In the early days of the Church, life for disciples of Jesus Christ was unimaginably different from what it is today for most Christians, especially those who live in the west. Outwardly, there was the constant dread of persecution, suffering, and loss hanging over their heads because they had decided to make Jesus Christ their Lord and Savior. Inwardly, however, there was a glorious joy which could not be expressed in human words, for they were receiving the goal of their faith—the salvation of their souls. As Peter taught in his epistle, their hopes and lives were centered fully on the grace to be given them when Jesus Christ is revealed.
Now it is so different. Life for Christians today is filled with hopes (and for some, the realization) of a good job and a good income, of material possessions, of enjoyable retirement years, of fulfilling the American Dream or its equivalent. Our experience of God is centered around going to a big church on Sunday morning (and for some a mid-week service) where we hear about how much God loves us and wants to bless us with success and comfort in its various forms in this life. These earthly blessings are in addition, of course, to eternal life.
To what do we owe such an improvement in human life?
We are taught how to get close to God and to please Him so that the blessings on earth will be maximized. During our spare time we find enjoyment and pleasure in activities like hobbies, music, TV, movies, sporting events, eating out and the like.
When we sin, which we are taught we will inevitably do, we simply confess it to God. And He will be faithful to forgive us and cleanse us from all sin and unrighteousness. All will be covered by the Blood and forgotten as if we had never sinned. God is good.
Certainly we would rather be living and enjoying life as Christians today than to have lived and suffered as disciples of Jesus two thousand years ago. To what do we owe this radical improvement of life on earth for Christians? In a word, I would say that we owe it to FREEDOM.
F R E E D O M ! ! !
Although I am certainly not an historian, I am convinced that the concept of human freedom began with the rise of western civilization and the western religion which accompanied it—the religion known as “Christianity.” Here is how I believe it took place.
Because of our bondage to the slavery of sin, Christ died on the cross to free us from sin and the ultimate consequences of our sin—eternal judgment in the lake of fire. “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:36) Freedom from sin is the primary meaning of freedom as found in the New Testament.
Galatians 5:13 You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature;
Jesus has set us free from submitting to our sinful nature and sinning.
He also taught us to show compassion to the poor, the hungry, the naked, the sick, and those in prison. Clearly man’s primary need is to be free from sin. But the Lord commands us also to minister to people’s physical needs as well.
Scripture also teaches us that human beings are made in God’s image, and therefore we hold that every person has immeasurable worth. From this eventually emerged the 13th century Magna Carta in Protestant England which influenced the development of the United States Constitution. The Declaration of Independence of the United States asserted, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Thus we see how the biblical concept of freedom from sin may have been extended by western culture beyond its original scriptural meaning eventually to include the “unalienable God-given rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” on earth. This westernized concept of freedom was dramatically portrayed by the Academy Award-winning motion picture “Braveheart” in which William Wallace’s immortal shout resounded all the way to the final frame of the movie as he was beheaded: “FREEDOM!!!”
We should note, therefore, that Scripture does not specifically guarantee to human beings the right to freedom and liberty as is now firmly entrenched in western and in particular American culture.
Freedom, it is said, is not free. Like William Wallace, many others over the centuries have paid the price for it with the shedding of their own blood. In the west, especially in the United States, we have finally achieved freedom: political freedom, religious freedom, and economic freedom. (Some would reasonably argue, however, that these freedoms are currently in danger.) With this freedom we can enjoy not only God, but God’s material blessings in this life on earth.
Freedom brings prosperity
Over the past few centuries, freedom has in stages spawned the economic system we now know as capitalism. Man, created in the image of God and bestowed with intelligence, has discovered that he can make a good living by selling goods and services which people want and for which they are willing to pay. The freedom under capitalism for every American to apply this principle within the free market system has brought unprecedented prosperity to America. Millions of people around the world looking for a better life would like nothing better than to immigrate to America to take advantage of this freedom.
With this freedom we can enjoy anything our heart desires. As long as we can pay for it, there will be someone who will make it for us or do it for us. That is part and parcel of capitalism. In itself, capitalism is not evil and is in our opinion the best possible economic system available in this life on earth.
Because of freedom and capitalism, we are now free—free to eat whatever we want and as much as we want; free to buy a new car, a new house, to pursue hobbies, and go on nice vacations to relax after working so hard to accumulate wealth. God is good.
We are free to go to church to worship God (or, as the case may be, free not to go to church). We are free to hear about how God has freely chosen to save us and bless us with every good thing on earth. We are free to hear about how it is all for free, since Christ paid for it all on the cross.
Capitalism in the Church
We are free to attend our megachurch where the preacher tells us what we want to hear and make us feel good. Many (but certainly not all) American churches have learned well the principles of capitalism from their business counterparts. They have learned all too well how to provide “goods and services” that people are willing to pay for with their tithes and offerings. They freely interpret the Scriptures to focus their teaching on God’s various blessings in this life. Part of the unspoken rationalization for this approach is so that their church will grow big and influential, and gain respect among the churches of the city. Such unspoken rivalry between churches and pastors in the west is often the result of “free-market competition” borrowed by the western Church from the economic model of capitalism. Some pastors and churches have become very skilled—whether intentionally or not—at such marketing to draw the crowds to their services, along with, of course, their offerings.
While God’s material blessings are certainly found in Scripture, they are overwhelmingly in the Old Testament which contains shadows and types already fulfilled in the New Testament. The reality is found in the New Testament which emphasizes spiritual blessings—especially in the age to come. Unfortunately, many churches will avoid or spend relatively little time addressing “unpleasant” topics like sacrifice, denial of the flesh, obedience to God’s commands, producing good fruit for Him, and living a holy life worthy of one’s heavenly calling. Why don’t they address these things? The reason is obvious. In today’s market-driven church economy, such messages are not in demand by “consumers” and therefore will not “sell.” Churches which do not bend to the reality of this economy might not grow and become “successful.” Perhaps capitalism has become all too successful and pervasive in the west.
From listening to messages preached and broadcast from pulpits, we are under the impression that we are ultimately free to engage in sexual immorality, whether pornography, fornication or various other kinds. God is gracious and will certainly forgive us if we just confess it to Him. After all, Christ died on the cross to bear our sins—past, present, and future. We have heard that there is absolutely nothing we can do to make God love us less, or for that matter, more.
And so we must ultimately be free to perform any behavior that we would like. Our salvation is free and not dependent on our works, whether good or bad. If it depends on our works of obedience to God’s commands, then it is certainly not free. If it is really free, than it must be unconditional. We are taught that if we have repeated a sinner’s prayer, God’s love and grace to us are unconditional.
Such is the state of the Church in the west today. We have not transformed the world, but ultimately because of “freedom” the world has transformed us into its image. Where the fear of God is absent, “freedom” becomes “license.” The city of Houston, sitting squarely in the Bible Belt of the United States, boasts the largest Christian churches and congregations in the country. In 2009 Houston elected an openly lesbian woman as its mayor.
Our spiritual daughter – the Church in Nigeria
At a Pastors’ prayer meeting in Houston, I met a pastor originally from Nigeria who was from a Muslim family. He and his parents were all Muslims, but he became a disciple of Christ. While on a visit from Nigeria to see her son and her other children in the United States, his mother accepted Christ and began to follow Him zealously. Then she returned to Nigeria, where she began to attend church. When the pastors there discovered that she had children in the United States—and that as good children they were sending her money—they descended on her like vultures. Seeing the greed and hypocrisy of His servants, she left Jesus Christ and reverted to Islam.
Where on earth did the Church in Nigeria get this kind of spirit? It was essentially from prosperity teaching imported from the United States. Greed will take on various forms, some subtle, some not so subtle, depending on the culture. Churches and ministries in the United States place heavy emphasis on receiving funds for erecting and maintaining expensive facilities, for operating costs and salaries, all under the rubric of “the work of the Lord.” Sometimes “the work of the Lord” can include costly perks for the servant of God like a luxury automobile, an expensive home, or a Gulfstream corporate jet and up. But it’s all for the glory of God.
This is what freedom and the resulting prosperity have done to the Church. But the problem is not freedom. Neither is the problem prosperity. The problem is man, whose “heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.”
The Church under Communism
Once I was in a communist country where the Church is not “free” as is the Church in the west. Because of persecution and lack of freedom most congregations must meet as “house churches.” Churches not registered with the government—and this includes most evangelical churches—cannot meet openly in public church facilities. Instead they are forced to meet in homes and the like. As long as they remain quiet and do not criticize the government, the communist authorities turn a blind eye toward house churches and allow them to exist.
I found the faith of disciples in these house churches refreshing. Unlike Christians in the west, they may have paid dearly for their faith. They talk about their willingness to die for the Lord. Their love for him is especially evident in the way they worship Him. They love and follow Jesus not because of material blessings promised to them in this life—there are few if any. No, they are thankful to the Lord because of the glory awaiting them in the next age provided through His death on the cross. I generally do not see this anticipation in the west, where Christians believe in God primarily for what He can do for them now in this life.
I commended these disciples for their faith which had been refined in the fire. I also issued a warning to them. I told them that someday religious “freedom” may come to them. (In this country, there is already a good measure of economic freedom, especially for very wealthy Communist Party members and their relatives.) And if and when freedom comes, I told them, do not become like the Church in the west. I told them to resist the temptation to build huge church facilities, which can cost millions although they do boost a pastor’s ego. I told them to stay with low-overhead house churches and to extend the kingdom of God through them. My host pastor had earlier voiced the same concern to his fellow pastors in the city.
But I believe my words will ultimately go unheeded. Why? It is because—whether Christian or not—all human beings will generally respond to freedom and prosperity in the same way. It’s our nature. In terms of their response, the difference between Christians and non-Christians is mainly one of degree. But there will always be some exceptions to this rule. We are referring to disciples of Jesus Christ.
A megachurch in China
Below is a report from the Associated Press on December 10, 2009:
LINFEN, China — Towering eight stories over wheat fields, the Golden Lamp Church was built to serve nearly 50,000 worshippers in the gritty heart of China’s coal country.
But that was before hundreds of police and hired thugs descended on the mega-church, smashing doors and windows, seizing Bibles and sending dozens of worshippers to hospitals with serious injuries, members and activists say.
Today, the church’s co-pastors are in jail. The gates to the church complex in the northern province of Shanxi are locked and a police armored personnel vehicle sits outside.
The closure of what may be China’s first mega-church is the most visible sign that the communist government is determined to rein in the rapid spread of Christianity, with a crackdown in recent months that church leaders call the harshest in years.
…House churches have been around for decades, but their growth has accelerated in recent decades, producing larger and larger congregations that are far more conspicuous than the small groups of friends and neighbors that used to worship in private homes, giving the movement its name.
The Chinese authorities turned a blind eye toward this rapidly-growing house church until the Senior Pastor apparently decided to follow the example of his colleagues in the west by building a megachurch. Not surprisingly, the towering eight-story building in the middle of a wheat field shocked the local communist authorities. They saw it as a potential threat and promptly shut it down. What do you think would have happened if the Pastor simply continued to multiply small house churches everywhere instead of following the western megachurch model?
So what should we do?
All this is not at all to suggest that we should give up our freedoms and seek to live under tyranny and persecution. No. But Scripture will be fulfilled during the last days. Persecution will return without our seeking it.
Matthew 24:9 “Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. 10 At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, 11 and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. 12 Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, 13 but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.
The Church of the last days—perhaps today’s Church—may very well be the Church in Laodicea rebuked by the Lord Jesus Christ in Revelation.
Revelation 3:14 “To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. 15 I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! 16 So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. 17 You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.
The Church today foreshadowed in parables of Jesus
Matthew 13:31 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.”
After two thousand years, the Church has become a large tree, providing a habitation for the birds of the air. In the Parable of the Sower earlier in this very same chapter, Jesus used “birds” to symbolize “the evil one” or the devil who comes and snatches away the word of God from those listening to the message of the kingdom. The devil is present and at work in the midst of the Church.
33 He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.”
After two thousand years, the yeast in the dough which is the Church has finally spread and worked its way all through the dough. Yeast in Scripture symbolizes sin and hypocrisy, and they have worked all through the Church.
In the Parable of the Sower in this same chapter, Jesus tells us that roughly only one in four people who hear the gospel will bear good fruit for the kingdom of God. Some will fall away because of trouble or persecution. Others—and this may include many Christians who enjoy freedom today—will not bear fruit because of the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth.
Matthew 13:18 “Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: 19 When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is the seed sown along the path. 20 The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. 21 But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away. 22 The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful. 23 But the one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it. He produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”
So are freedom and prosperity bad?
Scripture teaches us that Old Testament Law was not opposed to God’s promises to His people. Therefore the Law was not bad. The problem was with God’s people the Israelites who could not stop sinning and breaking the Law (Galatians 3:21-22). The Law is in fact good because through it we become conscious of sin (Romans 3:20). The problem was the people.
There is nothing wrong with money. In fact, money can be a very good servant. But the love of money in people’s hearts is a root of all kinds of evil. In the same way, there is nothing wrong with freedom and prosperity in themselves. Indeed they can be good. The problem is with us—God’s people.
The final words of Christ to the Laodicean Church
Revelation 3:18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.
19 Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent. 20 Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.
Could these also be the words of Christ to Christians today? If so, there is good news. We still have opportunity to repent in order to prepare ourselves for the great and terrible Day of the Lord.
How can we prepare for that Day?
Although we might not be living under persecution, we should live our lives on earth as Scripture taught the early disciples who did suffer for their faith. Those who were truly free were these early disciples, some of whom did not love their lives on earth so much as to shrink from death.
The Church should return to her first love, and do the things she did at first—referring to the love of the early disciples and the things which they did for the Lord. We should study the Scriptures with a sincere heart and then obey their central message.
Colossians 3:1 Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3 For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
5 Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. 6 Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. 7 You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. 8 But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.
…12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
We are to please God by living holy lives, free from whatever belongs to our earthly nature. We are to clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. And we are to do this not because of what we hope God will do for us now in this life. No. We do this because when Christ, who is our life, appears, then we also will appear with him in glory.
What should we do with the freedom and prosperity which we enjoy in the west? We ought to take full advantage of it and use it to preach the gospel of the kingdom in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.
“Only when I am a slave of God shall I be free.”
A response to this article from Australia
“i totally agreed with your opinion about spending lots of money on buildings and facilities for the purpose of having a great and awesome place to gather and worship. Pastor Kong Hee of city harvest church built his titanium church in singapore at enormous cost but it could only seat 2000 and now the city harvest church services are held in a stadium! A certain large congregation in Malaysia has this great mighty plan to build this state-of-the-art church facility in Kuala Lumpur which on the plan looks like a space ship but on my recent trip to Kuala Lumpur, i drove passed the site and found out that the construction has stopped because the senior pastor and some leaders are now in a lawsuit with some other elders and members of the church due to some financial dispute! And the most embarrassing and bad testimony is that at the site of the building hung a big banner ‘hope of the …” facing one of the main road where many vehicles drove pass everyday!
even years ago when I was still a young Christian, i believe we do need facilities and buildings but not excessive like many megachurches have gone today. Some are so high-end that no poor man would dare to step into it and people from the streets are properly not welcome because they may ‘dirty’ or ‘mess’ up the furnitures! Well, I actually heard this from an elder in the church I attended in Australia some time ago. At first a lady was so fervent in reaching out to those considered as underprivileged but then subsequently those whom she brought to church stopped coming and her ministry also died because the middle-class to rich congregation was uncomfortable with ‘these’ people and some even didn’t want to seat next to them! Well, I can tell you now, that congregation hasn’t grown much until now!
My thoughts are also the same about the last days. If we believe in what the Bible said about persecution in the last day, I thought to myself, why are we spending so much money in building physical buildings and accumulating physical assets (expensive projectors, expensive instruments, state-of-the-art stage, etc) which one day the ‘enemy’ could come and rob and steal. (Note : Now I am the new generation that believes we should use technology, but please don’t forget no technology can turn the heart of people to God!). Is it a sin to build a mega or super building as church? Of course not. But can we please learn from the history of european christians. What happened to all the beautiful, magnificient church buildings in many of these countries including UK now? And let’s take heed from the scripture “unless the Lord builds, the builder builds in vain”! Truly, I do say some churches need to refocus their spending on the great commission. (and I mean making disciples not making the number of ‘church members’).
as for what you said about the church of the west, really, the east don’t need the west to teach them how to ‘build’ a church and when a certain church (who has not much exposure to asian culture) in the west announced that they are going to set up a church in china soon, my thought is ‘please don’t try to bring the western way of doing church and the concept of christianity and mess up the christians there! The christians there are much more resilent and stronger than anyone of the leaders I know in this church who come from a ‘privileged’ background! I have lived in the east and I have lived in the west. Sorry to say today, many churches in the west need to learn more from the church in the east when it comes to living a life of a true disicple of Christ. There is some serious work to be done to repair the image of Jesus and the church in the west. In general, the Jesus so many westerners know in their countries today through media and even the church in their communities is far from the Jesus of the Bible! No wonder they are not interested.”
Feedback to the article from a pastor in Louisiana
“Thank you for the word on freedom. I believe that is exactly what the Lord is saying right now. The other day the Lord dropped a similar word in my heart and I had to share it with the church this past Sunday morning. We must repent as individuals and as the church. We have become far too worldly and forgotten the call of God in our lives to save the lost and to make disciples. The Lord brought me to Eph 6 and He told me that we have taken off our armour or made it of no effect. We have nothing to stand on because we have gotten out of the Word, because of the lack of the Word in our hearts our belt of truth has become relative to whatever the world, CNN, Fox or someone else tells us is truth. Our breastplate of righteousness has become a breastplate of self righteousness. Because we have no Word to stand on our truth has become relative, our righteousness has become self righteousness, we have no faith in which to stop the firey darts of the enemy, and we have laid down our Sword of the Spirit because we do not know how to use it. It has become ineffective. We stand therefore with our helmet of salvation and think ourselves to be OK. Because we are saved and maybe our finances are doing well and we live in a good neighborhood . The time has come when we need to truly repent and ask God to deliver us from ourselves before we come into complete bondage.
Thank you for hearing the Lord and being obedient to share with me what He is saying.”