by Steven Chan
5 July 2009
Writing in the 27thJune 2009 issue of the English newspaper, Telegraph, Paul Richardson the assistant Bishop of Newcastle who is one the Anglican Church’s longest-serving bishops, commented that “many bishops prefer to turn their heads, to carry on as if nothing has changed, rather than face the reality that Britain is no longer a Christian nation. Many of them think that we are still living in the 1950s – a period described by historians as representing a hey day for the established church.” He said that the Church had lost more than 10% of its regular worshippers between 1996 and 2006, with a fall from more than one million to 880,000. In his opinion: “The church is being hit by a double whammy: on the one hand it confronts the challenge of institutional decline but on the other hand it has to face the rise of cultural and religious pluralism in Britain. At present church leaders show little signs of understanding the situation. They don’t understand the culture we now live in.”
It was also reported that Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury had also previously delivered a bleak assessment of the future of Christianity in England, claiming that Britain’s Churches are in such serious decline that if they were shops they would have been declared bankrupt long ago.
Reportedly, the General Synod, the Anglican Church’s parliament, will meet next month to consider proposals to cut the number of bishops and senior clergy because of concerns over the Church’s finances.
What is the future of the church of which we are members? Is it growing or dying? Can the same bleak comments about the future of the Anglican Church in Britain be applicable to the churches of Christ?
What does the Bible say? In Matt. 16:18 Jesus said unto Peter: “That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” This promise that the church will prevail/remain victorious against all opposition is consistent with the prophecy of Dan 2:44: “And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever.”
While the church of Christ will always prevail, local congregations of the churches of Christ may fade away. Writing to the church in Ephesus, the Lord declared in Rev 2:4-5:”Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love.
Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent.” The threat was that He would remove the candlestick which represented the church in Ephesus (Rev. 1:20: “the seven candlesticks are seven churches”). The church is the light of the world and is liken to a candlestick but if it fails to provide the light (or loses its saltiness) ‘it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out and trodden under foot of men’ (Matt. 5:13).
However, according to the Bible, the basis for the Lord threatening to remove the candlestick (or the church at Ephesus) was because they had lost their first love and have also failed to do their first works. All the references to the ‘first love’ and ‘first works’ are to the first zeal and passion when one first became a Christian – discovering the love of God and embracing the gospel as the power unto salvation – and yielding our lives to His service. So, the Lord urged them to repent and do the first works again. For the backsliding Christian – i.e. the one who has lost his first love for Christ, it is critical that he repents and start doing the first works again – the things that accompany salvation as explained in Heb 6:9-12: “But, beloved, we are persuaded better things of you, and things that accompany salvation, though we thus speak: for God is not unrighteous to forget your work and the love which ye showed toward his name, in that ye ministered unto the saints, and still do minister. And we desire that each one of you may show the same diligence unto the fulness of hope even to the end: that ye be not sluggish…”
The challenge is not for the church to conform or pander to the demands, dictates or preferences of this present world (Rom 12:1,2) but to be truly the light of the world! This world badly needs the glorious light of the gospel. The recent upheavals in the economies of the world are brought about by the pure, unbridled greed and deception of unscrupulous people packaging and peddling investments with massive power to destroy wealth for the unwary. The world cries out for proper ‘corporate governance’ but the reality is that they need the gospel of Jesus Christ which is able to set men free from their sins (including greed, selfishness, deceptive practices aka lack of transparency, creative accounting practices which hide more than to reveal, and which produces accounting reports which are neither true nor fair, and such like) so that we can all walk in the light of Jehovah (Isa 2:5; I John 1:7) and not stumble.
The afore-mentioned Anglican bishop commented of the bleakness of the Anglican Church because amongst other things, its membership has been dwindling by more than 10% over the past decade. It is interesting to note that in none of the cases of the seven churches of Asia in Rev 2 & 3, was the issue of church attendance listed as a reason for the threat of removal of the candlestick – the issues were that of lost of first love, for allowing the “woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols” (Rev 2:20), of having a “name that thou livest, and art dead” (Rev 3:1), and because their works art “neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth” (Rev 3:15, 16). In other words, even if the church had capacity attendance but are lacking in their zeal, fervour and faithfulness to God, they would still face the threat of their candlestick being removed unless they repent. It would seem that dwindling church attendance is perhaps the wrong measure for the health of the church – it should be their aliveness for Christ! Of course, it would be logical that a church that is alive for Christ would have its members faithfully attending its services (Heb 10:25) but the mere fact of church attendance is no assurance that all’s well with their spiritual state!
Lest anyone misunderstands, in any case, the church that the Bible talks about does not correspond with the Church of England. The head of the church that the Bible talks about has Christ as its head (Col 1:18) whilst the Church of England has the Queen as its head! The church as described in the Bible has elders as the bishops, overseers and pastors of the local church (Acts 20: 17, 28; I Tim 3:1) whereas the Anglican Church has a hierarchical system that is foreign to the Bible such as ‘Archbishops’. Additionally they have agreed to appoint women as bishops contrary to the Bible teaching that explicitly states that ‘the elder or bishop is to be the husband of one wife’ ( I Tim 3:2) and that a woman is not to have dominion over man ( I Tim 2:11,12). More recently, the Anglican Church in the USA (also known as the Episcopal Church) has even appointed lesbians and homosexuals as its bishops – in spite of the Bible stating in 1 Cor 6:9, 10: “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” There are many more differences from the teachings of the Bible as regards what one must do in order to be saved as well as other matters.
Given the significant differences and departures from the Bible’s description of the church of the Bible, the Anglican Church cannot possibly be the church that the Bible talks about. One wonders what light it brings to the world! Hence, its membership decline ought not to be a concern for us.
However, the issues and concerns raised by the comments of the Anglican bishop should be studied in relation to the church that the Bible talks about (Matt. 16:18,19; Rom 16:16) – especially as regards the growth of the church for which Jesus died to purchase (Acts 20:28). Are we growing as we should? Are we fervent in our faith and commitment or are we lukewarm? Are we running the risk of our candlestick being removed as well? For those who have had the opportunity of visiting Ephesus today in modern Turkey, they would have noticed the ruins of the city and the non-existence of the church there! Will we suffer the same fate?