangelicalism itself. Sections of evangelicalism, with the best of intentions, have embraced what has variously been called the “user-friendly,” “seeker-sensitive,” “human-focused,” “new-paradigm,” or “business model” of doing church. However, an overemphasis has been given to what worshippers, or seekers, want in worship, and the result has been a dumbing down of what the Scriptures say should constitute the worship of God’s gathered people. The influence of such methodology has spread across Western civilization.
What is the answer to this problem? Church leaders, teachers, and pastors must themselves embrace an accurate Biblical theology of worship and then teach their people to do the same. The Lord seeks worshippers who will worship Him in spirit and truth: worship from the heart (by the power of the Spirit) and worship that results from having had minds informed by the truth of God’s Word (cf. John 4:23–24). If local fellowships are exposed to such preventive church discipline and embrace it, I believe that the return of the lost blessing of the divine anointing falling upon the gathered people of God will not be as uncommon as it currently is. Furthermore, unbelievers who are present in worship will again cry, “God is really among you” (1 Corinthians 14:25).
3. Engaging with Society
Our postmodern society is capable of concocting more than one battle cry. One that would surely be prominent in its list would be, “No absolute truth.” However, what if Western society was confronted by the very thing it denies? Would that not have an impact upon it? The absolute truth of the gospel and its transforming power may be seen in the lives of Christians as they pursue holiness. It may also be seen when believers gather for God-centered public worship. But it must also be seen in how Christians relate to the society in which the Lord has placed them.
Many significant evangelical leaders in the past have recognised the importance of this and acted accordingly. J. Wesley Bready in his England: Before and After Wesley: The Evangelical Revival and Social Reform points out that John Wesley’s publications contain either definite teaching on, or suggestive reflections on, practically every recognised social problem of his time. Wesley’s influence also touched the life of British politician William Wilberforce. Wesley assured Wilberforce that God had raised him up to champion the cause of those oppressed by the slave trade. The Clapham Sect, which Wilberforce led, also campaigned against duelling, gambling, drunkenness, cruelty to animals, and immorality, and their work in the nineteenth century overlapped that of theseventh Earl of Shaftesbury, who successfully campaigned for the reform of the factories and working conditions of men, women, and children. Similarly, in North America in the eighteenth century, Cotton Mather contended that people would be won to Christ when their hearts were softened by believers’ deeds of love. In the nineteenth century, evangelicals were at the forefront of almost every major social reform in America, such as the abolitionist movement and the temperance movement.
Since many local fellowships today have become so inward-looking, church leaders must reconsider the role of the church in society in the light of Biblical teaching. The Lord Jesus Christ made it clear that His disciples alone are the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matthew 5:13–16). As salt, Christians must be clearly taught that they are to have a positive influence on society through the predominantly negative function of arresting decomposition that naturally results from a society rebelling against God. They must behave as salt by recognising unrighteousness and acting against it — speaking out against the use of bad language in the office, refusing to be part of conversations that slide in the direction of gossip or slander, opposing laws that make abortion legal by lobbying political leaders, and so on. All of this can be done respectfully and winsomely but with the inevitable and God-glorifying sting as produced by the effective application of salt. As light, Christians are to point the way to the Father, and this can be done through their deeds as Matthew 5:16 seems to indicate. A beautiful story is told concerning the Reverend Duncan Campbell, referred to above. He had organised a mission on one of the Scottish Islands, but no one turned up on the first night. When he discovered that the community was busy out in the fields trying to rescue a late harvest, he postponed the mission and went into the fields to help the farmers. When the harvest was gathered and Campbell held the mission, those he had helped in such a practical and loving way flocked to hear him. Pastors, teachers, and church leaders must model such love-your-neighbour behaviour and exhort their people to follow their example. Others will be drawn to the Father as Christians live as the light of the world at home, at work, and at leisure.
Restoring the Missing Mark of the Church
After the Israelites’ idolatry involving the golden calf at the foot of Sinai, the Lord told Moses to go on up to the land He had promised to give them but He would not accompany them. Moses, however, responded, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?” (Exodus 33:15). The reality of the presence of the Lord, and the blessing associated with it, is, generally speaking, missing from the Western Church today. The problem, I believe, at least in part, is due to a lack of solid preventive church discipline in the key areas of personal spiritual formation, God-centered public worship, and the church engaging with the society in which it is placed. If this missing mark of the church is restored, however, purity will begin to return and tangible evidence of the supernatural transforming power of the Gospel will be seen. This will impact our society for good. God speed the day.
Dr. Bill Parker is teaching elder and pastor of First Antrim Presbyterian Church in Antrim, United Kingdom.