The Church Captive (13)
Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ. Colossians 2.8
“Beware, says he, lest any one plunder you. He makes use of a very appropriate term, for he alludes to plunderers, who, when they cannot carry off the flock by violence, drive away some of the cattle fraudulently. Thus he makes Christ's Church a sheep-fold, and the pure doctrine of the gospel the enclosures of the fold. He intimates, accordingly, that we who are the sheep of Christ repose in safety when we hold the unity of the faith, while, on the other hand, he likens the false apostles to plunderers that carry us away from the folds. Would you then be reckoned as belonging to Christ's flock? Would you remain in his folds? Do not deviate a nail's breadth from purity of doctrine.”
- John Calvin, Commentary on Colossians 2.8
From what we’ve seen in this series on “The Church Captive”, we have good reason to examine ourselves, and to look well to know the condition of the Lord’s flocks which have been entrusted to us (Prov. 27.23).
First, we have seen that, in every generation, the churches of Christ exist within cultures, and those cultures exert influence on the churches – what they teach, how they live, and how they carry out their ministries. This influence has not always been for good. At times the pressure from worldviews, philosophies, and practices originating beyond the pale of faith has caused church leaders and their churches to fall into a form of captivity to worldly ideals and ways. The result has been the plundering of the Church of the riches of glory, the fullness of Christ, and the power of the Gospel, substituting instead ways and means that do not bear Kingdom fruit.
Further, we have seen that forms of captivity of the Church occur in every age of Church history. No generation of believers is immune to worldly influences, and the moment we deviate one nail’s breadth from the pure doctrine of Christ, the Gospel of the Kingdom, and the Church as Christ’s Body, we submit ourselves and our congregations to a version of the Babylonian captivity and pagan servitude of the Church.
So we have good reason to take stock of the condition of our flocks, to make sure that the hallmarks of captivity are not present among us, and we are living and serving and making disciples and building our churches by the truth that sets us free in Jesus alone.
What, then, are the indicators which, if they appear in our churches, should give us concern that we might in some ways have become captive to our times, rather than to Christ? Let me mention ten.
Superficial worship. The first indicator of a captive church is worship that, while holding to the outward forms, lacks the inward and spiritual vitality of repentance, thanksgiving, and transformed lives (cf. Is. 1.1-17; Ps. 50; Hos. 4.1-10; Matt. 23.13-26). True worship focuses on Christ, uses the forms revealed in Scripture, and issues in lives of worship every day (Rom. 12.2). Where this is not happening, or we’re not sure it’s happening, our churches may be slipping into captivity to self rather than to Christ.
Another gospel. Jesus, Paul, and all the apostles preached the Gospel of the Kingdom. The Good News they declared, sought, and worked to realize was of a new order of the ages, a new and divine economy, in which all of life is brought under the rule of King Jesus, reconciled to God, and refashioned to refract His glory over all the earth (cf. Matt. 4.17; Acts 20.25; Rom. 14.17, 18; Gal. 1.6-9). If the focus of our preaching and teaching is not as broad and deep as the Kingdom which is coming on earth as in heaven, then we may be captive to a form of “near Christianity”, rather than to Jesus Christ.
Reflective rather than refractive doctrine. A church in which preaching and teaching reflect the winds of doctrine current in the world, rather than refract the truth of Scripture for Kingdom living, is a church which has become captive to fashion and the moral and intellectual breezes of the day.
Loss of evangelistic zeal. When churches become captive to the interests of self or the agenda of the world, they lose their zeal for proclaiming the Gospel and serving as witnesses for Christ (cf. Ps. 53.6). At such times, we have enough of Jesus for ourselves, and we’re not willing to risk upsetting outsiders, so we wait for them to find their way to us, rather than go as Jesus went to proclaim and bring near the eternal Kingdom of God.
Accommodation to worldly ways. At the height of the most glorious period of Israel’s history, Solomon, to accommodate his many foreign wives, made room for pagan kiosks, temples, and practices in the city of Jerusalem (1 Kgs. 11.1-13). Everything else in the life and worship of Israel continued outwardly as it should, but inwardly, the rot of worldliness began to corrupt and corrode, and the nation fell captive to schism and politics. Asaph saw this clearly, as he reflects in the many psalms he wrote during this period (Pss. 50, 73-83). Whenever the ways of the world become our ways – whether in worship, teaching, disciple-making, or any other aspect of the life of the church – we have fallen captive to corrosive forms that will weaken our life together as the Body of Christ.
Loss of primary focus. The local church, and believers as members thereof, are the temple of the Lord Jesus Christ (Eph. 2.19-22; 1 Cor. 6.19). As such, our primary calling and duty is prayer (Matt. 21.12, 13; 1 Tim. 2.1-8). If prayer is not our primary concern, then we have become captive to lesser interests, and we need a thorough cleansing by the Lord.
Indifference to oneness. Jesus insisted that the unity of all believers would persuade the world that the Father had sent Him (Jn. 20.21). If we are not devoting ourselves and our churches to the hard work of maintaining Christian unity (Eph. 4.3) – within our own churches, with other churches in our community, and with the Church worldwide – then we are captive to the kind of tribalism that nearly wrecked the Corinthian churches and that is the defining motif of contemporary society and life (1 Cor. 1).
Saints served, but not serving. The primary duty of church leaders is to equip the saints for ministry, not merely to minister to them by every imaginable means (Eph. 4.11, 12). If our primary focus is on how to entertain church members, keep them happy, or meet their needs – rather than to equip them for lives of ministry – we have become captive to the narcissism and therapeutic self-interests of the day.
Indifference to our Christian heritage. We are the faith children of generations of faithful believers who have gone before. To be ignorant of, indifferent to, or neglectful of the heritage of teaching, theology, art, liturgy, and other forms of culture and life they bequeathed to us, is to become unmoored from the universal church and set adrift amid the flotsam and jetsam of worldly forms and ways (cf. Ps. 78.1-8).
Lack of love. Jesus taught that love is the mark of the true Christian and the true church. Are we in our Personal Mission Fields, and our churches in our communities, widely recognized as reliable sources of self-denying, sacrificial, good works of love? Or has our neglect of God’s Law – so widespread these days – caused our love to grow cold (Matt. 12.24), and us to become captive more to self-love than to love for God and neighbors?
What to do?
I encourage us to reflect on these indicators, discuss them with church leaders, seek the Lord in prayer, and take a hard look at our churches to determine whether any of these indicators has found a home in our midst. If we discover that, to any extent, we are slipping into a condition of captivity, we can begin to pray and plan to reestablish our foundations in the truth that is in Jesus.
But we must begin by taking an honest look at the state of our churches today. We must beware, brethren, whether in any way we have opened ourselves and our congregations to be plundered by the world, the flesh, and the devil, and ourselves to be found false shepherds and mere hirelings, rather than true servants of Christ.
There are some who love earthly possessions more than the sheep and do not deserve the name of a shepherd.… He is called a hireling and not a shepherd because he does not pasture the Lord’s sheep out of his deep love for them but for a temporal reward. That person is a hireling who holds the place of shepherd but does not seek to profit souls. He is eager for earthly advantages, rejoices in the honor of preferment, feeds on temporal gain and enjoys the deference offered him by other people.
- Gregory the Great, Forty Gospel Homilies 15
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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).