The World in the Church
Speaking generally, we must concede that the above title is warranted. Our readers no doubt have much to be thankful for in their congregations — but probably also some causes for concern. It is a constant battle for God’s people to press forward to heaven, walk the narrow path of holiness, and avoid the injurious influences of the world.
Given the limited time at the means of grace compared with exposure to the world, it is a marvel that Christians do so well. When we think of our time at the private means (quiet time), and public means (services) compared with all those hours at work and at leisure-time activities — then add in our corrupt hearts, and a tireless devil — it is a miracle we do so well! It is proof of the super-naturalness of Christianity that ‘The righteous ... holds on his way, and he that hath clean hands (is) stronger and stronger’ (Job 17:9).
However, the world is too much with us all. In the 19th century, Rabbi Duncan said, ‘Conformity to the world is one of the most besetting sins of the professing church at the present day’. In the 20th century (1982) Howard Snyder wrote, ‘Worldliness is the greatest threat to the Church today. In other ages, the Church has suffered from dead orthodoxy, live heresy, flight from the world, and other maladies. But the painful truth today is that the Church is guilty of massive accommodation to the world’. And in our 21st century, Joel Beeke has said, ‘Worldliness is destroying the church of Jesus Christ. Christians and churches that fall prey to it lose their saltiness. The time is thus right for us to biblically expose and condemn worldliness, and to promote the alternatives of genuine piety and holiness’. The problem of worldliness is prevalent and pressing.
At this point, we need a definition of worldliness. It is not easy to describe. If this were fifty years ago, everybody would know what it is. There was an accepted ‘list,’ which acted as a ready-reckoner of what was acceptable and what was not. It tended to define unworldliness in terms of no smoking, no alcohol, women not wearing make-up and jewellery, no cinema-going, no listening to popular music, no going out with girls until you meet the one you will marry, not owning expensive things, etc. Mostly it was what Christians should not do: negatives to live by. It was rather lop-sided, though well-meant. It did not, however, fully reflect Scripture’s teaching and wisdom on the matter.
We have left that behind now. No ‘list’ of taboos exists to guide us anymore. Instead, it has been replaced by a supposed Christian liberty which indulges many things our Christian forebears frowned upon. It even claims that if questionable things are done to the glory of God they can be justified. The trouble is, the glory of God is subjectively-defined. For instance, a missionary leader ran on the Lord’s Day in the London Marathon to raise funds — listening to an MP3 player with hymns, so that he ran ‘to the glory of God’! If the ‘list’ tended to legalism, the new liberty tends to antinomianism.
Someone has defined worldliness as ‘being attached to, engrossed in, or preoccupied with the things of this temporal life ... worldliness means accepting the values, mores, and practices of the nice, but unbelieving, society around us without discerning whether or not those values, mores, and practices are biblical’.
Here is a suggested definition of our own: Worldliness is whenever our thinking, attitudes, motives, desires, speech, relationships, bearing and conduct become less scrupulously Scriptural — and more redolent of ungodly and unrighteous people in the world. It is, in the words of Romans 12:2, being ‘conformed to this world’ instead of being ‘transformed by the renewing of your mind’ to ‘prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God’. When we are converted, we receive ‘a new heart ... and a new spirit’ (Ezek. 36:26). This creates not only a new relationship with God but a new relationship to the world also (Gal. 1:4). It puts us out of love with it, moves us away from it — so that we feel ill at ease, and most comfortable when among the people of God or doing specifically Christian things. However, remaining sin can so easily draw us into friendship with the world, which is enmity with God (Jas. 4:4). Bunyan said, ‘Things present and our fleshly appetite are such near neighbours together’.
Let’s put it positively. What is it to be the opposite of worldly? Again, our own definition: A truly Christian mind-set and lifestyle — formed by Scripture, expressed in moderation, worked out in the tender fear of God, sweetened by communion with Jesus, quickened by the Holy Spirit, and restored when necessary by chastening. Throughout the Bible, it is the Lord’s people maintaining their difference from the world. It doesn’t mean separation from it in the sense of retreating from it, for our Lord has said, ‘I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil’ (Jn. 17:15). However, blur that difference, and it is worldliness to varying degrees. Let us identify some symptoms, highlight some causes, and suggest some remedies.
1. Identify Some Symptoms
The Christian is called out of the world. Behaviour should reflect the will of God and not the spirit of the age in which we live. The church must be in the world, not the world in the church — ‘how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth’ (1 Tim. 3:15).
Our Lord says, ‘but seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you’ (Mt. 6:33). This is not only the antidote to worldly care, but to worldliness itself. However, is this priority always ours?
Regarding the Lord’s Day. This is when heaven is opened and the world can be shut out from us. It throws our unworldliness into full relief when we ‘remember the Sabbath day’ and ‘call the Sabbath a delight’ (Ex. 20:8; Is. 58:13). However, how many overlook preparation for the day the previous evening, and are yawning on Sabbath morning through staying up too late the night before. Some skip attendance at services and meetings for no valid reason (Heb. 10:25). And what about our thoughtless, carnal, impression-dampening conversation after the service?
Then, what about the private hours of the Sabbath: is it still for us God’s day — ‘and shalt honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words’ (Is. 58:13)? Our unspiritual hearts can reveal themselves like those who said: ‘When will the new moon be gone, that we may sell corn? and the sabbath, that we may set forth wheat?’ (Amos 8:5), and ‘Ye said also, Behold, what a weariness is it!’ (Mal. 1:13).
Another priority is our stewardship. Dr Lloyd-Jones once said, ‘The more spiritual you are, the more simple will your life be’. That is so very true, and so very searching. Are our hearts and lives cluttered with too many ‘things,’ because we fail to see that everything is entrusted to us and must be accounted for when the Master returns?
And self-denying service. Paul had to say that he could only ask Timothy to go to Philippi for him, ‘For all seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ’s’ (Phil. 2:21). How many selfish believers there are, who do little for the kingdom of God because their priorities in life are not right! How much more might be accomplished if they were! The phrase, ‘the faithful few’ is a terrible indictment of the worldly apathy of so many ‘at ease in Zion’ (Amos 6:1) today.
Important decisions also involve priorities. When they are right, a choice concerning, say, job relocation will make the whereabouts of a good church come before a dream house. Holiday destinations, too, will revolve around where we can reach ‘the house of my master’s brethren’ (Gen. 24:27). And where we might retire to, if spared, will mean our spiritual home comes before any other consideration. Like Abraham, we will seek to pitch our tent where His altar is.
Our lives can be free from scandalous sins, and yet conceal heart-sins like pride, jealousy, an unforgiving spirit, a ‘root of bitterness’ (Heb. 12:15b), enmity and rivalry — and a thousand inward wickednesses our conscience has made peace with long ago.
What a many-sidedly sinful attitude lies behind backbiting — running a person down to others when he or she is not present! Scripture condemns ‘a backbiting tongue’ (Prov. 25:23), yet how readily we indulge it. Pride, spite, fear and a host of other sins lie behind such evil speaking. It is true that in certain cases it is right to speak about someone who is not present, but three questions should condition this: Is it necessary? Is it kind? Is it true?
A holier-than-thou attitude can also be worldliness in an ironic form. As can the spiritual snobbery of Christians who fancy they are more faithful and diligent than others. Also, self-importance, having hidden agendas, lack of honesty, despising divine chastening (Heb. 12:5) all exude the world’s spirit and attitude more than we know.
The way we dress and our personal bearing reveal how much God’s Word governs us — or how much the world holds sway. Female attire is not a neutral matter: ‘that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness’ (1 Tim. 2:9). This is not to stifle dress sense, personal taste, etc, but it does require that the body be properly covered, and that men are not embarrassed or have to struggle with impure thoughts and desires (Mt. 5:28).
Likewise, there is a chivalry due from men to women: ‘Be courteous’ (1 Pet. 3:8). A godly man, whether married or unmarried, will never ‘flirt’ with the opposite sex, for that is the way of the world in its unsanctified urges, which only convention and reputation restrain. A woman should be able to feel feminine and safe in the presence of a Christian gentleman.
Like the Sabbath, this is another index of spiritual religion. In worship, the church comes to its fullest expression. Therefore God regulates it by what He requires of us, and does not leave us to do what is most ‘enjoyable’. Worship is for His acceptance and glory, and this vertical plane comes first. The way a church worships expresses its view of God.
However, our hedonistic society has no time for weighty and solemn things. Casualness, lack of deference, an entertainment mentality are the order of the day, even intruding into what is regarded as sacrosanct. Tragically, for the last forty years, the church has succumbed to this and shifted its worship to the horizontal plane and to ‘will worship’ (Col. 2:23). The criterion nowadays is not, ‘Will this glorify God?’ but, ‘This is great music, we feel liberated and it makes outsiders comfortable’. We tend to think this has been primarily through the charismatic movement, which is true. However, I remember an older couple telling me of those in a Brethren assembly in the late 1950s agitating for the use of popular music, ‘to keep the young people’.
Ministers and Office-bearers
If worldliness is found in us, it will spread to the church. It can be as basic as our prayer life — are we known for a busyness for God more than a busyness with God? The barrenness of a busy life can lead others astray. It was said of M‘Cheyne’s preaching that it was an extension of his prayer life, ‘His preaching was a continuation of his prayers. In both he spoke from within the veil, his hand on the mercy seat, and his eye fixed on things invisible’.
Lack of personal discipline, a wrong spirit, controlled by numbers of people attending, (in the case of ministers) complaining about the salary, ambition for a name and reputation (we are just servants, Mk. 9:35), compromise through fear of making a stand, jealousy of fellow-servants — and a host of other carnalities can show how little separated from the world and unto God we are. Professor John Murray once wrote: ‘Whenever we cease to offer resistance to the world, then we have become victims of the world’.
We know from our own hearts how readily we ‘mind earthly things’ (Phil. 3:19). Moreover, we see in others and ourselves the conformity to this world’s fashions that is ‘enmity with God’ (Jas. 4:4). Our great concern is to belong to churches where the Lord can walk among us as people ‘delivered from this present evil world’ (Gal. 1:4) and showing forth his praise (Is. 43:21).
While a boat is in the water, it goes along safely; if the water is in the boat, serious danger looms. We fear the same is true of today’s church. Instead of the church being in the world, the world is too much in the church. Having seen the symptoms, we need to ask how things have come to what they are now. ‘Is there not a cause?’ There is more than one cause.
2. Highlight some causes
We can identify these in two realms: in society and in the church itself.
When this is deeply affected by a sense of God, it is the beginning of moral wisdom (Prov. 9:10). This affects the ethical climate in which we live. When respect for the sanctity of civil government, life, marriage, truthfulness prevails then these absolutes elevate standards of decency and order. Even when the church worships and witnesses in such an environment she finds worldliness challenging enough.
However, when society slides into ungodliness, its secularism bombards the church with pressures and stresses that make conformity to it much easier. We live in such a time, as the apostle said we would (2 Tim. 3:1-5). Given this is so is it not extraordinary that so little is heard about worldliness these days? Our forebears just fifty years ago lived in markedly better times, yet they were very aware of the danger and constantly said so.
How, then, have things become so bad in our society today — and so dangerous to us? We only need consider the 20th century. In its second half, some seismic shifts happened, and much of the church has succumbed to these changes.
a. Emergence of the Youth Culture
This came in the late 1950s. Until then, children growing into adults did not have a separate identity. Older sons and daughters were smaller versions of their parents in dress, tastes, and lifestyle. They were just called a ‘young man’ or a ‘young lady’. It made for a fairly easy navigation through adolescence into adulthood. This was no different in the church, and respect for parents meant respect for the minister and elders, and older Christians.
However, that began to change in the 1950s, and the catalyst was the advent of Rock ‘n Roll bands. These were spearheaded by Bill Haley, Elvis Presley — and the young Cliff Richard, who modelled himself on Presley. With this new brand of music came a new grouping in society — the ‘teenager’ — aged 13 to 19.
Teenagers had Rock ‘n Roll as their music (which exuded rebellion against conventional standards, parents, authority in general), their own distinctive clothes (which fashion designers would exploit to the full), their own hairstyles, lifestyle, language, etc, all designed to shock the older generation. By the 1960s, and the advent of the Beatles and the hippie culture, the scene was set for a massive revolution in morality and every other biblical norm. As David Samuel put it: ‘Popular music was no longer simply a medium of light relief, but a battering ram for moral and social change’.
And this change affected the church. ‘The Young People’ became the concern of everybody. The trouble was, the young people often had the teenage attitudes, which wanted change in local churches. And for fear of losing ‘the young people’, pastors and congregations pandered to them, flying in the face of Scripture and the wisdom of past generations. It still is astonishing how many seasoned believers can see no further than ‘livelier services’, ‘more people coming in’, ‘young people using their gifts’ — and fail to assess this biblically and in the longer term.
Worse was to come in the 1990s with girl bands like the Spice Girls. These were the most successful and influential since the Beatles. It was the progression from ‘teen power’ to ‘Girl Power’: a new female attitude. They exploited physical attraction to the full, with bare midriffs, provocative postures, tattooed and pierced bodies, and an obnoxious assertiveness. It produced a generation of pre-teen girls losing their innocence and being sexualised. Teenage magazines fuelled this by pressurising girls to be promiscuous, and female virtue became a laughable anachronism. This too has spilled into the church, making the notion of female modesty, deference to male headship and leadership out of date for modern females.
b. The Television
Again during the 1960s, the BBC and the new ITV created a moral upheaval through satirical programmes that challenged traditional boundaries of taste and decency. A liberalising agenda came into every home with a TV. It was the driving force for the permissive society.
Now endless barbarity, foul language, blasphemy, vulgarity, marital infidelity, lewdness can be seen and heard on TV channels. Added to this are programmes that caricature, marginalise, or rationalise biblical Christianity. Add in programmes that promote Evolution as a fact, and TV amounts to a concerted attack on the fundamentals and morality of real religion. It is the world’s audio/visual propaganda machine — insidious and potent.
Dr E S Williams, a respected writer on these matters, has recently highlighted another facet of this onslaught:
The BBC has admitted that it is biased against Christianity. In a secret meeting, BBC executives admitted that the corporation is dominated by homosexuals. They acknowledge that ethnic minorities held a disproportionate number of positions and said the BBC deliberately encourages multiculturalism, and is careful to avoid offending the Muslim community, while offending Christians is simply part of the culture. Tossing the Bible into a garbage can on a comedy show would be acceptable, they said, but not the Koran.
The latest affront is that the BBC has appointed a Muslim as Head of Religion and Ethics! With these things in mind, we should be greatly exercised about our use of the media. Television especially has great potential for worldliness in Christians through its programmes, as have many DVDs and video games.
Undisciplined use of TV will undermine biblical thinking, carnalise the affections, and weaken spiritual desire. It can make us desensitised to sin. Another writer expressed it this way: ‘Do you find yourself desiring to watch, and fill your time with, endless television programmes? Do you “have” to see almost every film that comes out, in order to seek physical pleasures or escape life? If so, you are caught up in the world, caught up in “the lust of the flesh and lust of the eyes”. You cannot live your life through television and cinema, which glorify killing, stealing, gambling, seducing and drinking to excess! It will affect your character and produce a worldly attitude’.
In the Church
The biggest enemy is always within, and, tragically, the church’s holiness has been wounded in the house of its friends.
a. The Billy Graham Crusades
Throughout the 1950s and 60s — and into the 80s — mass evangelism burst upon the church. Coming in contrast to the small numbers and slow progress of local congregations, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association could mobilise huge numbers, provide impressive resources, and sport a good-looking, eloquent figurehead. Suddenly the church was taken notice of by the media, as thousands attended the campaigns and came forward as converts in vast numbers.
However, Graham’s preaching was Arminian, with its emphasis upon the emotions and free will. The choir conditioned the masses, the preaching culminated in the call to the front, and those signifying they had been converted were processed accordingly. The ‘easy believism’ of Charles Finney a century before, which blighted the churches of that day, was repackaged for the 20th century and sent to the UK.
Few discerned the new evangelism, and those who raised their voices and pens were often dubbed as ‘not interested in winning souls’. Yet, all these faithful men did was to call for God’s work to be done God’s way — evangelism through the local church. While we concede that numbers were genuinely saved, some even going into the ministry and onto the mission field, yet God seeming to bless does not prove that He is pleased. Moses drew water from the rock when he smote it instead of speaking to it, and the people were refreshed — however, that was sin, and it cost Moses and Aaron the land of Canaan (Numb. 20:7-13).
The real fruit of the Billy Graham era took longer to be seen. We can see it now very clearly. Many ‘converts’ joined local churches, and even became office-bearers. However, they were unspiritual people whose hearts were not renewed (Ezek. 36:26; Gal. 1:14). It was a breed of Christian with worldly wisdom and attitudes that brought things down. Generations of unregenerate church members and officers have taken their toll upon the Lord’s work.
After the 1966 Crusade at Earl’s Court, London, the evangelist exultantly said, ‘It will take a generation to fully assess its impact’. It certainly has, but not in the way he meant it. By the Mission England crusades of 1984 and 1989, churches were very different, and these later campaigns made things worse still. By now, the ecumenical nature of the crusades was blatant, including Roman Catholics professing conversion being sent back to their own churches. These were the crusades that produced the wretched Mission Praise hymnbook — the forerunner of many like it, with the modern worship that so expresses the ecumenical worldliness afflicting our churches.
b. Celebrity Conversions
At that Earl’s Court Crusade in 1966, the pop singer Cliff Richard announced that he had become a Christian. The world was stunned and the phenomenon of celebrity conversions began. This is not to say that singers, actors or sportsmen had never been converted before: they had. However, their new life in Christ was deemed incompatible with their professions and they almost invariably left them. In Cliff’s case, it was different. At first, he was minded to leave show business and become a teacher. However, friends advised him not to give up his career — and the rest we know. The decades of personal compromise show, for instance, in his recent autobiography, where he states that ‘...many of my friends are gay — let’s face it, homosexuality has been legal for more than thirty years. For me, the commitment is what counts – and I’ll leave the judging to God’.
Since the 1960s, it has become commonplace for ‘converted’ celebrities to not separate from their tainted professions but to remain there and ‘witness’. This trend has undoubtedly been a bad example to others who make them role models, particularly the young. In fact, remaining in such sordid circumstances has tended to deny discipleship to Christ. Take, for example, the rock band U2. Steve Stockman, reviewing a book called The Spiritual Journey of U2, writes: ‘There are four members in the band, three of whom are professing Christians: Bono (Paul Hewson), The Edge (David Evans), and Larry Mullen. The fourth member, Adam Clayton, is still searching’. The band members smoke, drink and swear! Can they be Christians? One way of telling is to see if they have changed and touched other people’s lives. Bono is a man who believes that grace and love win through Jesus’ death. He said, ‘the Jesus Christ I believe in was the man who turned over the tables in the Temple and threw the money changers out’. He does not believe in a faith that is unaligned to social justice, and has certainly proved that in his life. With such disgraceful examples, is it any wonder that so many are confused about their relationship to the world?
c. The Charismatic Movement
In the 60s and 70s the Charismatic Movement hit the church scene, with its breaking free of God-fearing, biblically-regulated worship. Multiple musical instruments, catchy songs, emphasis on emotions, man-centred and experience-centred praise were declared evidences of ‘the Spirit’. Anything else needed ‘liberating’. What really happened was this: the moral revolution of the 1960s was paralleled by a spiritual revolution. ‘The Swinging Sixties’ in the land entered God’s house. What the permissive society did for lifestyle outside the church, the Charismatic Movement did for worship and life inside the church. Far from being the Holy Spirit, it was (and is) simply the spirit of the age.
A shrewd observer of these things, Rob Warner, in his Reinventing English Evangelicalism refers to their ‘exuberant singing — the charismatic equivalent of clubbing’. How true this is! Prominent among the new worship leaders is Stuart Townend. He says that influences upon his music include David Bowie, The Beatles, Bob Dylan and Stevie Wonder. And words used in relation to his concerts include ‘Gigs, lights, DVDs, CDs, song books’ etc. And this they call ‘praising God’!
The Charismatic Movement’s worldly worship found a mass promoter in the annual Spring Harvest event. Begun in 1979, when 2,800 attended this holiday week ‘to learn, laugh and worship’, by the 1990s it reached 80,000. It caused endless trouble for churches seeking to remain biblical in their practice. Again Rob Warner:
Churches were exposed at Spring Harvest to contemporary worship, thus increasing the pressure for traditional worship to give ground in the historic denominations. Many guests came from smaller churches, and for them in particular, worship with several thousand was an inspiring experience ... in the idiom of Radio 2 stadium rock ... The contribution of Graham Kendrick in the first decade of SH was immense ... Kendrick’s songs facilitated the shift from the traditional hymn sandwich in many churches.
Yet Warner’s book, mentioned earlier, chronicles at the same time the decline of good Christian reading among evangelicals and the near-demise of the Quiet Time!
d. Lack of Teaching on Distinctively Christian Duties
For generations, preaching in evangelical churches has lacked specific focus upon practical areas of Christian living. Noble exceptions exist, but generally too much has just been assumed because of the better days in society and church. How much preaching, for instance, have we heard on matters such as courtship and marriage, the roles of husband and wife, parents and children, daily work as a divine calling, the character of worship and church fellowship, sanctifying the Sabbath? Yet, in Paul’s epistles such areas are covered very fully and clearly (eg Eph. 4-6; Phil. 3-4; Col. 3-4). If Christians are not taught the principles of God’s word in these matters, and their application worked out for our day, is it any wonder that things are as worldly as they are?
e. An Inordinate Activism
The slogan ‘Saved to Serve’, while expressing a truth, has nonetheless led to the idea that the chief end of our salvation is Christian work. However, Scripture tells us that we were predestined ‘to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren’ (Rom. 8:29). Not service but sanctification is the goal here (Eph. 5:25, 26), to be completed in glorification hereafter (v 27). When living upon one’s activities and service overshadows this, it can become mere carnal exertion. It can be more worldly than spiritual. Let us be sure that in all our labours for the Master we spend even more time with the Master (Lk. 10:42).
‘Yes, I saw a lot of John’, said a member of his family, who had been visiting friends, ‘he is getting on in the world’. There was a moment’s pause, and then his mother asked, ‘Which world?’
The old Sunday School Times anecdote sounds a warning that is never dated. Churches are comprised of individuals. If they have ‘Johns’, their character is affected accordingly. Yet, too many churches are ‘getting on in the world’ — this world. And, although in the short term it seems to achieve gains in attendance (less biblical demands), in the longer term it will produce carnality (less biblical standards), and in the final term it may lead to apostasy (nothing biblical left).
One of the most challenging passages of Scripture for each local church to consider is 1 Corinthians 3:12-15,
Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.
We build upon Christ, the one Foundation. However, two kinds of superstructure can go up. ‘Wood, hay and stubble’ represent worthless things: light, frivolous, commonplace. Matthew Henry suggests these include, ‘Corrupt opinions and doctrines, or vain inventions and usages in the worship of God’. On the other hand, ‘gold, silver and precious stones’ represent what is truly of God: weighty, solid, precious, enduring. This is the difference between worldly activity in the church, and what is biblical and spiritual; between the pragmatic and the principled.
What counts is ‘the day’ that shall ‘declare it’. The Lord will return and we shall all give account. He will inspect our works as One whose ‘eyes (are) as a flame of fire’ (Rev. 19:12). There will be the fiery trial of everything we have believed and practised. As He tests it, the ‘wood, hay and stubble’ will be ‘burned’ and their perpetrators will ‘suffer loss’. The ‘gold, silver and precious stones’ will ‘abide’ and faithful believers will ‘receive a reward’.
This teaches some important lessons.
- To be Christ’s church in this world is serious. What we believe and what we do has eternal repercussions. Justification shields us from condemnation on the great Day, but it does not exempt us from the assessment of our works, and greater or lesser degrees of glory in heaven. Separation from the world in obedience to Scripture is no small matter. Doing God’s work in God’s way is everything, for time and eternity.
- Largeness of numbers and apparent success are not the criteria. The Lord will ‘try every man’s work of what sort it is’ — not ‘how much it is’. Quality is what counts. Reality is what matters. So many churches justify worldly methods by pointing to increased attendances. Yet, as Dinsdale T Young once pointed out, the only full place of worship recorded in Scripture is the temple of Baal (2 Kings 10:21)! Being full of the Lord’s presence and favour counts for infinitely more, now and forever
- What if everything done in Christ’s church were measured by this passage? Much of what goes on would cease overnight. Reformation would begin. In addition, we would have the benchmark with which to measure everything we hold to and work for.
3. Suggest some Remedies
Here are a few considerations to encourage us to avoid worldliness in the House of God and strive for what pleases Him.
Remember that this Problem is Nothing New
The world has been in the church as long as the flesh remains in each Christian (Gal. 5:17). At Philippi, two women were not speaking to each other (Phil. 4:2). At Corinth it was worse. There were divisions (1 Cor. ch. 1-3), sin undisciplined (5:1, 2; 6:1, 4), drunkenness at the Lord’s table (11:20, 21), pride and anarchy in the worship (ch. 12 and 14), questioning the doctrine of the resurrection (ch. 15), rebelling against Paul’s authority (2 Corinthians 11). In the church to which John wrote there was proud ‘Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them, (who) receiveth us not’ (3 Jn. 9). The history of God’s church down to today is replete with worldly and carnal behaviour within its ranks. We should not be dismayed to the point of imagining that this is unprecedented. It has all happened before — and has been dealt with before. Biblical reformation and revival are God’s twin purges to restore His church to her purity and order. Let us continue to work and pray for these in our day.
Ministers and Congregations must Reckon with all of God’s Word
The Scriptures are holy in themselves (2 Tim. 3:16) and they are an instrument to make us holy (3:17). Therefore we must be faithful to everything God says in His Word. In preaching, it must be ‘all the counsel of God’ (Acts 20:27). No subject must be omitted for fear of giving offence. The apostle was committed ‘to fulfil (margin: ‘fully to preach’) the word of God’ (Col. 1:25). Only a full-orbed pastoral ministry will touch on everything necessary for the sanctification of the life and worship of God’s people.
A worldly-wise Christian once said to G Campbell Morgan: ‘The preacher must catch the spirit of the age’. In a flash Morgan replied, ‘God forgive him if he does. The preacher’s business is to correct the spirit of the age’. We agree with Morgan. Yet, where is such boldness and conviction in preaching and pastoral leadership these days? Let us endeavour so to preach and so to hear, that things are corrected and regulated according to God’s holy Word. When faith is thus built up, worldliness is left behind: ‘For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith’ (1 Jn. 5:4).
The importance of application in preaching cannot be stressed enough. Sermons that are worked out, and their ‘uses’ made clear relevantly and faithfully, will reach further than the mere understanding. Tender hearts and submissive wills will be moved, so that we pray, ‘Turn away mine eyes from beholding vanity; and quicken thou me in thy way’ (Ps. 119:37). Where there seems orthodox preaching from the pulpit, yet unorthodox worship and conduct in the pew, something is terribly wrong.
Likewise, where gracious hearts are being fed and exercised through pastoral preaching, there will be much less room for ‘ungodliness and worldly lusts’ (Tit. 2:12). If Christ’s flock are feeding in the green pastures, they are contented, and such united pleasure prevents many problems and divisions beginning in the first place.
Let Us Strenuously Resist Modern Worship
Worship is the area where much of the battle for truth rages today. In the 1960s, the moral revolution called ‘The Permissive Society’ transformed Britain beyond recognition. Few accept that it also began to transform evangelicalism — through a spiritual revolution called ‘The Charismatic Movement’. Far from being the Holy Spirit, it was the spirit of the age invading the church, with its pretensions to ‘miracles’ and its exuberant, fleshly worship. It spawned a whole industry of worship songs and singers making sums of money from sheet music, songbooks, CDs, DVDs and ticket prices for gigs. And it has made evangelical churches feel they are missing something in worship. That ‘something’ is the clubbing culture that has entered the church.
To this day, church after church succumbs to the assumptions of the Charismatic Movement, like an aggressive virus invading a body. It is accepted that the church must change its evangelism and worship in order to survive. Which means the worldly techniques and methods of charismaticism. Pews become chairs, pulpits stages, the organ a music band, a microphone the mixing console, and the minister a worship leader. To the grief of the discerning and godly (who often end up leaving their church for somewhere God-fearing), and to the betrayal of the gospel itself, such churches have become worldly.
The usual approach these days is to say that worship is a ‘secondary issue’, depending upon personal preference. And in any case, the gospel is not affected. However, is this true?
a. This would be Incredible to Christians of Better Times
Past generations of the godly jealously guarded divine worship. It is true that past evangelicalism may have lacked a fully worked out biblical understanding of how God says we are to worship Him. The fact that it capitulated to charismaticism, particularly in worship, shows this. However, spiritual instincts were right, and nothing was allowed that was incompatible with reverence.
That the character of God’s worship is a matter of taste and preference would also be incredible to the biblical writers. Moses records the Lord giving the Ten Commandments and the first four directly concern His worship: no other gods; no graven image; no irreverence concerning His name and sanctifying the Sabbath (Ex. 20:3-11). In other words, He is the sole Object of worship. He must not be (mis)represented in any way. He must only be worshipped with ‘reverence and godly fear’ (Heb. 12:28). His worship is to be set apart from common use as much as His day is. Later, after God judged Nadab and Abihu for offering strange fire ‘which he commanded them not’ (Lev. 10:1), He said, ‘I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me, and before all the people I will be glorified’ (10:3).
Moreover, our Lord’s pattern prayer makes reverencing God the controlling priority in all our approaches to Him, ‘Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name...’ (Mt. 6:9). In Scripture, every encounter a man has with God prostrates him, whether it is Abraham (Gen. 17:3), Joshua (Josh. 5:14), Job (Job 42:5, 6), Isaiah (Is. 6:5), Peter (Lk. 5:8) or John (Rev. 1:17). The Lord is ‘fearful in praises’ (Ex. 15:11) which means, as Adam Clarke expresses it, ‘Such glorious holiness cannot be approached without the deepest reverence and fear, even by angels, who veil their faces before the majesty of God. How then should man, who is only sin and dust, approach the presence of his Maker!’ It is impossible to truly know God and not be reverent, and worship accordingly.
b. The way God is Worshipped does Affect what the Church Believes
If worship is offered to God in the idiom and style of secular rock music, are not such ‘worshippers’ expressing their ignorance of who God really is? Does it not also beg the question as to whether they are worshipping the true God at all? Calvin said that Scripture is ‘the spectacles bleary-eyed men put on in order to see the true God’. Many arm-waving and swaying congregations these days, cut loose from Scripture, may well be worshipping a god they think sanctions such irreverence — a god of their own imagination. It may well be idolatry and ‘departing from the living God’ (Heb. 3:12). The character of the church’s worship affects its whole life. Worship like this is bound to carnalise and worldify a Christian church, and there is growing evidence that this is happening. Immodesty of dress, disrespect of spiritual authority, lax keeping of the Sabbath all prove revealing. When the worship is downgraded, other things are downgraded as well. Dr Samuel Johnson once said if he could control the nation’s ballads he cared not who made its laws. The point being that what is sung often has a deeper effect than what is inculcated. The way a church worships expresses its view of God. Ultimately, it will govern and determine its view of God. However, when reverent and scriptural worship is maintained, the world is at bay and heaven comes near, ‘O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel’ (Ps. 22:3).
We Ministers must be a Model of Holiness and Other-worldliness
Other things being equal, our people will rise as high above the world as our example will lift them. The next most powerful message after the sermon is an exemplary life: ‘be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity’ ... ‘ensamples to the flock’ ... ‘In all things showing thyself a pattern of good works: in doctrine showing uncorruptness, gravity, sincerity’ (1 Tim. 4:12; 1 Pet. 5:3; Tit. 2:7). Our Christian walk is a message that inspires long after the sermon has finished. ‘A minister’s life is the life of his ministry.’
The importance of this cannot be overstated. Among the qualifications for office in the church, personal character and domestic qualities outnumber other factors. In 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 the requisite qualities for elders and deacons nearly all relate to what kind of a Christian man, husband, father, head of household each has proved to be. These are highly visible things, that show the true worth of God’s servants and show their people the way.
This is borne out by the fact that, in dealing with carnality in the seven churches of Asia, our Lord addressed His words ‘Unto the angel of the church...’ — meaning the God-sent messenger, the minister (Rev. ch 2 and 3). A worldly pastor will have a worldly flock; a spiritual pastor will at least show his people the way to ‘overcome the world’ (1 Jn. 5:4).
Baxter’s words in The Reformed Pastor are more needed now than ever:
O brethren, watch therefore over your own hearts: keep out lusts and passions, and worldly inclinations; keep up the life of faith, and love, and zeal: be much at home, and be much with God. If it be not your daily business to study your own hearts, and to subdue corruption, and to walk with God — if you make not this a work to which you constantly attend, all will go wrong, and you will starve your hearers; ... Above all, be much in secret prayer and meditation. Thence you must fetch the heavenly fire that must kindle your sacrifices: remember, you cannot decline and neglect your duty, to your own hurt alone; many will be losers by it as well as you. For your people’s sakes, therefore, look to your hearts.
Paul could say, ‘But thou hast fully known my doctrine, manner of life’ (2 Tim. 3:10). Ministers must be ‘the glory of Christ’ (2 Cor. 8:23) and the role model for all ages in their congregations. A compelling example of moderation (1 Cor. 7:31; Phil. 4:5); moral cleanness (1 Thess. 4:3); savoury and sound speech (Col. 4:6; Tit. 2:8); patience in suffering (2 Corinthians 6:4); unmoved by either flattery or threatening (Gal. 1:10); prayerfulness (2 Tim. 1:3); heavenly-mindedness (Phil. 1:21-23).
The words of Horatius Bonar in his Night of Weeping are apt: ‘His cure for worldliness is the bringing before us of another world, more glorious than that which He calls on us to forsake. There is no thorough cure for it but this. It is lack of faith that makes us worldlings; and when the believing eye gets fixed on the world to come, then we learn to set our affections on things above ... The opposite of worldliness is heavenly mindedness or spiritual mindedness. This, the new relish which the Holy Spirit imparts at conversion, in some measure produces. But it is feeble. It easily gives way. It is not keen enough to withstand much temptation. God’s wish is to impart a keener relish for the things of God and to destroy the relish for the things of time’.
If the Pastor’s life and lifestyle is contagious heavenward, would this not make his people feel that the world is nothing but ‘vanity and vexation of spirit’ — nothing, compared to the deeply satisfying joys of fellowship with God?
Remember the cause is not ours but God’s
Our Lord prayed for His people in this world, that God would ‘Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth’ (Jn. 17:15, 17) — and God the Father is answering that prayer. He will perfect that which concerns us (Ps. 138:8). It is His will that they be ‘delivered from this present evil world’ (Gal. 1:4) — and that will shall be done.
Christ has bought His Church at too dear a price to see her defiled and besmirched by this evil world. He who ransomed her with His blood will cleanse and sanctify her with His Word in the power of His Spirit (Eph. 5:26). And when she does slip into worldliness, He will exchange the word for the rod — the rod of chastisement (Heb. 12:5-11). ‘As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent’ (Rev. 3:19). That sanctification will be completed in glorification, when the church is finally out of this world and forever into a better. All this the Lord will accomplish. Let us, by His grace, be faithful in life, witness and labour. We contribute to this great and grand purpose more than we know. May it be that He can say of us, ‘This people have I formed for myself; they shall show forth my praise’ (Is. 43:21).