By Philip Graham Ryken
If Jesus is Lord, then He runs the church. The trouble is, though, that Satan is always grabbing at the controls. What is the devil trying to do?
Civil War chaplain E.M. Bounds gave excellent advice on this subject, together with some sober warnings. Although Bounds is most famous for his devotional writings on prayer, he also wrote an essay—long unpublished—that has startling relevance for the contemporary church. The essay is called “Satan” and it is about how the devil wants control over your church.
The Wrong Measure of Strength
Bounds begins by asking this question: What is the truest measure of a church’s strength? His answer is, “True strength lies in the vital godliness of the people. The aggregate personal holiness of the members of each church is the only true measure of strength. Any other test offends God, dishonors Christ, grieves the Holy Spirit, and degrades religion.” To put it another way, the strength of any church is the work of the Spirit in conforming its members to the life of Christ.
However, Satan’s strategy is to lure us into thinking that our strength lies elsewhere—not in the inward things of the Spirit, but in things that are external and superficial. “One of the schemes of Satan,” Bounds writes, “is to establish a wrong estimate of church strength.” A church is considered strong, he goes on to say, “when its membership is large, when it has social position, financial resources; when ability, learning, and eloquence fill the pulpit, and when the pews are filled by fashion, intelligence, money and influence.”
How little things have changed in the last 150 years. People generally measure a church’s strength the same way today—by the size of its membership, its social influence, and the money it has for ministry. This is how the devil wants to run your church: by transferring your assessment of its strength from what is unseen to what is seen—or as Bounds puts it, “from spiritual to material forces, from the Holy Ghost to the world.” “There is,” he says, “no readier and surer way to make the church worldly than to put material prosperity to the front, and no surer, readier way to put Satan in charge.”
The apparent signs of success in a growing congregation with an expanding ministry are not wrong in themselves, and they may well be evidence of God’s blessing on a strong and healthy church. A church may grow large by the clear and persuasive preaching of the gospel. It may gain influence by the transforming effect its compassion on the surrounding community. It may be entrusted with great wealth because it has the wisdom and vision to use it strategically for the kingdom of God.
However, outward signs of apparent success are not the true measure of a church’s vitality. In fact, says Bounds, a church “that thus defines its strength is on the highway to apostasy.” Then he adds these haunting words: “A church can often make the fairest and best showing of material strength when death in its deadliest form is feeding on its vitals. There can scarcely be a more damaging delusion than to judge the conditions of the church by its material exhibits or churchly activity. Spiritual barrenness and rottenness in the church are generally hidden by a fair exterior.”
The Wrong Definition of Success
So how healthy is your church, really? Is it as strong as it seems to be, or is Satan secretly gaining control by shifting your attention from the spiritual to the material? What about the unseen things of the Spirit, where your real strength lies (or not, as the case may be)? Are you growing in godliness? Do you have a deeper love for the gospel? Are you developing the kind of disciples who are ready to serve Jesus to the very end, up to and including martyrdom?
The temptation to look mainly at the outward things is one that all churches face, regardless of their size. The leaders of a large church can easily grow complacent, as the hum of constant activity lulls them into a false sense of spiritual security. The leaders of a smaller church are tempted to make the same mistake in a different way. Discouraged by their smaller numbers, they may become envious of other ministries, or cynical about the limitations of their own congregation.
But whether we are large or small, the real issue for all of us is our definition of success. Are we seeing things the way Jesus sees them? His measure of strength is the life of the Holy Spirit in practical godliness, and His definition of success is faithfulness to His Word—nothing more and nothing less.
Jesus maintained this standard in His own earthly ministry. Rather than defining His success in terms of ends, Jesus defined it in terms of means. Today many Christians seem to think that as long as we seek godly results, it doesn’t matter all that much how we get them. Jesus thought differently. On one occasion when large crowds were gathering to see Him perform signs and wonders, He frustrated His disciples by withdrawing to a desolate place. Peter pressed Him to appeal to the masses. But Jesus said, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came” (Mark 1:38). Jesus came to gather believers, not consumers, and this required the use of certain means over others—like the ordinary means of grace.
The ordinary means of faithful ministry may seem all too ordinary, especially in our image-based society. Christ-centered expository preaching; Scripture-saturated public worship; faith-oriented administration of the sacraments; kingdom-driven prayer; cross-bearing discipleship, mercy-minded evangelism—these are hardly the entertainments that a post-Christian culture is looking to consume, which is exactly why Satan is working so hard to get rid of them. His scheme, says E.M. Bounds, is to eliminate “all the lowly self-denying ordinances which are offensive to unsanctified tastes and unregenerate hearts, and reduce the church to a mere human institution, popular, natural, fleshly, and pleasing.” The devil is trying to turn the church into the world.
On occasion, a church with a faithful ministry may be blessed with outward evidence of spiritual progress, such as a larger membership or a wider sphere of influence. Other times the signs of growth are less obvious, but present nonetheless: a deepening commitment to corporate prayer, for example, or a firmer grasp of what it means to serve the poor in sacrificial love. But even when kingdom progress is hard to discern, we are called to remain faithful, doing ministry in the biblical way and waiting for the blessing of God.
The Wrong Attitude Toward Sacrifice
The devil has many other plans for running your church, all them equally insidious.
Satan wants you to believe that the ministry of God’s Word is insufficient in itself, and that therefore it needs to be supplemented by human methods of spiritual change. He wants you to be more and more perfunctory in your prayers, until finally you give up talking with God at all. He wants you to get so distracted by internal disputes that you hardly have time to go out and meet people with the gospel. He wants you to downplay theology, on the grounds that doctrine is divisive and that supposedly knowing more about God will hinder your spiritual progress. These are all signs that the devil is taking charge.
But there is another satanic scheme that is equally deadly—one that concerned E.M. Bounds as much as any other: the devil wants to keep you from practicing the self-denial that is necessary to flee from worldly desires and grow in personal holiness. He wants you to please yourself rather than God.
One of the main ways the devil carries out this scheme in the church is by appealing to popular tastes. There is constant pressure to accommodate the truth of the gospel and the means of grace to the standards of secular people. Bounds gives this warning: “The perversion and subversion of the church is secured by Satan when ... social entertainment, and not edification, becomes the end. ... Edification as the end of God’s church is wholly lost sight of, and entertainment, that which is pleasing and pleasant, comes to the front. The social forces not only retire the spiritual forces, but effectually destroy them.” And then, says Bounds, “the devil runs the church.”
Who’s In Charge?
What really makes your church strong? Are you defining success the way Satan does, or the way Jesus does? What sacrifices are you willing to make to advance the gospel and submit to God’s sanctifying work in the soul of your congregation?
E.M. Bounds was right when he said: “There are two ways of directing the church, God’s way and the devil’s way. ... Man’s wise plans, happy expedients, and easy solutions are Satan’s devices. The cross is retired, the world comes in, self-denial is eliminated, all seems bright, cheerful, and prosperous, but Satan’s hand is on the ark, men’s schemes prevail, the church fails.”
God’s way is different, because it follows in the footsteps of the Suffering Servant, who denied Himself to save His people. This is what Peter failed to understand when he stood between Jesus and the cross, when Jesus called him “Satan” (Matthew 16:23). It is also what we fail to understand when we choose the easy way of worldly success rather than the hard way of cruciform discipleship. “All God’s plans have the mark of the cross on them,” Bounds writes, “and all His plans have death to self in them. All God’s plans have crucifixion to the world in them.”
And, we might add, all God’s plans are animated by the resurrection power of the Holy Spirit, who alone can make our ministry effective. Jesus only stays in charge of a church when its ministry really is a ministry of the gospel—a ministry marked by the cross and empowered by the God of the empty tomb.