It is useless and futile to try to come to some conclusions concerning whether the pulpit or the pew is to blame when decay sets in, in the life of the church. The two go together. The Scriptures tell us, in the letter of our Lord Jesus Christ to the church of Ephesus, that spiritual deterioration begins inevitably with the loss of the church’s first love. There is good reason why the first of the letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor is a letter to Ephesus. The reason is that the Lord means precisely to point out that all decay, no matter where it begins, and no matter what form it takes is decay which begins at that point where the church loses her first love. When a church loses her first love she loses her spiritual fervor, her spiritual warmth, her spiritual love for the truth of the Word of God and for the cause of Jesus Christ in the midst of the world. That warmth and fervor and love which characterized her in the early days of her existence she loses. That is the beginning which soon manifests itself in untold evils in the church of Jesus Christ.
When a church loses her first love, then, fundamental to that loss of her first love, there is loss of love for the Word of God, and, therefore, loss of love for God Himself. That loss of love for the Word of God is a loss of love for the Word of God as that Word is proclaimed in the pulpit by the pastors. One hour and a half in church on Sunday is too much, more than it is possible for the congregation to take. If the minister exceeds his time by even a few minutes, he is long-winded, repetitious, and imposing upon the good graces of the congregation.
But though the congregation may assemble in church on the Lord’s Day, this does not mean that the people give faithful and diligent attention to the preaching and to what is being said. There are too many other things to think about, and it is too warm in church, and there are too many problems in life which occupy our attention to concentrate upon what the minister has to say. And if perchance the minister should be some kind of skilled orator so that he can compel, as it were, the congregation to listen, what they hear, even should they hear doctrines expounded and truth explained, they hear intellectually, coldly, abstractly, without the passion and warmth and fervor of a hearing, which, as described in the Epistle to the Hebrews, is a hearing mixed with faith.
And that lack of interest in and concern for the Word of God, that lack of love for the Word of God, manifests itself in every area of life. It manifests itself in the decay of devotions in the home, where the Word of God is no longer central to the life of the family. All kinds of things have replaced that Word of God as the focal point of the life of the family. Perhaps the television set has become the focal point of the family’s life. Perhaps it is the pursuit of fun and pleasure. Perhaps earning money directs all the home’s activities and claims the attention and energies of the family. The Word of God may still be read, but it is read in a hurry, only when there is time; it is not read devotionally, prayerfully, carefully, worshipfully, because that love for the Word is gone.
Wherever anyone deals with and concentrates upon the exposition of Scripture, interest declines and wanes. That marks decay, and that has its effect upon the pulpit. Soon, because of that disinterest in the Word of God, the pulpit becomes weak. Ministers’ cater to what the congregation wants; they have one ear cocked to what the congregation is saying about their preaching, and are not concerned with what God is saying about how they preach. Ministers have their fingers in the wind to test the congregational breezes that blow, to be sure they are sailing along with the prevailing winds. They are more interested in the breezes that come from the congregation than they are in the winds of the Holy Spirit which rock and shake.
As the pulpit loses its fervor, its passion, its force, its doctrinal power, the whole matter begins to feed on itself. The congregation becomes yet weaker. And because something has to take the place of that terrible lack, the congregation gives itself over to the worship, not of God, but of idols: the idols of mammon, of sports, of pleasure, of houses and lands, of automobiles and snowmobiles. In this way worldliness and carnality creep into the church, and the church begins to lose her identity as the church, so that, when those who are outside look at the church, they say of the church, “What is different about her? We can see no difference between those people who claim to be the church and ourselves. There is no difference that is noticeable: they dress as we do, they speak as we do, their lives are precisely like ours in every respect. O, they go to church a couple of times on Sunday, but the extent of their involvement and interest in spiritual affairs seems to be limited to that couple of times they are in church, and they can barely stifle their yawns of boredom while they are there. What is so different?”
It is at that point that the church becomes ripe for heresy. If there should appear in our midst, which may God graciously forbid, a minister who began to preach false doctrine, would you and I have the spiritual sensitivity to detect it for what it is? Would we have thecourage to see it for the threat that it is in the church of Jesus Christ and to combat it? Or would we rather say that we can not be fighting all the time; we can not be bothering our heads about such obscure and minute points of doctrine; we can not be tearing the churches apart with another split because someone happens to say something just a bit different from the traditional way of saying things? The result is not only that false doctrine begins to be taught in the church, but as false doctrine makes headway and becomes more and more accepted and the people continue to lose their courage to fight against it, those who come under the influence of false doctrine more and more begin to gain positions of power and leadership, so that the direction of the church is determined by them. In the ecclesiastical assemblies, whether consistories or classes or synod, the lie is openly approved. Whereas twenty or twenty-five years ago it would have taken a synod about five minutes to point out what was wrong with a given heresy, it now takes the church four years, three study committees, and eighty-page reports, which no one can understand, to settle a matter. It stands to reason that, when that happens, something, somewhere has gone badly wrong. And men who are of the carnal seed have determined the doctrinal and moral direction of the church.
Are the people of God simply outnumbered, outvoted, though they fight fiercely? No, not always. Things have come to such a pass in the church because people of God are spiritually lethargic. They are too spiritually weary to do what they know has to be done. And the very sins which are prevalent in the church become a part of their own lives, so that they too, go along with the crowds, and their voice of protest is no longer heard.
That is the history of the church. It has never been any different. It is for that reason that Reformed Churches have said that a truly Reformed church is the church which is always reforming. And the church that ceases to be a reforming church ceases to be a Reformed church.
How are reforms brought about?
In the first place, it is extraordinarily important to emphasize that reform is not brought about by way of mysticism and subjectivism. Someone said once that every heresy that rises in the church is the church paying her unpaid debts. That is true of the rise of Pentecostalism too. Pentecostalism has the power in the church which it does because of the unpaid bills of the Twentieth-Century church. Pentecostalism has rushed in to fill a vacuum which has been created by the declining spiritual character of the church of Jesus Christ. Pentecostalism says, “Look at the church: dead, guilty of world-conformity, perfectly capable of knowing and explaining her doctrine, but the life is gone; the church is a corpse; it looks nice, but there is no life.”
But this is true of all mysticism. It finds the solution to the problem in an emphasis on godly life and Christian piety. The inner life must be emphasized. This is, in itself, true. But all mysticism, subjectivism, and pietism emphasize this to the exclusion of doctrine. Those who teach this become suspicious of doctrine. It is doctrine that has harmed and killed the church; and, therefore, doctrine must go. Let us forget doctrine and emphasize the inner life, the life of piety, the life of fellowship, conscious, meditative fellowship with God. In this way the objective revelation of the Scriptures is deemphasized and even denied so that the individual is left to sink in the quicksands of spiritual subjectivism.
In connection with this, mysticism becomes suspicious not only of doctrine, but of the church itself as an institute. It thinks very little or nothing at all of the organizational aspect of the church as she is in the world to preach the gospel, to administer the sacraments, to exercise Christian discipline through her ordained and called ministry, her elders and deacons. Of that institutional church the mystic becomes suspicious, and he says that the true inner life cannot be found there; to attain to the true inner life you must have small groups of people who come together for devotional purposes, to edify one another, to encourage one another, to strengthen one another to study the Scriptures together, to cultivate spiritual life and to come to a true understanding of the Word of God. There was even that tendency at the time of the Reformation, and there was a segment of the Reformation which went in the direction of a distrust of the church institute. This was the Anabaptistic movement. To this the Reformers objected. They insisted that the church needs reforming after the pattern of the Holy Scriptures. The church must return to the Word of God, but it must remain Church.
(to be continued)