The Biblically Illiterate Church

My People Perish

A couple of years ago I stumbled onto the realization that corporate prayer was supposed to be the Number Two priority of the local church. It seemed to me at the time that collective prayer by the entire congregation was greatly neglected these days. But, all along I continued to assume that the Number One priority of the church was doing just fine. "Come Weal or Come Woe, the Status in Quo." We had plenty of good preaching all across the land, and I knew that the main task of the church, according to the New Testament, is teaching. I hadn't stopped to think through the reality that we seldom hear any really good Bible exposition or Bible teaching which is really relevant to our lives anymore.

"Therefore my people go into exile for want of knowledge; their honored men are dying of hunger, and their multitude is parched with thirst. Therefore Sheol has enlarged its appetite and opened its mouth beyond measure, and the nobility of Jerusalem and her multitude go down, her throng and he who exults in her. Man is bowed down, and men are brought low, and the eyes of the haughty are humbled." (Isaiah 5:13-15)

After rereading a couple of books on the Open Church movement I was a bit startled to see that preaching as we know it today was not a feature of the early church at all! "Preaching" was added something that was later. In his book, Rethinking the Wineskin: The Practice of the New Testament Church (2001) [Revised and updated as Reimagining Church (2008)], Frank A. Viola suggested that the modern church has departed very far from the teaching work of the apostles which characterized the early church. Preaching has come to be Oratory and no longer the instruction in "the whole counsel of God" which God intended "to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles." (Ephesians 4). Apparently the church today desperately needs teaching, but not necessarily any more conventional "preaching," especially by a paid professional clergy.

Frank Viola says,

"Note that when I use the term 'church meeting,' I am using it in a very narrow sense. The Bible portrays a number of different types of meetings in which the early Christians gathered together (prayer meetings, evangelistic meetings, ministry meetings, apostolic meetings, church councils, etc.). By 'church meeting,' I am referring to the special meeting of the local assembly that is described in I Corinthians 11-14. According to the Biblical record (as well as to church history), this meeting seems to have occurred on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7).

"Before we explore the purpose of the New Testament church meeting, let us first examine why most Christians gather together for 'church' today. There are basically four reasons: 1) for corporate worship, 2) for evangelism, 3) to hear a sermon, or 4) for fellowship. As strange as it may seem, the New Testament never envisions any of these reasons as being the central purpose of the church meeting.

"According to the New Testament, worship is something we live. It is the setting forth of the thankfulness, affection, devotion, humility, and sacrificial obedience that God deserves at every moment (Matt. 2:11; Rom. 12:1; Phil. 3:3). Therefore, when we come together as God's people, we should come in a spirit of worship. The temple of Old Testament Israel is the key figure for this aspect of the church meeting. The outstanding feature of the temple was worship. In the minds of many modern Christians, however, worship is restricted to singing choruses, hymns, and praise songs. While worshiping God through song was a very important facet of the early church meeting (Ephesians 5:19; Col. 3:16), the Bible never presents it as its chief aim.

"In the same way, the Bible never equates the purpose of the church meeting with evangelism. Rather, the New Testament demonstrates clearly that evangelism was commonly engaged in outside of the meetings of the church. Gospel preaching was commonly conducted in those places where unbelievers frequented, e.g., in the synagogues (of the Jews) and in the market places. Contrarily, the New Testament church gathering was primarily a believer's meeting. The context of I Corinthians I2-14 makes this quite plain. While the unregenerate were sometimes present, they were not the focus of this gathering

"Furthermore, the popular notion that the weekly church meeting was for the sake of hearing a sermon is without Biblical warrant. While the ministry of the Word was certainly present in the early church gathering (I Cor. 14 speaks of those bringing doctrines, revelations, and prophecies), hearing 'a sermon' was never its chief feature. In this regard, the New Testament church meeting was markedly different from the typical Protestant church service wherein the pulpit is the central feature, where everything leads up to and is structured around the sermon, and where the congregation evaluates the meeting by the quality of the message. The notion of a sermon-oriented, pulpit-pew styled church meeting cannot be sustained by the New Testament.

"Indeed, the apostles ministered the Word of God at length in certain settings. But such settings were not 'church meetings' They were 'ministry meetings' designed for evangelistic purposes or for the strengthening of the believers. These meetings would be akin to the special seminars, workshops, and conferences of our day. Such 'ministry meetings' should not be confused with 'church meetings.' In the former, one or two believers share with an interactive audience to equip it for works of service; in the latter, every member freely exercises his gift with no one taking center stage. So while the ministry of the Word was one aspect of the church gathering, it was not its central purpose. Furthermore, the teaching in the church meeting was not delivered by the same person week after week as is the custom in today's institutional church. In the New Testament gathering, neither the sermon nor 'the preacher' was the center. Instead, congregational participation was the Divine rule. The meeting was non-liturgical, non-ritualistic, and non-sacral. It possessed no sense of sacrosanctity or perfunctoriness. Instead, it reflected a flexible spontaneity wherein the Spirit of God was in utter control, being free to move through any member of the Body as He willed in an orderly fashion. In fact, the early church gathering was so governed by the Holy Spirit that if a person received an insight while another was sharing the Word, he was free to interject his thought. Strikingly, the person speaking would stop and give heed to what was being said by the other (I Cor. 14:29-30). Moreover, profitable questions and healthy discussions were a common part of the gathering (I Cor. 14:27-40).

"Such a meeting is almost unthinkable in the context of most contemporary churches today. Most Christians fear trusting the leadership of the Spirit to direct and shape their church services. The fact that they cannot envision a corporate gathering without placing themselves under the direct guidance of a human moderator reveals that they are strangers to God's ways. Much of the reason for this has to do with their own unfamiliarity with the Spirit's working in their personal affairs. Simply put, if we don't know the Spirit's control in our own life, how can we know it when we gather together? The truth is that many of us --like Israel of old -- still clamor for a king to rule over us and a visible mediator to tell us what God has said (Exodus. 20:19; 1 Sam. 8:19).

"Undoubtedly, the presence of a human moderator in the church meeting is a cherished tradition to which many Christians are fiercely committed. The problem is, it does not square with Scripture. Nowhere in the New Testament do we find grounds for a meeting that is dominated, directed, and officiated by one person. Neither do we find a gathering that is rooted in a pulpit centrality that is focused upon one man. Probably the most startling characteristic of the New Testament church meeting was the absence of human officiating. Christ led the meetings by the medium of the Holy Spirit through the believing community. Again, the principle that governed the early church meeting was that of 'one-anothering;' mutuality was its peculiar feature. It is no wonder that the phrase one another is used nearly sixty times in the New Testament!

"In this regard, the institutional church is essentially a nursery for overgrown spiritual babes. Because it has habituated God's people into being passive receivers, it has stunted their spiritual development and kept them in spiritual infancy. (The incessant need for predigested, dished out spiritual food is a mark of spiritual immaturity -- I Cor. 3:1-2; Heb. 5:12-14.)

"In the typical institutional church, the religious machinery of the church 'program' is the force that propels and charts the direction of the assembly. If the Spirit of God left an institutional church, His absence would go unnoticed: the 'business-as-usual' process would forge ahead; the worship would be unaffected; the liturgy would be uninterrupted; the announcements would be heard; the offering would be taken up; the sermon would be preached; and the closing song would be offered. Like Samson of old, the congregation would go right along with the religious program, 'knowing not that the Lord had departed' (Judges 16:20).

"By contrast, the only sustaining factor of the New Testament assembly was the life of the Holy Spirit. The early church relied entirely upon the spiritual life of the individual members to maintain its existence. Hence, if the life of a New Testament meeting was at a low ebb, everyone would know it -- the cold chill of death could not be overlooked. What is more, if the Spirit of God left the gathering, the meeting would collapse altogether. In short, the New Testament church knew no other sustaining influence other than the life of the Spirit through the believing community. It did not rely upon a man-programmed, human-planned, institutionally-fueled system to preserve its momentum.

"The tragedy of the church, therefore, lies in its reliance upon a humanly-devised, program-driven religious system that serves to scaffold the "church" structure when the Spirit of God is absent. This moss-laden system betrays the fact that when the spontaneous life of the Spirit has ebbed away from a group of believers, it ceases to be the church in any Biblical sense, even though the outward form may be preserved"--Frank Viola, from his book.

See also Viola's companion book (1998), Who Is Your Covering? A Fresh Look at Leadership, Authority, and Accountability,Now revised, as part of Reimagining Church (2008)

"The Whole Counsel of God"

When the Apostle Paul met with the elders of the church at Ephesus on his way to Jerusalem, he reminded them that they had been fully instructed and equipped for the work each local church is called to. "Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God which he obtained with the blood of his own Son. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified" (Acts 20:26-32) Paul's remarks are especially noteworthy in view of his earlier intensive teaching investment in the people of Ephesus. Ray Stedman wrote,

"Evidently the Apostle Paul made tents during the morning hours to support himself. But at eleven o'clock he came to the hall of Tyrannus and lectured for five hours every day for two years. Now, five hours a day, six days a week, fifty-two weeks a year for two years, adds up to 3,120 hours of lecturing. That equals 130 days of lecturing continuously for twenty-four hours a day. The content of those lectures was the great truths that we find in The Epistles of Paul. What a fantastic time of teaching! Wouldn't you like to have been in Ephesus, and had Paul teach you The Epistle to the Romans? And The Letter of Paul to the Ephesians? And all his other great books? Imagine the tremendous impact of this teaching! No wonder we read in Verse 10 that, 'all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.' That was an entire province, an area larger than the state of California, filled with many cities.

"Of course, it was not Paul who was teaching throughout this area. It was the Christians who heard him in the lecture hall of Tyrannus, and who, captivated and galvanized by these truths, began to spread the word throughout the whole area. They formed churches in other cities which evangelized in turn, so that in two years this whole province was reached by the gospel of Christ. Is not that amazing? "It was during this time that the church at Colossi was begun by Epaphras and Philemon, who carried the gospel up the Lycus valley into the cities there. Others, perhaps Trophimus and Tychicus, young men from this province, were involved in preaching to other cities of the region. They may have been the founders of the churches to which John later wrote his letters in the book of Revelation -- Smyrna and Sardis and Thyatira and Pergamum and Philadelphia and Laodicea, all of which are in this area and were begun by these Christians, largely unnamed and unknown, who heard the Apostle Paul proclaiming this fantastically revolutionary truth in the hall of Tyrannus in Ephesus. What power there is in the Word of God!"--Ray C. Stedman.

"[Paul] always sought to set forth the whole counsel of God. He tried to teach them the whole truth. He did not want them to be short-changed in any way. Sometimes he stayed up long hours in order to cover all that God has said to man. This, of course, was because he knew and understood that it is the knowledge of the Word that sets you free. I wish I could make that clear to people today, to people who are struggling with problems and internal tensions and pressures, and with boredom, frustration, and a sense of restlessness -- all the negative qualities of life. God has never intended for you to live like that. That is why he has given you the Word. It is the word of truth that sets you free. When you learn it and understand it and operate on it -- it will always set you free. One of the exciting things about this last year or so around here is to see so many people who have simply been transformed, caught up, changed by the truth they have learned, and have been set free from habits and attitudes that have hurt them and ruined them for years. That is why Paul emphasized this ministry so strongly. Notice the commitment to it of his own heart. He was faithful in its delivery not only in public but also from house to house, testifying of it everywhere. Also, see how practical it was. It always could be reduced to two concepts: Repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ. There is the Christian message, all summarized for you very neatly in two words: repent and believe.

"Repentance is looking at the way you have been living -- at what you have been drawing upon, at your dependence upon the old life -- and changing your mind. That is what repentance means. To repent means to stop thinking and acting and living the way you have been. Instead, step out in faith. Trust the living Lord who is in you to operate through you, and venture out, move out! The Christian life is intended to be exciting, compelling, always interesting, always different, always lived on the verge of adventure and danger. That is why it must be characterized by faith. So, you see, there are the two basic steps, and you must take them over and over again. The way you begin the Christian life is to repent and believe. And that also constitutes your walk through the Christian life. A walk is more than a single step. When faced with a situation, you should take the first step and repent, think through the old way of life and say to yourself, 'I've been going at this the wrong way.' But that is not yet a walk. You must take the next step and believe, have faith, trust in the work of God in you. Then, on the next occasion that comes, you go through the same procedure over again -- you repent, and then believe -- repent and believe -- repent and believe -- and you are walking! That is what the Christian life is all about. In every circumstance, every situation, this is the two-fold way by which the Christian lives in the power of a living God: repent and believe."--Ray C. Stedman, Acts.

Can it be said of churches today that they have a program in place to insure that the membership comes to know the entire Bible thoroughly in, say, five years? The Number One calling of the church is to communicate a full, well-rounded body of Biblical knowledge to each generation. Jude felt this urgent need in the First Century. "Beloved, being very eager to write to you of our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints."

Today we are inundated with secular and pagan knowledge, with news trivia and information of only ephemeral value. But people all around us, and probably the majority of our fellow-Christians, are starving in spirit because of a dearth of the life-giving Word of God going forth in the land.

The Apostle Peter outlines a day by day plan for Christians. It involves growing in the knowledge of God, and applying that newly-gained knowledge on a continuing basis (because truth not acted upon is lost). "God's divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and become partakers of the divine nature. For this very reason make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these things are yours and abound, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these things is blind and shortsighted and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins. Therefore, brethren, be the more zealous to confirm your call and election, for if you do this you will never fall; so there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." (2 Peter 1:3-11) (The Eightfold Way to Knowing God)


The above considerations lead me to believe the local church should radically reform what has traditionally called the "Sunday School Hour." I suggest replacing the main (sacrosanct) Sunday morning "worship" service with a Body Life hour. Drop the Sunday morning sermon and move the teaching work of the church to Sunday School classes. Offer enough Sunday school Bible electives so that members of the church can get a thorough grounding in the entire Bible in five years or less. Most churches have more than enough good staff people and/or informed, spiritually gifted members to teach half-a-dozen or more solid Bible classes every Sunday morning. Next, take a survey of the congregation every five years to assess the Biblical literacy levels and then adjust the teaching curriculum accordingly.

Hear the word of the LORD, O people of Israel; for the LORD has a controversy with the inhabitants of the land. There is no faithfulness or kindness, and no knowledge of God in the land; there is swearing, lying, killing, stealing, and committing adultery; they break all bounds and murder follows murder. Therefore the land mourns, and all who dwell in it languish, and also the beasts of the field, and the birds of the air; and even the fish of the sea are taken away. Yet let no one contend, and let none accuse, for with you is my contention, O priest. You shall stumble by day, the prophet also shall stumble with you by night; and I will destroy your mother. My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. (Hosea 4:1-6)

I don't believe for a moment that such radical suggestions will ever be adopted. We evangelicals are far too set in our ways--our "traditions" are too deeply rooted in our "way of life"--we're not likely to change until hell freezes over. At least my conscience is clear. I have laid my suggestions on the table concerning one of the major issues I see as probably wrong with the way we "play church" these days. My personal belief is that the real life of the church--as was the case with Israel of old--is invariably carried forward by a remnant, an inner group of "overcomers" (as in the Seven Churches of Revelation 2-3). (See,The Concept of the Remnant). There is another factor to bear in mind: most churches don't maintain their vitality beyond a generation or two--Ephesus included--no matter how well-laid was the foundation. God is committed to people, not to institutions. When a local church no longer responds to the Head and drifts off to its own programs and agenda, the Lord simply leaves that church to wallow into obscurity and a slow death. Usually He moves down the street to work among people who will welcome Him and His ways of doing things. A sovereign God can not be put in a box and packaged in a fancy wrapper to suit the whims of the consumers of pop religion.

" [Revelation] Chapter 2 through Chapter 3, we have these remarkable letters to the seven churches. I find many people would like to skip these letters and get on into the juicier sections of Revelation where the great upheavals of the last days are depicted. But it is a great mistake to do that. Our Lord set his church in the midst of the world. It is his instrument to control and determine human history. Jesus calls the church "the light of the world" {Matthew 5:14}, and "the salt of the earth," {Matthew 5:13}. The Apostle Paul calls it "the pillar and ground of the truth," {1Timothy 3:15 KJV}. That is the mystery and mission of the church. It is expected to exert tremendous influence in the world's affairs. It is a mistake, therefore, to pass these letters over. Here we see our Lord correcting things within the church, encouraging and teaching it how to live influentially in the day in which it is called to live.

As we come to these letters we must ask ourselves: "Why are there only seven churches, and why these particular seven?" The only satisfactory answer is that these are representative churches. They are carefully selected churches. There were many other churches in the province of Asia at the time John wrote this letter. Others of them could have been selected, but only these seven were chosen. They were not even the best known churches in Asia, but they were chosen by the Lord because they represent conditions that will obtain throughout the whole period of church history from its beginning to its end. In other words, there are only seven types of churches that exist at any one given period of time. Every church that truly knows Jesus as Lord can be recognized as one of these seven at some particular moment of its history. By repentance or disobedience it may change its classification to another of these seven types, but it will always be found to fit somewhere in this seven-fold pattern.

But beyond that, as many commentators have pointed out, these letters are a kind of preview of the entire history of the church from its beginning to its consummation. In other words they represents even stages or periods of church history. The key that suggests this is the word (in 1:3) that calls this whole book a "prophecy." This prophecy includes Chapters2 Andee3, as well as the rest of the book. Seven, as we have already seen in Chapter1, is the number of completeness. These letters, then, is our Lord's preview of the entire church throughout its history as it moves through various stages of development.

We must never forget that all of Revelation was written for these seven churches. Each is expected to know and understand the whole book. It is not just Chapters2 Andee3 that concern the churches; their concern is the entire vision that was given to John. As we go through these letters we will try to trace (though in very brief space) the different periods of the history of the church, and also take careful note of what the Lord says to each historic individual church. Somewhere in this listing of churches we will find Peninsula Bible Church as well.

One further preliminary before we turn to the text. These churches are here called "lampstands," i.e., they are light-bearers. They are not the light themselves, but they hold or bear the light. The light, of course, is the truth as it is in Jesus, that truth which God wants the human race to know. There are many truths that are unknown to man in his natural state. No university, great or mighty or important as it may be, has knowledge of the truth which the church is given to tell the world. That is the moral and redemptive "light" which the church is called to reflect to a dark world. It is the business of the church to tell truth to the world. We must never forget that. We are not simply to make our way through this difficult world as best we can, coming together in little holy huddles to survive until the coming of the Lord. We have an influence to exercise, and these letters to the seven churches marvelously reflect that fact. --Ray C. Stedman, Revelation.

A Few References:

1. Seedsowers (Books)
2. The Open Church (movement)
3. Whose "Global Kingdom" Come? by Berit Kjos
4. The Wednesday Brothers of Thunder
5. The Nature of Heresy, by Ray Stedman
6. On Expository Preaching, by Ray C. Stedman
7. Body Life by Ray Stedman.

The teaching gifts given to members of the Body of Christ include apostle (pioneering missionary), prophet (in-depth broad-spectrum instruction), pastor-teacher and evangelism.


Existential Christians

Expository Preaching or Greek Oratory?

The Church at the End of the Age

The Church as the Secret Government of Earth

A Glorious Church

Cultural Christians

The Seven Churches in New Jerusalem

The Revirginized Bride

Servant Authority in the Church

City Hall Church 

The False Church: The Great Harlot

The Church in the Mirror

Hypocrisy in the Church

Servant Authority in the Church

The Wife of Jehovah and the Bride of Christ

The Last Church Before the Rapture

The Church at the End of the Age

The Christian and Worldliness

Christianity without Christ

Jesus Courts a Bride

Servant Authority in the Church

A Woman Rides the Best: A City on Seven Hills

Isaiah 58, Paint or Get off the Ladder

Leadership in the Church

Series: Church Papers


Notes by Lambert Dolphin 

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March 1, 2002. September 3, 2020. December 11, 2022. August 9, 2023.


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