The Church Captive (12)
And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. Romans 12.2
“Certainly under Christian auspices features were developed which were quite alien to what had gone before, and which, therefore, brought in something new, of Christian rearing.”
- Kenneth Scott Latourette, The First Five Centuries
Winds of influence
The apostle Paul warned that childish, immature, and unthoughtful believers can find themselves caught up in winds of doctrine that blow them off course from their Kingdom-and-glory calling (Eph. 4.14). They may be having a great time as exciting breezes fill their sails and drive them into new seas and unexplored channels. But they are headed for shipwreck, no matter how firmly they insist on the genuineness of their faith, if they continue on any course that causes them to drift from the Word of God (1 Tim. 1.18-20; Heb. 2.1).
In his magisterial survey of the history of Christianity up to the beginning of the 20thcentury, the late Yale historian Kenneth Scott Latourette was well aware of the influence various winds of doctrine can have on the Church. He devoted the final chapter of each of his seven volumes to considering “the effect of the environment” on the faith of every age. The quote that begins this article summarizes the early Church’s practice of importing pagan observances into the faith – a practice that, as Frank Viola and George Barna observed, set a cornerstone that the Church has continued to build upon in every generation.
Latourette enumerated the various winds that blow upon and through the Christian movement in every age: culture, race, religions, artistic and literary traditions, philosophies, geography and climate, political structures, as well as the many individual interpretations of the faith by the millions of adherents in any age. He might have added schools of psychological thought, business practices, pop culture, and the role of opposition, oppression, and persecution.
Winds of influence are always blowing against the sails of the Church. It is the duty of Christian helmsmen – pastors, elders, teachers, and church leaders – to discern the helpful winds from the distracting, to steer away from those winds which only seem to hold promise for advancement in faith, and to keep the vessel of the local church in those Spirit-originated breezes that blow steadily toward the Kingdom and glory of God.
To do otherwise is to open the church to becoming captive to its environment.
Off the charts
In our brief survey, we have seen that, in nearly every age of Church history, segments of the Body of Christ have failed to recognize and resist deceitful winds of doctrine, and have consigned themselves and their churches to a kind of captivity to the spirit of the age. All the external trappings of the faith remained intact: worship, teaching, pastoral ministries of various kinds, and building and maintaining ecclesiastical facilities. But the heart of faith having been compromised, doctrines of self-interest, institution-building, pragmatism and efficiency, an unhealthy conservatism, prestige and numbers, and unwillingness to stand against popular belief have caused segments of the Church to founder on the rocks of unbelief. The ship of faith, as Columbanus so vividly expressed it, took on water, and nothing short of a miracle of God could keep it from sinking entirely.
When church leaders depart from the charts and course God has delivered to us once-for-all in His Word, they introduce strange helmsmen into the wheelhouse of the vessel of Christ. Everything may seem to be going well, even improving and advancing; but even the smallest deviations from the course of Christ and the charts revealed in His Word can lead a church to unrecognized and dangerous captivity to the spirit of the age.
But, since captivity to the spirit of the age appears to be chronic – since it occurs in nearly every generation – perhaps we ought not be too worked up about it? Maybe it’s just a “stage” we have to go through in each generation, and which isn’t really all that hurtful to the Christian movement as a whole?
That would not have been the conclusion of Jesus and the apostles, or of Gildas, Columbanus, Luther, Edwards, Machen, or Schaeffer; and it is not the conclusion of observers such as Viola, Barna, Chan, Noble, Smith, Jethani, and many more.
The Church of our Lord Jesus Christ is not meant for captivity to anything or anyone but Jesus Christ. Any other form of captivity constitutes betrayal by the helmsmen of the Church, and leads to forfeiture of the Church’s calling and power.
Not long ago in our community, a church building was put up for sale. It was a lovely New England structure, with a bold spire and an inviting mien. Located on a corner of Main Street, just off the heart of the village, it would seem to have been in an ideal location to thrive in perpetuity.
It remained for sale for months, and I often wondered what had led to the closure of this church’s ministry. Had the congregation moved somewhere else? Or had the church simply died of boredom and lack of interest? Had it collapsed under the weight of worldly winds?
At length, an insurance company bought the building, removed the steeple, and put up a sign indicating that this erstwhile house of prayer was now completely devoted to the interests of commerce. Only those seeking the tenuous freedom of financial security need stop in.
It was for freedom from bondage to other powers and interests that Christ purchased His Bride with His own body on the cross. “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage” (Gal. 5.1).
The duty of church leaders is to keep watch on the sails of their church (cf. Ezek. 33.1-11), to make sure that only the pure winds of Holy Spirit doctrine and life are driving and directing their congregations. True freedom – from sin, self, the vain allurements of the world, and the wiles of the devil – is found only in Jesus Christ and His Word (Jn. 8.32). We will not be conformed to Christ and His freedom as long as we think we can thrive by conforming to the ways of the world. We must maintain vigilance, and seek carefully to ensure that we are not, in any of our work of building Christ’s Church, allowing any false winds to blow us off course from the Kingdom and glory of God.
How we may do this, as a work of perpetual vigilance, will be the subject of the remaining installments in this series.
How are we affected by Ezekiel, the beholder and expositor of the mighty mysteries and visions? By his injunction to the watchmen not to keep silence concerning vice and the sword impending over it, a course that would profit neither themselves nor the sinners, but rather to keep watch and forewarn and thus benefit at any rate those who gave warning, if not both those who spoke and those who heard.
- Gregory Nazianzus (329-389), In Defense of His Flight to Pontus, Oration 2.64
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Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, quotes from Church fathers are from The Ancient Christian Commentary Series (InterVarsity Press).
Kenneth Scott Latourette, The First Five Centuries: A History of the Expansion of Christianity, Volume 1 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1937, 1970), p. 327.