By William F. Harrell
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared here, and is used by permission.
Recently, while studying for a sermon, I began to think about today’s version of Christianity. I call it a version because I believe that the Christianity we are familiar with in today’s world is quite different from the Christianity of the early church. I was musing about whether the Apostle Paul would recognize modern Christianity as compared to the Christianity of his day. If he sat down in one of our churches today to worship, what would he think about it? Would he feel that it was God honoring or would he think that it is more akin to the world than to heaven?
Paul and others in the New Testament had to give up everything to claim Christ as their Lord. People today think they have to give up very little to be accepted as a deep, committed Christian. Christians have determined that the lowest common denominator of Christianity is the new norm. In fact, if they have to give up much at all, they think that they are mixed up with a bunch of fundamentalists who want to control their lives and tell them how to live. The New Testament Christian would be viewed in today’s world as a radical who was “off his rocker.” What Paul saw as necessary behavior and belief, people today see as radical. Oh, they will say that they have a New Testament Christianity and that they believe as Paul did, but then they walk out of the church to resume their lives unhindered by any constricting Christian concept or teaching.
Paul lived his faith, he and others didn’t just claim it, and that is what is projected as normal Christianity in all of his writings and in the practice of the New Testament Church. This writer has heard people proudly say, “I want to be a member of a New Testament Church.” To which I have said, “no, you don’t. You just think you do.” There is more to it than simply going regularly to hear a doctrinally correct sermon which calls people to a life which, in general, they don’t take beyond the foyer of the church. We have reduced our idea of Biblical Christianity to the act of weekly attendance at a beautiful church with all the trimmings. It’s so easy for us. We have defined down Christianity to what is acceptable in a world which is steadily declining in spiritual depth. We are living our faith at the lowest common denominator and expecting that God is pleased because we are. Today’s Christian is not in touch with the depth of commitment that was evident at the founding of our faith. If one defined today’s Christian life in the terms that Paul and others had to deal with, the churches would suddenly be almost empty. There would be that faithful core which would continue to seek to do God’s Will but the masses would be gone. God’s Will concerning our relationship to Him has suddenly been defined down to the point that it means nothing more than attending church regularly, taking on the Christian aura and being nice to people. It doesn’t cost us very much and if it did, the churches would suddenly be unable to fill their sanctuaries and pay their obligations.
Suppose someone said, “if you claim Christ, you will be ostracized.” Suppose they said, “if you continue to claim Christianity, you will put your life in jeopardy.” This is happening all over the world right now and it could become a reality in the United States unless our people get serious concerning the dangers lurking about. What if they said, “your church should spend more time helping the poor in your midst and taking better care of those who are sick and those who have no means.” The Bible says that is part of what we should do. But, the modern church sees its most important function as one which maintains its programs, keeps its attendance up and brings in enough money to fund things. Many of those things are simply events and programs which “keep the natives happy.”
But our Christian founders devoted themselves totally to the task of spreading the Gospel. They did this at all costs. Paul was imprisoned, flogged, left for dead, ostracized and abandoned by many and finally executed for his life commitment to Jesus. His relationship to Jesus and his obedience to Him was uttermost in his life. He didn’t care if he was liked or not. Paul knew that teaching Christian doctrine about Jesus was dangerous to him. After being stoned at Lystra, he got up immediately and went back into the city and then went to Derbe to preach and teach. After that, he went back to Lystra. Paul was willing to give up everything to do what the Lord required of him. Today’s modern Christian thinks that God is honored if they attend church, tithe and maybe come back on Sunday night although many churches have cancelled Sunday evening services for lack of attendance and for the sake of “spending family time together.” You see, the New Testament founders of Christianity actually had to give up something and they actually had to have utter faith in God. They were a different breed than those we have calling themselves New Testament Christians today.
Jesus said something in John 17:14 we should all listen to. He said, “I have given them thy word; and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.” So, if one is going to be serious about their commitment to Christ then they need to understand that the world is not going to like them. In fact, it will hate them. That’s the price Paul and the followers of Jesus had to accept. The Lord has not changed. His Word is still the same, it has not changed. Why then should we expect that He is pleased with what He is seeing in most Christian lives and in our churches today? I think that a beautiful picture of God’s overarching and overwhelming Grace is the fact that Jesus knew what would happen in the future generations yet he proceeded with the plan of redemption. He knew how society and the worldly system would change the way people act and think about their Christian faith and actions. But, he gave Himself for us anyway. If it were us dying for someone else, we would want everything after our death to go perfectly since we paid the price. But, Jesus, knowing our human frailties and knowing how fickle we are, died for us anyway and He still holds faithful to his end of the deal. He will never leave us or forsake us even though we treat our commitment to him so casually.
The church has absorbed the world instead of setting a heavenly example. We must realize that the world will tolerate the presence of Christianity only to the point that it does not affect the world very much. It wants a vapid Christianity which means little and certainly is no threat to the world system. The moment Christianity raises its head and becomes a problem in even the slightest way, the world will try to destroy that which it already hates. We are now beginning to experience this in our own country. God is pushed to the outer edges of society and outright banned in the public eye. Jesus is denigrated in the most disgusting of ways and the church is nothing more than an organization which must be kept from affecting society as much as possible. This is the price we are paying for being lowest common denominator Christians and churches. Most are not worried about how they are viewed or the restrictions put on the practice of New Testament Christianity as long as they can be a Christian at the level they are comfortable with and no one bothers them personally. Christianity cannot flourish and fulfill the Lord’s expectations if we continue like this. Even satan knows that the church will be around when Jesus comes back but he doesn’t care as long as it is weak in the meantime and causes him little opposition.
There has got to be a turning point. There has got to be a time when the church will look at itself and repent of the fact that it has taken on the world and allowed it to penetrate and change the Lord’s spiritual Body into something that the world is comfortable with. It doesn’t mind associating with the entity that the church is becoming. Everything goes in cycles and this cycle of entertainment and “feelings oriented” worship will end one day. But it will come quicker if the church quits focusing on itself and how well it is pleased and focus on getting back to what she was founded to be.
The three main functions of the church are the hardest and they are the ones being largely ignored. This vacuum allows the world to come in and fill it with all the stuff it wants us to concentrate on while ignoring the three main functions. What are those? First ,the church is to witness to the lost and be the element used by God to bring people into His Kingdom. Second, it is to edify the saints by preaching the Gospel and teaching the people the Word of God for proper guidance in life. Third, it is to care for those who are poor and can’t fend for themselves. Those are the main three things we should be doing. That’s God’s order and if we follow it, He will prosper the church. If we ignore it, then we will pay the price of living only to the level that humans can achieve.
One last point. In reading about some of the great preachers of an earlier day, I was struck with the fact that men like Whitefield preached to thousands in open fields with no voice amplification. The people would travel many, many miles to come. They would camp and stay for days while the preacher brought them God’s Word. They would ride horses, travel in wagons and generally do whatever necessary to hear God’s Word preached. It wasn’t easy to be in that vast crowd. They had to pay a price. And, God rewarded them bountifully. Many were saved and lives were changed. This was not accomplished by entertaining them and promising them something if they came. It was accomplished because the people desired the Word. They were desperate for it. And, God put his Spirit into the preaching for them. He rewarded them in a way the world could not. He supplied their spiritual needs which were far greater than any other thing they might have desired. These preachers were not some polished, refined orator who could “wow” a crowd with his skills. In fact, being a popular preacher was not even on their radar screens. They saw themselves as humble people who were dependent on God and the Lord rewarded their efforts mightily. Most of them read their sermons which were long and involved. But, God worked in the hearts of the people and glorified Himself in His Word. He was able to do things in the hearts of people who were desperate for Him and exhibited that in the fact that they were willing to put everything down, travel long and hard and stay as long as necessary to get the blessings of God. We need some more of this kind of dedication today. Indeed, we must have it if we expect God to move mightily upon us.