My friend J. B. was serving as interim pastor of the church and invited me to preach a four-day revival. On the final night, as I often do, I preached a message on the church. This week, many months after the event, he told me what happened.
“You really made some of my people angry.”
“Really?” I said. “I can’t imagine. What was that all about?”
He laughed, “They were convinced I had told you private things about our church. You addressed those situations so perfectly, they knew that was no accident. Their only explanation was that I had told you.”
I said, “You didn’t tell me anything.”
He said, “I know. I didn’t tell you on purpose, so that whatever God laid on your heart to share would not be tainted by my viewpoint.”
It’s not the first time that happened, I told J. B.
That particular sermon, more than any other I preach, has been known to send a few church leaders out of the services angry at me for sticking my nose into their business.
Here is the gist of it.
The elderly lady sat on her living room couch and told me, her pastor, of one great failure in her life.
“I know I’m saved, pastor,” she said. “I remember giving my heart to Jesus and know that I love Him. But pastor….”
“Pastor, I haven’t done right by the church.”
She told how as a young adult she got away from church.She raised her one child without the benefit of the church and came to regret it.
“And now,” she said, “I’m old and sickly and can’t even go to church. But if you would allow me, I’d like to put my membership in to your church and send an offering from my little monthly check.”
I assured her we would be happy to receive her as a member, and took care of that matter the next Sunday. A couple of years later, at her funeral, I told that story. Then, I looked at her family and friends gathered in the funeral chapel and asked, “Have you done right by the church?”
What it means to ‘do right by the church.’
Jesus said, “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).
Here are 5 great truths about the Christian church which all of the Lord’s people must come to terms with.
1) It is the Lord’s Church and He wants it back.
Acts 20:28 says God purchased the church with His own blood. Ephesians 5:25 says “Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her.”
Pastor, thank you for your leadership and the sacrifices you make to guide the church. But you need to know, it’s not your church. Jesus died for the church; you didn’t. He wants it back.
Deacons, thank you for your faithful service. But it’s not your church. Jesus died for it, and you didn’t. He wants it back.
Church members with seniority, thank you for hanging in there through good times and difficult. We couldn’t have done it without you. But it’s not your church, my friends. Jesus died for the church; you didn’t. He wants it back.
And church members with the deepest pockets, thank you for your generosity and sacrificial giving. God has used you in great ways. But, my friends, it’s not your church. Jesus died for it; you didn’t. He wants the church back.
And even though Southern Baptist polity says the congregation is autonomous and can do with the church whatever it pleases, church members, this is not your church. Jesus died for it; you didn’t. He wants it back.
2) The only question that matters is what does the Lord want us to do?
The first prayer prayed by Saul of Tarsus after meeting Jesus was the best one he ever prayed and the one you and I should offer every day of our lives: “Lord, what will you have me to do?” (Acts 22:10)
Since this is His church, what you want and what I want is irrelevant. The single issue is what does He want.
You and I may disagree about the color of the carpet, the choice of a minister, or the size of the budget. What either of us wants does not matter. The only question is what does He want.
It’s His church, and He may do with it as He pleases.
The next time someone calls on you to pray in a worship service or a committee meeting or a deacons session, I suggest you stand and speak one sentence, “Lord, what do you want us to do? Amen.”
And then look to Him for the answer.
3) We should do nothing until we know His will.
We should fill no office in church, staff no committee or board, adopt no budget, or hire no staffer, until we know the Lord’s will in the matter.
This means two large things:
a) We must become people of prayer.
This is such a no-brainer I’m almost embarrassed to say it. But what is truly embarrassing is the lip service God’s people render to prayer, and the vast number of decisions we make with hardly a nod in His direction.
We must devote ourselves to seeking His will in all we do. After all, the Lord Himself said, “Without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Likewise, the great apostle said, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).
b) We must learn to wait upon Him.
That means we leave “holy vacancies” until God raises up His choice (his church member, His minister, whatever) to fill that slot. Until the Lord calls someone to teach the 9th grade boys’ class, we do not fill that position. We may use substitutes, send in one of the ministers, or combine the class with another. But all the while, we make it clear: we are waiting on God to call up a teacher for this ministry.
Most of the troubles the church has gotten into over the centuries have resulted from our failure to pray, our unwillingness to wait on Him for an answer, and our insistence on running ahead of Him to do what we think best. We want to blame Satan for our troubles, but the fact is, we do a good job of fouling up the Lord’s work all by ourselves.
4. However you treat the church, Jesus takes personally.
In the Old Testament, this truth pertained to the nation of Israel. However people treated them, God took personally. In the New Testament, the same principle is stated repeatedly concerning the church.
“Inasmuch as you do it unto the least of these my brethren, you do it unto me” (Matthew 25:40,45). However we treat the members of the Lord’s body, we are doing so to Jesus.
To Saul of Tarsus, the persecutor of the followers of Jesus, the Lord said, “Why do you persecute me” (Acts 9:4). In touching them, he was striking out against Jesus.
To the faithful through the ages, Hebrews 6:10 pertains. “God is not unjust so as to forget your work, and the love that you have shown toward His name, in having ministered to the saints and in still ministering.” What we do toward the saints of the Lord, we do to Him.
When we bless the Lord’s children, we bless Him. When we trouble them–or upset His church–we incur His wrath and earn a place on His appointment calendar.
I once told the last church I pastored that a little group was meeting in the foyer before and after every service to discuss how to get rid of me. I told them that the church as a whole was supportive and faithful, but the membership needed to know what that group was up to. Then, I added, “I want to say two things to that group: 1) God is using you in my life to get the rough edges off. And 2), He has penciled your names in on His calendar. You will stand before Him at judgment and give account for what you are doing to His church and the man He has sent to lead your church. And friend, I wouldn’t be in your shoes for anything in the world.
5. The ministers are not sent to make the church happy. They are sent by God to make Him happy, and to make you the members holy and healthy.
I submit there are not 10 members in the typical Baptist church who know this. Our people sincerely think that because they vote on the preacher and can vote him out if they please, he is there to please them. The preacher is expected to take care of all their needs, and if they are unhappy, it’s an indication he’s failing.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
I wish I could find a stronger way to say this: Church member, God does not care a whit whether you like the preacher or not. He does not care that you had a need and the preacher was not there for you. The preacher is not Jesus. He cannot be everywhere, meeting every need, answering every prayer. Where did you get that idea?
Church member, God does not care whether you are happy with the preacher or whether he makes you angry.
A good preacher will push you and provoke you sometimes, and if he doesn’t, he’s playing around and not doing the job God sent him for.
If you demand that he make you happy and keep the congregation satisfied, you are putting a requirement on the pastor God doesn’t, and expecting what the Lord never promised and that no man can fulfill.
Give the church back to Jesus, church member. And while you’re at it, accept that the ministers are God’s gift to the church, sent by a Holy God to be the church’s overseers (Acts 20:28) to shepherd the flock (same verse).
When the prophet Elijah challenged the henchmen of Baal on Mt. Carmel to see which god (God) answered with fire, he prayed a prayer I have offered time and again and which I suggest to all my ministry friends: “Lord, let these people know that you are God, and that I’m your servant whom You have sent” (I Kings 19:36, my paraphrase).
God has a vested interest in demonstrating both realities today: that He is God and that the shepherd is acting on His behalf.
The toughest scripture in all God’s Word may be Hebrews 13:17. Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account, so that they can do this with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.
That word lets no one off the hook. The spiritual leaders are told they will stand before God and give account for their flock. What a scary thought. No wonder pastors have to be called by God. No one in his right mind would volunteer for such an assignment and awesome responsibility.
Church members are to submit to their leadership. (See Ephesians 5:21) That does not mean to be passive, to rubber stamp all their requests, or to check your discernment at the door. I grant that unscrupulous preachers have sometimes used this text to manipulate the flock into following them blindly, a la Jim Jones. Such preachers will have their own comeuppance at Judgement. However, this does not relieve the disciples of the Lord Jesus from submitting to godly leadership for the sake of unity, for the witness of Christ in the community, and for the efficiency of the ministry.
If something in the above did not plow a furrow down the middle of your life, church leader or church member, you may not have been paying attention.
If you are offended, may I suggest you analyze the emotions you feel. Ask yourself whether you are willing to do His will above all, wherever that should lead, and if the anger is justified.
Honor His church, my friend. In doing so, you will honor the Lord Jesus. Fail to honor it and you have put yourself above Him, for He “loved the church and gave Himself for it.”