Strong Church/Weak Church 5
Last week, we examined the church at Antioch and discovered that it had a veritable plethora of strengths as described in the Bible. But it was not without flaws. In laying out all the passages that discuss the Antiochian church, one weakness in particular stood out to me, namely this: they allowed the weaknesses of a more influential church to influence them negatively.
When we examined the church at Jerusalem, the first and most influential church in the early period, we saw that one of its weaknesses was an ethnically based division, racism, if you will. It was at the heart of the divisiveness that necessitated the first deacon selection. But that’s not all. We can see that this exclusionary attitude – the church as a Jewish institution only – was explicitly passed on to other churches around them.
19 Now they which were scattered abroad upon the persecution that arose about Stephen travelled as far as Phenice, and Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to none but unto the Jews only.
20 And some of them were men of Cyprus and Cyrene, which, when they were come to Antioch, spake unto the Grecians, preaching the Lord Jesus.
We see in the above passage a curious mix. There are those who are preaching unto the Jews only, but there are others who are also speaking of Christ to the Grecians. The resulting church at Antioch was certainly not entirely racist in this respect, but it did have racist strains in it, and those strains evidenced themselves.
11 But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed.
12 For before that certain came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles: but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them which were of the circumcision.
13 And the other Jews dissembled likewise with him; insomuch that Barnabas also was carried away with their dissimulation.
The problem here as I see it, is not just ethnically based exclusion, though that is bad enough. It is a systemic failure, a corporate abdication of the everlasting necessity of spiritual discernment. Not coincidentally, it manifested itself when the preacher (Peter) from the big church (Jerusalem) came to spread his influence.
I have no desire to leave the wrong impression. Big churches are not bad by virtue of being big, anymore than little churches are bad by virtue of being little – though there are more than enough immature Christians on either end of the spectrum who view it so. Big churches have strengths, as we discussed when looking at Jerusalem, but for all that they are not inherently better or worse. A church, all churches, no matter their size, are to be measured by the same stick: their likeness to Jesus Christ.
Having said that, it is also undeniably true that larger churches have larger everything – budgets, ministries, buildings, reputations, and influence. Think of a rock thrown into a pond, the larger the rock, the larger the ripples. As those ripples spread outward in a concentric circle, they will impact everything within their path. So it is with larger churches; as their ministries reach out into other local churches in their Jerusalem, their Judaea, their Samaria, and their world, their influence touches the smaller churches. The entire point of this post is that this touch may be for either good or ill, and it is the task of the local church to ensure that only the former gets through.
Brethren, we cannot check our brain at the door for any man, any church, any paper, any fellowship, or any seminary. Even the external ministries that we find most similar to us in spirit and philosophy must be routinely examined. Their doctrine and practice must constantly be put to the scriptural test, especially when that doctrine and practice touch our own church.
External influences are often very helpful, but do not accept any man whole cloth. Including the one writing what you are reading this very moment.
Prove all things; hold fast that which is good (I Thessalonians 5.21).