Masterclass from Bill Muehlenberg
I was recently speaking and teaching interstate at some churches and Christian groups. A number of these groups, I was informed, had actually broken away from a larger Pentecostal denomination. They had simply grown disillusioned with what their megachurches were on about, and wanted to get back to a more pure and biblical Christianity.
They had many concerns about the big evangelical and Pentecostal churches, and were growing tired of the emphasis on entertainment, marketing techniques, the celebrity-culture, the superficiality, and the rank imitation of the surrounding culture. So they moved on, and set up smaller churches, including home fellowships.
Now of course there is always a danger here. Those who are discontented can be so for the wrong reasons, and can have rather un-Christlike responses. They can be rebellious, un-submissive, disobedient and troublemaking. They can react in bitterness, anger and resentment. That is something we don’t want to encourage or foster.
But there is another sort of discontent which can in fact be a good discontent. There can be a holy desire to simply have the best that God wants for us. There can be a discontent with man-centred religious programs, with trendy, faddish gimmicks, with lifeless and spiritless churches, and with cheap grace and a watered down gospel, especially a gospel that is all about self, instead of Christ and the denial of self.
As I spent time with these people, and heard their stories, a passage from 1 Samuel sprang to mind. In 1 Sam 22:1-2 we find these words: “David left Gath and escaped to the cave of Adullam. When his brothers and his father’s household heard about it, they went down to him there. All those who were in distress or in debt or discontented gathered around him, and he became their leader. About four hundred men were with him.”
It is interesting that David, who at the time was not on the throne, but was being hounded and chased around the country by Saul, found himself to be a magnet for those who were on the fringes of society, those who did not fit in, those who were discontented and in distress.
The really amazing thing about this motley crew of rejects, misfits and outsiders is that they went on to do many mighty things for God and David. We read about these men later in the Old Testament narratives. In 2 Samuel 23, 24 and 1 Chronicles 11, 12 we learn about “David’s mighty men”.
You can read for yourself all the marvellous exploits and mighty deeds these men performed. These men, who were the cream of the crop under King David, were at one time the rejected, the despised and those who did not fit in to the religious and social scene of the day.
Perhaps in the same way today as the mainstream churches (and I include my own evangelical churches here) become more and more worldly and less and less endowed with power from on high, we will see more and more small groups of those who are restless, alienated and discontented moving on, seeking to find those who are like-minded and fully serious about a radical commitment to Jesus Christ.
Now I am not seeking to promote rebellion and anti-church sentiment here, nor am I saying our churches are all going downhill. But surely any serious follower of Jesus Christ can see that much of what passes for biblical Christianity today is a far cry from what it should be.
Indeed, in many ways we are far removed from the vitality, power and influence of the early church. In many ways we have perhaps become more like the Scribes and the Pharisees than we might care to admit. We might even be addicted to mere traditions of men and human programs, instead of reliant on the Spirit of God in all that we do.
The traditions of men
Evangelicals and Pentecostals take great delight in passages such as Mark 7:8-9 in which Jesus rebukes those religious folk who promote the “traditions of men”. We rightly look down on the Scribes and Pharisees, and know how bad the religious establishment can become. But perhaps we need to look much more closely in our own backyards.
I actually think us evangelicals, Pentecostals, and other “cutting edge” Christian groups have just as much religious baggage as those mainline denominations that we so quickly denigrate. Indeed, we have plenty of our own traditions of men which we slavishly adhere to.
Let me provide just one example. Because I travel a lot and speak at a many different churches, I have come to notice various trends and fads which evangelical and charismatic churches are plugging into. One of these is to turn the worship experience and setting into something basically like a disco.
Time and time again I find churches which have all their walls painted black, and their auditoriums looking just like discos. They have strobe lights flashing away and smoke machines working overtime during their times of worship. They apparently think this is hip and contemporary, and will help make their churches “relevant” and appealing to young people.
Of course there is not one passage in the entire Bible which instructs us to get the disco look in order to attract crowds or properly worship. There is not one text anywhere which even remotely suggests that we should copy the ways of the world in order to reach people and appeal to outsiders.
What we have, in other words, is simply another tradition of men. We, who pride ourselves in doing things by the Book, and not conforming to the world, are doing exactly the opposite: we are setting aside Scripture and foolishly imitating the world, its music, and its methods.
Never mind that when it comes to worship, there should be only one focus: the living God. Everything else is peripheral and secondary. Indeed, real worship, according to the Bible, has nothing to do with emotional highs and disco-like attractions. It is all about ascribing glory to a holy, pure and majestic God. It is not about us at all; it is all about Him.
Now I do not want to be picking on the evangelical world and the Pentecostal churches. They happen to be the ones I most often deal with, but as Peter says, ‘judgment must begin with the household of God’. None of our methods, plans, and activities are sacrosanct, or above criticism. Indeed, everything we do is regularly to be checked out in the light of Scripture.
Bible-believing evangelical Christians should be the very first to question and assess; discerning if we are merely creating our own fleshly traditions, or are in fact doing things as God would have them to be done. We dare not assume that what we are doing is always fully pleasing to our Lord.
Thus it may be the case that we will see more groups of those who long for something better, whose hearts are set on heaven, and who take seriously the commands of our Lord to deny self, take up our cross, and follow him. Some of these folk may be discontented and in distress, as were those who gravitated toward David.
If it is a holy discontent, then can I say we need more of it. Hopefully they can stay in their churches and bring about much need renewal and revival. But if they must leave and form their own groups, well, that may need to be the way to go. But we all desperately need a holy discontent which will make us restless with the status quo, impatient with the ordinary, and sick of the mediocre.
As A. W. Tozer once said, “We are too comfortable, too rich, too contented. We hold the faith of our fathers, but it does not hold us.” And again, “We must have a new reformation. There must come a violent break with that irresponsible, amusement-mad, paganized pseudo religion which passes today for the faith of Christ and which is being spread all over the world by unspiritual men employing un-scriptural methods to achieve their ends.”
It seems that William Booth, Salvation Army founder, had it right when he said in the late 1890’s, “The chief danger of the twentieth century will be religion without the Holy Ghost, Christianity without Christ, forgiveness without repentance, salvation without regeneration, and heaven without hell.”
Tags: Christian Life