One of the most oft repeated warnings of both Christ and the apostles was that the environment in which the servants of Christ would find themselves would become increasingly corrupt and hostile.

We know that the first century ecclesia faced these difficulties in their ‘last days’, and we know also that we face the same issues today. The warning of Paul to Timothy is as appropriate to us as it was to the first century ecclesia:

2 Timothy 3: 1–7,13 “This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away. For of this sort are they which creep into houses, and lead captive silly women laden with sins, led away with divers lusts, ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth… But evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived.”

The words highlighted are of particular importance, because they reveal that Paul was not simply warning of an enemy attacking the brethren and sisters from outside—he was actually speaking of those within the ecclesia.

These are people who continue within the ecclesia, and who have an outward show or claim to Godliness, but who are inwardly corrupt and whose fruits bear witness to their wayward spirit.

Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of this kind of character is that it can be developed without falling into rampant and obvious apostasy, and may not be accompanied by clearly heretical teaching.

The most frequent cause of this kind of character is a conformity to the world, an adoption of the unGodly thinking of the heathen among which we live. It does not necessitate that we abandon our faith entirely, it only needs us to become deceived by the convenience and comforts of this world.

The Lord Jesus Christ warned that conformity to the world’s attitudes and thinking was the greatest peril of the age before his return:

Luke 17:26–32 “And as it was in the days of Noe, so shall it be also in the days of the Son of man. They did eat, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark, and the flood came, and destroyed them all. Likewise also as it was in the days of Lot; they did eat, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they builded; but the same day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven, and destroyed them all. Even thus shall it be in the day when the Son of man is revealed. In that day, he which shall be upon the housetop, and his stuff in the house, let him not come down to take it away: and he that is in the field, let him likewise not return back. Remember Lot’s wife.”

Christ uses both Noah and Lot as examples of generations who were caught up in the life of their environment to the extent that it blinded them to the warning signs of judgment and the end of an era. Other examples from the Old Testament could have been used—many times in Israel’s history her prophets lamented the fact that she rejected warning after warning of judgment to come, because no one believed that the comfortable life in which they were indulging would ever come to an end.

The apostle Peter gives the same warning for those living at the end of an age:

2 Peter 3:3–4 “Knowing this first, that there shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts, and saying, Where is the promise of his coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation.”

Apathy, lethargy, the everyday business of life, and the intoxicating message of the world that everything will always continue the way it always has, are the most destructive and subtle influences on the family of God. They may not lead us to depart from the household of faith, but if they are allowed to gain a foothold in our lives they will make shipwreck of our relationship with God and Christ.

Both Paul and John also gave clear warnings against conformity to the world:

Romans 12:1,2 “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”

1 John 2:15–17 Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.”

For both Paul and John, the issue was one of priorities, of which spirit rules our hearts.

Paul describes it in terms of personal holiness, of presenting ourselves a living sacrifice to God, whilst John describes it in terms of love, of desiring to please our Father rather than ourselves.

Both are teaching the same message—that God must exist at the centre of our lives as a real individual with whom we wish to maintain a real relationship. We cannot do this if our hearts are full of other things. We cannot maintain a loving relationship with our Father, if we have already pledged our love to another.

The personal challenge to each of us is that we commit ourselves to a loving relationship, and seek to maintain it. This will require that we actually make time to keep company with the one whom we profess to love.

The Challenge of Educating Ecclesias

It is difficult to develop and maintain a relationship with someone if we do not spend time in their presence, and do not spend time communicating with them. How much time in our lives is spent with our God, with our family, and with our brethren and sisters? How much of it is spent elsewhere? We will become closest to those with whom we spend the most time.

Ecclesias have a responsibility to help guide brethren and sisters and young people in God’s way, but they cannot do this effectively if people do not spend time with their ecclesia, or if there are stronger influences on them which take up more of their time.

A young person may spend forty minutes in Sunday School a week, as opposed to thirty or more hours in the company of the world, at school and with friends. Clearly that time spent in Sunday School is absolutely negligible compared with the time spent in contact with other influences. Even granting time spent at the memorial meeting, at lectures, Bible class and youth group, it is obvious that almost no time at all is being spent in the ecclesial environment, in comparison with contact with other influences (specifically, the world).

The same applies to any brother or sister—the vast majority of our time each week is spent at work, outside the ecclesia, and within a worldly environment.

This being the case, the challenge for the ecclesia is to ensure that the time which its members do spend in the ecclesial environment is as positive and strengthening as possible. Scripture shows us that at times when society is breaking down morally, and members of the house of God are unavoidably under pressure from an ungodly environment, the ecclesia must provide strong leadership and sound teaching on life issues.

Examples include the times of the judges in Israel (when faithful men and women of God provided a sound example of teaching and Godly life), and the times of the kings (when the nation was reformed by prophets such as Elijah, or kings such as Hezekiah and Josiah). Scriptural leadership derives its authority and success from personal example of Godly principles in a life of obedience and holiness (1 Timothy 3:2–13), and it is the responsibility of the ecclesia to provide this example. If this example is not provided, the effectiveness of the ecclesia’s teaching will be compromised, and the members will inevitably be weakened.

This responsibility of the ecclesia does not absolve us, as individual members and families, from our personal responsibility to maintain the same standards. The ecclesia cannot be expected to do all the work for individual members. Our lives, our relationship with God, our salvation, is ultimately our responsibility. Even if appropriate leadership is absent from the ecclesia, we are still responsible for ourselves and those in our care (such as our families). Scripture provides excellent examples of spiritual leadership from the family prevailing against wickedness in the nation and ecclesia (such as Hannah’s instruction of Samuel, Jehoiadah’s instruction of Josiah, and the faithful families of the Rechabites, and John the Baptist).

The importance of such a family environment as this is even more important today, during an age in which the ecclesia’s capacity to influence and assist the work of the family is severely reduced as a result of the amount of time spent elsewhere, and the fact that ecclesial members are increasingly exposed to influences directly contradictory to Biblical teaching.

What is most important is that both family and ecclesia are united in teaching the same message, in the same way. There is absolutely no point in a Sunday School teacher carefully providing Biblical teaching on Scriptural principles if those principles are not reinforced in the home. Likewise, if the ecclesia is seen to fall seriously short of Scriptural teaching which is provided in the home, the resulting conflict will cause a serious division between the family and the ecclesia.

These are not hypothetical issues. Young people have left our community as a result of being disillusioned by perceived ‘hypocrisy’ in the ecclesia which fell far short of the instruction they received at home (and even in the ecclesia), and ecclesias have lost members and young people when the family environment has undermined the Biblical teaching provided in the ecclesia.

A related issue is that there is some confusion among us as to how best to address these issues. Much has been said of ‘legalism’ and ‘grace’, both terms bandied about freely and made the subject of heated discussion.

It is undoubtedly destructive when laws are taught as a substitute for Divine principles, but it is equally destructive when Divine principles are regarded as mere legalism.

The Law of Moses was the training mechanism by which salvation through works was condemned, and man’s natural inclination to justify himself before God and men by law was exposed as corrupt. It was the means by which the conscience of the young nation Israel was to be developed, the means by which the spiritually immature would be restrained, guided, instructed, and then brought to maturity.

For those who never matured, the Law became a deadly burden (Romans 7:5). For those who discerned the Biblical principles which the Law conveyed, it became a wonderful source of instruction regarding the Divine mind (Psa 119:97–104).

Seeking to return to the Law is not the Scriptural way of dealing with present day issues.

But on the other hand, failing to apply the training mechanism used successfully by the Law, is an equally severe error. Young minds will need laws, undeveloped consciences will require guidelines and rules. The reasons for these laws and rules must always be explained, and they must never be seen as an end in themselves, but they are necessary where an individual is insufficiently spiritually mature to guide themselves.

The development of a personal conscience in harmony with the Divine mind, a personal sense of holiness, and a personal love of God and Christ, is the only way of dealing with the pressures and temptations which face us. But such a process of development involves training the heart and mind, and that training sometimes involves the kind of discipline and guards appropriate to an immature conscience.

None of us can successfully develop a relationship with God and Christ through a list of mechanical commandments each starting with ‘Thou shalt not’. But the development of a Godly character requires filling the mind with Godly thoughts, and eschewing evil (Philippians 4:8–9), and this cannot be done if we are indulging the desires of the flesh, or deliberately exposing ourselves to the temptations of the world.

The conduct of those within the house of God should be so markedly different to the conduct in the world, that our way of life should be a matter of curiosity to those without:

1 Peter 4: 3–5 “For the time past of our life may suffice us to have wrought the will of the Gentiles, when we walked in lasciviousness, lusts, excess of wine, revellings, banquetings, and abominable idolatries: wherein they think it strange that ye run not with them to the same excess of riot, speaking evil of you: who shall give account to him that is ready to judge the quick and the dead.”

This is not a response to be elicited by a hermit like existence (an existence made almost impossible by the all pervading accessibility of the lusts of the flesh in every conceivable form, without once leaving our own rooms), it is the response which is elicited from living among those in the world, without becoming conformed to its way of thinking. Such a response involves a separation from uncleanness, in order to pursue Godliness:

2 Corinthians 6:17 “Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you,”

2 Timothy 2:22 Flee also youthful lusts: but follow righteousness, faith, charity, peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart.”

These are not legalisms, they are Biblical principles which are used by the apostles to instruct us in the development of a spiritually mature conscience, and a mind which is in harmony with the mind of God.

The commandment “Touch not the unclean thing” has become

  • Select not the unclean option

  • Install not the unclean software

  • Avoid using the unclean possibilities

This is not ‘legalism’, it is directing our lives according to Biblical principle. It is called “walking in the spirit”.

Galatians 5:16 “This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh.”

There is a misguided belief that company with the world, and indulgence in its pleasures, is ‘safe’ if we are ‘strong’. Whilst it is true that some of us find tempting what others of us take no notice of, there is a danger in thinking that we can consistently keep company with the world and yet remain unaffected. The love of the world starts with an involvement in the things of the world which attract us, and the deceitfulness of sin draws us away after the idols of this life.

The painful lesson of Lot is that it is all too easy to imagine that we are ‘strong’ and that ‘those things won’t affect me’, when in reality the very fact that we are drawn to them and wish to indulge in them demonstrates very clearly that we are affected by them, and would be better off seeking other pursuits.

No doubt Lot would have thought it a ludicrous idea to pitch his tent in the mountains, so far from Sodom, a kind of legalism to think that staying away was necessary, but at the end of the day it was Lot who was found living in the city, the place where he had supposedly never intended to go, and it was Lot who lost everything as a result of believing that he was ‘strong’.

Possibly David thought that he was simply ‘admiring the female form’ when he first cast his eyes on Bathsheba—but the result of not turning aside immediately, and placing the situation behind him, was a thought process which led to a deliberate, well planned, and calculated course of sinful action which cost at least five lives.

On the other hand, Joseph knew full well that he was not strong, and his conscience was sufficiently developed to prompt him immediately to take the Scriptural action—he “got him out” (Genesis 39:12).

Avoidance of harmful influences, and influences which will hinder our spiritual development, is not ‘legalism’; it is Scriptural practice. But it is useless unless it is balanced by a pursuit of positive influences, and spiritually constructive company.

With physical proximity no longer an artificial barrier between us and many opportunities to sin, and living as we are in an environment which surrounds us with both the motivation and the means by which to indulge the lusts of the flesh, we are the more dependent on our own consciences to discern right action, and to discipline ourselves. If those consciences are immature, we will fall. If they are spiritually developed, then our capacity to struggle with sin is enhanced.

Resolution

As members of a community, our response to these issues must be made at three levels:

  • Ecclesial Response: Ecclesias must provide strong Scriptural leadership, and a balanced education which elevates Biblical principle above law, and the development of a strong personal conscience above reliance on others for correction

  • Family Response: Families must seek to work together with ecclesias, both guided by the Word, with the aim of developing young minds and consciences which are sensitive to the Word and which are repulsed by the lusts of the world

  • Personal Response: We must not succumb to despair. As members of a community, we are not alone, and in a relationship with God and Christ we are never separated from a source of strength in this struggle (Romans 8:24–25).