Imagine you see a drowning man, and the life preserver in your hand is all that stands between him and certain death. You wouldn’t disguise the flotation device to resemble the water in which he was drowning. You wouldn’t openly question the efficacy of the life-preserver, or debate the relative merits of other floating objects. And you certainly wouldn’t try to convince him that he could manipulate the power of the life-preserver if he simply had enough faith.
Sadly, too many in the church today treat the life preserver of the gospel in similar, wrong-headed ways.
Lost in a sea of self-deception, self-righteousness, rebellion, lust, and all sorts of depravity, the world’s only hope is the transforming work of the Lord through His Spirit and Word. The church exists as God’s witness on earth, testifying to His truth in word and deed, and doing what it can to rescue lost sinners before it is too late.
However, one of the greatest hindrances to the work of the church is often the church itself.
The reasons vary. Sometimes the church excuses and tolerates sin to the point it becomes a hypocritical laughingstock, rendering its testimony meaningless and its ministry impossible. It’s hard to overstate how dangerous the church’s dalliances with unchecked sin can be. We’ve already discussed depravity in detail, and if the church can’t or won’t set a moral and spiritual example, it effectively has nothing to offer the world.
But it’s not just sin that impedes the reach and the usefulness of the church. Today, the church’s effectiveness is often cut short by wrong priorities. By placing a high priority on things like numerical growth, worldly credibility, or extra-biblical authority, the church diminishes the value of biblical fidelity and cripples its ability to be salt and light in the world (Matthew 5:13-16). Let’s consider some prominent examples of that tragic pattern.
The Seeker-Sensitive Church
Seeker-sensitivity is not a new phenomenon, but its chameleonic qualities have kept it a driving force in church culture for several decades. And while the trends it imitates may change, the underlying priority—to make the church more attractive, entertaining, and agreeable to unsaved audiences—is still misleading congregations across the country and around the world.
If anything, the market-driven philosophy of ministry has become a much more pervasive problem in recent years. Whereas seeker-sensitivity once had a fairly consistent look and feel—primarily appealing to upper-middle class suburban sensibilities—today there is no end of sub-cultures and interest groups that churches cater to.
But all those variations come down to the same basic compromise, and, as John MacArthur explains in Ashamed of the Gospel, they all share the same fatal flaw.
Unfortunately, the market-driven ministry philosophy appeals to the very worst mood of our age. It caters to people whose first love is themselves and who care not for God—unless they can have Him without disrupting their selfish lifestyles. Promise such people a religion that will allow them to be comfortable in their materialism and self-love, and they will respond in droves.  John MacArthur, Ashamed of the Gospel (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010) 41.
If the church is the only hope there is for the world, why would it spend so much time and effort trying to imitate the world? And if a sinner was convinced of his need for the Savior, why would he turn to a congregation that so closely resembled the world he needed to be saved out of?
If the church wants to confuse, weaken, or shroud the world’s only hope, seeker-sensitive methodology is the way to go.
The Postmodern Church
Vying for worldly acceptance and credibility isn’t solely the territory of seeker-sensitive churches. The postmodern church is a kind of seeker-sensitive model tuned specifically to cynics, skeptics, and anti-authority types.
The postmodern church embodies the world’s approach to truth—that it is relative and subjective. The result is that biblical doctrine—including fundamental and historical doctrine—is open for debate and deconstruction. They hold even their own convictions with an open hand, and rather than establishing and fighting for the truth, they reflect the attitude of the Athenian philosophers Paul encountered, always looking for something new and novel (Acts 17:21).
All of that is undergirded by a feigned humility—as though conviction could only be the product of close-minded arrogance. In that regard, the postmodern church reduces faith and Bible study to academic pursuits, and kicks open the door to any and all spurious doctrines. But that kind of doctrinal pluralism isn’t producing more refined theology or more confidence in the Word of God. Instead it’s propagating heresy, and, as John MacArthur explains in The Truth War, encouraging unbelief.
The idea that the Christian message should be kept pliable and ambiguous seems especially attractive to young people who are in tune with the culture and in love with the spirit of the age and can’t stand to have authoritative biblical truth applied with precision as a corrective to worldly lifestyles, unholy minds, and ungodly behavior. And the poison of this perspective is being increasingly injected into the evangelical church body.
But that is not authentic Christianity. Not knowing what you believe (especially on a matter as essential to Christianity as the gospel) is by definition a kind of unbelief. Refusing to acknowledge and defend the revealed truth of God is a particularly stubborn and pernicious kind of unbelief. Advocating ambiguity, exalting uncertainty, or otherwise deliberately clouding the truth is a sinful way of nurturing unbelief.  John MacArthur, The Truth War (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007) xi.
There is no hope to offer the world if the church refuses to be clear about what it believes and steadfast in its commitment to God’s Word. God’s truth faces enough attacks from the outside world—we need not tear it down from the inside, too.
The Charismatic Church
Another way the church has fostered its own misdirection is exemplified in the charismatic church. By overemphasizing the apostolic gifts and taking an unbiblical view on the work of the Holy Spirit—not to mention the believer’s supposed ability to wield and direct the Spirit—the charismatic movement has largely derailed from biblical orthodoxy and plunged millions worldwide into blind idolatry.
Perhaps the most spiritually deadly aspect of the charismatic church is how it insulates its followers from biblical discernment. With miracles and messages from the Lord supposedly abounding, there is no consistency or continuity to the manifestations of the Spirit, and no fixed standard by which all miraculous claims are measured. In spite of the evidence of hoaxes and charlatans, the movement continues to suspend disbelief.
Moreover, any attempt to police the movement is met with accusations of trying to quench the Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19-20) or charges of committing the unpardonable sin (Matthew 12:31-32).
Impervious to critique, charismatic leaders can do and say whatever they like, and their capacity for inventing new heresies knows no bounds. As John MacArthur describes in Strange Fire, the charismatic movement has funneled false teaching into the rest of the church.
In recent history, no other movement has done more to damage the cause of the gospel, to distort the truth, and to smother the articulation of sound doctrine. Charismatic theology has turned the evangelical church into a cesspool of error and a breeding ground for false teachers. It has warped genuine worship through unbridled emotionalism, polluted prayer with private gibberish, contaminated true spirituality with unbiblical mysticism, and corrupted faith by turning it into a creative force for speaking worldly desires into existence. By elevating the authority of experience over the authority of Scripture, the Charismatic Movement has destroyed the church’s immune system—uncritically granting free access to every imaginable form of heretical teaching and practice.  John MacArthur, Strange Fire (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2013) xv-xvi.
Unsurprisingly, the world can see through the lies and the corruption of the charismatic church. So its continued dominance isn’t just a threat to the people caught under its influence—it also tarnishes the reputation of the rest of the church, as it turns the Lord, His miraculous power, and faith in Him into a pathetic joke for the watching world. And until the charismatic movement begins to police itself and ceases to be a breeding ground for heretics, charlatans, and con artists, it will continue to be a significant hindrance to the reach of the true gospel.
God’s people need to get serious about His truth—its sufficiency, its inerrancy, and its authority. We need to be clear about what it says, and what it means by what it says. And we need to be unhindered in our ability to bring that truth to a corrupt and dying world.
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