How to Wreck a Church
As I look back on my days at seminary, I can see some courses which were more helpful than others. This is probably due to a combination of factors: my own interests and aptitude; the strength of the teacher; the subject matter itself. Most classes were valuable, but a few classes were forgettable.
I’ve also reflected on classes I didn’t have, but that might have served me well. It is something of a cliche in pastoral ministry, but there were many, many times – particularly in my earliest years in the pastorate – when I’d say to my wife or to another friend, “They sure didn’t teach me this in seminary.”
One class that has never been offered at my alma mater – nor at any other institution of which I’m aware – is a course in wrecking a church. Overseeing a church – yes; but not wrecking a church. Now some men seem to be innately gifted in just such a work, but they weren’t taught it explicitly. When we look at the pages of the New Testament, though, we see descriptions of congregational problems which might collectively make up a fruitful seminary syllabus with just that focus: “How to Wreck a Church.”
Now at this point a caveat is essential. There could be no New Testament course entitled, “How to Wreck the Church,” since Jesus himself promised that he would build his church, and that even the gates of Hades would not overcome it. The Church will remain; but individual congregations can, and indeed have been, quite wrecked.
This is one of the key themes of Jesus’ letters to the seven churches in Revelation 3-4. Most of these congregations were in need of a warning, lest their witness, influence, and even existence would be taken away. And this idea also lies just beneath the surface of the book of Jude, one of the shortest letters in the Bible. We can learn a great deal about wrecking a congregation from looking at this little book.
The first thing we see about the potential church-wreckers in Jude is that they came into the church unnoticed (Jude 4). They did not announce their presence. In fact, they seem to have said all the right words, signed all the appropriate forms, and would probably have even given some appearance of genuine faith. Here we are reminded that just because someone is accepted in a congregation does not mean that they are reliable and godly. In fact, based upon the description in Jude, we should probably expect that the greatest threats will not be openly declared; it may all be done in secret.
Second, we see that the men putting the congregation at risk, whatever their appearance, are actually ungodly and committed to sensual practices (Jude 4). This notion of ungodliness does not, of course, imply that they were open atheists – in fact we know that they were part of the Christian congregation. What it does mean is that they perverted the things of God. Grace for them was a license to sin, to indulge, to excuse all of their evil behavior and practice.
Worse still, these men were in fact shepherds in the church to which Jude writes (Jude 14). They were participating in communion without any fear. While they were actually quite empty and dead, with nothing to give in the way of spiritual nourishment, they must not have openly appeared that way. It was only when examined in light of scripture that they appeared as what they really were – waterless clouds, wild waves, wandering stars.
Jude 16 gives us some insight into why these men were so accepted. Although they were always grumbling about something in the church, they were also boastful about their own place and accomplishments. And they showed favoritism to certain people in order to gain an advantage. It is not hard to imagine the appeal of such shepherds. They knew how to promote themselves and their agenda. They knew the right people to flatter, and they were good at it. We are all so susceptible to such a ploy, and yet boastfulness and flattery – particularly when church politics and church agendas are at stake – can be a cover for problems large and small.
Of course, the main point Jude makes about these ungodly shepherds is the certainty of their eventual judgment. In Jude 5, he reminds us of the judgment on unbelieving Israelites who had been rescued out of Egypt; in verse 6, he references the judgment to which rebellious angels were subject; and in verse 7, we read of Sodom and Gomorrah, cities which were characterized by sexual immorality and by pursuit of unnatural desires. In each of these cases, God executed judgment. None got away with their sin.
So it is today. The great spiritual threats to our congregations likely are not on the outside – from lawmakers or the larger culture oriented in opposition to Christ. The great church-wreckers reside within, as boastful, flattering shepherds, who excuse their own sin and live lives without the fear of God. Yet God is a God to be feared. And the fear of God, along with the discernment that comes from God’s word, ought always to govern our work in the church which Jesus Christ bought with his own blood.