“The central problem of our age is not liberalism or modernism, nor the old Roman Catholicism or the new Roman Catholicism, nor the threat of communism, nor even the threat of rationalism and the monolithic consensus which surrounds us. All these are dangerous but not the primary threat. The real problem is this: the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, individually corporately, tending to do the Lord’s work in the power of the flesh rather than of the Spirit. The central problem is always in the midst of the people of God, not in the circumstances surrounding them.”
― Francis A. Schaeffer, No Little People
Those words, written over 40 years ago, were prophetic then, and sadly, still so today. Communism has proven to be senseless, and the new Roman Catholicism of Schaeffer’s time is approaching middle age now. But the truth of these words are not in the examples surrounding, or opposing, the church, but within the church itself, just as Schaeffer points out.
You might, after a thorough reading of Schaeffer’s works, conclude that he was overly critical of the evangelical church. He wrote about it a lot, and with a broad-brush. He himself gave much of his life, especially his middle and later years, to a parachurch ministry out in Switzerland, L’Abri. But to think that Schaffer was anti-church is a mistake. He understood the church and its problems. He had person after person live with him in his home who were turned out by the church. He was critical, yes, but not unnecessarily so. His words, I believe, can help us see ourselves as we really are, and seek the Lord for necessary change.
Reformed churches can be cold places, where theology is high but personal relationships are low. That’s not all Reformed churches, but it is surely some. And that’s a problem because the higher our view of God and the Scriptures goes, the higher an emphasis on the beauty of personal relationships we should have. As our view of the sufficiency of the Scriptures goes, so go the radiance of our relationships. But it is not always so. Often you find people living together in beautiful openness and harmony in liberal churches, but they lack the theology to sustain it long-term. In a place where everything goes, nothing will suffice in the end. There will never be enough truth to buttress the relationships.
A church that takes the Bible straight should expect to see, over time, real, deep, beautiful relationships flourish because the foundation of the entire ministry is built upon the solid rock of commandments such as “love your neighbor as yourself.” The problem in many churches is not the wrong doctrine, but the wrong consequences of that doctrine on the life of the church. Schaffer calls this doing “the Lord’s work in the power of the flesh rather than of the Spirit.” In other words, doing the Lord’s work in our way, rather than doing the Lord’s work in the Lord’s way.
If we are to see an explosion of conversions, a revival in both doctrinal faithfulness and true conversion, and a vibrant ministry of reconciliation, we are going to have to take the Bible straight. We cannot put the Bible aside as a book of good advice for hard times and expect to experience the good times we hope for. If we want real beauty in real churches, we need to have a real truth as soft as a pillow when we fall face down during the hard days of life together.
If we don’t have the Bible’s promises of relational beauty, we won’t have the courage to continue on. At some point, we will fracture because at some point we will contradict even our own moral standards. We can never fully live up to one another’s standards, and we can never fully live up to God’s either, but God offers grace to failures who admit their sins. We just kill each other for them – repentant or not. And that isn’t biblical. The “one-anothers” of Scripture call us to much more than mere coexistence. They call us to sacrificial love and bold community.
We can do ministry in one of two ways: in our power of in the Lord’s power. One way leads to death in the church, the other leads to life. The first is, by far, easier day in and day out, but the second is more glorious, by far, moment by moment.
We might wage war against the culture, against the President, against liberalism, or socialism, or any other “ism”, but “the central problem is always in the midst of the people of God, not in the circumstances surrounding them.”