Where are we now?
▪- A.D. Now until Tomorrow
1 Corinthians 16:13 (NKJV)
13 Watch, stand fast in the faith, be brave, be strong.
Ephesians 6:18 (NKJV)
18 praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints—
2 Timothy 4:5 (NKJV)
5 But you be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.
As we turn into the Twentieth Century, the continual warnings of Paul to be ever alert may seem distant. But, they remain vitally true. Jesus could return at any time. Or, God could easily "set back" the clock of progress and delay the Second Coming for many hundreds of years. We must be ready for either event.
The most amazing thing about Church History is how little it has really changed. The cults and false teachers may appear to be more sophisticated today than those of the early church years, but are they really?
Marcion edited the Bible to suit his own purposes. Today, groups edit the Bible either to make their own theological editions (Jehovah Witnesses) or they add books to the Bible (the Mormons and Christian Scientists do this, similar to adding the Apocrypha). So, the Bible remains a point of contention. Spiritual interpretations prevailed in the early church and many still interpret God's Word in this fashion. The liberal criticism of the mid-1800s still remain as men professing to be Christians refuse to accept miracles and treat the word of God as a myth or legend.
Estimates about today's church vary widely. It is estimated with reasonable accuracy that in 1991 there were between 1.76 and 1.79 billion Christians. This would be one-third of the world's population. By comparison, it is estimated that Christianity's statistical high point was 1900 when 34.4% of the population claimed to be Christian. While today's percentage is smaller, the actually number of Christians is larger, due to a larger world population. Some estimate there are more Christians alive today than were alive throughout all of the preceding centuries.
On the other hand, others estimate that only 540 million of these Christians are true "Bible believers." This would be about 10% of the population. Worldwide estimates are that on any given Sunday only between 4 and 6 percent of the world's population will be in church. Even more disheartening is a recent Barna survey that found that only 4% of born again Christians exercised a Christian worldview. If this is true, what is the point of claiming to be a Christian?
The church is certainly faced with persecution, problems, and division. Communism, nationalism, cults and world religions, and the pressures of society all assault the church. In this age of religious freedom, in many African nations as well as many Arab nations it is illegal to be a Christian. Penalties run from being sent out of the country to death. Evangelical radio was banned in Mexico in 1980. Persecutions abound in African nations, such as Mozambique, Chad, and Zaire. The church in Communist China has lived underground for decades.
We have considered the cults as we moved through this course. Like everything else today, there are more cults than every before. Large and small, powerful and weak, you can almost find a cult on every corner. Yet, the invasion and growth of the Eastern religions (Hindu and Buddhism) and the growth of Islam would suggest a larger threat than the cults. What appears to be occurring, however, is that all of these groups are "mixing." Each seems to adopt traits of the other. New Age forms an umbrella that captures each of these groups and provides a home for them to grow and change. The religious thoughts of the Native Americans has been added to the pot in the last 40-50 years, spawning even more changes to many groups. Just as Paul faced false teachings, so does the church of the twenty-first century.
John writes that we are to avoid loving the world.
1 John 2:15-17 (NKJV)
15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. 17 And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.
The things of the world have always been a problem for God's people. The issues are, to a great extent, no different today than during the biblical periods. Alcohol, drugs, and licentious lifestyles existed then and still exist today. Today we have added television, rock music, movies, and the Internet to the mixture. Much of yesterday's sin is now out in the open. These are tremendous pressures upon church members. Our young people are bombarded by the world's ways. God's people are to be separated from the sin of the world. The Fundamentalists went too far in their separation, divorcing themselves so far from the world that they lost all influence and could not evangelize. However, it is such thin lines between being separated from sin yet close enough to the people to evangelize as opposed to actually becoming a part of the world.
So, the church will struggle with issues such as these and argue about how far to move away from sinful people. What sounds so simple on paper is so difficult to define in practice. Divisions will continue over these, as well as other matters.
According to the Handbook of Denominations in the United States (Ninth Edition, 1990), there are 220 denominations in existence. Because of the premise behind this book, some of these 220 are cults. I estimate that if you take out the cults, you are still left with over 190 denominations! This is clearly contrary to the ways of the early church, where they all met with "one accord." However, the signs of splits appeared early in the history of the church. The earliest sign was, you may recall, first seen in a disagreement between East and West over the date of Easter. Political tensions and geographical and language differences entered the picture at various points in time. Events such as the Civil War divided churches.
Today, and into the future, we should continue to expect divisions and new denominations. For example, one of the major issues of the modern church is the role of women. Scripture appears to provide that women cannot have authority over men (1 Tim 2:12). Throughout most of the life of the church this submission was maintained. Not until the missionary movement of the 1800s did women commence to "go it alone." This required they have authority over men.
In the social world of the 1900s women obtained more political rights. This movement soon moved into the churches. Originally, the Pentecostal churches were the ones to embrace women in leadership roles but the liberal tendencies of the various denominations soon led to many groups embracing women. In many cases, there exist two groups within these denominations, one on each side of this question.
The extension of civil rights to previously shunned groups, such as homosexuals, has also invaded the church. Without getting into a lengthy discussion, we must for a moment continue to view the church as those organizations who profess to be Christians. Within these groups there will be cults, apostates, and believers. I am reminded of Lot. Never was a man more inclined to be viewed as "lost." He went from arguing with Abraham to offering his daughters to the mob in Sodom. Yet, Peter writes of Lot:
2 Peter 2:7-8 (NKJV)
7 and delivered righteous Lot, who was oppressed by the filthy conduct of the wicked 8 (for that righteous man, dwelling among them, tormented his righteous soul from day to day by seeing and hearing their lawless deeds)—
So, there are modern day Lots within all of these groups. However, many of the liberal churches openly accept homosexual ministers. Without debating if they are lost or saved, the church groups to which these people belong will continue to argue over this theological question. The easy example is the Episcopalian Church, which recently ordained a gay bishop. I personally would not be surprised to find enough resistance within this denomination that a split occurs in the next few years providing us with yet another new denomination.
There is another movement afoot that might, at first glance, appear to be "new." You may recall that most, indeed, perhaps all, cults and false doctrines attack the Person of Jesus, either claiming He is not God or that He is not man. This new theology attacks not the Person of Jesus but the Person of the Father – or so it seems. This new movement is called neotheism or open theology.
This attack is on the sovereignty of God. At the heart of open theology is the issue of whether or not God is truly able to see and know all events (actual or possible) of all time. Can God really see the future? Essentially this group says no. God is limited in His finite ability to see the future, He is merely so wise that He is a good guesser of the future and is correct in His estimation of events almost all of the time. But He is not correct 100% of the time!
Two comments need to be made. First, most, but not all of this group are probably believers and will be in heaven with you and I. They have some bad theology, but then so have a lot of other groups along the path of the past 2,000 years.
Second, it is not really a new theology. Consider the book of Job, if you will. Job and his friends questioned the character and power of God when things went wrong. Job arrived at the proper conclusion –or rather, God brought Job to the proper conclusion! Just read the last few chapters starting at chapter 38. Open Theologians appear to be modern day Jobs. Most of them appear to have suffered a severe loss or emotional crisis in their lives and went in search of an answer to the age-old question of "why do bad things happen to good people." Rather than taking the Bible's teachings in a literal fashion, they sought a deeper meaning or basis for their loss. That foundation is founded on the premise that God cannot foresee all events. Therefore, He did not foresee their losses. Thus, they have an answer to why their loving God did not stop the tragedy from occurring.
There is another part to this answer as well. Liberal theology teaches that God is love and would not allow bad things to truly happen to anyone. Usually this means bad in an eternal sense, but if you attempted to move this premise into a worldly sense, you end up at about the same point in the road as those practicing open theology. There is nothing new under the sun!
The various false teachers we have encountered over the centuries have:
- Claimed to have a deeper and truer view of Christianity
- Rejected the inerrancy of the Holy Scripture
- Belief in one's self is belief in God
- Christ delivers men by His coming and not by the atonement of the Cross
- Rejection of the virgin birth
- Salvation by illumination
These are all the teachings of centuries and are the teachings of liberalism. If these are true than modern man may continue to evolve and unite and become better. Yet, is the church prepared to handle the battle?
New theologies appear in the social context. You will find those who promote:
These are but examples. Each one is designed to prove that God is on their side and supports there cause. Of course, both the North and the South thought God was on their side as well.
Another event of the last century has been the growth of groups outside of the church proper. Missionaries and missionary boards may be the model for these groups. We have encountered them before. They include:
InterVarsity Christian Fellowship
Others could be added to the list. Each plays an important role, but each operates outside of the bounds of any local church body. There are other groups within this para-umbrella as well. One is the Wycliffe Bible Translators. This group has translated the Bible (or a portion thereof) into more than 2100 languages. The group estimates there are more than 6,457 different dialects on planet earth. However, the 2100 languages that have the Scriptures represent the vast percentage of people who are alive. In other words, most of the world can hear or read the Bible in their own language.
It might be noted, however, that even with the miracle of TV, satellite, and Internet, as many as one billion people have not been evangelized. Further, over half of the world's population lives in areas where evangelism cannot take place. TV and radio are a powerful force in today's world, however. Groups such as Focus on the Family have made major impacts upon how Christians live. Their prime focus is the media of radio and television. Add to this music CDs, concerts, DVDs, and VHS tapes and Christianity has a variety of methods for exposing the world to the Gospel.
But, have you been to a contemporary Christian concert? We must compare the method with the methods of the world. Are they too close? And, the same could be said about TV and radio. Where do you draw the lines? And, did God envision the church doing all of the work? Or, does the Almighty want these para-church groups involved? Should they grow and the churches shrink?
These are difficult questions for the Christian community. How should the church respond to the issues of the day? Who should respond?
The other phenomenon is the mega-church. While Calvary Road may seem large, there are local churches that are 4-7 times larger than Calvary. At the same time, there may be over a hundred churches nation wide who have average weekly attendance in excess of 10,000 people! That many people will not fit into a house. Do small groups resolve the fellowship issues? Are mega-churches part of God's plan? How should mega-churches and small churches interact?
Look at the issues again:
The roles of women in the church
The place of new or more translations of Scriptures
The place of gender-neutral terms in translations
The split between pre-millennialists and post-millennialists.
Calvinism (Sproul) verses moderate Calvinism (Geisler)
Yet, all is not tribulation. There have been spiritual awakenings in Eastern Europe as the Soviet block has fallen. Evangelicals have been able to make great inroads in spreading the Gospel message in these countries, fighting both the social settings and the cults who are there spreading their messages as well.
The same is true in Africa and Latin America. Most Latin American countries have large Christian populations. This is the world of Luis Palau, an Argentina native who is the Billy Graham of South America. Interestingly enough, almost 80% of these converts are Pentecostal.
Notwithstanding the potential issues of the radio and television ministries, as more and more countries move into the modern era of technology, more ministries have an opportunity of reaching the lost. Estimates are that Christianity is growing at the same rate as the world's population. The actual numbers of Christians continues to grow.
But, the world is biblically illiterate. Not only has the unsaved world not been raised in a situation where the Bible is taught in any form, but many Christians have never read the Bible cover to cover. They simply do not know what God's Word says. This helps, at least in part, to explain the break down of values within society. If there is no biblical basis to rest upon, then morals and truth have no frame of reference. Man is left to create his own standards. This is the worldview concept. Barna's report that only 4% of born again Christians have a biblical worldview helps to explain why the modern church acts so worldly. This is the world of post-modernism. This is the world we live in.
The other issue that many struggle with is the problem of Job. For all of its modern advancements, the issues of suffering remain. Death, disease, natural disasters, terrorism, and accidents plague everyone. Men seek an answer to these issues and the church is not always there to help. The events after September 11 provide an excellent example of this.
There was a great surge in church attendance in the months immediately after the terrorist attacks. However, many of these churches are liberal, non-God centered, or outright cultish. People did not find what they sought within the walls of the church. So they left. Barna represented that by January 2002, there were fewer regular attendees in the nation's churches than before the attack.
The church is 2,000 years old. The problems of the church are essentially the same now as when the Apostle's first preached. Solomon is right. Church history has taught us the power of God and the Gospel and the failures of men. Nothing has changed.
Ecclesiastes 1:8-9 (NKJV)
8 All things are full of labor; Man cannot express it. The eye is not satisfied with seeing, Nor the ear filled with hearing. 9 That which has been is what will be, That which is done is what will be done, And there is nothing new under the sun.