Newsletter #13

Rediscovering the Body of Christ: Part II: The Decline of the Church

Part I: What (in the World) is the Church of Jesus Christ? (


The existence of the church of Jesus Christ is nowhere mentioned in the Old Testament! There are numerous indications in the Old Testament that God's intention for the nation of Israel was that she should be "a light to the gentiles," -- to the end that all the peoples of the world should be informed about the character of the One, true God. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is in fact the God of all the nations -- the other religions of the world are departures from the original knowledge of God given to the human race when we were created. Most of the peoples on earth follow false gods of one kind or another, but the God of Israel (the God of all gods, King of all kings, Lord of all lords) intends that His Son, Jesus Christ should be the owner and heir of all things. (Colossians 1:15-22).

Late in His ministry Jesus took His disciples north to Caesarea Philippi, (modern day Banias) a city at the foot of Mount Hermon. It was there that Jesus announced that a unique new work of God would follow His death, burial and resurrection. Jesus said, "I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against my church." Our Lord was speaking about His church being like an army of light and truth on the offensive in an evil and dark world.

Jesus had much to teach His disciples during His three years with them. Most of what He said would not be clear to them until after Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came to give birth to the church. Part of his training program for the disciples while He was with them was to send them forth to "evangelize." (See for instance Matthew 10). This would prepare them for the primary calling of the church. The church would announce the good news of new life to all the world. Jesus sent the disciples to the villages of Israel as Step One-later they would have to learn to deliver the same messages to the gentiles who were "strangers" to the promises made to Israel. Matthew's gospel closes with the "Great Commission,"

"Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, 'All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.'" Amen.

In Part I of this article, written 3 years ago, I outlined my understanding of the nature of the church as it was supposed to be. This article covers several topics that were left out and moves on to include some suggestions for reforms in today's churches.

I have many friends who are alienated from the institutional church, yet know the Lord Jesus and seek to serve Him. Some succeed to a degree by relating in small groups, core groups or home Bible studies. I believe these people need some kind of connection to a local church for several reasons: (1) The local church is the only body of people God is committed to developing and growing in this age. (Parachurch ministries must inevitably be seen as part of the one church whether they see that about themselves or not). (2) The effectiveness of the church or a sub-group of the church is directly proportional to the unity of the group in Christ. (3) Ephesians 4 clearly says that the church "builds itself up in love" only when each member is relating to the other members of the body as God intended for them. (4) Only the local church serves all age groups, all classes and cultures, young Christians and the mature alike. These people are our brothers and sisters and learning to relate to everyone who is in God's family prepares us for heaven. Small groups and home groups are almost always a subset of members from a local church. (5) The goal of God for individual Christians is wholeness (holiness). This can best be found in community. (6) The church is a foreign and alien group in the present evil world and is called not only to teach the world about God, but also to model by lifestyles what God is like. In this regard, the picture of the church as a true family and a caring community is of greatest importance.

In the last half-dozen years I have met on the Internet, many people who are interested in God and spiritual values. The majority of this people in this group think the church, as an institution is totally irrelevant to their lives. Either they know nothing at all about "those religious people who gather in buildings on Sunday mornings," or they see "the church" as a fossil, a mere relic of a long-gone age and culture. Surely "the church" has nothing relevant to say to their generation? (Some of this is to be expected of course, "the natural man does not understand the things of the Spirit of God, indeed they are foolishness to him")

The late Frances Schaeffer spoke four decades ago of the rapidly changing culture in the last Century. He urged Christians to recognize that "modern, modern man" was no longer able to hear Biblical truth as it was presented in traditional ways by the church. He said that Christians had to understand the postmodern world and then discover how to pour relevant Biblical truth, expressed in new ways, into the open areas of the lives of the new generation.

Ray Stedman spoke lucidly about the need of the church keeping up with the changing world--while presenting truth about an unchanging God--in his postscript to his parables on the kingdom. This is must reading:

And Jesus said to them, "Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new an what is old." {Matt 13:51-52 RSV}

see "How to Handle Life," by Ray C. Stedman,

The False Church

As one reads through the Old Testament one sees Israel's repeated failures rather than their "triumphant" progress. While it is true that God will eventually save and fulfill Israel the nation in spite of herself, should we expect the church to end up much better off?

The answer is yes and no. The New Covenant by which the church operates is much more powerful than God's Old Covenant with Israel. The Epistle to the Hebrews shows the superiority of the New Testament priesthood over the Levitical priesthood. The single and fully efficacious sacrifice of Jesus Christ deals with the root cause of human evil, whereas all the OT sacrifices merely pointed ahead to the coming of Messiah and His solution to sin. The church is the very Body of Christ, indwellt and headed by Jesus Himself. Every believer is spiritually gifted, given a ministry and empowered by the fullness of the Holy Spirit. The New Covenant is "enacted on better promises," and so on.

The High Priestly prayer of Jesus (John 17) contains a promise that all those appointed by the Father to find salvation will come to know God-none will be lost. When the last of this group of elected persons has been added to the church, God will proceed to complete His promises to Israel.

"For I do not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, lest you should be wise in your own opinion, that blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: "The Deliverer will come out of Zion, And He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob; For this is My covenant with them, When I take away their sins." Concerning the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but concerning the election they are beloved for the sake of the fathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. For as you were once disobedient to God, yet have now obtained mercy through their disobedience, even so these also have now been disobedient, that through the mercy shown you they also may obtain mercy. For God has committed them all to disobedience, that He might have mercy on all. Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out! 'For who has known the mind of the LORD? Or who has become His counselor? 'Or who has first given to Him And it shall be repaid to him?' For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen." (Romans 11:25-36)

Ray Stedman describes the Lord's prediction that the church would grow weaker and less and less effectual as the age of the church moved forward. He addressed this topic in teaching the parable of the mustard seed:

Another parable Jesus put before them, saying, "The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches." {Matt 13:31-32 RSV}

"This is the seed our Lord is talking about. This message of the kingdom is like a seed of mustard planted in the midst of society, with fantastic power and pungency. But now look at the tree that grows out of it. Our Lord said, "...but when it is grown it is the greatest of all shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches." Now here is the key to this parable. Did you ever see a mustard tree? In California we have fields of mustard every spring. You can see acres of the yellow flowers. Did you ever see any of them grow into a tree? No. Mustard is not a tree. It is an annual that dies every year. It is impossible for it to grow into a treeOur Lord obviously intended to teach that this growth is unnatural growth. It is not normal, not what you would expect from mustard seed. It is something different than is to be expected. He is surely teaching that in this age there is to be an unnatural, unusual growth. Instead of the lowly, humble plant you would expect from a mustard seed there would be a huge, abnormal, ungainly growth into a tree.

What is the meaning of that? Well, what is the normal result that you expect when the gospel comes into a human heart? What kind of character does it produce? From the Scriptures and from experience we know that it produces lowliness of heart. It takes away pride, destroys egotism and self-centeredness and renders a person humble and lowly of mind, meek and gentle toward others, ready to serve. Jesus said, "He that is greatest in the kingdom of heaven must become the least of all. If any would become great among you, let him become the servant of all," {Mark 9:35}. That is the normal, natural, usual result of the mustard seed's growth. So what would unnatural growth be? It would be loftiness, pride, ambition, domination of others, concern for self. That is unnatural growth from this kind of seed

What do we find has happened in the world in these last twenty centuries? Christendom, which began to spread among men in the simplicity recounted in the book of Acts -- like a humble, lowly plant, but pungent and biting in its effects -- has grown into a huge, ungainly, abnormal tree, concerned with power and pride and domination, wanting to be served instead of to serve. Isn't that true? Probably the blackest day in the history of the Christian church was that day in the 4th century when the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire and elevated the church to a position of worldly power from whence it went on to claim rule even over emperors and to dictate terms to kings -- the false greatness of external position and power which became like a great tree in the midst of society.

Protestants tend to say that applies to the Roman Catholic Church, but it isn't the Catholic Church alone. That church has its elements of both the pungency of the true mustard seed and the unnatural growth into a great tree of towering pomposity and power -- but so has Protestantism. We are just as guilty. We have built our great, imposing church buildings and even in evangelical circles have been concerned with our prestige and our status in the community and our image, and have sought the patronage and the admiration of the world. We have advertised ourselves, have found every way that we can to publicize ourselves and keep ourselves before the eyes of the world.

But God never intended the church to do that. The church, as Paul says in Ephesians 4, is to come with lowliness and gentleness and meekness of character, not talking about itself. The early Christians never went around talking about the church. In the book of Acts you never see a word about the church as part of the proclamation of the gospel. The church doesn't save anybody; the Lord does. The church doesn't help anyone; it is the Lord who helps. Wherever these early Christians went they never mentioned the church until after a person joined the family of God. They talked about the Lord. This is what our Lord is indicating

And, you know, you can find the same tendency right here. We are sometimes not content to be humble and little-known, busy proclaiming the burning, pungent message of Christ. Oftentimes we crave a degree of prominence and position. Like James and John we covet a position at the right hand of the Lord. We want to be seen and known and admired of menWhen we maintain a low profile in the community there is almost nothing we can't do. But the minute we begin to attract some notoriety and publicity then our influence begins to ebb. This is right in line with what our Lord has said.

Notice also that this tree was to have many great branches. We are not pressing the symbol too far to see this as a prediction of the many divisions and denominations of Christendom. In each town or community to which they went, the apostles always organized churches which were independent of one another, governmentally, but were united together in the love and fellowship of the Spirit. They were bound together by mutual interests, but never organizationally. But soon human wisdom began to intervene and these separate groups were incorporated into associations. As the church gradually grew together there emerged in rather recent times the great divisions and denominational divisions of Christendom. How like a tree they are.

And yet, despite this abnormal growth we must remember that what our Lord planted was his seed, and the mustard seed is still present, even though it is obscured and difficult to see behind the towering pride and elevated position of much of the great tree. Finally, what is the significance of the birds which come and make their nests in the branches? We do not have to look very far for the understanding of that. Right in this very series of parables our Lord tells us what the birds mean. In the first parable he said that when the seed of the word falls upon a hardened human heart, the birds come and snatch it away. And in his interpretation he said that the birds represented the evil one, the enemy, whose evil powers and forces are at work upon men's lives.

If the Lord had not said that we might not have read this in that way. There is an interpretation of this parable which says that this is a picture of the gospel going out to all the world and growing up into an impressive church, and that the birds are song birds -- robins and bluebirds and others which come and make their nests -- and are symbols of beautiful things which happen in the church. But that would be exactly opposite the way our Lord uses them. These are not song birds; they are vultures and buzzards, birds of prey, apt symbols of evil persons and evil ideas which make their home right in God's church.

This is confirmed in the book of Revelation. The false church is symbolized there by the great harlot and the city called "Mystery Babylon the Great," {Rev 17:5}. When it is overthrown an angel announces that "Babylon the Great is fallen, is fallen, and has become the habitation of demons, and the hold of every foul spirit, and a cage of every unclean and hateful bird," {cf, Rev 18:2}.

You notice that it is only since the tree is fully-grown and has branched out that this has taken place. It is as we near the end of the age this has occurred. How visibly this has been demonstrated in our day when from the pulpits and the spokesmen of the church has come a flood of stupid, crazy, mixed-up ideas -- evil concepts which have blasted and blighted and ruined the hearts and minds of people, just as our Lord said. It was only a comparatively short time ago that the great denominations of our day, though they represented unnatural and abnormal development, still were basically true to the faith and stood solidly on the authority of the Bible and proclaimed a true gospel. But then along came German rationalization and higher critical theories and socialistic philosophies. The Bible was overthrown and another gospel was substituted and supernatural faith was denied, and the birds of prey moved right into the pulpits in many places. One by one men of true faith were driven out. And it is still happening today. No wonder that when the youth of today look at the part of the church, which is like that, they say, "It is strictly for the birds!"

But what a comfort it is that our Lord had no delusions about this age! How clearly he foresaw all that has happened. How precisely he unfolds it to us here, that we might not be deluded either. How shall we apply this to our lives? Well, obviously it is important that we retain the nature of the mustard seed, that we be fiery and active and pungent and burning, without doing anything to abet the unnatural growth of this mustard tree. We are to seek to be low-profile wherever we work, not calling attention to ourselves, not seeking to publicize and aggrandize ourselves but to open our hearts unto God and let him take care of the rest. We are to permit nothing in our own individual lives of loftiness and pride and ambition and desire for prominence and power and position within the church. We must not struggle and be rivals to one another. Where that is evidenced it always means that people do not yet understand how the church operates because there is no rivalry in the church of Jesus Christ. Everyone has his own gift and his own ministry, and, in fulfilling it, he is always to work in cooperation with everyone else. We are called to have faith like a grain of mustard seed, our Lord said in another place, that will grow and increase in pungency and power and impact until it completely stirs up a community, arouses it, awakens it, makes it realize what is happening, and heals it." ("The Case Of The Ambitious Seed," by Ray C. Stedman,

In his commentary on the Book of the Revelation, Ray Stedman adds other helpful insights into the many forms of counterfeit or neutered Christianity, which lead many astray. This is the theme of his book "Authentic Christianity" ( At the close of the age we live in, after the removal of the true church at the Rapture, a church will remain on the earth, but it will no longer be the church of Jesus Christ. This harlot church (contrasting with the true church which is symbolized as a virgin bride) will enjoy a season of worldwide power and influence during the tribulation period.

Ray wrote,

"All of Christendom is not the true church, in other words. There is a church that goes through the great tribulation, and we come to that matter in our studies in Revelation now. We had a hint of this in the letter to Thyatira in the 2nd chapter of this book, where the Lord describes a woman there named Jezebel who taught the people to commit immorality, and of whom the Lord said, "I will cast her and her children into great tribulation," {cf, Rev 2:22 KJV}. We get the full account of that here in Chapters 17 and 18. It is introduced in the first six verses of Chapter 17:

One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, "Come, I will show you the punishment of the great prostitute, who sits on many waters. With her the kings of the earth committed adultery and the inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries." Then the angel carried me away in the Spirit into a desert. There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries. This title was written on her forehead: MYSTERY BABYLON THE GREAT THE MOTHER OF PROSTITUTES AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH. I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus. {Rev 17:1-5 NIV}

We have already learned that the beast represents a western coalition of nations, headed by a great political leader who will dominate world economics in the last days. (We will see more of this beast later in this chapter). But now the apostle is called to focus on this woman who sat upon the beast. There are several clues, in fact ten of them, which are given to help us identify the woman. What does this symbol mean? Two full chapters are devoted to this. No symbol in the book of Revelation is given more identifying marks than this woman; therefore she must represent a very important factor.

Here are the clues: First, we are told that this woman is a "prostitute." She is a harlot, or, to put it bluntly, a whore. The use of a sexual symbol indicates that physical wrongdoing, which is bad in itself in the sight of God, is a picture of an even greater evil, that is, worship of God gone wrong! It pictures unfaithfulness to God by someone who claims to honor him. A harlot is one who offers sexual satisfaction, as a wife would, but does not otherwise fulfill that role. This clue points to some organization or group that claims to worship God but is actually unfaithful to him. The second clue given is that this woman has universal influence. She is described as "the great prostitute, who sits on many waters." We do not have to guess what that means for in Verse 15 of this same chapter John says,

Then the angel said to me, "The waters you saw, where the prostitute sits, are peoples, multitudes, nations and languages." {Rev 17:15 NIV}

Many peoples all over the earth are affected by the teachings of this harlot organization. In Verses 1 and 2 we read, "With her the kings of the earth committed adultery." She will have power over the leaders of nations -- "the kings of the earth" -- and she makes the common people "intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries." In other words, they are misled by the heady wine of religious illusion which results from the teaching of the woman.

The third clue is that she is seated upon the beast. That pictures a relationship between them. It is clear that the woman dominates the beast for a period of time. She exercises tremendous power over the political leader of these last days, but eventually Verses 16 and 17 will be fulfilled.

"The beast and the ten horns you saw will hate the prostitute. They will bring her to ruin and leave her naked; they will eat her flesh and burn her with fire. For God has put it into their hearts to accomplish his purpose by agreeing to give the beast their power to rule, until God's words are fulfilled." {Rev 17:15-17 NIV}

All through these sections, we see constant reminders that God is in overall control. He allows things to happen, and they will actually accomplish his ultimate purposes.

The fourth clue is that the woman is obviously very wealthy and expensively adorned. She was "dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls." These are symbols, figures of divine and spiritual truths, but which are only outwardly held. They are not actually possessed, but outwardly adorn, thus making the woman very attractive to many people.

She also holds, we are told as the fifth clue, "a golden cup in her hand." Outwardly it is of gold, which is a symbol of divine activity -- it looks to be divinely given -- but it is filled with false religious concepts, "with abominable things," with spiritual adulteries, filthiness of teaching. As many commentators point out, this is intended to be a contrast with the communion cup of the New Testament, "the cup of the Lord," which is associated with the truth of God. This is a counterfeit of the cup of the Lord. It looks like it is the true thing but is not.

Then the sixth clue is given: she is called "Mystery, Babylon the Great." The word "Mystery" indicates there is something deeper here than appears on the surface. Babylon, of course, was the great city on the Euphrates River, the empire which dominated the ancient world. We see the founding of this city in the book of Genesis. It was begun as the city of Babel, founded by Nimrod, the great hunter of human souls. It became a source of idolatry for all of the ancient world. But this is not a reference to Babylon by the Euphrates because the title "Mystery" indicates something deeper. It is that which is spiritually identified with Babylon, i.e., with idolatry or spiritual adultery. Similarly, in Verse 8 of Chapter 11 we were told that Jerusalem is called "Sodom" and "Egypt" because it had become a source of wrongful teaching and corrupt practice.

The seventh clue is that she is called "The mother of prostitutes." Other religious organizations and groups follow the same errors and fall into the same idolatries and false religious teachings. She spreads wide the seeds of false doctrine throughout the world, and many groups will follow her.

Then, the eighth clue is that she is a persecutor of the true believers in Christ: "I saw the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus." She cannot tolerate any opposition that reveals the falsehood she is perpetrating. She opposes with violence and death all those who preach the truth contrary to the lie she promulgates.

Two other clues appear elsewhere in this chapter which we will consider along with these to be sure we have properly identified this woman. One is found in Verse 9, and the other in Verse 18, the last verse of the chapter. These add further confirmation to the woman's identity. Verse 9:

"This calls for a mind with wisdom [i.e. it is not something easily identifiable. One must think about it.]. The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits." {Rev 17:9 NIV}

More than dozen ancient writers describe Rome as the city built on seven hills. This was familiar terminology in the 1st century. And that identification is further confirmed by what John is told in Verse 18:

"The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth." {Rev 17:18 NIV}

In John's day that could only be one city -- Rome. "The great city," which was the capital of the Roman Empire that dominated the whole known world of that day, literally ruled over the kings of the earth. But at that time the church in Rome was not a counterfeit church; it was a genuine Christian assembly. At the end of the 1st century when John is writing this, it was the church of the catacombs. It was persecuted and hounded and had to hide in the caves of the earth underneath the city. That probably explains the last part of Verse 6 where John tells us that when he saw the woman seated upon the beast, "I was greatly astonished." Why? Doubtless it is a great surprise to him to see that the church he knew in Rome would become a great harlot church, dominating the kings of the earth.

When we put all these clues together it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that this pictures the Roman Catholic Church. It is a church that arises during the present church age, but comes to its greatest power in the last seven years of this age, after the true church has been raptured. When we say that, we must remember that we are not talking about Roman Catholic people. We think of the church as people, but the Roman church itself teaches that the church is the clergy -- the papacy and the hierarchy -- not the people. It is interesting that Catholic scholars themselves admit as they study this section of Revelation that it is Rome which is described here, but they say it is pagan Rome. The only problem with that is that John would not have been a bit surprised that pagan Rome persecuted the saints of God. He expected that for this was common by his time. But to see the church itself persecuting the saints of God is what astonished him so.

It would be simplistic to say this describes the Roman Catholic Church and that church alone. We must remember, first of all, that there are many true saints within the Roman Catholic Church. There have been godly popes, bishops, priests and nuns through the centuries. I have met some of them; so, perhaps, have you. What we need to understand is that it is the teaching of the Roman church that is described here -- the extra-biblical teachings from pagan sources that have been brought in under the name of Christendom. They involve a seeking of earthly power or status gained by religious authority. That is Babylonianism. That is what first arose in the city by the Euphrates -- a search for earthly power and glory by religious means. The Tower of Babel was built unto heaven, and the people said, "We will make a name for ourselves." That is Babylonianism.

There are many religious groups and churches today that are afflicted by this taint. Not only the Roman Catholic Church, but also Orthodox churches, Anglican churches, Eastern churches, Western churches, Protestant churches, Independent churches, Charismatic churches, and Evangelical churches -- many of them reflect this same error. Our good friend, Eugene Peterson, who has such a gift for putting things powerfully, says it well: "Whoredom is sex connected with money. Worship under the aspect of the Great Whore is the commercialization of our great need and deep desire for meaning, love and salvation. The promise of success, ecstasy and meaning that we can get for a price is Whore-worship. It is the diabolical inversion of 'You are bought with a price,' to, 'I can get it for you wholesale.'"

Let us now leave that solemn and sobering picture. The quarrel God has with Babylonianism wherever it may be found, not only in the Roman church but in many churches which fall prey to this error, is that "she glorifies herself" in the name of God. She teaches in the name of Christ, mingling truth with error. Saints are called to separate themselves from that root error: the hunger for earthly glory and position obtained by religious devotion. Whenever a church seeks influence by impressing people with outward splendor you have the seeds of Babylonianism present. Whenever individual Christians try to appear pious and devout while the heart runs after material gain or status, there is the silken allurement of Babylon.

In the New Testament the occasion where this begins in the church is the judgment that came upon Ananias and Sapphira. That couple seemed to be godly and devout, but what they were after was not the glory of God but self-glory. They were using an apparent act of devotion on their part in selling their land and giving only a part of the proceeds to the apostles to gain a false status in the midst of the people.

We must ask ourselves, "Why does God show us all this?" All through Revelation we are seeing the end of things that are present with us now. We are shown this because, if we see how things will end we can turn away from them now. That is the reason this book is sent to the seven churches of Asia -- that they might learn from the judgments God will bring on Babylon what is wrong with the practices they see around them throughout the church age. ("The Dragon Lady," by Ray C. Stedman,

Reforming the Church:

In recent weeks I have been involved in half a dozen different discussions about small groups and the state of the church in America. My friends from the younger generation are often eager to find creative new ways to serve God. Many feel restricted, inhibited or ill at ease in their relationship with the local churches they attend. The men of the Wednesday Brothers of Thunder, who meet at my home, have been gathering for more than 6 years now. As far as I know, no two come from the same church. Frequently I hear the comment that our "leaderless" core group meetings is what they think of as their "real church." Sunday mornings are, for some of them, only a formality. Some people I know attend church only because they will feel guilty if they don't, even though their time in church drags them down spiritually instead of building them up!

One creative and gifted brother, an intern in youth ministry at the local church, was discussing the state of the church with his youth pastor recently. Fred said, "Wouldn't it be great if we could have a series of small groups during the week and then all meet together for a big informal gathering on Sundays?" The youth pastor agreed that such a plan sounded exciting and real, so Fred said, "Well then, let's do it." To this the youth pastor replied, "Oh no I can't do that. I'd lose $60,000 a year, and I am looking forward to being a Senior Pastor."

When I heard about this conversation I was reminded of a conversation Jesus had with a devoutly religious man whose innermost values were in reality rooted in the world,

Now behold, one came and said to Him, "Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?" So He said to him, "Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments." He said to Him, "Which ones?" Jesus said, "'You shall not murder,' 'You shall not commit adultery,' 'You shall not steal,' 'You shall not bear false witness,' 'Honor your father and your mother,' and, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'" The young man said to Him, "All these things I have kept from my youth. What do I still lack?" Jesus said to him, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me." But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. (Matthew 19:16-22)

In my home I keep one special bookshelf dedicated to "give-away" books I can hand to someone when they are pursuing a topic of interest. Lately my stack of books on cell groups and home churches has been very popular. I read many books in this category of this year, and am not overly impressed with most. I did like some of the ideas of William A. Beckham in his book "The Second Reformation: Reshaping the Church for the 21st Century," (Touch Publications, Houston, 1997). Basically Beckham presents the case that the local church should be "two-winged" by which he means that every local church needs to have half of its effort devoted to cell groups and small groups while not abandoning the gathering of the entire congregation on Sunday mornings. I know many people who have left the institutional church altogether and since I do not believe theirs is the correct approach, Beckham's ideas make sense to me. I would disagree with the methods he proposes for "managing" and coordinating the various small groups but he certainly has some refreshing ideas.

A much more provocative book as far as I am concerned is Frank A. Viola's, Rethinking the Wineskin: The Practice of the New Testament Church, (Present Testimony Ministry, 1998). [Note: This book has been revised and updated as Reimagining Church (2008).] Taking advantage of the author's copyright permission for non-commercial use I have added five chapters of this book to my web site (see You don't have to agree with all he says, but it is certainly interesting reading. Please read it and see what you think. Viola challenges our centuries-old traditions that we continue to follow on Sunday mornings--even though he claims that they are unbiblical and date not from the First Century but from the time of Constantine. Viola challenges the institutional church to drastically alter its entire way of doing business and move radically back to the traditions of the Apostles. I am an iconoclast myself, so I resonate with much of what Viola has to say.

Essentially Viola believes that Christians should gather on Sunday mornings to participate in Body life, prayer and spontaneous worship with everyone participating. Preaching, as we know it should be replaced by intensive teaching geared to equipping the saints for the work of the ministry. He says that the ministry belongs to the people, not to the paid professional clergy, and of course I agree with that--it's right out of Ephesians 4. Viola would even dismantle then choir, and probably do away with the stage and pulpit as well! Worship, he feels, as led by a professional choir and music ministry takes away the spontaneous worship the believer is called to live by all weeklong.

I rather doubt that many churches will take Viola seriously. His reforms would tend to reduce the size of the professional, paid staff at many churches. Pastors who are not very good at teaching and helping the flock in small groups might not have a paycheck, and the elders would no longer have the power they now wield (which often imitates that of corporate executives). The senior pastor would also be out of a job unless he could step down from any top-down and hierarchical role and assume the task of a true servant of the people. It's "Power to the people," in other words.

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus, saying, "Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask." And He said to them, "What do you want Me to do for you?" They said to Him, "Grant us that we may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on Your left, in Your glory." But Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you ask. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" They said to Him, "We are able." So Jesus said to them, "You will indeed drink the cup that I drink, and with the baptism I am baptized with you will be baptized; "but to sit on My right hand and on My left is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it is prepared." And when the ten heard it, they began to be greatly displeased with James and John. But Jesus called them to Himself and said to them, "You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. "Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. "And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many." (Mark 10:35-45)

I am very reluctant to level any broadside against any institutional church, nor to find fault with home churches or cell groups. I believe it is up to every individual Christian to find his or her spiritual gifts and find out how to serve God all week long, and to relate with other Christians not only on Sundays, but whenever possible during the week. Some institutional churches are doing a great job these days, in my opinion; others are of course failing abysmally. (The latter should be no surprise to anyone who has read the New Testament. Even the great churches founded by the Apostles themselves disappeared in a couple of generations)

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:23-25)

Indeed THE Day of the Lord is drawing rapidly near! I came back from a trip to Israel and Jordan in March more aware of that than ever. The "signs of the times" in which we live are clear to anyone who reads the Bible and follows even small bits and pieces of the daily news. We are surely very near the end of the church.

Then the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and testing Jesus asked that He would show them a sign from heaven. He answered and said to them, "When it is evening you say, 'It will be fair weather, for the sky is red'; "and in the morning, 'It will be foul weather today, for the sky is red and threatening.' Hypocrites! You know how to discern the face of the sky, but you cannot discern the signs of the times. "A wicked and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah." And He left them and departed. (Matthew 16:1-4)

Preaching and Teaching in the Church:

By way of brief comment on Frank Viola's book: Four main categories of teaching in the local church are mentioned in Ephesians 4. The purpose of these teaching gifts is two-fold, namely (1) to equip the saints for the work of the ministry, and (2) to build up the Body of Christ. What is commonly called preaching today usually accomplishes neither of these goals. So I think Viola is right in suggesting that Christians ought not to gather together on Sunday mornings to hear an oration from a paid professional clergyman whose speeches--no matter how eloquent and polished--are not directly related to the teaching needs of the local church as specified in the New Testament.

One form of legitimate preaching is public evangelism. This should not practiced in the church gathering, but out in the unconverted world. The gift of evangelism is given to some members of the congregation so they easily, skillfully, and naturally lead people to Christ. Those gifted with the gift of evangelism carry on much of their work outside the church proper, but they also have the job of teaching the congregation how to lead others to Christ: individually, in home groups, in public, or in street ministries, etc.

The second legitimate form of "preaching" is really what the New Testament calls "prophesying." It is a form of exhortation and is designed to present broad areas of truth in a short time and to accomplish specific goals which are stated in 1 Corinthians 12:3, "he who prophesies speaks (a) edification [building-up] and (b) exhortation [energizing, encouraging, challenging] and (c) comfort to men." The teaching gift of the NT prophet is closely related to the work of the Apostles in the NT.

The Apostolic teaching gift is one of laying foundations--establishing a church where no church previously existed. But since every generation has to learn truth afresh from the start, teachers in the apostolic tradition are needed in the church to teach new Christians all the foundational principles and doctrines of Biblical faith.

The pastor-teacher is charged with the care and feeding of the flock--a demanding and full-time responsibility. Ray Stedman describes these gifts in his well-known book, "Body Life," so I won't repeat the details here. See

A given church therefore might be configured as follows, that is, if we were to follow Viola's suggestions for the activities which should take place during the gathering of the local church on Sunday mornings. (I assume the church also has numerous, active home fellowships and core group meetings during he week):

1. The entire congregation should meet on Sundays for Body Life. This main meeting (or meetings, plural) would be chaired by a male leader, a facilitator who guides the time together to make sure the meeting is orderly and that important topics are covered. Everyone can participate. Viola suggests how this could be done. His model bears little resemblance to the common Sunday morning "worship" pattern which is almost universally followed in every church today! We'd eliminate the choir and the "preaching" for example.

2. Prayer meetings and sharing time from cell groups and home fellowships. These would of necessity be smaller groups where the congregation could engage in corporate prayer. Corporate prayer is priority Number Two for the church--see "Corporate Prayer in Not an Option," (

Teaching classes and seminars: These would be electives, with every member ordinarily attending at least one:

3a. A teaching class for inquirers: for non-Christians who are inquiring into the faith but who are not yet believers.

3b. A foundations class for new Christians. This interactive class would make sure that new Christians understand and live by the content of the "faith that was once-for-all-time transmitted to the saints" by the Lord and His apostles.

3c. Several Bible exposition classes dealing with one book at the Bible at a time. These would be Christian growth classes for all ages. The aim would be to have everyone in the church know the Bible well in, say, five years.

3d. One or more Apologetics Classes. Comparative religion, cults and sects. Dealing with Contemporary Issues. Practical Christianity.

3e. Missions and Outreach Reports and Strategies Class. Cell Group coordination.


4. A common meal, observing, in effect, the Table of the Lord.

Viola touches upon, but does not elaborate on, the obvious fact that most churches today do not know about, nor practice, the priesthood to which all believers are called. The Epistle to the Hebrews calls attention to our Lord's role of Great High Priest over a household of priests. The Protestant Reformers taught "the priesthood of all believers" but one seldom sees any attempts to implement this clear calling given to every Christian. We are all to serve as priests of God.

But it is also true these days that most churches do not really practice ministry by the people but instead by the hired "clergy." The clergy produces a product---canned, prepackaged religion--for the consumer, namely the congregation, and the consumer foots the bill--to paraphrase Viola.

God in His sovereignty always does things His way. He ignores our plans, programs, and strategies when they do not line up with His own. When a church drifts too far from the simplicity that is in Christ, God shuts down the power of that church, and removes their lampstand. He moves down the block and gets someone else to do His real work. Our normal human tendency is to institutionalize everything we do, to fence things in around fixed boundaries, and to attempt to control God, as well as His people. These days many churches are micromanaged and fine-tuned by skilled managers and numerous committees. One can hardly blame God for leaving and going elsewhere where He is free to move as He chooses.

Many churches these days measure their "success" by the size of their bank account, the number of members, membership growth rates, or by the enthusiasm of the people in a worship and praise meeting. None of these are true indicators of where the church really stands with the Lord. If we were to judge some of the cults by these same standards, we might conclude that they were more blessed by God than we are!

In regard to giving, the New Testament does not ask us to "tithe" to support a temple in Jerusalem and its Levitical priesthood. We are to give regularly, generously, and prayerfully to meet specific needs. Simply putting money in an offering plate for tax purposes may be a cop out. In giving this way we give the church professionals more power than they ought to have, and our giving becomes impersonal. Instead, it is more Biblical, and far more rewarding, to pray about our (weekly) giving, and to give (as led by the Lord) by investing in the work of people we know and respect and work with in ministry. Large sums of money in the church coffers can mislead a staff into thinking they have special power and authority in the church. Thus it must be up to them to decide how to spend the money. (They might do a job of this, but then again they might not).

In reality, decisions about giving probably need to move back to a more personal, individual level. If congregations prayerfully followed the NT guidelines for giving we might expect the paid-staff size to shrink, the not-so-good pastors to be out of a job, and more of the real needs of the flock to be met. Some of the paid professionals would surely be better off learning the job skills required for tent making. Everyone would get back to the principle of depending on God in a more direct and daily way. The really gifted teachers and leaders would be set free to serve the Lord full time, efficiently as well. The benefits of a staff that is functioning closer to the Biblical norms, would surely lead to more of the saints fulfilling their calling to do "the work of the ministry." The "staff" would be free to do the two-pronged work they are called to do (Eph. 4) instead of doing of all ministry work themselves in the default mode of church life. The priesthood of all believers would begin to be seen.

There are no doubt good reasons for NOT attempting to return the local church to the norms common in the First Century. My remarks are therefore discussion points at best. The church has obviously learned a lot in two thousand years. The Lord has guided and directed small and large assemblies of Christians around the world. His work gets done one way or another. This is not to say that we do not need radical reformation, because I think we do. I just do not believe there are any easy fixes. Each church should seek the Lord for specific changes they should or should not make as we move rapidly to the close of the cage.

In one sense the predicted end of the church is abject failure. That makes me pessimistic that any real reforms will take place before the church age closes. In another sense, the true church will emerge at the rapture as, "a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish." (Eph. 5:27). Meantime we should not be content with the status quo when there are many things we can do to bring our churches back much closer to the guidelines handed down to us by the Apostles.

For more of my thoughts on "the church" see "Rediscovering the Body of Christ," Parts I and II on my web site, and

Current Activities:

I am enjoying the Book of Judges, my Tuesday evening class at my home church in Palo Alto. It is a hard book to teach because it so filled with failure, disunity, and spiritual decline. The flaws of those whom God used to bring His people back to Himself for a time are all too obvious, a reminder to us today that we probably are not faring any better as God sees things. The Wednesday Brothers are now launching into Luke's Gospel, and Saturday mornings my college group is digging further into Isaiah.

Our March Study Group tour of Israel and Jordan (see continues to be enthusiastically discussed by all of us who went. Matt Blum has posted some great photographs, which will be especially interesting for those who have never been to the Holy Land.


As most of you know I am supposed to be "retired." I am actually busier than I ever have been and feel that at long last I am finding my calling and niche in life. My income is from Social Security and my job retirement account. The latter account has been stable--until this month when stock market fluctuations abruptly dropped my retirement check by more than $500 a month. A third and most helpful source of income has been from donations on my behalf. To make ends meet I need about $1500 a month from this third source. Contributions income dropped to $1120 in March and were only $220 in April. There are no accidents with God; He arranges all circumstances to suit Himself.

"I have been young, and now am old; Yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken, Nor his descendants begging bread. He is ever merciful, and lends; And his descendants are blessed. Depart from evil, and do good; And dwell forevermore. For the LORD loves justice, And does not forsake His saints; They are preserved forever, But the descendants of the wicked shall be cut off. The righteous shall inherit the land, And dwell in it forever." (Psalm 37:25-29)

If there are those of you who wish to contribute to my work you may do so by sending a check addressed to Peninsula Bible Church, 3505 Middlefield Rd., Palo Alto, CA 94306. Mark the check for my account. I do not receive a list of contributors, so this is the only channel for me to express my deep thanks to loyal friends who think I must be doing some things right! God bless you.

Archived newsletters are on my web site. If you wish to receive assorted daily clippings of news from various sources in the Middle East, subscribe to the MiddleEastNews Yahoo group by clicking on the icon at the bottom of my library page. You may subscribe or unsubscribe to this newsletter at any time as well.

To be continued

Sincerely, Lambert Dolphin.
May 2, 2001. Web Archive for these newsletters: