Sometimes, I see books or articles being circulated lamenting the state of the church, and the articles say something like, “The church has become [x]” or “the church these days is more concerned with [y] than with God’s truth or the gospel” or something along those lines. The problems diagnosed might be any number of things, and the problems diagnosed are almost certainly true.
What jumps out at me about these kinds of statements is how they focus on the idea of the church these days being in a bad state, as if this is something new for the church. But it seems to me that a study of church history reveals that this has always been the state of the church. The visible church, for the most part, has been more concerned with their own power, wealth, comfort and reputation than they have been with faithfully preaching the gospel and showing the love of Christ to the suffering and hurting around them. I think the Scriptures itself give us reason to expect this, from passages like 2 Peter 2, 2 Timothy 3, or Jesus’ addresses to the churches at Ephesus and Laodicea in Revelation 2-3. In those addresses, it’s significant to note that only two of the seven churches are really pure, and the other five are all compromised to one degree or another. In Revelation 11:1-2 we see the vision of the trampling of the outer court by the Gentiles for forty two months, a symbol of the very thing we are talking about, indicating that this is God’s plan for the state of the church during the church age, and then we realize that this isn’t an accident, isn’t something to get too anxious or stressed about, and is in fact something God intends for the purification of the true church.
Paul says, “For there must also be factions among you, that those who are approved may be recognized among you. (1Co 11:19 NKJ)” This passage shows clearly that sinful elements in the church are not something we should be surprised or disheartened by. These are things we should combat and yet expect them to continue in the church as part of God’s plan for the purification of His elect.
And I think this matters, because if I think the bad state of the church is some special unique feature of our own day, then the urgency gets put on fixing the church, and I get focused outward on trying to alert people to the problem and challenging the church to be better. Now, that’s a worthy pursuit, but if I realize that this is the way the church has always been, and that God is actually doing His will through this, then I will be less worried or anxious about that fact, and I will focus less on what everyone else is doing and more on being concerned with my own faithfulness to my Lord and Master. I will be more concerned that I am striving to preach the gospel faithfully and to show the love of Christ to those around me. I will do what I can to battle apathy and false teaching and the abuse of ministry for personal gain, but I won’t be very surprised when all these things continue despite my best efforts. And the bulk of my efforts at reform will be directed inwardly instead of outwardly, as they should be.
“But we urge you, brethren, that you increase more and more; that you also aspire to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you, that you may walk properly toward those who are outside, and that you may lack nothing. (1Th 4:10-12 NKJ)”