When Churches Run on Autopilot

We have a standing joke in my men's group. When studying the gospels, Mike Mckenna convinced us that the reason some of the passages are printed in red (in some Bibles) is to let the reader know these are "optional" sections. We can skip over these sections and just stick with the easy parts. Actually Mike was deliberately being facetious with one another--for emphasis: the verses printed in red are the very words of the Lord Jesus Himself and these verses deserve the most attention of all!

Chapters 2 and 3 of the Book of the Revelation are in red letters: Jesus Himself is speaking to each and every church personally. As the Lord of the churches, as our Great High Priest, He walks among the churches in every generation commending, rebuking, judging, and correcting. Someone has noted that we pay a lot of attention to what Paul has to say about the church in his epistles but almost everyone ignores the letters to the Seven Churches which are the personal and final words from Jesus Himself to His church.

The letters to the seven churches in Revelation are progressive. Our Lord is concerned about sound teaching and warm, transparent fellowship among His people. He is grieved by the infiltration of secular, materialistic values into the church, and by unjudged sexual immorality in the assemblies. He hates hypocrisy, legalism, and empty professions of faith not backed up by genuine self-giving service to others (for the right motives). From the beginning, the Lord deplores the long-standing tendency we Christians have of dividing the church artificially between a paid professional clergy (the service providers) and a passive laity (the consumers of religion who pay the bills). Fellowship in the churches, we can see from what Jesus says, is easily spoiled by the "five leavens" of hypocrisy, rationalism, materialism, sexual immorality, and legalism.

There are quite a few things Jesus does not mention at all in his critique of the seven churches. There is no mention of choirs or music, of regular worship services, of pastors or preachers, Sunday school programs, or tithes and offerings. There is no hint in the words of Jesus to suggest that the church activities on Sunday should be run by program managers or divided up by age groups. But, since the church is a family, it should be obvious that when Christians meet together for fellowship the whole family should take part. Also, the church of Jesus should hardly be run by autonomous committees! (Chuck Missler once said that a careful study of committees indicated that the optimum size of a committee is 2.75 members--more members than that makes a committee counter productive!)

From the early days of the church there has been an inexorable trend towards making the church an efficiently-run and well-managed institution. This has greatly depersonalized the church and usually indicates the invasion of secular ways of doing things into Christ's church. This kind of cruise control/autopilot is default mode in life. The flesh, the world and the devil are pulling the strings from backstage.

The church is described always as an organism never an organization. Leadership in Christ's church is to be non-hierarchical and servant based. Even the disciples of Jesus did not like that idea at first.

"...they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; and they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. And taking the twelve again, he began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death, and deliver him to the Gentiles; and they will mock him, and spit upon him, and scourge him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise." And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him, and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." And he said to them, "What do you want me to do for you?" And they said to him, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." But Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?" And they said to him, "We are able." And Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared." And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John.

And Jesus called them to him and said to them, "You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Mark 9:32-45)

Frank Viola is a prominent leader in the house church movement. He has written a provocative series of book on the early church, and on small churches. His insights are sharp and clear in showing how far we have drifted away from the church basics handed to us from the original apostles. For instance, in his book Pagan Christianity, (http://www.ptmin.org/). Viola shows that virtually every feature of the traditional Sunday morning worship service as we know it today is derived from a pagan source and was not something which would be found in the early churches.

When compromises sneak in to our lives in small steps, a few at a time, we are usually unaware that they are taking place. Should it come as a surprise to us that a great many compromises and much excess baggage have crept into Christ's churches over the past 20 Centuries? But as creatures of habit we don't like to make changes and would like to play it safe.

If our church is on budget surely God is well-pleased with what we are doing? If our church is growing in numbers then surely we have found a key to success that others have not yet latched on to? Our highly trained and experienced pastoral staff, our beautiful sanctuary and well-planned programs (for everyone) surely guarantee that we are covering all the bases? Not necessarily!

Jesus indicts the last of the seven churches, the church at Laodicea, with startling and very strong language:

"And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: 'The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning [arche] of God's creation: I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked." (Revelation 3:14-17)

God hates bland, comfortable, mediocre, lukewarm Christianity! Actually Jesus has been completely marginalized by the time history has reached the Laodicean stage of the church just prior to the end of the age. This church does not need Jesus. His presence is superfluous. Laodicean Christians are rich and well-off--our services and programs all run on autopilot. Jesus stands outside this church hoping to be invited back in! He is actually outside and not really needed. Does he really show up at all on Sunday mornings, and how would we know? But the real church is His church not ours!

So the Laodicean church is in huge trouble and doesn't even know it. What a shock--believing we are rich and prospering and in need of nothing when Jesus says plainly that our actual state of affairs before Him is "wretched, poor, pitiable, blind and naked." Jesus is the Author of the Church--from her beginning the church has been His church not our church! At Caesarea Philippi our Lord announced His plan for His church: "I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it." (Matthew 16:18) By the way, Jesus was speaking of the church here as an assaulting army on the move against the very gates of hell--his language was not that of a defensive retreat away from the world and away from conflict.

If one reviews the simplicity of the functioning of the early church and her early history in the Book of Acts, it is clear that there are some key elements Jesus intended for the local churches which were to be microcosm of the entire 2000 year-old Body of Christ--the church universal. Christians are called to live as foreigners in the world, aliens representing our absent king in a hostile world where Jesus is the most ignored, most hated man in every generation. We who follow Jesus are few in number and we do need to meet together whenever we can.

Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near." (Hebrews 10:19-25)

The main purpose in gathering together regularly is to be taught and fed the Word of God. (Today's typical Sunday morning sermons do not even begin to accomplish this task). Corporate prayer by the church is given number two priority in Paul's writing to Timothy. The church is a family and we need to share and to help and encourage one another--we are priests serving one another in the very temple of God where we come to meet with Jesus our Great High priest. We need to come together so Jesus can speak to us week by week: words of correction, rebuke, encouragement, wisdom and insight so we can live dynamically spiritual lives the rest of the week.

Why should be family of God be arbitrarily divided up by age groups with a separate specialized pastor who know show to best entertain the younger people he works among? Young people in the church are supposed to be learning the Bible and feeding on the Word along with the rest of God's family. In a larger church surely small groups are a vital supplement to big meetings? (http://ldolphin.org/Core.html).

There has always been a place in the church for music--and indeed music featured prominently in the worship of Israel before the church was formed. But canned music and pop religious choruses on Sunday usually make matters worse. Worship must be spontaneous and from the heart. (Ray Stedman has two fine messages on this topic which are must reading---Why Worship and What Did we Come Here For.

"The sign that true worship is being achieved is a maturing congregation. Personal witness is widespread, loving service to those who hurt should be increasing; friction among members should be decreasing; appreciation for benefits and public thanksgiving should be often manifest; moral standards are held in high regard, but deviations are not coldly treated and the steps of discipline given in Matthew 18:15-17 are lovingly followed. The exposition of the Word of God lies at the heart of every ministry, and the exercise of personal gifts is continually encouraged. When these things are happening a congregation has clearly become the household of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth, is people belonging to God. Remember that the Father is seeking such to worship him!

"The closing chapters of the book of Revelation make clear that the ultimate exercise of God's people is worship. When the long agony of sin is over and creation is restored to its pristine glory, the angels and the redeemed are seen around the throne, endlessly praising God for His wisdom, love, and power. That may sound boring and routine to many, but in reality it represents the awed wonder of creatures who continually are discovering new aspects of God's nature and character. So awesome is our God that we shall never reach the end of his amazing attributes. In true worship something happens to the worshipers. Minds are cleared, perceptions come into focus, spirits are renewed, truth breaks out in new clarity. That is what sends us out to tell the good news to those who long for hope, or peace, or freedom from guilt." (Ray Stedman).

Do we dare really open the door of the church of Laodicea and allow Jesus back in to all that we are doing? Can we really do a better job in running the church than the Lord can? Does He really need our help in organizing and planning--or is all this just the flesh on a grand scale? Are we supposed to be in control at all times, leaving God no room or freedom to act as He wishes--to move and act among us as our Sovereign Lord?

Travelers Unaware

"Why do people in churches seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a package tour of the Absolute?...On the whole I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea of what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up batches of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return." (Annie Dillard in Teaching a Stone to Talk).

In each of the Seven Churches of the Book of Revelation there is a core, a remnant of solid believers whose hearts are committed to serving the a Lord whether or not the rest of the church is going along with God's program and heeding the admonitions of the Lord Jesus. It is easy to be critical of "the church" these days. The important matter is for those of us who "have ears to hear" is for us as individuals to pay attention to the special words of Jesus addressed to the overcomers in each of the churches. In the case of Laodicea--the church at the end of age--Jesus says,

Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, that you may be rich, and white garments to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and chasten; so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. He who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.'" (Revelation 3:18-22)

Ray Stedman comments on Laodicea as follows:

"What a sad condition! There is a big difference between "you say," and "you are." Our Lord points this difference out. This is the "Faithful and True witness" speaking, the one who tells the whole truth, even though it hurts. This church at Laodicea was, to use a popular expression, "fat, dumb and happy." It was smug. It was self-sufficient. It was complacent. They had plenty of money. Perhaps they had beautiful buildings, gifted preachers, a great choir, a great organ, and the respect of the community. They thought they were doing well. But when Jesus looks at it, he says, "You are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked." Why such a difference in these two views? It is because they were being measured by two different standards.

I might say to you, "What is the temperature today?" and you would look at a thermometer and say, "It is 32 above zero." But I might check another thermometer and say, "No, you are wrong. It is zero." The truth is, we would both be right because one thermometer was Fahrenheit and the other was Centigrade. Zero in Centigrade is 32 above on Fahrenheit. If you use two different standards of measurement, you will never be able to agree on what the true temperature is. That is what was happening here. They were being measured by two different standards. Laodicea was using the standards of the world. It was pleasant, comfortable, approved by the community around, and they thought they were doing well. But Jesus is using the standard of what he intended his church to be like. It is definitely not to be a Country Club, run for the benefit of the members. It is not a Performing Arts Center either, where one is entertained with wonderful music. It is not to be a Political Action Group, taking sides on the issues of the day, nor is it to be a protest movement. Elements of all these may, at times, be legitimately expressed in the church, but none is to be its raison d'etre, the purpose for which it exists.

Jesus tells us plainly what his church is to be like. It is to be salt -- and not just plain salt, but salty salt! He said, "Salt that loses its saltiness is good for nothing," (Matthew 5:13, Mark 9:50, Luke 14:34). It will only be cast out and trodden under the feet of men. But a church that is salt should be salty. He means that, like salt in food, it should be spread throughout the whole area, flavoring whatever it touches. The church is to function not only when it meets on Sunday, but out where you people are during the week -- in business offices, in the marketplace, in shops, in your home, wherever you are. That is where the church does its work. That is where it is to tell the good news and to be salt, flavoring life with a different flavor, a different attitude toward circumstances, which does not go along with the willful, wicked, and wanton ways of the world but which chooses to walk in truth, righteousness, love and honesty. That is how the church becomes salt, filled with good works.

And it is also to be light. "You are like a city set on a hill," said Jesus. "You are the light of the world," (Matthew 5:14 NIV). Light is a symbol of truth. The church is to be a source of truth and of vision. It is the church that is charged with the task of making people understand the program of God throughout history, and of interpreting the events of the day so that men see what God is doing, not what man intends to do. That is the work of the church: To declare the truth about humanity's lost condition and the good news that a Savior has been born who will save us from our sin. Judged by that standard, Laodicea had nothing. They were as though stripped naked, poor, pitiful, wretched, and blind.

In each of these letters we have been looking at the churches as prophetic of a certain period in the history of the church. There is nothing in the text itself, I grant you, that tells us that, other than the general statement made in the first chapter that this whole book is a prophecy -- and that description applies to Chapters 2 and 3, as well as to the rest of the book. But, when you look back across these twenty centuries of church history, you can see how accurate this prophecy has been. Each of the seven churches represents a time where the prevailing general atmosphere was consistent with the conditions described in that church. Now we come to the seventh age of the church. It is clear, as both history and prophecy would confirm, that Laodicea is the church of the 20th century, the last age of the church. It is characterized by the phenomenon of the people dictating what will be taught. It is significant, is it not, that the name Laodicea means "The judgment of the people," or, to put it loosely, "People's rights." That is the cry of our times, is it not? The rights of the people -- exactly the opposite of the Nicolaitans who were a dominating clergy class that told the people what to believe. But Laodicea is where the people tell the ministers what to preach. We are seeing this happen today. The Apostle Paul predicted it in his second letter to Timothy when he said, "In the last times people will gather unto themselves teachers having itching ears, who will turn many from the truth and turn them unto myths and fables," (2 Timothy 4:3-4). Unfortunately, and sadly, that is what is happening today.

There was once a time when the church taught that the self life, the natural life with which we were born, was something that needed to be crucified. It needed to be denied. It required careful control and to be kept under rigid restrictions. Jesus said it himself, "He that comes after me must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me," (Matthew 16:34, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23). But we are living in a day when churches are openly advancing self, asserting self, saying we should discover its possibilities, and act and live in the light of those possibilities. Once the inerrancy of Scripture formed the bedrock of all evangelical churches. You could count on the fact that the Bible was fully accepted as the unerring Word of God. But now churches, seminaries, and colleges that call themselves evangelical, are rethinking the nature of the Scriptures, denying the inerrancy of the Word, and claiming that we cannot trust it; it must be judged by men before it can be accepted.

Our Lord's appeal to this church falls into three simple divisions. First of all, verse 18:

"I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see." (Revelation 3:18 NIV)

The key to that verse is the three little words "buy from me." Jesus has all the church really needs to function. It is nice to have buildings, great choirs and beautiful music. These are not wrong, I do not mean in any way to suggest that they are, but they are not what the church needs. What it needs is what our Lord describes here, "Gold, and white clothing, and eye salve." We will see in a moment what those symbols stand for, but he alone possesses them. That is why it really does not make any difference whether we are persecuted, hounded by the government, put to death, or patronized and accepted. What the church needs is to be obtained only from Jesus, and our Lord tells us what it is.

First, "gold refined in the fire." Peter interprets that for us. He tells us that our faith is like gold refined in the fire: "More precious even than gold that perishes, though it be tried by fire," (1 Peter 1:7). Faith in God. Faith in his Word. Faith comes from Jesus. As we look to him our faith is awakened and stirred. We then see how true the Scriptures are, how they explain life and fit with all that we experience daily. That awakens a sense of confidence and faith, and that is what this church needed first. It lacked faith in God, but was resting on its own abilities or the world's resources.

Then, second, they needed white clothes: "white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness." Everyone is morally naked before God. Every one of us knows something about ourselves that we would not want anyone else to know. But God knows! He sees us in our nakedness. What does he offer for it? The righteousness of Christ! All through these letters we have seen that white clothes stand for redemption, for righteousness imparted by Christ. We are no longer to be clothed with our own self-righteousness, which Isaiah says is nothing but filthy rags in the sight of God, but we are to be clothed with the righteousness of Christ himself, a perfect righteousness which God accepts

White clothes stand for a changed character; they mark someone who has taken his robes and washed them in the blood of the Lamb. Then the third thing that is needed is eye salve. Laodicea was noted for their eye ointment. But Jesus says they need spiritual eye salve that will enable them to see. Everywhere in Scripture we have mention of an anointing of the Spirit which opens eyes to understand the truth of God. John speaks of this in his first letter. He says, "The anointing that you received from him remains in you and you do not need anyone to teach you, but his anointing is real, not counterfeit, and teaches you all truth," (1 John 2:27 NIV). That does not do away with the need for human teachers. It means that unless the Spirit in you is opening your eyes to the meaning of truth taught it will fall upon deaf ears. But if we have the Spirit of Christ within, our eyes are opened to understand the Word of God and we see the Bible in a new, fresh and wonderful way. Are you having trouble with your Bible reading? Is it hard going? Is it difficult to understand? Then ask yourself, "Do I have the Spirit of truth? Have I received him or do I need this counsel of Jesus to "come to me and I will give you that anointing which opens your eyes to see"?

The second division of our Lord's appeal is given in Verses 19-20, where we learn how to get this gold and white clothes and eye salve. This is, I believe, one of the most beautiful sections of Scripture, a most gracious offer our Lord makes to individuals within the church of Laodicea to change. Here is what he says:

"Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will go in and eat with him, and he with me." (Revelation 3:19-20 NIV)

What a kind and loving word! Our Lord is simply telling this church, despite its terrible weakness and failure, "I love you, and it is because I love you that I rebuke you and discipline you." Does that remind you of the way your father treated you? Did he ever take you aside and paddle you for something and say as he did it, "I am only doing this because I love you"? You go away rubbing your behind and saying, "I wish you didn't love me so much!" But Jesus speaks with bluntness because he loves this church, and he offers them a wonderful way out.

Verse 20 is one of the finest explanations in the whole Bible of how to become a Christian. I have used it hundreds of times and seen it work. It has three simple divisions: First, there comes a sense that Christ is outside your life and knocking at the door of your heart, wanting to come in. That occurs when you feel your life is not what you want it to be. You feel empty and disturbed about yourself. You hear the good news in song and word about Jesus, the kind of Lord he is, what he can do, and something within you responds. You sense the knocking of Christ and you want him to come in. You long for it. You begin to be awakened to your need, and you sense him offering to enter your life. That is step number one. Then the second step is very important. You must open the door. He will not open it. He is not going to force himself upon you. He never forces anyone into salvation. He offers it to you. Everywhere in Scripture Jesus offers himself to men and women, and he grieves over the fact that people do not receive his offer. Remember that remarkable scene in the Gospels during Jesus' last week in Jerusalem when he comes over the top of the Mount of Olives and sees the city spread out beneath him. He wept over the rebellious city, saying, "O, Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You stone the prophets and kill everybody God sends to you. How often would I have gathered you as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings, but you would not," (Matthew 23:37, Luke 13:34). So he offers himself here, if you will open the door. You must invite him in. You must say to him, "Come in Lord Jesus. Enter my life. Be my Lord. Be my Savior. Deliver me from my sins -- and myself." Then the third step is very clear. He will enter in! He says so. You do not have to feel him enter. He does not say he will give you the feeling that he is there, although certainly that will come in time, but he says, "If you open the door I will enter in and remain with you. We will eat together and be together." It is a beautiful picture of permanently dwelling with you. He will move in to live with you.

The third aspect of our Lord's appeal is his word to the overcomer. It is given in Verses 21-22:

"To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches." (Revelation 3:21-22 NIV)

Again, as we have seen in the last three letters, the promise is to share in our Lord's reign. The true church is intended to reign with Christ. But our Lord makes a very careful distinction here. Notice how he distinguishes between his throne and his Father's throne. The Father's throne, of course, is the sovereign government of the universe. God is sovereign over all. The whole universe is under his control. Every human event comes under his jurisdiction. That is the Father's throne. When our Lord had overcome, when he, too, had endured faithfully to the end of his life, trusting God (as we are to trust God throughout the rest of our lives), he sat down on his Father's throne. When he ascended, we are told, "He sat down at the right hand of the throne of God," (Hebrews 12:2). Hebrews says that and Psalm 110 had predicted it. Thus he is Lord over all the universe right now, on his Father's throne.

But he too has a throne. He calls it "my throne." The overcoming Christian is invited to reign with him on it. In Scripture that throne is called the "Throne of David." When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, as recorded in the first chapter of Luke, he told her that she would have a son, that he would be called the Son of God and that the Lord God would give unto him "the throne of his father David, and he would reign over the house of Jacob forever," (Luke 1:32-33). The house of Jacob is the nation of Israel; all twelve tribes are descended from the sons of Jacob. So this is a promise particularly relating to the time yet to come when Jesus assumes the throne of David and Israel is made the head of the nations. It is the millennial kingdom which has been mentioned several times in these letters already. The church, resurrected and glorified, is to share with him in that reign. That does not end the reign of the church with Christ. It goes on into the new heavens and the new earth. But this is a particular promise looking to the coming kingdom on earth when Jesus will reign over the earth. Our Lord had explained this to his disciples in a rather amazing passage in the 19th of Matthew. In verse 28 it says, "Jesus said to them, 'I tell you the truth [i.e., verily, verily, or, Amen, Amen] at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel,'" (Matthew 19:28 NIV). You could not put that any plainer, could you? "And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters of father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first," (Matthew 19:29-30 NIV). That is our Lord's amplification of this promise here. (From http://raystedman.org/revelation/)

Additional Reading

Leaderless Core Groups

The Church at the End of the Age

Christianese Code Words

The Life Cycle of Churches

Body Life by Ray Stedman

Body Language by Elaine Stedman

The Five Leavens

As the Church Goes so goes the World

Lambert Dolphin,

Adapted from old Newsletter #45 2/21/04. Updated 4/29/19.