The Seven Churches Series- Ephesus

Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart- Proverbs 3:3 NIV

I have this theory that all Christian churches, denominations and organizations follow the same basic development pattern.

It always begins with a dream, desire or idea God plants in the heart of a person or a group of people.  This dream ultimately produces the birth of something new and beautiful (Isaiah 43:19, Acts 2:42-47).

Then comes childhood.  

Childhood is an exhilarating time in a church or ministry. Childhood is all about beginnings and growth. All the activity of this phase is born out of genuine love for Jesus, passion for the mission of Jesus and a desire to honor and glorify Jesus (Matthew 28:18-20).   Leaders seek to obey Jesus above all else and as a result this phase typically results in an abundance of fruit. The childhood phase is also marked by some chaos. Leaders don’t always know what they’re doing, important things don’t get done and there can be disputes between key leaders (Galatians 2:11-14).  Because this stage is naturally volatile, if an organization stays in childhood for too long the ministry or church will die. No ministry or church can endure the disorganization and volatility of the childhood stage for long. 

It’s just too dang messy. 

If the organization or church survives the birth and childhood phase (some don’t). It moves into adulthood. Adulthood is the sweet spot for a ministry or church. There’s still a lot of excitement but there is also a clear vision for where the ministry is going. The vision is firmly rooted in biblical principles and prayer. The ministry is still very Jesus centered but there’s more discipline than in the childhood phase. The policies and leadership structure developed in the early adulthood phase provide the stability necessary to keep the thing from flying off the rails. This is typically a very long phase that is even more effective and fruitful than the childhood phase. The organization or church earns a good reputation in the community and it does a lot of good. People are saved, lives are transformed and Jesus is glorified in a big way (Romans 10:9, Ephesians 2:8-10, Titus 3:5). 

Then comes middle age.

If an organization makes it to the middle age stage everything is going super well from an optics perspective. Money is being raised, there are a ton of volunteers and the stated mission is still solid. 

However. 

There is a subtle shift that begins with leadership. Leaders become, usually without realizing it, much more focused on building the organization than they are on Jesus and glorifying Jesus. Jesus is still valued, but Jesus is no longer the main thing. He’s more of a figurehead at this point. Passion for Jesus and devotion to the mission gets lost in the day-to-day of “doing ministry”, “raising money” and “growing the church” (Matthew 28:18-20, Matthew 10:7-9, Ephesians 4:11-16). It not unheard of for shady conduct to become a common occurrence at this point, and because leaders are focused is on how things LOOK rather than holiness, righteousness and pleasing Jesus, it is also not all unusual for shadiness to be swept under the rug, rather than being dealt with.   All or most of the ministry work of this phase is centered on programs and fund raising rather than transforming people and glorifying Jesus.  On the surface the ministry activity APPEARS to be people and Jesus centered. However, most of it is focused firmly on keeping the ministry machine going, raising money and justifying the continued existence of the organization. 

This is exactly what happened to the church in Ephesus. 

The first church Jesus addresses in Revelation chapters 2-3 arrived at middle age and their love for Jesus and concern for the spiritual and emotional needs of people became lost in their desire to maintain the status quo. Jesus called this “losing their first love” (Revelation 2:4-5).

But here’s the thing: 

No one looking at the Ephesian church from the outside would have suspected there was a problem. Even most folks who attended the Ephesian church were likely unaware of the issues. The leaders were undoubtedly clueless. Leaders at this stage almost always lack any kind of real self-awareness. As a result, they thought everything was fine. And why not? All the externals looked awesome. The pastors were skillful, polished and well-educated. The doctrine was solid.  They avoided getting involved with problematic or divisive issues. The people attending gave money and willingly suffered hardship for Jesus (Revelation 2:2-3).  

But. 

Their hearts were far from God. The people stopped caring about the things Jesus cared about. The Ephesian Church was still very busy kingdom building. It was just the wrong kingdom. It was a human kingdom instead of Jesus’ kingdom.  

Jesus’ instruction to the Ephesian Christians is straightforward: “do what you did at first”.  

Jesus knew that one of two things happens at this crossroads.

Most of the time the ministry continues a slow drift further and further from the original mission. Bit by bit it loses its ability to make a spiritual impact on the world. The church remains but the power it once had to make disciples and transform the culture is gone. The people lose their saltiness and the church or organization becomes spiritually worthless (Matthew 5:13). If it endures it becomes more of a social service agency than an actual ministry. 

Or.

There is a spiritual awaking.  The people who attend and lead these churches recognize the problem. They see the drift. It breaks their hearts and they repent. They fully rededicate themselves to the cause of Christ. Jesus becomes the main thing once again and the church or organization continues to be a vital part of the body and a solution to the brokenness in this world (Revelation 2:7). 

However.

Spiritual awaking’s don’t just happen.  

We need to ask God to help us see the drift in our lives and our churches and our ministries. It’s imperative we pray daily for wisdom and self-awareness and a heart that is willing to see the problems and our role in those problems. Most importantly, must be eager to do what we did at first (Jeremiah 17:9-10). We have to fight to go back to that childlike state of spiritual existence where Jesus was our everything and our obedience was a gift we joyfully gave Him.  

What are Warning Signs of a bad Spiritual Leader?

My anger burns against your shepherds, and I will punish these leaders. For the Lord of Heaven’s Armies has arrived to look after Judah, his flock- Zechariah 10:3 NLT

Bad leadership is a booming problem in our world. 

However.

I believe there is a huge difference between an ineffective leader and bad leader. Ineffective leaders are seldom terrible people.  They simply lack the knowledge, skills and/or personal appeal necessary to lead well.  They have the best of intentions and try their hardest but they just can’t get the job done. 

Conversely.

 Bad leaders are typically quite capable. They tend to have a great deal of personal appeal and they understand how to get things done. However, because they are also oblivious, prideful, manipulative and self-absorbed they do a great deal of damage to those unfortunate enough to be led by them. 

Regrettably, bad leadership is not limited to the secular sphere.

 After nearly thirty years in all sorts of different ministry situations I feel I can say with some authority that American Christianity is infested with bad spiritual leaders. Bad spiritual leaders do far more damage than bad secular leaders. This is because spiritual leaders are the mouthpieces of God in the body of Christ (2nd Peter 1:21, 1st Corinthians 12:7-11). Moreover, many mistakenly see spiritual leaders as God’s mini-me or stand-in.  As a result, many people (saved and unsaved) are incapable of separating the actions and attitudes of a spiritual leader from the will of God. It is not uncommon for individuals who were treated badly by spiritual leaders to erroneously believe it was God’s will for the leader to mistreat them. Consequently, they blame God for the hurt they experienced at the hands of a bad spiritual leader. 

Sigh.

 God will not bless sin, therefore bad leaders are a principal reason why even many “successful” churches are powerless to convert sinners and make disciples. It’s one reason American Christianity losing people like rats fleeing a sinking ship. 

Satan is real (1st Peter 5:8, 1st Timothy 5:15, James 4:7) and not everyone who says they are a Christian really is (Matthew 7:15, Matthew 7:21).  Moreover, Christians are not robots who do exactly what God wants them to do all the time. Due to these and other factors, problematic leadership has been an issue in the Church since the dawn of Christianity (Acts 15:1-2, Acts 20:28-31, Jude 1-25). Additionally, the Bible warns us, as we approach the end bad leaders will become common in the Church (2nd Timothy 3:1-9). It is our responsibility as believers to be on the lookout for spiritual leaders who give indications of being bad leaders (2nd Timothy 3:5, 2nd Peter 2:1-22). Judgment is God’s responsibility (Ecclesiastes 3:17). However, it is our job to exercise discernment and protect ourselves and our families from the damage these leaders do.

 Bad Christian leaders are as diverse in personality as any other type of leader. However, there are certain hallmarks of a bad spiritual leader we can all look out for. Those hallmarks are:

They universally misunderstand their role- 

Contrary, to popular belief a pastor’s primary responsibility is not to deliver a well-prepared message on Sunday mornings. The primary role of a Christian leader is to equip and prepare Christians to do ministry and serve others (Ephesians 4:11-12). Good spiritual leaders empower the people around them to become the best version of themselves. They value every person for who they are not just what they can do. Conversely, bad spiritual leaders view people as a means to an end. The end is always making themselves popular and influential.  

They tend to isolate themselves from those they lead- 

Bad spiritual leaders are frequently AWOL at church events and rarely interact socially with people in their congregations even though the Bible clearly commands them to do so. (1st Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:7-8). Some isolate themselves out of pride. Others just don’t care enough about people to get past their own awkwardness in social situations. Yes, there are introverts and extraverts and there is nothing wrong with being an introvert. Furthermore, it is the height of emotional and spiritual immaturity to think a leader can or should be besties with everyone in a congregation.  That said, every Christian should care enough about others to go out of their way to make them feel comfortable in social situations. This is especially true of spiritual leaders. 

They demand blind obedience- 

Christians are called to a life of obedience (Deuteronomy 6:25, 1st Samuel 15:22, 2nd John 1:6).  Christians ought to obey leaders who are doing their level best to fully obey God. However, no one is commanded to obey a self-serving or evil leader living in contradiction to scripture. 

They are faultfinders- 

Bad leaders will read a great book like The Emotionally Healthy Leader or Emotionally Healthy Discipleship and immediately weaponize it to assess unhealthy or unspiritual attitudes in others. Bad spiritual leaders don’t self-reflect. This creates a situation where they can only see the sins of others, never their own (Jude 16).  

They don’t apologize- 

Even when it’s evident they should. An inability or unwillingness to admit wrong and apologize is an obvious indicator of a bad leader. 

They don’t have their own junk under control-

All humans struggle with sin; however, bad spiritual leaders are fleshly and carnal at heart.  Consequently, bad leaders struggle to keep their worst impulses in check. This leads to problems with sins like boastfulness, control, anger, greediness, lust, pride and dishonesty.  (Jude, 2nd Peter 2, 2nd Timothy 3:1-9, Matthew 23:23-33). 

Christianity is in crisis. 

Much of the crisis is directly due to the excess of bad spiritual leaders in the fold. Christians must protect themselves and their churches from these men and women. In order to do this Christians must lead themselves well and understand what the Bible says about life and leadership. Bad leaders flourish in the midst of immature followers who lack the wisdom and spiritual sensitivity to see a bad leader or the moral bravery to walk away from one.  

For more on this subject…

Christians Screwed-up Understanding of Authority is Literally Wrecking Christianity-

If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit- Matthew 15:14 NIV

Christianity has a leadership problem.

Accounts of bullying, embezzlement, adultery, duplicity, abuse, control and even pedophilia involving high profile pastors, churches and entire denominations have become routine. The Catholic Church, Jim Baker, Mars Hill, Ted Haggard, Bob Coy, Willow Creek, Sovereign Grace Ministries, Mike Warnke, Hillsong, Josh Duggar and The Southern Baptist Convention are just a few of the leaders, churches and organizations whose names have become synonymous with corrupt Christian leadership.  Leadership problems aren’t restricted to high profile pastors, mega churches or big-name Christian ministries. Many churchgoers have experienced hurt at the hands of insensitive pastors or pastors who acted much more righteous in public than in private. 

Sigh. 

Experts blame the rise of bad leadership on an increase of narcissism in churches and Christian organizations.  A narcissist has a strong sense of entitlement, is extremely self-focused, has an unusually high need for attention, is overconfident and a has profound lack of empathy. Christians can be narcissists. Narcissists have enormous blind spots where their behavior is concerned. Narcissistic Christians can justify almost any action, including actions they know are sinful. Narcissistic Christian leaders truly believe God will overlook their sin because they “do so much for the kingdom”.  Narcissists do not understand how their behavior affects other people. Therefore, they can do a great deal of harm to people without even knowing it. Most experts believe narcissism is a growing problem among Christian leaders. This is concerning considering the contrast between a narcissistic leader and the model Christian leader described in Titus 1:7-9, Timothy 3:1-3 and 1st Peter 5:1-5. 

This begs some hard questions: 

Why is there so much bad behavior in Christianity? 

What does the church do to produce and attract narcissistic leaders? 

How do average Christians enable narcissistic leadership?  

Christianity is plagued with narcissistic leadership because Christians have a flawed understanding of what New Testament authority should look like.

Here’s what I mean:

Most Christians form their views on spiritual authority from Old Testament stories, principally from the system of Kings found in the Old Testament. Old Testament Kings had absolute God-given authority. This is most famously played out in the story of Saul and David. Saul was an awful king. Saul was evil, volatile, selfish, and guided almost entirely by pride and sinful passions (1st Samuel 16:14, 1st Samuel 18:14, 1st Samuel 19:4, 1st Samuel 15:22-24).  

However.

 Because Saul was anointed King, David faithfully submitted himself to Saul’s authority. David did not disparage Saul, physically harm him or challenge his authority.  Christian teachers (including myself) universally applaud David’s submission to Saul’s authority. It’s an example of Old Testament obedience God clearly blessed (1stSamuel 26:9-11, Acts 13:22). 

Many Christians apply the same concept of anointing to present-day pastors. Many deacons, board members and elders flat refuse to question or correct a pastor even when they know the pastor is wrong because they view the pastor as God’s “anointed” and therefore unchallengeable, regardless of their behavior. Many Pastors, especially narcissistic pastors tend to see themselves as having the same unchallengeable authority as Old Testament Kings. The rotten fruit of this understanding of authority is at least partly to blame for the large numbers of people who have left the church in recent years. It’s also literally obliterating the churches ability to do our one job: reach the lost (Matthew 28:18-20). Non-Christians understandably see leadership situations like the ones at the Southern Baptist Convention, Mars Hill and Hillsong as unacceptable, indefensibly gross and entirely inconsistent with the whole notion of a good God. 

Here’s the thing. 

There are to be no human kings in the Church. 

Jesus is the only King among His people. Period. End of story. Jesus is the only leader who can demand or who deserves absolute obedience. Pastors are simply not anointed to lead churches the same way kings were anointed to lead Israel in the Old Testament. The word anointed or anoint in reference to people and/or Jesus is used a total of eleven times in the New Testament. Eight explicitly refer to Jesus (Mark 14:8, Luke 4:18, Luke 7:46, John 11:2, John 12:3, Acts 4:27, Acts 10:38, Hebrews 1:9). The remaining three teach all Christians are anointed for ministry, not just a few specific leaders (2nd Corinthians 1:21, 1st John 2:20, 1st John 2:27). 

All Christians are given gifts to benefit the church (Ephesians 4:11-12, 1st Corinthians 12:7-11, Romans 12:3-9). Some spiritual gifts have a leadership component to them (apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, overseers). The New Testament commands Christians to treat these leaders with respect, to make their task joyful rather than difficult (Hebrews 13:17). Christians will be judged for how they treat their spiritual leaders. Therefore, any challenge to a leader’s teaching or behavior must be prayerfully contemplated before action is taken. 

 However.

Pastors simply do not have the same authority as Old Testament Kings. Instead, the Bible promises leaders and teachers will be judged at a higher standard than other Christians (James 3:1). ALL Christians will be accountable to God for how they use or misuse their authority in the home, workplace or church. Christians are called to humble servanthood, and specifically commanded not to lord their authority over others (Matthew 20:25-26). 

Truth-be-told narcissism has taken root in churches because too many pastors have been given unchallenged authority and too many Christians have foolishly chosen to follow human leaders more closely than they follow King Jesus.  

How Churches Inadvertently Encourage Sexual sin-

Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. So, watch yourselves~ Luke 17:1 & 3 NIV

 Most of the stupid things people do are not done deliberately.  Most people just kind of fumble around blindly doing stuff without putting a whole lot of thought into the long-term consequences of their actions.  

 Sadly, this is true of Christians too.   

  Sometimes we make decisions out of impulse or reflex. This unfortunate reality has merged with a tendency to look at what the culture is doing rather than thinking through issues from a Biblical perspective.

 Sadly, these predispositions always play themselves out in one of two equally wrong responses. Either Christians do a “Christian” version of whatever is popular with the culture; or conversely, we go so far in the opposite direction of what the world is doing that we become a peculiar, cartoon-like version of what God intended the Church to be.

 Nowhere is this truer than in the area of sex.

 On one end of the spectrum, there are churches that have lowered their sexual standards in an effort to help unbelievers feel more comfortable in church settings. As a result, these churches have unwittingly adopted the same attitudes towards sex as the unbelieving world. Other Christians have simply embraced a slightly more “Christian” version of the worldly standard. For example: many believers do not care if an engaged couple has sex before marriage (as long they are careful keep it on the down-low). However, these same people are appalled at the mere thought of two Christians living together before marriage.

 On the other end of the spectrum, we have churches whose entire spiritual identity is built around preventing sexual activity of any kind from taking place in the lives of unmarried people. These churches spend more time addressing the spiritual threats of swimsuits, hand-holding and premarital front-hugs than they do discussing salvation and related issues such as repentance and discipleship. This is not only a serious derailment from the churches principal mission (Matthew 28:17-20, 2nd Timothy 2:4, Matthew 10:8). It also makes Christians look like a bunch of sex-obsessed weirdos.  

 Sigh.

 The absurdity of all this aside, the bigger problem with how churches handle sexuality these days is that we actually encourage sexual sin in four ways:

 The church is far too soft on the sin of adultery (especially where men are concerned)-

 The immense pressure placed on Christian women to forgive their cheating husbands simply cannot be overstated. Women are too-often coerced by well-intentioned but ridiculously overeager clergy to forgive their husband’s infidelity and restore the relationship right away. This typically happens long before the woman has processed her grief or the man has demonstrated sincere repentance. This has resulted in a shocking number of Christian men and some women who appear to have no qualms about committing adultery over and over again (Proverbs 6:32). It has also created a sizable group of women and a few men who have been shamed into doing something they are under no biblical obligation to do (Matthew 5:32). Forgiveness is always required of Christians (Matthew 6:15). However, marital reconciliation should only take place if the injured party is truly willing and the adulterer (male or female) has demonstrated sincere repentance and a readiness to grow into a better spouse and Jesus follower.  Anything less simply encourages sinful behavior in the church by minimizing the consequences of sin (1st Corinthians 5:11).

 We do not treat pornography like the sin that it is

 If I hear one more male Christian leader refer to pornography as “just pornography” I will need to be medicated and/or physically restrained. Sixty-eight percent of Christian men routinely view pornography precisely because it is treated as a lightweight and trivial sin. Choosing to view pornography is not only a categorically icky form of sexual immorality (Hebrews 12:16, Hebrews 13:4). It is also a clear violation of Matthew 5:28. Like most sins, the sin of viewing pornography leads to other sins such as hypocrisy, adultery, dehumanizing others through lust, spiritual and social isolation and sometimes even an inability to perform the “marital duty” (1st Corinthians 7:3).

Sigh. 

 Some churches cover-up pedophilia-

 The Catholic church has gotten a lot of bad press over this issue in recent years. However, it is far from unheard of in Protestant and Evangelical churches.  A valued leader gets accused of touching a child inappropriately and the church decides to deal with the problem “in-house”. At that point the whole messy mess gets swept under the rug or the leader is simply asked to leave the church. This is never okay. When this is happens the leader simply goes somewhere else and more little lives are ruined. Every accusation should be thoroughly investigated by the proper authorities (the Elder or Deacon board is NOT the proper authorities). Yes, this is hard, yes it makes the church look bad but not nearly as bad as it does when the church fails to protect the most vulnerable in a congregation (Luke 17:2, Matthew 25:45). 

 We don’t help young adults to date-

 The Bible is clear that marriage is a noble and necessary thing (Genesis 2:24, Proverbs 18:22, Hebrews 13:4). That being said, for some inexplicable reason there is a ton of shame in the Christian culture surrounding Christians participating in the process of finding a spouse.  Because dating is taboo in many Christian churches most churches do not give Christian kids a lot of instruction on how or who to date and there are literally no opportunities for Christian young people to get to know each other inside the church. As a result, most young people date outside of the church which leads to a lot of missteps (Tinder, bars, campus parties, drunken hook-ups). Those missteps inevitably end in sexual immorality and sometimes even a departure from the faith. Maybe it’s time for churches to be intentional about setting-up opportunities for young Christians from similar denominations to get to know one another so they can get married; rather than shame them for having a natural desire to find a spouse.

Seriously. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Why of Church-

 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us~ 1st Peter 2:12 NIV

 Over the course of the last thirty days or so, I have heard the same quote repeated three times, by three different speakers in three entirely different settings. The quote in question came from an old tome entitled: Christianity and The Social Order, by William Temple (1880-1944). The quote itself reads:

 “The Church is the only organization that does not exist for itself, but for those who live outside of it.”

 Contextually, it’s important to note every speaker citing the aforementioned quote used it to make the case for their belief the only real mission of the church is to evangelize the lost. Each one stated (in slightly different ways) the church exists to reach those outside the church and every activity the church engages in ought to be focused entirely on reaching people who do not yet have a relationship with Jesus.

 Okay, so.  

 This is a bit a bit of a rabbit trail, and I’m more than a little reluctant to bring it up at all. Mainly because pointing out the following pesky little detail makes me look like a smarty-pants-know-it-all jerk-face.

 That said:

 I cannot remain silent. In the context of the book the quote had nothing at all to do with with evangelism, reaching the lost, missions, or becoming a mission minded church. Mr. Temple’s book makes a case for for ministers and Christians supporting the implementation of state-sponsored welfare systems. Whatever you believe about state-sponsored social welfare, it’s far from an evangelistic enterprise.  

 Now back to the actual point I was attempting to make here.

 Long before I knew anything at all about Mr. Temple’s beliefs or motivations, the quote did not sit well with me (which is super weird because I’m typically all about reaching the lost). Admittedly, I had a hard time putting my finger on why I was struggling to agree with the statement. I agree that the church does exist for its own selfish gain nor is it to devolve into a spiritual “Club Med” for the redeemed. The New Testament is painfully clear: Christians and the churches they belong to are to be other-focused (Romans 12:5, 1st Corinthians 9:19, Galatians 6:10, Philippians 2:4).

 But does that mean evangelism is the churches only purpose?

 I think not.

 Contrary to popular belief, the church does not have a single purpose or mission. Rather, it has several. Some of those purposes are spiritual in nature (evangelizing the lost, worshiping God, proclaiming Jesus until He returns). Others are more down-to-earth (teaching believers, providing for the poor, widows and orphans, spreading peace, bringing justice to unjust situations). Essentially, every purpose of the Church will fit fairly neatly into one of three categories:

 1. Glorify Jesus (make Him look good)- Romans 15:6, Romans 15:9, 1st Peter 2:12

 2. Encourage the spiritual growth of Christians- Ephesians 4:11-14, Colossians 1:9-11, 1st Peter 2:2, 2nd Peter 3:18

 3. Reach the un-churched with the gospel- Matthew 28:18-20, 2nd Timothy 4:1-3, Romans 10:13-15

 Our inclination to rank the significance of tasks or purposes is a big part of our fallenness and why we fail at so many tasks. Anytime we begin ordering the significance of a set of tasks or purposes, a priority list is formed and something always gets pushed to the bottom of the list.

 In the case of the 21st century church, the priorities of glorifying Jesus and developing spiritually mature believers have taken a backseat to reaching the lost. Somewhere along the line we got it in our heads that teaching a saved person what the Bible says about how to live a holy life is somehow less important than getting that person saved in the first place. The sad result of our prioritization of the purposes of the church is that fewer people are getting saved, and the ones who do are more likely to fall away and are less likely to lead someone else to Jesus.

Sigh.

 None of the above listed purposes of the church are any more or less important than any of the others. That said, we will never effectively evangelize the lost if we do not equip Christians for works of service (Ephesians 4:10-12) and glorify Jesus by living holy, God honoring lives.

 Period.