In many biology textbooks, especially older ones, they speak about “vestigial organs.” The belief was that, as the human body “evolved,” there were left behind remains of previous stages of evolution and we are thus chock full of parts that are no longer needed. Examples if parts that are or were considered vestigial are things like the coccyx (better known as the tail-bone), the eyebrows, the appendix, and the thymus (a gland just under your breast-bone). In many cases, these organs are routinely removed as one can live without them.
Of course, from a Christian worldview, evolution is simply a bunch of rhetoric designed to explain the remarkable design all around us (and in us) without having to bow down to an almighty God who created all things. Further, vestigial organs aren’t. The coccyx exists not because we used to have a tail; it exists because it is a point of attachment for ligaments which connect and support the pelvis. The eyebrows protect and shade the eyes, the appendix is part of the immune system as is the thymus. For a more in-depth discussion of how vestigial organs aren’t vestigial, might I commend the book by Dr. Jerry Bergman and Dr. George Howe, entitled “Vestigial Organs” Are Fully Functional.
The idea of vestigial organs, though, struck me in the terms of how some people approach the church and its membership. The Apostle Paul used the analogy of the church being the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12:12-26. Like a human body, Paul writes, the body of Christ has many parts. No single part is more significant than the other, there are no vestigial parts, and each part needs the function worked by the other parts of the body. True, the body can live without some of the parts, but the body was designed by God to have each part to be whole.
The real question that needs to be asked is not so much whether the parts are necessary; all of the parts of the body are necessary for the body to be whole. Instead, we should be asking first, whether certain members really are true members of the body and second, if they are members of the body, are they diseased in such a way that treatment (minor or serious) needs to be applied.
Think about the effect that a foreign body has when it is trapped as part of the human body. It hurts, it causes infection, and it typically does more damage than good. When my wife and I first got married, we bought an old farmhouse with hardwood floors. As a whole the floors were in pretty good shape but they were in need of refinishing, though that was a low priority given the renovations we needed to make. In the summers, I pretty much live in bare feet and one day caught a two-inch-long splinter from the floor into my foot. It was so heavily embedded that my wife had to get me a pair of pliers to pull it out. But, that is the point, I pulled it out. I don’t know which was more painful, getting stabbed by it or removing it, but nevertheless, leaving it in was not an option. It did not belong in my foot, it was not part of my natural body, and even though my body would have likely built up scar tissue around it over time, leaving it in was an invitation for future disease and problems.
The Scriptures are filled with references to anti-christs in our mist. These are people that become part of the visible church for a season but then leave behind the teachings of the one true church and begin making their own way. Sometimes they leave the church but often they remain (especially in our culture where most churches take an “anything goes” approach to membership). Like that splinter, they are a foreign body in the midst of the true body and that does not belong.
The Scriptures are also filled with references as to what a true Christian is to look like. Jesus tells us to judge a tree by its fruit (Matthew 7:15-20) and that we should be careful lest we be led astray (Luke 21:8). John tells us to examine every spirit to see if they are from God (1 John 4:1). Peter reminds us to beware of false prophets that bring in heresies that destroy (2 Peter 2:1). Paul tells us to “test everything” (1 Thessalonians 5:1) and that the children of light seek to discern what is pleasing to God (Ephesians 5:8-10). Solomon warns that those who are prudent examine that which they are told (Proverbs 14:15). Even Moses commands that if there are dreamers and prophets telling the people that they need not fear God or obey his commands, that they should not be listed to, but should be put to death so as that they will not mislead any in the body (Deuteronomy 13:1-5).
It is true that only God knows the heart of man (1 Samuel 16:7), but God gives us many indications as to how a true believer is to live. Shall we not examine the life of someone before we acknowledge them as a true believer? Shall we not take time to instruct rather than rushing people onto the rolls of our church just so that we can brag about numbers? Shall we not intentionally look at the fruit of a person’s life and ask the question as to whether someone walks in the Fruit of the Spirit or in the Works of the Flesh (Galatians 5:16-26)? Shall we not take pains to examine the body before we approach the Sacrament of the Lord’s Table so that harm may not come to both individual and congregation (1 Corinthians 11:27-32)?
But what of a diseased body part? Indeed, in many cases, parts of the human body are removed due to infection and disease. And, in some ways, the Christian church works that through the process of church discipline. Jesus lays out very clearly the manner in which the church is to discipline its members (Matthew 18:15-20). At times, this is more minor. One person goes to speak with someone engaged in a sinful practice, the person repents, and fellowship is restored. The loving admonition of a faithful brother or sister in faith is the penicillin of the church body.
Sometimes, though, the disease of sin is more persistent and is not constrained to a localized area. When the first admonition is rejected, another admonition is given (again in love and seeking repentance and reconciliation), and this time with one or two witnesses. Here is the presence of a stronger dose of antibiotics or perhaps the hands of a skilled surgeon working to restore function in a body part. And, if the person repents, the disease can be either killed or driven into permanent remission.
Yet, sometimes the disease is more deeply rooted still like a stubborn cancer that is seeking to spread. Thus, the appeal is made to the church. In the case of most Reformed circles, that is understood to be an outworking of the role of the Pastor and Elders. Where again the sin is confronted with the authority of the Word of God and the authority of the Overseers of the congregation. If sin (again) is not repented of, the person is to be put out of the body, just as one would remove a cancerous tumor. It would be hoped that the absence of the body will drive a person to repent, though very often, because it needed to go this far in the process, it became clear that the person was never a true member of the body — one who genuinely feared the Lord and sought to be obedient to the Word. Here is the dreaded word, “excommunication,” which is simply the pronouncement by the authorities of the church that a person is not a genuine believer and thus is not in communion with the body.
Yet, even still, such members are not truly “vestigial.” To be vestigial, they would have to have once been a part of the body. Yet, they weren’t truly ever a part of the body (1 John 2:19). They might have departed from the visible church, but they were never part of the invisible church — they were never actually a part of the body.
“If you see a thief, you are accepting of him and you have a portion with adulterers. You address your mouth to evil and your tongue joins in deceit. You sit to speak against your brother and your mother’s son you slander.”
Remember once again, God is not rebuking the pagan unbeliever here, he is speaking to his own covenant people. Indeed, these words should convict us at just how greatly we tolerate sin in the life of the church. We accept thieves. No, perhaps not the masked bandits who climb into the open windows of people’s homes, but how often are the people of God guilty of cheating on their taxes, stealing from a government to which God calls us to pay our taxes (Romans 13:6). How often God’s people are guilty of borrowing from one another or from the church with no intention of repaying? And how often do the people of God work to steal the joy of blessings from one another when things are going poorly! And when this happens, where are the Elders when it comes to disciplining the body? No, they are accepting of the sin.
Similarly the same can be said with adultery. And likewise, while there may not be active adultery taking place on a physical level, Jesus reminds us that if we even think with lust in our hearts about a man or a woman, then we are guilty of the sin even if we never act upon it (Matthew 5:27-30). And thus sin is committed in thought as well as deed and it applies to things that our culture considers of no consequence, things like pornography and flirtatious behavior. And again, if one turns a blind eye toward the sin, one is guilty of having a portion with them.
And then, what shall we say about the tongue? For the Christian, the tongue is for blessing, for speaking truth, and for singing praises to God with thanksgiving. We are not to be given to lies (big or small), half-truths, fowl language, slander, gossip, back-biting, or any other sort of language that tears people down — even if we say, “Bless his heart…” afterwards. That which comes out of the mouth of a person is what defiles and reveals the sinfulness of their heart (Mark 7:18-23). To adapt a phrase from a popular movie of the 1990’s, “Evil is as Evil does.”
The question is not whether sins like this will show themselves in the Christian church but instead, what is done with them when they do show themselves. Do the guilty repent and seek to amend their ways? If so, good. If not, do the Elders act with loving discipline to call on the body to amend their ways? If so, good. If not, be wary, you may not be in a true church. There will be ample times where there is a want of discipline; there ought never be a neglect of discipline in the church of Jesus Christ.
Over the last decade, many traditional churches in America have experienced a decline in attendance and the membership that corresponds. Of course, much of that decline is in the wake of the mega-church movement that is built around big entertainment and celebrity pastors while also watering down their theology to make it palatable to all. There are also many small, Biblically faithful, churches and denominations that are growing, and my observation such is one of the healthiest things to see in the Christian church in America. These small groups tend to be theologically very narrow and the people attracted to them know what they believe and why…something a little harder to find in an older, established church.
My grandfather was a small church pastor back in the 1950’s and 60’s and something that he used to say is that sometimes in the life of the church you do addition by subtraction. Of course, my grandfather also used to say that sometimes church problems can only be solved by a few funerals…ouch…of course, no matter whether we are willing to admit to it or not, there is some truth to both of these statements.
While most pastors are disheartened by declines, whether seasonal or otherwise, times of decline can be healthy in the life of the church if you know how to approach them. More importantly, they can be learning times if you are patient enough and disciplined enough to learn from them.
The most prominent thing that comes along with decline is that it exposes indwelling sin that has not been dealt with by the Elders of a congregation. Many of these sins simply run under the surface in times when the pews are filled and activities in the church abound. People turn a blind eye because everything is going well and why would anyone want to stir up trouble? Yet, that is one of the jobs of the overseers of the church — to hold people accountable to their Christian vows and to living a Christian life. Wasn’t Elijah referred to as the “Troubler of Israel” by wicked king Ahab (1 Kings 18:17)? Surely you don’t think that Elijah earned this title by flattering the folks around him.
In times of decline, though, these indwelling sins tend to come to the surface. And here is the key thing to understand, if this indwelling sin is not addressed when a church has declined, it will undermine any future growth and break down the foundation of the church. This kind of indwelling sin may be a tendency to gossip, to slander, to manipulate events to get your own way, to pursue personal sins inside or outside of the church context, or just the desire to tear someone else down rather than to build them up. None of this belongs in the Christian church or in the Christian life. How fragile churches become when the Elders do not actively practice church discipline.
Another opportunity that comes with decline is focus. One of the trends that has harmed the church greatly over the last generation has been that of ecumenicism. Now, do understand that the principle that Christians should not break fellowship over every nook and cranny of their theology is an important one, so I am not advocating a kind of hyper-fundamentalist retreatism either. But ecumenicism has become more of an agreement by “least common denominator.” So if people say that they love Jesus, they get welcomed to the table with open arms even if who they mean by Jesus is radically different than who the Bible means by Jesus.
Instead, churches ought to know what they believe and why…and dig deeply into those theological roots. That is the only way not to be swayed by the winds of every human invention and doctrine (Ephesians 4:14). We might not break fellowship with every theological group, church, or denomination, but if we look carefully at what some of these groups say or teach, we will find ourselves breaking fellowship with a number of them. And in doing so, distinctive principles to which a church holds become prominent. Emphasizing distinctive teachings will tend to drive some away, so while the church is in decline anyway, one might as well clarify what the Bible teaches and why.
Two of the marks of the true Church of Jesus Christ are church discipline and the faithful preaching of the whole council of God. If a church has not been doing one or the other well, decline can be the optimal time to repent of that error and begin practicing them. Not only will you honor your Savior, but then when the church draws new people, many of them will come into a healthy context and will come for the right reasons. The decline becomes a matter of refinement rather than something to lament.