Paul’s Blueprint for a Sanctified Church

A foundational objective – vital if we are to secure the blessing of God in evangelism and growth – is that of building a sanctified church. This heading could equally read – a well-pastored church. There have been highly-acclaimed preachers who have not sought to pastor their churches, and their work has eventually fallen into disorder and confusion. How effectively do we pastor our churches to produce a sanctified community? Paul sets the standard in these words: ‘Warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom; that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus’ (Colossians 1.28).

There is so much to be done. Scriptural holiness must be preached; self-examination must be urged, and mutual admonition (in the right spirit) encouraged. We must strive to ensure that the church membership is as wholesome as it can be. When we receive in new members we must be extremely careful to ensure that they really love Christ and want to advance. And we must not turn a blind eye to the wrong behaviour of long-standing members.

The necessity of exercising discipline over a very serious offence should arise rarely in a well looked-after fellowship, but all the time we need to be watching out for the ‘lesser’ sinful attitudes which can hurt the offender and damage the purity and blessedness of the fellowship. This is not over-shepherding because it ­involves no high-handed intervention in the indi­vidual’s private affairs. It is biblical watchfulness, undertaken by pastors qualified in terms of genuine respect and affection for their people.
Take, for example, the problem of gossip. Sometimes whisperings, carping criticisms and backbitings creep into a church. Do we have a pastoral concern about this? Not that we are to emulate the oppressive sort of pastor who leaps into action every time someone sneezes. That is so-called ‘heavy shepherding’. We are not to engage in a pastoral overkill, interfering with every little problem as though Christian people had no spiritual power or conscience to regret their sin and put things right by themselves.

Nevertheless, when people begin to gossip and run one another down, or to speak against the cause, then there is a sad and potentially serious problem, and someone will need to speak directly to those who have veered into this activity. They are probably helpable, but without help they could become a damaging root of bitterness. The question is – are the grumblers and gossips merely regarded as a nuisance, or is something done to help them? If the problem is caught early, then it may well be possible to resolve it in a spirit of friendship and respect.

Covetousness is also a problem which should ring alarm bells. What do we do if someone is plainly out of control and swept along by the power of desire? What if someone is justifying luxuries which will be a snare both to themselves and others? Do we talk to that person, help that person, and encourage him or her in the right path?

What if we pick up the signs that a great deal of TV watching has gradually crept into the lives of some members – including soap operas and other crass, worldly-entertainment programmes? Pastors and elders must be alive to things that they hear. People need instruction, help, advice, even warning, to keep them in the pathway of blessing. We are helpers in their joy, but are we functioning to this end?

It may be that suddenly there is a rash of parties among the young, and rather excessive socialising, involving showing off, banalities, and things of that kind. In a way, it may seem relatively innocent, but where is it going, and is it fitting in terms of the stewardship of time? Are those involved aware that even good leisure activities, while precious and profitable, should be subject to moderation, like food? Does anyone help those involved to appreciate such principles? Is there a pastoral or eldership touch on the tiller, or are faults allowed to grow into major traits?

Are there members who go visiting worldly places of entertainment, or engaging in fleshly, lascivious, modern dancing? These things could spread to others in no time, for the restraints of conscience are often broken by a bad example, especially if this is set by those senior to them in the Christian life. There are pastors who do not want to be involved with these things and who wash their hands of them. Their churches get into a serious state and then they flee to greener pastures, leaving others to clear up the mess.

What is our pastoral attitude concerning worldly dress, or worldly talk? We often encounter the problem of poor attendance. People mean well, but their attendance begins to be ragged and they gradually become less and less disciplined. Someone needs to get alongside and encourage them to come up to the mark before they slide too far for easy recovery.

Of course, many relevant exhortations will feature frequently in our preaching, but effective personal help still needs to be given by the company of office bearers. Tiny weeknight meetings are often the result of many years of neglect. No personal work has been done to keep members up to their spiritual privileges and duties.
Neighbouring churches sometimes pose a problem. Perhaps there is a nearby church with which our members should not be closely associated because of grossly unbiblical practices. Suddenly, some bright spark among the young people will think it wonderfully broadening and exciting to begin taking a little group off to meetings there. Novelty is always attractive. It is not an elder’s job to become irritated and angry, but to explain to these friends why their activities are inappropriate. Furthermore, this needs to be done soon.

Hopefully the pastor will have fellow office bearers of gracious disposition who can help him in these responsibilities. Some can be officious and over-severe, taking the magisterial element of their office far too literally.

We should never insult believers by suspecting great sin or unspirituality the moment they slip into something wrong. We are to look for spirituality as the apostle did in Philippians 4 when he counselled sensitive correction, saying – ‘Help those women which laboured with me in the gospel.’ Paul’s first assumption was that they would respond to counsel, advice and help. Our immediate assumption must be that our members will be ready to listen. We must proceed with sincere respect, remembering that the discipline of the Lord is first kindly and only later progressive. (‘My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him.’) It is paramount that we deal with things promptly. So many problems become serious and insurmountable simply because people were not guided while they were still dear friends in the Lord, and while they would still respect the help of others.

It is true that there are some preachers who take counselling to an extreme, and too much of their work is done by personal counselling. Many of the problems which have been referred to in these pages would be reduced to very manageable proportions if the preaching contained practical application to life, and conduct was addressed.

On a quite different note, we may have to deal with the case of someone who is engaging in blatant subversion in our church. Such a person is out to overthrow the order or principles on which the church is based. This is surprisingly common at the present time, judging from the reports of pastors. The intruding error is often charismatic, but not exclusively. The culprit may outwardly appear to be a very pleasant person, but he has an axe to grind or drum to bang. Maybe he has a contrary doctrinal viewpoint and he aims to oppose the teaching of the church. Or he may be a proud person who feels thwarted at not being made a centre of attention, or given office.

The subversive person may begin by doing considerable entertaining and having group studies of his own to air his point of view and win people over to his position. These things can happen in the best of churches, for Satan is ever seeking to disturb their peace and order. Are we watching out for these wiles of the devil, these tricks, by which he will take good people and draw them off the track?

In striving for a sanctified fellowship, what is our attitude and policy towards ‘outside’ influences? Churches are sometimes very casual about this. Satan desires to sift our whole church, if he can, as wheat. Some pastors are careless in letting their members or their young people’s groups be affiliated to the so-called para-church movements. While they struggle to establish a standard of doctrine in the church, they hand their people over to the instruction of these ecumenical, often charismatic organisations. Similarly, some pastors are too relaxed about visiting speakers who are invited to the church, even handing over the task of engaging visiting preachers to a relatively inexperienced person.

What is our attitude to those who come into our fellowship from other churches – students perhaps, if we are in a student area? Some may bring with them serious errors. We will naturally want to minister to them and influence them. Though they may hold wrong views, we will be careful not to shoot them down in flames as soon as they arrive, but we will need to be giving corrective teaching and counselling, or they will never be helped, and they may soon begin to corrupt the biblical views of the young or otherwise vulnerable members.

Do we watch and warn our members about decadent ‘evangelical’ books and magazines? Sometimes one will go into a sound, reformed church and be quite amazed at the dangerous material offered on the church booktable. The booktable secretary may not even be a church officer, let alone a reader of these books. This is a frightening conduit for corruption and doctrinal subversion in a church. Pastors and elders – do you guard those booktables? Do you warn people to be aware of the campaign being conducted through some of these books and magazines? Or are the people left in naivety and unawareness of these things? And what about some of the ‘broadcasts’ people follow on the internet, including popular evangelical women preachers who claim to be ‘reformed’ but include everything from nonsense to heresy in their teaching?

We deal with Christian service in the next article, but it is worth noting here that when a church has keen workers for the Lord, whose priorities are for the kingdom, then a standard of selfless living is exhibited which is the very best example to new believers. Let us pray that the Lord will give us examples to the flock – dedicated, loving, gracious elders and senior members – because then a church is three-quarters of the way to being a sanctified church, and the young are shaped in godliness.