Article # ten: Church Life
F A R
Mannie’s local church is Mannie’s idol, one of several, perhaps the biggie. Of course Mannie would be miffed at such a thought and deny it profusely. My church helps me keep the faith, teaches truths of the Bible, gives me a boost sunday mornings, keeps me on the straight and narrow.
Several years ago Mannie and Merf responded to an altar call right here in this building. A relative prodded them to attend healing services featuring a renowned evangelist, both had physical issues above their doctor’s head, and anyway it all added up to the young couple going to the front and getting saved. So there’s this loyalty thing.
Pastor emphasized, “Blossom where you are planted.” Sounds right, so since this is where God planted Mannie this is where Mannie was going to hang out forever. In time church life became her life, almost entirely. When she needed encouragement she looked to church. Same for direction and teaching and comfort in troubled times. With bonding came dependence. Church became her spiritual family, her ally, mentor and….
Yes, lord…. superior…. shepherd…. authority…. guide. Let me tell you Mannie’s story. (Perhaps Mannie’s story is your story.)
One sunday morning, about six months after her conversion to the Lord Jesus Christ, Mannie entered what had become her ‘home church’ wearing her beautiful purple coat. Two hours later she left the building wearing a drab black coat. (Now bear with me, I’m talking spiritually.) The purple coat symbolizes Christ’s authority. Purple, as you may know, is the color of royalty. I’ll let you guess what black represents.
The evangelist had told her the way to obey Jesus was to simply obey the Bible as she understood it, depending on the Holy Spirit to continually reveal the truths of the Word. She knew, just knew, what he said was true. Eagerly she embraced Jesus Christ and the Bible as the supreme authority of her life. That authority was like a divine cloak wrapped around her spirit. It felt real good.
No one can see the magnificent coat, but those spiritually sensitive can detect a noble woman of God; they who walk in the authority of the King do walk in nobility.
It took six months for Mannie’s church to break her resolution to obey Christ and His Word, perhaps average time for most evangelical churches to accomplish this feat. Now the new convert was their new convert, and she would prove herself faithful to her new lord.
P a u l : I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel. (Gal. 1:6)
The sudden shift from one authority to another resulted from a gradual shift of love from One to another.
Because she was brand new in Christ the group gave her an overdose of attention and adulation, and she drank thirstily at this inferior well, neglecting the well of “living water.” That fateful sunday the pastor gave his “Be accountable to each other,” and “Commit yourself to God and God’s family,” and “United we stand, divided we fall,” and “No man is an island,” and ”Obey those who rule over you” message, and resisting Mannie finally caved. Deep in her heart she made a decision to exchange robes. On the way out of the building she called Pastor Whoever Pastor for the first time, and Pastor acknowledged her token of submission by turning up his economy-seat warm to first-class warm.
After exchanging lords Mannie soon adopted the church’s love for, and loyalty to, custom and tradition. Compromise got easier with practice. She dare not resist the group because she was now a dependent of the group. Since Mannie is socially and emotionally attached, and since her maturing kids need, even more than her, stability and acceptance, and since her church is her sole opportunity to minister to others, it is in her best interest to steer away from any appearance of dissension.
There is an unwritten rule which we all quickly learned: Don’t step out of line, don’t rock the church boat, be a team player. There’s a price to pay for challenging authority (we’re talking the black kind), pushing buttons, questioning the way it is. Since Mannie’s life revolves around her church she is most eager to protect her status…. agreeing, cooperating, volunteering, smiling.
A. W. T o z e r : The simple liberty of early Christianity is being lost to us…. the right to obey the Holy Spirit, the right to think our own private thoughts, the right to do what we will with our lives, the right to determine under God what we shall do with our money. (God Tells the Man Who Cares)
A. W. T o z e r : The desire to make a good impression has become one of the most powerful of all the factors determining human conduct. (God Tells the Man Who Cares)
Church, not Christ, is now Mannie’s focus. Her first thoughts in the morning are church thoughts, pastor thoughts. Mannie is much more sensitive to the pulse of the group then the leading of the Spirit. Tradition words are honored, Bible words quite secondary. And she can’t see it. (Have you noticed the blind don’t see too good?)
A. W. T o z e r : It is entirely possible for us to imagine ourselves to be all right when we are not all right. (Who Put Jesus On the Cross)
No longer is Mannie a flame for Christ. No longer is she filled with the Holy Spirit. She still calls Christ “Lord,” but He isn’t. His now sit where He once sat, on the throne of Mannie’s life. She can deny it all she wants, church is Mannie’s idol.
L a r r y J o n e s : It is an issue of lordship. (The Way It Is)
This tragedy is typical. What happened to Mannie happens regularly. Church and church history are packed with Mannies.
J o h n : Keep yourselves from idols. (1John 5:21)
It’s easy to spot an idol in another’s life (much easier than in one’s own life). An idol is something you don’t critique, refuse to bring under the light of Scripture. A friend who touches your idol won’t be a friend long. An idol is something you don’t talk about to Jesus.
An idol isn’t necessarily a bad habit or sin or addiction. An idol is something one refuses to give the Lord permission to deal with. An idol is an idol by invitation, not weakness. You admit to a flaw, you defend an idol.
(It’s important to realize weaknesses do not usually go instantly or all at once, and one should not confuse flaws with idols and thus allow discouragement to hinder spiritual growth. I have been a christian 35 years and freely attest I have flaws, many and varied. My wife and family would certainly give a hearty “Amen!”)
An idol consumes your time, affection, energy and money. It costs joy and it costs fruitfulness and it costs eternal rewards. Nasty things, those idols.
P a u l : Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage. (Gal. 5:1)
N E A R
Church and Merf don’t get along too good simply because church and Merf are going different directions. Everybody (and every group) is on the move, becoming, changing, either losing ground or gaining. No one is fixed. Merf is gaining Christ, church is descending deeper into lukewarmness.
It’s not a steady backsliding; there are times when church bounces back heading for higher ground they once held. They had even brought in a revivalist, but he seemed to cause division, and church decided they would rather be united than fervent. If one could chart the spirituality of Merf’s church, like most churches it would look like a failing stock that has occasional upward bounces, but the general trend is down, down, down.
People going down resent people going up, sibling jealousy perhaps. Christians who do not want (an intimate and meaningful relationship with) Christ don’t want to hang with those who do. Water seeks its own level.
The pastor is resentful because he senses Merf doesn’t need him. Pastor’s perspective: If we are all going in the right direction (and of course we are), and Merf is going in a different direction, Merf must be going the wrong way. He’s nervous that whatever Merf’s got might be contagious, and he is quite protective of the flock in his charge.
Now everyone knows when the pastor is less than enthusiastic about someone, and making buds with that someone puts them at risk; no one wants the pastor’s disapproval – all need his approval to serve and be accepted. So poor Merf is a bit lonely and getting lonelier.
Merf threatens unity because he doesn’t place himself under the authority (yes, the black kind) of leadership. Not that Merf would ever be disruptive or do anything dumb, but he has this air of independence, seems to live in another world. Whatever makes him tick, it certainly isn’t church.
Not that Merf doesn’t enjoy church, he does…. somewhat. He looks forward to praise and worship time when heaven seems to open up a bit. And he does learn from the man behind the pulpit, especially guest speakers. He likes to linger after a good service and bask in the manifested Presence. On the other hand….
Merf just doesn’t fit in, doesn’t want to fit in, finds himself being critical of just about everything. Why do we have to have the same guy preaching sunday after sunday after sunday? How can a man preach for almost an hour and rarely mention Christ? Is this what the New Testament church was like? Seems to me if the Holy Spirit were really in control the service wouldn’t be so boring. Why don’t we experience the power of God instead of just reading about it? “Shut up, Merf!” Merf says to Merf.
Often Merf daydreams while the pastor preaches. Quite an imagination, that boy….
He sees each in the congregation, after praise time, reach for a muzzle from the row of black muzzles hanging neatly on the back of the pews in front of the pew-warmers, watches them all put the muzzle over their mouths, quite proficiently Merf notices, like they’ve done this a thousand times. They sure look silly, Merf chuckles to himself, and he knows if he had a mirror he would see himself equally so. Mannie can’t figure why her man has that silly little grin during preach time. And, Why does he look at me like that, like there’s something wrong with my face?
So they are all muzzled, all except one, the pastor. No one muzzles the pastor, not even his wife. He gets to say funny things, talk about what a good week he has had – though very busy doing his pastoral duties – and expound his spiritual insights. He pampers, jokes, corrects and scolds to his heart’s content.
Merf is the only one in the church who sees the denominational biggies seated behind the pastor, each suited and tie-d and sparkly and somber. Only Merf and the pastor know these guys follow the pastor around wherever he goes, be it preaching, counseling, playing tennis, relaxing in his recliner soaking in unbelief from the box, whatever. They are his lord, and to them does he bow, and in them he abides.
P a u l : To whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves. (Rom. 6:6)
Also, Merf is the only one to notice the ball and chain attached to the pastor’s ankle. And the men behind him, they have one too. As does almost everyone in the congregation (almost everyone, there are exceptions in every church), including the little lady beside him.
Mannie? Little? You see, Mannie is a midget, just like most others in the building, including the guys in front. The midgets, though midgets, are not all the same height, all are according to their spiritual maturity. As Merf scans the people he spots the few giants, their grand stature obvious only to him and to each other.
Merf notices the pastor getting annoyed whenever one of the midgets carelessly crosses his legs and rattles his chain. The men behind him are careful to cross their legs soundlessly, not wanting anyone to know they are in the building.
Merf’s ball and chain lies stretched out on the stage next to the pulpit, M E R F in bold letters on the ball, ankle-lock wide open, pining the return of its once captive. And then Merf’s imagination really gets going. The pastor picks up the ball and chain in outstretched hands and looks longingly at Merf. All the muzzled midgets, always so very supportive of their pastor, noisily stand and turn – clink, clink, clink, clink – to gaze at Merf with equal longing, all silently chorusing their plea, “Won’t you join us, Merf? Won’t you come back?”
To Merf’s horror he feels himself drawn to the ball and chain he recently escaped. The muzzled, distraught faces, the pleading eyes, the outstretched arms of welcome even from the dignitaries up front, magnified the drawing power humans have upon humans. The people began to rattle their chains in unison, and mesmerized Merf slowly rises from his seat, makes his way to the aisle and heads repentantly to the altar. (Not your typical altar call, is it?)
Mannie’s elbow in Merf’s ribs saved Merf from the M E R F ball and chain, waking him from his terror. “What’s with you, Merf?” now muzzleless Mannie demands. “You’ve got beads of sweat on your forehead!”
Songs sung, tithes taken, announcements announced, preaching preached, the people, muzzleless and shackleless and tall once again, are rejuvenated for at least a couple of hours, and the released chatterers chatter enthusiastically in the large foyer about nothing spiritually relevant.
A. W. T o z e r : It is hard to have any insight and not be considered a cynic. It is hard to be a realist and not be classed with the pessimists. (Who Put Jesus On the Cross)
C h a l l e n g e : If you follow the crowd and the crowd is not following Christ, neither are you. Jesus said, “Come, follow Me.”
P r a y e r : Lord Jesus, we say, “Yes, Lord.” By the grace You so freely give we respond to Your beckoning. And we say, “More grace, Jesus.” (And hopefully the reader says, “Amen!”)