One of the features of church growth theory over the last few decades has been its preoccupation with the size of the local church. In our increasingly urban world, the gurus of church growth have exhorted us to renounce ‘smallness’ in favour of ‘bigness’.
One of them has trumpeted ‘bigness’ as the solution to effective world evangelisation. ‘Big buildings, big car dealers, big supermarkets, big shopping centres are the norm … People are conditioned to think big in the city … we cannot afford to keep our churches small … the size of the modern city demands that we think big’.
However, if ‘smallness’ is the underlying difficulty, one would expect to find numerous references in the New Testament to it and also, presumably, some strategies to remedy the problem.
But when we search for such information, the evidence is by no means easy to find. In fact, it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack, because none of the New Testament writers makes the point that larger numbers of people in church make a congregation more useful to Christ. So if ‘smallness’ in itself is not a church’s problem, what is?
In a word, the Bible says that the problems of the church are always spiritual and largely arise from the unrelenting warfare in which we find ourselves. It is sad that many Christians today don’t see it.
Having been raised in a materialistic and secular culture, many of us have difficulty in accepting the reality of Satan and the existence of demonic powers. Nevertheless, the apostles teach that, just as Satan attacked Jesus in the wilderness as he readied himself for the task of redemption, so Satan also targets the church.
This should not surprise us, because the church represents Christ in bringing salvation to the world and by providing an environment in which believers can experience spiritual transformation.
As Paul says, the church is ‘the pillar and foundation of the truth’, whose purpose is to make known ‘the manifold wisdom of God’ to all the nations and the heavenly powers (1 Timothy 3:15; Ephesians 3:10; Matthew 28:19). Since the church has such a strategic role, the devil’s interest in destroying it is perfectly understandable.
The question is: how does he go about his task? Paul’s letters provide us with some insights. In writing to the Ephesians, he counsels them about ‘the devil’s schemes’ (6:11). The term ‘schemes’ is used elsewhere in the letter in a context which suggests cunning and deceitfulness (4:14).
Used here in connection with Satan, it implies that Satan does not always launch frontal assaults, but specialises in less obvious subversive activities. The use of ‘schemes’ in the plural suggests that Satan’s attacks may be ongoing and take a variety of forms.
Some may be overt, such as persecution, whereas others may be less obvious. Donald Grey Barnhouse once commented that one of Satan’s most successful ruses was to get his agents past presbytery ordination committees so that he gained control of pulpits across the nation.
Book of Revelation
While Paul has much to say about Satan’s strategy against the church, it’s in the book of Revelation that we find the most direct references to his schemes and tactics.
One of the characteristics of Revelation is the number of times that Satan and his supernatural forces are mentioned in the book. Indeed, there are more references to Satan and his work in Revelation than anywhere else in the New Testament.
Furthermore, the references are spread uniformly throughout Revelation and cover every dimension of the underworld, from direct attacks against the church to the ‘deep things of Satan’ (2:24).
We are fortunate to have this information, because, as Barnhouse reminds us in The invisible war, one of Satan’s cleverest strategies is to keep us in ignorance of his being and the fraudulent nature of his claims.
Thus, the book of Revelation is of real help because it is gives us a comprehensive account of the many ways in which the devil tries to destroy the church. Most importantly, Revelation reminds us that life for the church is war.
It’s a war that Satan has begun in heaven and which he continues upon the earth (12:7, 17). His aim is to destroy the church and devour it (12:4, 17). He’s a specialist in deception and his malevolence knows no bounds. He will stoop to any means to achieve his ends (12:9-12).
Whether Christians actually believe this is a moot point. During a war a nation takes its security seriously; it prepares for possible attacks.
But do believers today think that Satan is a more deadly enemy than terrorists, or realise that he can be covertly at work in our denominations, theological colleges and local churches? This is the question that the book of Revelation forces us to answer.
Perhaps the most helpful insights that we gain into Satan’s tactics against the church are found in the letters to the seven churches (Revelation 2–3). These seven churches represent the universal church. In this sense, they are an invaluable guide in demonstrating how Satan prosecutes his war against the church in every age.
Interestingly, when we compare these letters with the rest of Revelation, we find nothing in them that explicitly indicates persecution from the Roman authorities. On the contrary, the trials of Christians are more directly linked to sinister forces such as Satan and hostile Jews (2:9-10, 13).
Further, John lays the blame for the churches’ troubles on perhaps less obvious causes, such as false apostles, heresy, false prophecy, as well as idolatry and immorality (2:2, 14, 20). All these threats are spiritual in nature and a sign of the devil’s handiwork.
Indeed, the frequency in these letters of such expressions as ‘Satan’, ‘the devil’, ‘false apostles’, ‘Satan’s throne’, ‘idols’, ‘Jezebel’, ‘sexual immorality’ and the ‘deep things of Satan’ is sufficient to alert us that the major danger facing churches is not their ‘smallness’, but Satan’s schemes.
So what are some of these schemes? Let me mention a few. The first and most obvious tactic that Satan uses against believers is to infiltrate false teachers into the church.
The reason for this should be obvious. Satan knows that we are saved and sanctified through our knowledge of the truth (2 Timothy 2:25; Titus 1:1). Since this is so, Satan also knows that if he can compromise the ministry of the Word, he has struck a major blow against the church.
We should not be surprised at this phenomenon. I once had a conversation with an older minister who confided to me that he knew he was an unbeliever at the time of his ordination.
In fact, he told me that he did not believe in the deity of Jesus and had misled the presbytery when they had questioned him about the matter. He served for over 25 years in several Australian states before he was led to Christ by a stranger on an aircraft.
God had mercy on this man, but what of the congregations which he had deceived week after week until his conversion? In more recent times, a minister who was found guilty of heresy by the Presbytery of Sydney confided to a reporter from the Sydney Morning Herald, who later published the statement, that he had knowingly entered the Presbyterian ministry as a ‘double agent’.
It is interesting to note that in at least half of the churches mentioned by John, false teachers and a watered-down gospel constituted a problem. Just how prevalent these issues are today is anyone’s guess, but it highlights the need for extreme vigilance in our presbyteries, theological colleges and churches.
The presence of false teachers among us is utterly destructive of our spiritual life and sense of mission. Further, John highlights the fact that false teaching comes in many forms. He refers to the ‘doctrine of the Nicolaitans’, the ‘teaching of Balaam’ and the false ‘prophecies of Jezebel’ (2:14, 15, 20).
Although it is not explicitly stated, I think we can presume that there was something seriously wrong with the teaching in Sardis (3:1-6) and Laodicea (3:14-21) as well, because in neither church was there any real sense of spiritual life.
All this serves to warn us that Satan, who is the arch-deceiver (12:9), targets the pulpits and teaching programmes of our churches. Church leaders must always be alert to this possibility and guard the gospel.
Satan’s second tactic is to stir up violent opposition to the church, so that Christians become afraid to witness and fall into silence. In the first century there seems to have been extreme hostility to the churches in Smyrna and Pergamum that was stirred up to a large extent by the Jews (2:8-17).
The frightening nature of this threat is expressed in such phrases as ‘the devil is about to throw some of you into prison’, ‘tribulation’, ‘testing’ and ‘be faithful unto death’ (2:10). The severity of the persecution becomes clear when we read that ‘Antipas, my faithful witness, was killed’ (2:13).
This opposition serves as a reminder to us that ‘suffering’, as Dietrich Bonheoffer says, ‘is the badge of a true Christian’. But not all suffering is of a physical nature. Satan realises that sometimes he can inflict more pain upon the church through the shame of slander than through physical threats (2:9).
Slander was the preferred weapon used by the earliest enemies of Christianity. They spread rumours that Christians were cannibals because they ate ‘the body of Christ’ at the Lord’s Supper. They accused them of debauchery because they shared in a common meal that was known as the ‘love feast’. When Christians refused to acknowledge the divinity of Caesar, they were vilified as traitors and atheists. Persecution is nothing new.
Today, the devil attempts to silence the church in many places through threats of violence. The fact that the vast majority of Iraqi Christians have fled their country in recent times is a reminder that Satan will do whatever he can to eliminate Christian witness in a culture.
The various forms of anti-vilification and anti-conversion laws in many democracies today are a further attempt to use the sanction of official force to stifle Christian comment and witness. The source of the trouble, however, is ultimately satanic.
Another tactic employed by satan to discredit the church is to lure believers into scandals, especially involving sexual immorality (2:14, 15, 20, 22). Whether Christians realise it or not, Satan actually sets traps, which are designed to catch them in situations of moral compromise.
Once these actions become known, the person is disgraced and the church maligned. When a church leader is involved in immorality, Paul describes the resulting shame as falling into the ‘devil’s trap’ (1 Timothy 3:7).
Satan knows full well that if he can bring discredit upon a church leader, then outsiders will be disinclined to hear the gospel. This explains why it is so important that pastors, elders and ministry leaders have a blameless reputation both within and beyond the church. The consequences of serious moral failure on their part blunt the ability of the church to reach its community with the gospel.
The last tactic that I want to explore is the way in which Satan encourages the appointment of ‘people-pleasers’ into churches’ pulpits. It seems apparent from the complacency and lifelessness in the churches of Sardis (3:1-6) and Laodicea (3:14-22), that the ministry of Christ’s ‘sharp two-edged sword’ (1:16) had been blunted.
The preaching was powerless. Why? We can only speculate about what might have been happening, but the level of self-satisfaction in the church suggests that the pastors had capitulated to a ‘give-people-what-they-want’ style of ministry, that left them comfortable in their materialism and self-love.
It seems that both these churches had lapped up the witty reassurances, small talk and soothing words of the audience-driven preachers and had forgotten that they needed a more confrontational style of preaching that included the themes of sin, righteousness and judgement.
The lesson of the letters to the seven churches in Revelation is plain — the size of a congregation should not be its chief concern. Of far more importance is its awareness of the tactics that Satan can employ against it.
The author is former editor of Australian Presbyterian (AP) and principal of the Melbourne Presbyterian Theological College (This article first appeared in AP).