(July 2004 – Volume 10, Issue 7)
One of the most insightful of recent books concerning the church is actually written by an unbeliever. Alan Wolfe, a social scientist, has been observing the changing American religious scene for years. Last year he shared his research in The Transformation of American Religion. The message of his book is that “religion in the United States is being transformed in radically new directions.”  Wolfe claims, “Talk of Hell, damnation, and even sin has been replaced by a nonjudgmental language of understanding and empathy. Gone are the arguments over doctrine and theology…. More Americans than ever proclaim themselves born again in Christ, but the Lord to whom they turn rarely gets angry and frequently strengthens self-esteem. [As a result] the faithful in the United States are remarkably like everyone else.” 
If Wolfe’s assessments are on target, what would be the catalyst for this transformation (or better, degeneration)? Wolfe’s thesis is that in an effort to win over American culture, evangelicalism has stooped so low that it can no longer be distinguished from that culture. Take doctrine for example. Small-group Bible studies avoid theology like the plague, lest it prove divisive. Sermons are no better. “Generally speaking, preaching in evangelically oriented growth churches, however dynamic in delivery, has remarkably little actual content. Scripture is invariably cited but only as a launching pad to reinforce the message of salvation that Jesus can offer.”  And what kind of salvation is Jesus offering? Why, “Jesus will save your soul and your marriage, make you happy, heal your body, and even make you rich. Who wouldn’t look twice at that offer?”  Nor is this a message found only in the prosperity gospel fringe. The wildly popular book The Prayer of Jabez, written and endorsed, not to mention read, by mainstream evangelicals, “is a concept of religion so narcissistic that it makes prosperity theology look demanding by contrast.”  As a matter of fact the rapid growth, as Wolfe sees it, of evangelicalism is not due to their unique message but to their capitulation to the culture’s message: “Evangelicalism’s popularity is due as much to its populistic and democratic urges – its determination to find out exactly what believers want and offer it to them – as it is to certainties of the faith.”  One megachurch pastor in Cincinnati describes his church growth philosophy with an “almost” biblical quote, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is fun!”  And another pastor in Houston frankly admits, “I take what is worldly, and baptize it.”  These approaches are resulting in popularity. “But popularity means bowing to, rather than resisting, popular culture, and since American popular culture is one that puts more emphasis on feeling good than thinking right, these movements tend to be especially hostile to potentially divisive doctrinal controversy.”  I find myself agreeing with this self-avowed unsaved man who begins to conclude his book with this statement: “This adherence to growth can have its frustrations; watching sermons reduced to PowerPoint presentations or listening to one easily forgettable praise song after another makes one long for an evangelical willing to stand up, Luther-like, and proclaim his opposition to the latest survey of evangelical taste.” 
But enough of Mr. Wolfe’s penetrating analysis of evangelicalism. Alan Wolfe has skillfully exposed the mortal disease of the new paradigm church, but what is the remedy? For that we turn, not to Mr. Wolfe, but to the New Testament. And I can think of no better passage for our purposes than Ephesians 4:11-16.
What is God’s design for the church? How should it function? What is its mission? The inspired apostle Paul, in a few short verses, sets the agenda. God’s plan begins with gifted men whom He has given to the church (v. 11). These include apostles and prophets, who were foundational to the church, passing from the scene when that foundation had been laid (Ephesians 2:20). They were followed by evangelists and pastor-teachers who build the superstructure upon the apostolic base. These gifted men are given to the church for a specific task: the equipping of the saints for the work of service to the building up of the body of Christ (v. 12). This building up of the body is for the purpose of achieving four things: unity of the faith, the knowledge of the Son of God, maturity and Christlikeness (v. 13). In turn the attaining of these objectives results in: no longer being easily deceived spiritual children, speaking the truth in love, growing up into Christ (vv. 14-15). When such lives predominate in a local church, and when the individuals of that body are living out their God-given roles, then that body of believers will be one that is both growing spiritually and being built up in love (v. 16). That’s the big picture, let’s now examine the details.
Gifted men are given to the local church in order to equip the saints for the work of service. The word “equip” was a term used in the first century for the setting of bones. When an arm is broken, for example, the arm is out of alignment and functionally useless. The gifted men were to be instruments of God to bring proper alignment to the body in order that there might be the building up of the body of Christ. In order for the body of Christ to be built up the gifted men would need to bring about an adjustment in the local church, which would enable believers to carry out the work of service. How would they do this? How were they to equip the saints – what was their method? I think we can safely say that this was not to be accomplished through conducting seminars on the latest business techniques or providing psychological profiles. The instrument used for equipping was (and is) the Word of God. This is not a logical deduction but rather clear revelation. Paul wrote to Timothy, All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16, 17). The word for “equipped” in both passages comes from the same root word artios, which carries the idea of equipping for a delegated task. Paul is clear in his instructions to Timothy; it is the Scriptures that equip us for every good work. So we are not surprised to find that the immediate charge to Timothy is to preach the word (2 Timothy 4:1, 2). If Timothy is to equip the church he must be a preacher of the Word. And if he is to properly preach the Word he must first be one who is handling accurately the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15). That is, Timothy must be a careful student of the Word so that when he preached, he would be preaching the message that God intended. That is how God proposes His church be built up – through the careful, accurate, clear preaching and teaching of His Word. Nothing else will accomplish the task. We can tell inspiring stories, sing beautiful or peppy music, fill our calendars full of social events, professionalize our program and provide small groups for every conceivable interest, but if the Scripture is not diligently, systematically and correctly taught, Christ’s people will not be equipped and the body will not be built up, period! There are no exceptions to this mandate. The church must be proclaimers of the word of truth – it must be the utmost priority. Congregations which focus on techniques, programs and entertainment, at the expense of the centrality of the Word, may very well build large followings but they will not build the church of God. Programs, drama and entertainment may amuse, soothe inspire and stir the emotions, but they will not build Christians. Only the Word can do that.
Churches that take this instruction of the Lord seriously will be the ones marching in the direction of maturity (Ephesians 4:13). Those who do not will find themselves drowning in a sea of immaturity (4:14). These are the two options Paul lays before his readers. The first option finds the local church being equipped by the teaching of the Word and in turn building up the body of Christ. Such churches will be marked by four things. First, unity: Until we all attain to the unity of the faith. Throughout the epistles the term “the faith” does not refer to subjective faith (e.g. “I believe; I have faith in God”) but to objective truth. “The faith” is a phrase synonymous with sound doctrine, or the body of truth as taught in the Bible. True unity is grounded in correct theology. A certain pastor, in writing a critique of my ministry, said that he leaned toward “unity” but I leaned toward “purity.” That may be a true evaluation, but I do not believe there is unity without purity. An attempt at unity without doctrinal purity is merely uniformity. Many today are willing to lay down their conviction of scriptural truth in order to get along. Organizations are built under the umbrella of minimal beliefs but at the cost of great compromise, which leads to the doctrinal impurity of the church. While not all doctrinal beliefs are essential to the faith, and some are not hills worth dying on, I am amazed at what many are willing to jettison in order to embrace some form of outward unity. Paul, however, calls for a unity that is wrapped around the cardinal truths of the faith.
The second mark of the equipped church is the knowledge of the Son of God. Virtually nothing is more important than our knowledge of Christ. Peter would go so far as to write, Seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence (2 Peter 1:3). If everything we need for life and godliness is found in the knowledge of Christ, why should the church dabble around with anything else? And while some, even within evangelical circles, guide us to finding Christ “within ourselves,” imagining Him, or experiencing Him in some mystical fashion; the fact is that the true knowledge of Christ can only be obtained through the Word. Apart from what the Scriptures say about Christ, we know nothing of absolute certainty about Him.
The third and fourth marks appear to be mutually defining. We are to attain to a mature man, “mature” meaning complete, not perfect. This maturity is identified as the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. Our standard of maturity is nothing less than Christlikeness. If we love Him we will want to be like Him.
Those not marching toward maturity, as they are being equipped by the teaching of the Word, are left hopelessly entangled in a web of immaturity (4:14). Unfortunately the description given of the immature believer hits very close to home in our evangelical environment today. As Paul portrays the immature believer (or church), the one not equipped by the teaching of the Word, he uses the illustration of a child. The proof of a child’s immaturity is found in two characteristics found in all children.
- They are unstable: We are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves. Children are notoriously fickle and changeable. They lack self-control; are creatures of extremes and are ruled by their emotions. So too, immature Christians are on emotional, spiritual and doctrinal roller coasters. The day after a church retreat they are ready to follow the Lord anywhere; by Wednesday all enthusiasm is gone. While attending a Christian musical concert they are overflowing with feelings of love and warmth for the Lord and others. The next morning they don’t “feel” like reading the Scriptures or praying and so they don’t. When convicted of sin, they make strong pledges of future obedience. But a few days later they buckle under the same old temptations. They have mastered the art of selective obedience to Christ. Their faith, while possibly genuine, is superficial, lacking substance and power. They are truly tossed here and there by waves – at the mercy of so many influences, fads, powerful personalities and temptations that float into their lives.
- They are easily deceived: And carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming. Baby Christians remain such because they are constantly being deceived. Rather than being equipped by the Word (or better, because they have not been so equipped) these immature believers are taken in by false doctrines, con-artists, slick programs and campaigns. Place in front of them a great communicator and they lack the discernment to filter his message. Baby Christians are always chasing after the latest book or message promising them instant spirituality.
What is the remedy to this endless merry-go-round of childishness? Speaking the truth in love (v.15). We need to keep the context in mind. Paul is not calling for open and honest communication, although that is a biblical teaching and supported in verse 25. At this point he is giving us the antidote to spiritual immaturity and that antidote is found in equipping the saints for the work of service (v. 12). Udo Middelmann admonishes that “the church has lost the wider audience because it gave up much of what it should know and in the past was good at: the light shed on human reality from the Word of God in love, encouragement, moral clarity, and compassion…. When the church abandons her singular calling, she is usually not even very good in the attempt to compete with the street and market.”  The church must concentrate on its mandate to equip the saints and not be sidetracked by other things. As the body is built up through the careful teaching of the Word of God by the gifted men and the application of that truth by the local church, the body grow[s] up in all aspects into Him, who is the Head, even Christ. The loving communication of God’s truth is what matures lives and develops godly churches. Verse 16 tells us that it is the power of Christ working through the members of the body functioning as God designs, which ultimately causes the growth of the body.
We ignore God’s plan as outlined in Ephesians 4:11-16 for the growth of the body of Christ at great peril. If we want churches that please people, then our priority is to listen to the strategy of people. But if we desire churches that please God, surely we will want to know and implement God’s methodology. Whom we listen to reveals whom we want to please.
 Alan Wolfe, The Transformation of American Religion (New York: Free Press, 2003), p. 3.
 Ibid., p. 31.
 Ibid., p. 32.
 Ibid., p. 33.
 Ibid., p. 36.
 Ibid., p. 194.
 Ibid., p. 195.
 Ibid., p. 76.
 Ibid., p. 256.
 Udo W. Middelmann, The Market Driven Church (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004). P. 201