|Vol. 16 No. 10 October 2014||
T. Pierce Brown (deceased)
I applaud all proper efforts of elders and churches to find and use all scriptural principles of church growth. All research into why we have failed to grow as the early church did should reveal many positive and negative factors. We can find many positive factors with an analysis of Acts 2 and the following chapters. At least one negative factor or things that contribute to our failures came to mind as I was studying the Seventh Chapter of Joshua.
Israel had been promised wonderful things in Joshua 1. “Every place that the sole of your foot shall tread upon, that have I given to you” (Joshua 1:3). God continued with other great promises, but we cannot fail to note that as in all cases of God’s gracious gifts, those promises were conditional. Verse 7 begins some of those conditions. They involved being courageous, not turning aside from observing the commandments and meditating on them day and night.
Those promises hardly begin to compare with ours. As Peter says, “Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises” (2 Peter 1:4). The scope of them is suggested in Ephesians 1:3 where Paul says, “Who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ.” In fact, He is “able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:4).
Yet, with all those promises, in many places today with million dollar plants [facilities], multiple ministries with salaries of hundreds of thousands of dollars to those who are supposed to be able to give expert advice in their respective areas of service, and all the advantages of the examples of past history, both in the Bible and out, the church is losing ground. We must ask, “Why?” and perhaps be able to find some answers from principles found in Joshua 7.
I have been trying to teach classes and practice personal evangelism for about a half-century. I have preached many sermons and written articles urging the need for a working church that follows the example of the church pictured in Jerusalem in Acts 2:46-47. “And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God, and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.” I still urge that, and what is suggested in Acts 8:4, as vital to church growth.
Yet, the events in Acts 5 and Joshua 7 suggest another need perhaps as great. That is, we must not only have a church that works, but a church through which God can work. God cannot take selfish, covetous, unregenerate persons who are members of and leaders in local congregations and make a church grow properly in spite of it. We have many churches that spend a lot of time and money devising machinery, organization and techniques, and still they have a large percentage that spend very little time developing the mind of Christ through which the power of God can really operate.
One of the first principles we need to recognize is that “a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump” (1 Corinthians 5:6). As long as we cherish, or even tolerate sin in the sense of allowing it to be rewarded and unrebuked, God cannot grant us success in battle. As He said to Joshua, so He says to us, “Neither will I be with you any more, except ye destroy the accursed from among you” (Joshua 7:12).
The kind of armaments they may have had, the perfection of their strategy, the sagacity of their leaders or the number of troops that went into battle were not the primary factors that determined the success of the battle. Surely, no person with faith and discernment who reads of the battles of Gideon, Joshua, David or almost any other story of victory under God’s guidance, can doubt that.
Let us look at the nature of the sin and see if we can see it exemplified in our experience or in the church today. Then, let us strive to make whatever corrective action is necessary.
First, as in the case of almost any sin, there is the sin of disbelief. It is easy for us in the Lord’s church to see that obedience is a natural outgrowth of faith. We glibly quote, “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:17). If faith automatically produces obedience, lack of faith produces disobedience. In fact, it is hard for us to conceive of a person who really believed that God was looking after His people and had a personal interest in their welfare doing what Achan did. He neither believed that God saw what he was doing, nor that God would do what He said about punishing the disobedient.
Second, there was a sin of covetousness. In the half century I have been preaching the Gospel, I have heard confessions of adultery, stealing, lying, cursing and various other sins. I do not recall ever having heard a confession of covetousness, either privately or publicly. It is my opinion that this sin, so hard to identify, is at the root of the majority of our problems. There are two reasons for this opinion. First, Paul said, “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10). Coveting is a broader and more inclusive sin than the love of money, but it includes that. If every kind of evil of which you can conceive has as its root the love of money, it is certain that many of those sins we consider the vilest are directly a result of coveting. Every case of adultery and theft are directly connected with coveting. It is probable that the majority of cases of lying, murder and most other sins are directly connected with coveting.
There are many things that make it so hard to identify that practically no one appears conscious of it in himself, and can only assume it is present in another. Practically everything in our background and society upholds and applauds ambition and achievement and acquisition of all sorts of things. We are taught from our youth up, even from the Bible, that we should be industrious and “labor with our own hands” (Ephesians 4:28). “He that provides not for his own has denied the faith and is worse than an infidel” (1 Timothy 5:8).
No one whom I know admits “laying up for himself treasures upon the earth” (Matthew 6:19). He is merely saving for a rainy day and trying to provide properly for his own. He is trying to make sure that he will not be a hardship on his loved ones when he grows old and infirm. He is to be praised for being industrious and thrifty.
No preacher is known to be covetous, although he may get a salary of $75,000 or more per year and sell his videos or life insurance or real estate on the side. He is merely providing needed services, sometimes at a sacrifice, for he could be getting $90,000 doing something else. The fact that there are untold millions dying untold is the subject of his sermons and lectures, but there is no contradiction between that and his situation, for he really is concerned about them and has spent his life trying to get others to give and work for their salvation.
No eldership of my knowledge is covetous. They may have twelve salaried persons on the staff. There may be one for pulpit, one for youth, one for elderly, one for family life (which means overseeing the games and recreational activities that are a needed and legitimate part of binding families together), one for education, one for personal evangelism, one to coordinate the other ministries, and the rest of them to build up the congregation in other necessary ways. They never plan and do these kinds of things because they are interested too much in ministering to their own needs, but because they really want to glorify God and build up the church. In fact, half their ministers are involved in producing tapes and movies that they will sell for church growth seminars. They know that Jesus did not die for church buildings and programs, but these are merely a means to an end. When they get things fixed just right, including the refurbishing of the combination fellowship hall and gymnasium, the padded seats re-done with new covers, and the retirement complex finished to take care of the elderly, and some of their debts on their building paid, they fully intend to send another $100 per month to the work in Africa, India or Europe. Also, keep in mind that they do have an active personal evangelism program. Their full-time director and all five of the persons who come to the weekly class are continuously studying about ways to win souls. Some of them actually go out and strive to do it, and are encouraged and commended by the elders for so doing. To suggest that the elders are covetous when they meet several hours a week and spend hours to make sure that things run smoothly, when they could be looking at television, would be judgmental and completely out of order.
Achan did it, Judas did it, and Ananias and Sapphira did it, but apparently no one today demonstrates covetousness. Achan saw, he took and he hid it. We see, we take, we keep and we apparently keep it fairly well hidden from ourselves and each other. Yet, by almost any measure, the church in most places is losing the battle.
When Joshua fell on his face, tore his clothes and raised questions about what to say about the situation, the Lord said, “Get thee up; wherefore liest thou upon thy face? Israel hath sinned, and they have also transgressed my covenant, for they have even taken of the accursed thing, and have also stolen, and dissembled also, and they have put it even among their own stuff” (Joshua 7:10-11). Is it possible that instead of lying on our faces (or just lying) and complaining about our lack of progress, it would be good for us to see wherein we have transgressed the covenant? It is not unusual for us to hear a prayer when the time has come for a contribution to be taken. It often goes like this, “We thank Thee, God, for the many blessings we have. We recognize that all we have is Thine. May we return a portion to be used in Thy service.” Then what happens? We return a small portion (less than one-tenth in many cases) and then use 99% of that small portion to minister to our own special concerns for our comfort, convenience or pride.
Is it possible that we have stolen? Will a man rob God? If all we have – life, time, possessions – is really His, as we admit, and we use most of it for our own convenience and personal comfort, have we dissembled and put it among our own stuff? I know a preacher who has for the past several years given more than 50% of his income to the work of the Lord. Yet, in many cases, the elders of the churches where he did it used it, not for mission work, but to satisfy the needs or desires of their own local members. Is it possible that we have Achans in the camp in relatively large numbers, and in spite of large carefully planned programs, we cannot prosper until we destroy the accursed from among us and sanctify ourselves before God? Do you plan to do anything to verify or deny the possibility or change anything if you find it to be so?