The fast food place on the other side of town has this on their sign: “Lost our franchise.”
They are not going out of business, however. Simply, they can no longer market themselves as McDonald’s or Burger King or Whattaburger or whatever they were.
They can go on selling burgers and fries, and anything else they please. But not under the umbrella of the former company.
We understand this. It’s a law of the free enterprise system.
Oh, that it worked that way for churches.
When a church loses its franchise–that is, when God in Heaven decides that these people are producing a substandard product, not living up to the terms of the agreement, not buying their supplies from Headquarters, so to speak–you could wish it would close its doors for integrity’s sake.
But it doesn’t. The church goes right on operating as before. In fact, it may prosper even more than before since its leaders no longer feel duty-bound to abide by Scripture, to preach Jesus and His blood, to call people to repent and be saved, and to spread the gospel. Unemcumbered by these mandates, the apostate church can cater to the itching ears of the population at large.
How churches lose their franchise.
In the first of the Lord’s “letters to the 7 churches of Asia Minor” found in Revelation 2-3, Jesus said to Ephesus, “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works; or else I will come to you quickly and remove its lampstand from its place” (Rev. 2:5).
Remove your lampstand. By that phrase, the Lord is threatening to cancel the franchise of the Ephesian church. John MacArthur says the phrase means “God’s judgment would bring an end to the Ephesian church.” In his commentary on Revelation, “Worthy is the Lamb,” Ray Summers says, “The (lampstand) is the church, and it has no right to exist if it is not going to carry out the purpose which Christ has for it. Strong warning to any church!” In “Exploring Revelation,” John Phillips says, “If there is no love for the Lord Jesus, the reason for the assembly’s existence has vanished. A local church which is functioning without love for the Lord is worse than useless.” He adds, “It gives a wrong impression of what Christianity is all about, and it is best removed.”
When the church no longer exists to honor Christ, to worship Him and obey His Word, it is in danger of losing its reason for being. At some point, the Lord has the right to withdraw His presence. When that happens, the church is as dead as anything at the funeral home, even though it may go right on meeting and maintaining a hundred activities.
What does a church look like that has lost its franchise?
We get a good picture of a Lord-less congregation by looking at King Saul in the Old Testament after the Lord pulled out and left him to his own devices. Bible students will recall that Saul had started well, as a humble servant eager to do the Lord’s bidding (see I Samuel chapter 10). However, as soon as he learned to love the adoration of the people and to see the luxury of the palace as his entitlement, he became a detriment to the work of the Lord. Long before he vacated the throne, God had already anointed his successor, the young shepherd boy David. To Saul, God said, “The Lord has rejected you from being king over Israel.” He had lost his franchise.
Now, even though he had abandoned the Lord and God had given up on him, Saul went on functioning as the king of Israel and kept up the appearance as before. However, those closest to Saul saw dramatic evidence of the Lord’s absence from his life.
Saul had no power. Throughout the latter half of his reign, the Philistines come and go as they please and Saul is able to do little about it. He was literally on his own without the protection of the Lord.
Saul had no peace. In I Samuel 16, he employed young David to play him to sleep at night with his harp. Saul’s troubled spirit hounded him and robbed him of rest.
Saul had no prayer. “When Saul inquired of the Lord, the Lord did not answer him” (I Samuel 28:6). As a result, he turned to a witch.
The word Ichabod comes to mind. We’re introduced to the word in I Samuel 4:21 where the wife of a slain priest gives birth to a baby. The women about her tried to cheer her up with assurances that “it’s a boy!” she ignored the child and said, “His name is Ichabod,” and added, “The glory has departed from Israel.” (Ichabod literally means “no glory.”)
Whenever a church has turned its back on the Lord Jesus Christ, when it no longer worships Him and seeks to obey His teaching, you can write “Ichabod” across the front doors, for the Lord is gone and with Him all his glory and Heaven’s blessings.
The Northern Kingdom of Israel became Ichabod.
After Solomon died and the kingdom split into northern and southern kingdoms (i.e., Israel and Judah), only the Southern Kingdom made any effort to honor the Lord and serve Him. The northerners, Israel, went through a long succession of kings over the next 200 years, with not a single one attempting to serve God faithfully. The Lord sent prophet after prophet in their direction–Amos, Isaiah, Hosea, etc.–to call them back to Him, but to no avail. Finally, in 722 B.C., He allowed the Assyrians to conquer Israel (but not Judah) and to carry its people into captivity, never to return. Judah still had the Lord’s protection and power, His peace, and prayer.
God’s people must always stay alert.
Christian people looking for a church home must be aware that a large, thriving congregation with exciting programs is an indication of nothing. Here are four evidences of the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ to which God’s people must always pay close attention:
–the pre-eminence of the Lord Jesus (his sinless life, His death on the cross, His resurrection, and His coming) in sermons, hymns, and prayers.
–the place given to the teaching of the entire Bible, not just selected passages.
–the preaching of salvation (calling people to repent and be saved).
–the prominence of missions and evangelism (that is, taking the gospel into the community and to the ends of the earth).
The absence of any of these four may not automatically mean they have deserted the Lord and that He has withdrawn His lampstand (His presence), but would definitely be cause for concern. The absence of all four? Run. Get away quickly.
Church leaders must always be aware of the tendency to substitute our own will and the world’s agenda for the teachings of Scripture. I’m not sure which comes first, whether we begin inserting the world’s agenda and our will and these push out the Lord’s teachings, or do we turn away from the Lord’s doctrines (because they are unpopular and divisive?) and fill the vacuum with the philosophies of man.
The church that accepts homosexuals as members and ordains gay men and lesbian women to the ministry is one that has chosen to leave aside large portions of Scripture in order to do what seems right to them. (I cannot type these words without remembering the oft-repeated theme of the Old Testament book of Judges: “In those days, there was no king in Israel and everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” See Judges 17:6 and 21:25 in particular.)
Churches that have lost their franchise–the Lord has pulled out and left them to their own devices–will be all over the map in their programs, in their insistence on their liberality and openness, and in their condemnation of “those fundamentalists” who insist on what they call “the literal interpretation of the Bible.” Listen closely and you will hear a snide superiority coming through any reference to the conservatives.
It’s a constant danger, Christians. No wonder the Apostle Paul left this final warning to young Pastor Timothy:
“Preach the Word!” “The time will come when they will not abide 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. But you be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (II Timothy 4:2-5).
My friend John Armistead was attending seminary at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary many years ago, and needed a class or two which he decided to take from the divinity school at nearby Berkeley. He told me later, “We had students in there who did not believe in God.” I said, “Why were they in a divinity school if they didn’t believe in God?” He said, “They were preparing for the ministry!”
I thought, “Dear Lord, please give your people discernment not to bring in pastors who are unbelievers! Give wisdom to search committees to tell the difference in one who looks good and sounds great but is hollow on the inside from the genuine, God-called, Jesus-loving, Spirit-anointed, Bible-believing shepherd of your people.”