by Steven Chan
24 February 2008
The Christian Chronicle featured a series of discussions in 2007 on the question, “Are We Growing?” For 2008, the magazine will change that series into a discussion on “How Can We Grow?” You may follow the discussion on their website:
As I reflect on the subject and the various discussions, it appears that perhaps we should consider another more basic issue of “what are we growing?” Growth is important as it is an evidence of life and progress but growth in itself may not always be good – as may be the case with the growth of a tumour.
It is apparent that we are all seeking to grow the church. But what is this church thing? Is it merely a group of people seeking some community of support for each other as they go through life – with some commonalities as regards the basis of them coming together – that being some affinity towards a passed down set of vague traditional beliefs in some kind of old relic – but re-formulated and re-engineered so as to be relevant for present day needs? Is it a community of people characterised purely by their openness towards the acceptance of as many as possible without being judgemental about their personal convictions or religious heritage – the only requirement being their acceptance of a common name, Jesus, Son of God – with freedom of choice as regards what one wants to believe or do, religiously or otherwise? Are we seeking to grow a church that is according to our image? Are we seeking a church where our beliefs are accepted, and those of others are not rejected? – an inclusive church – as opposed to a so-castigated, judgemental, legalistic, narrow-minded, always bickering, self-righteous, “we are the only ones going to heaven” type of community?
As we consider the subject, let us remember what the “Jesus of the Bible” said to the religious leaders of His days in Matt 23:15-16: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves. Woe to you, blind guides…” It appears that these were leaders of God’s chosen people – Matt 23:1-3: “Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do …” In Matt 5:20, Jesus said: “For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Let’s be also reminded by what the apostle Paul said in Rom 10:1-2: “Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.” In Matt 15:7-9, Jesus said to the scribes and the Pharisees: “Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: ‘These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.'” Such provocative and narrow-minded judgemental statements by Paul and Jesus did not go down well with the Pharisees and in Matt 15:12, “His disciples came and said to Him, “Do You know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” Fancy Jesus making statements that offend the religious leaders of His days! Jesus said concerning the religious leaders of His days: “They are blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind leads the blind, both will fall into a ditch.” (Matt. 15:14).
Brethren, merely being evangelistic is not good enough, merely having a great zeal for God, is not good enough. Merely being not offensive in our religious teachings is also not the way to go.
If the Bible is our guide, and we want to grow the church that the Bible talks about, then we need to sow the seed – which is the Word of God (Luke 8:11). We need to preach the Word! 2 Tim 4:2-5: “Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables.” God’s Word is the Truth: John 17:17: “Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth”
So, IF we do the following:-
1. we sow the Seed which is the Word of God (Luke 8:11); and
2. we share our hope in the spirit of meekness and reverential “fear” of God accompanied by our good conscience and good conduct (1 Peter 3:15-16: ‘But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear; having a good conscience, that when they defame you as evildoers, those who revile your good conduct in Christ’) and
3. we speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15: speaking the truth in love), and
4. we avoid ‘foolish and ignorant disputes, not being quarrelsome but gentle to all, able to teach, patient and humble in our correcting of others who are in opposition to the truth (2 Tim 2:23-26: “But avoid foolish and ignorant disputes, knowing that they generate strife. And a servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth, and that they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, having been taken captive by him to do his will.”; James 3:18: “Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace”) and
5. we do all the sake of the gospel and become all things to all men so that we can by all means save some (1 Cor 9:22-23: “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. Now this I do for the gospel’s sake…”) and
6. we work cooperatively with one another and with God (1 Cor 3:6: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase.”) and
7. we abide in Christ (John 15:4-5: “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.”);
THEN even in the face of various challenges, the churches of Christ will grow as we adopt the attitude of “rejoicing that (we are) counted worthy to suffer shame for His name, and daily in the temple, and in every house, (we do) not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ” (Acts 5:41-42), as was the case in Acts 9:31: “Then the churches throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and were edified. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, they were multiplied.”
As the churches faced various challenges, as in the early days, and they were able to overcome them with the wisdom that is from God, then they will grow: After they addressed the practical issue of ministering to the widows (Acts 6:1-6), “then the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.” (Acts 6:7); and after they addressed the doctrinal issue of circumcision in Acts 15:24-29, “So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and increased in number daily” (Acts 16:5).
The churches of Christ will continue to face various challenges – both practical as well as doctrinal. It is how we respond to these challenges that will determine whether we will grow.
If we neglect the practical needs of the brethren, or compromise the truth of God in favour of the philosophies of men (Col 2:8: “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.”) then we may yet grow the membership but it would not be a church that is submissive to its head, Christ (Col 1:18; Eph 5:23-27). We need to take heed of the warning of the apostle Paul in Col 2:22-23 as we consider the various suggestions proposed as regards how we may grow the church or re-engineer it for growth as to whether such are “according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom …, but are of no value…”
Let us make sure that we are building on the foundation of Jesus Christ and that we are building the church as God would have it: 1 Cor 3:10-14: “According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward.”