Saturday, 29 November 2008

Equipping the Cults to Deal With the Church - 06

The Ignorance is Inexcusable

“I get the Jehovah’s Witnesses around three or four times a year and I never know what to say to them.” I hear this often and wonder if people really think about what it sounds like. If you get visitors from the Witnesses or Mormons on a regular basis then two things should be obvious: Firstly, there is a pressing need for a strong Christian witness to them and secondly you have three or four opportunities a year to practice being that witness. It is not an excuse to declare yourself incapable but an opportunity to grow in confidence.

People often protest, “I can’t be an expert in everything”. However you only need to be informed about those groups operating in your area with the highest profile. We encourage people who are concerned about cult activity to make a list of the top five groups in their area and then read up on them. If they call at your door you have an opportunity to learn more and gain confidence in witnessing.

People who call at your door or stop you in the street don’t usually range widely in the things they want to talk about and there are certain subjects that will come up time and again. Whatever the subject you can always, with a little preparation and practice, bring them back to key gospel themes. Virtually everything you might address is central to the New Testament and fundamental to the issues dealt with in the early church.

When a JW denies Jesus’ deity you are addressing the familiar early church trinity controversy. Don’t know about it? Why not?; when a Mormon insists that we are saved by a combination of faith and works you are addressing the Judaisers controversy found throughout the New Testament letters. Couldn’t talk about it in any depth? Why not?; when a Mormon refers to the temple and growing in knowledge you are facing the Gnostic controversy that plagued the early church and was addressed by apostles and early church leaders alike. Not familiar with it?

A Christian should know and understand these things whether or not they meet a JW or Mormon ever again. They are central to what you believe and they explain why you believe it. Every mature and believing Christian should be able to explain the basics of the faith, both to themselves as an encouragement and to others as an account of the faith they are sharing.

“What do you say to a Mormon/JW?” I often get asked this question but there is no killer text you know. It’s a question that betrays a lack of understanding and poor preparation. Witnessing isn’t somehow ‘magical’. It isn’t as simple as dropping some text into a conversation, standing back and waiting for a reaction. It involves relationship, understanding, preparation and patience and there are no short cuts.

I tend to see it in stages and consider myself as having succeeded if any stage is successfully negotiated:
  1. I get into a conversation. What do you say to a JW? You say, “Hello. How are you?”
  2. I tell them I am a Christian. Not in an accusative fashion as though challenging them to make something of it but simply declaring that I see the world through Christian eyes.
  3. I get them to talk about what they believe, rather than telling them what they believe.
  4. I get to share in more detail what I believe; confidently negotiating the terrain because I have walked here before many times. I am leading them through my faith world not just telling them things.
I work from number 1 to number 4 and with each step I consider myself as having succeeded more and more. Most people work from number 4 to number 1 and with each step consider themselves as having failed more and more.

I always try and take the shortest route to the Cross, which is not always short, but I try to avoid secondary issues by listening and then trying to bring the conversation back to what I consider needs to be addressed. Of course, these encounters can be brief so I use my knowledge appropriately, sometimes having the luxury of time to develop a theme, sometimes only being able to share a few appropriate words.

But if I move from 1 to 4 then I will never have failed if only because I have shared with them my Christian conviction and shown them Christian charity in taking the time to speak to them.

It is important not to always expect to talk about your own favourite subjects. Instead I find out what is important to them and try and speak to that because that is where there will be the greatest challenge and the best opportunity. You see, it is important to speak with a person and not at them, to the person standing in front of you and not to the organisation standing behind them.

Finally, this reflects my aspirations and does not describe how I always conduct myself. We are all human and it makes no sense to despair because we have not yet attained all that God has for us.

Previous posts:
If These are Christians
The problem with the Church
The Problem with Anti-Cult Ministry
The Fear is Irrational
The Prejudce is Petulant

Future Posts:
The ignorance is Inexcusable
The Indifference is Frightening
Christians and the Magical World-view
Ambiguity Tolerance

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Equipping the Cults to Deal With the Church - 05

The Prejudice is Petulant

Everyone was milling around after the meeting when an elderly member of the congregation approached me with a tale of having Jehovah’s Witnesses at the door. He had witnessed to them but, apparently, to no avail. Frustrated, he exclaimed, “It’s a waste of time witnessing to these people Mike!” Aghast, I looked at him as if to say, “You can say that - to me?” Seeing the nonplussed look on my face he quickly said, “Oh, you are different Mike.”

I am different and that is because he knows me. Prejudice of the negative kind is the product of ignorance. When a stranger stands on your doorstep sharing views you find alarming, displaying attitudes you find irritating and calling at times you find inconvenient it’s like shutting the door on an irritatingly persistent salesman. But the situations are different as chalk and cheese. The one wants to talk about brushes while the other wants to talk about God.

I often ask people to think of who in their street or community they would wish to witness to had they an opportunity. Now imagine if that person turned up on your doorstep with a Bible and asking if you would like to talk about God. Would you expect it to be a walk in the park? Wouldn’t there be awkward questions? Wouldn’t you expect to deal with misunderstandings; to have disagreements? That is what happens when a Jehovah’s Witness calls and yet...

There is a prejudice against the cultist that is deep-seated and petulant and I think it is based on a mixture of the unreasonable fear we have already discussed and a peevish impatience with the fact that it isn’t “easy”. Like my elderly friend, most Christians just expect witnessing to “work”, the truth to be so blindingly obvious when they pronounce it and the Mormon or JW to be as impressed on hearing as to have the scales fall from his eyes. When “it doesn’t work” that way Christians convince themselves that the JW is being deliberately obdurate; then the shouting begins.


We were doing some Saturday morning outreach in a city centre church, inviting people to come in, have a coffee and take a rest from their Saturday shopping. Inevitably, some visitors were Christians from out of town in the city for the day. One man came with his family and I sat with them for a few minutes making polite Christian conversation. As people are wont to do when they find out my involvement in cult ministry, he began to regale me with his favourite story of an encounter with a Jehovah’s Witness.

He informed the hapless Witness on his doorstep that he was a local Christian pastor and went on to tell him in no uncertain terms what he thought of his religion, ending, “Now leave that Satanic Bible on the doorstep, come inside and let me tell you about Jesus!” Would it surprise you to know that the Witness turned and walked away? It surprised the pastor who shook his head and expressed his amazement at the stubborn obduracy of the average JW.

It is as though we, in our minds, put up shibboleths as tests of orthodoxy for the people we meet. We pronounce the truth and then pronounce them condemned if they do not immediately recognise and declare it their own. We need to accept that Mormons and JWs cannot ‘pronounce shibboleth’, or pass the tests we put up and we need to move on. They are not deliberately and knowingly stubborn. They do not secretly know but deliberately twist the truth. They are deceived by the god of this world and are dead in their trespasses and sins; we need to tell them the truth they do not recognise, show them the life that they don’t have, and point to a better way.

Ask yourself what do you think of the Mormon/JW standing at your door? What is the Mormon’s or JW’s position before God?

Gen.1:26-31 - The person standing there is the pinnacle of creation, made in God’s image

Gen.6:5-6 - The cause of God’s greatest sadness and regret and a broken image

Jn.3:16 - Yet the object of God’s costliest gift with the possibility of being a restored image

Do we appreciate who we are talking to? How can we so summarily judge and so easily dismiss that which God created, grieves over the most and gave the best of heaven to restore?

Previous posts:
If These are Christians
The problem with the Church
The Problem with Anti-Cult Ministry
The Fear is Irrational

Future Posts:
The Prejudice is Petulant
The ignorance is Inexcusable
The Indifference is frightening

Monday, 24 November 2008

Equipping the Cults to Deal With the Church - 04

The Fear is Irrational

There is no biblical imperative to avoid the cultist at your door but there are many who believe there is. More than one Bible teacher and preacher has fallen foul of that inexcusable misinterpretation of 2 John 10, “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting.” One famous Christian writer, whose work I otherwise admire enormously, errs badly in handling this text arguing that we should go to any length to avoid any contact with such people for fear that, a) you give false teachers the impression that their doctrine is acceptable, b) you become infected by association and possible friendship and c) you lend legitimacy to their message when they call on your neighbours. This sort of “just in case” Christianity is endemic but it is weak, ineffectual and thoroughly unbiblical.

If you give false teachers the impression that their doctrine is acceptable that has more to do with conversation than association and if your witness is as ambiguous as to be a comfort to false teachers you need to have a good talk with yourself. If there is a danger of your becoming influenced by false teachers the fault lies with you for being so ill-prepared to hear and refute falsehood and perhaps you need to have a talk with your pastor. If your neighbours are in danger from your witnessing to the cultist that says more about your reputation than ever it does about the cultists or your neighbours and perhaps you need to have a word with your neighbours.

2 John 10 is not saying that you should not have a JW or Mormon into your home. The situation being addressed in this passage is that of travelling evangelists who, working in a first century community that doesn’t have access to church buildings, would routinely expect to preach their message in believers’ homes. False teachers, who presented themselves claiming as evangelists the same right to preach, should be refused and turned away. If this was being written today it would insist that you refuse such people access to your pulpit. This text has nothing to do with hospitality to the lost and bewildered among the cults and is no excuse for avoiding the responsibility to “go into all the world” (Mk.16:15) [even Samaria]; when the world comes to your door with a Bible under its arm to talk about God your every excuse has gone out the window.

Tragically, when false teachers come to the Christian’s home via mass media he or she is too often welcomed with open arms. The irony, and it is a bitter one for me, is that the very people who think they are doing their duty by Scripture in barring their homes and their society to Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are often breaking this very counsel in 2 John 10 in allowing false prophets into their pulpits and, through Christian TV, Radio and the Internet, into their homes. The Christian Church is awash with false prophets and they dare stand in summary judgement on the lost in the cults!

Of course, there are Christians who should be discouraged from associating with the cultist. Young Christians not yet used to the meat of the gospel need to be wary of unhelpful entanglements. Vulnerable Christians, the sick and the elderly who might in their weakness fall prey to wrong thinking, need to be guarded. However this is nothing to do with 2 John 10 but reflects the sensible precautions that should be taken by particular Christians in specific circumstances. The two issues are not to be conflated and 2 John 10 is not to be used as an excuse for weak “just in case” Christianity. My remarks are aimed especially at those Christians and Christian leaders I have met down the years who are mature and perfectly capable of being much more constructive in their witnessing but who fail because of such wrongheaded ideas.

It is notable that when the Jewish leaders wanted to insult Jesus and bring his name into disrepute they called him a Samaritan (John 8:48); the Samaritans were a Jewish cult. However, when Jesus travelled into Samaria, spoke to the woman at the well and stayed for several days to teach the whole community he was associating with cultists (John 4:9). When he taught his followers about the necessity of being a good neighbour he used a cultist, a Samaritan, as his example (Luke 10:33). When he taught them the virtue of thankfulness he used a Samaritan leper, a cultist outcast no less, as his example (Luke 17:16).

I do wonder whether Jesus would be happy to hear the hyperbolic and inflammatory language irresponsibly used to describe the lost in the cults who are nevertheless capable of great good and thankfulness and needful of the truth as much as anyone else.

It’s not that Christians generally don’t care so much as that they haven’t been taught how to care in this particular situation. We try and teach people how to care, how to be prepared to deal with the cults, but such efforts are frustrated when Christians are positively discouraged by ignorant and superstitious leaders from engaging with, even made to fear the Mormon or JW – “just in case.” This attitude to the cultist is a learned behaviour - we learn it from other Christians when we become Christians ourselves. We pick it up with the Bible we learn to favour, the idiom we learn to mimic and the dress code we adopt. Would we have dared behave so crassly towards our fellow human beings before we came to Christ?

Previous posts:
If These are Christians
The problem with the Church
The Problem with Anti-Cult Ministry

Future Posts:
The Prejudice is Petulant
The ignorance is Inexcusable
The Indifference is frightening

Friday, 21 November 2008

Equipping the Cults to Deal With the Church - 03

The Problem with anti-cult Ministry

The problem with anti-cult ministry is that it is so apparently foreign. To paraphrase L P Hartley, “The cults are a foreign country: they do things differently there.” It can feel like stepping into a parallel universe. James Sire refers to it in the title of his book as “The Universe Next Door”.

When the local church is dealing with an actual foreign land and culture it typically throws its weight behind some missionary organisation. It might have one or two keen individuals who feel called to foreign parts, people for whom it will pray and to whom it will send funds and encouragement. Their pictures will be put on a notice board, alongside a map, and newsletters will be read to the congregation. If the country isn’t too dangerous some of the youth might be sent out for two or three weeks experience. Otherwise foreign mission needn’t disturb the church’s comfortable, middle-class existence.

However, when the foreign country is a cult the church can’t simply “send” because this foreign country isn’t abroad so much as abroad in the land. Having a few people dedicated to the work doesn’t cut it because the cult comes to your neighbourhood, to your own door! This is shockingly uncomfortable and so the church largely ignores the problem, adopting a policy of keeping as healthy a distance as possible in the circumstances. Since that distance cannot be maintained geographically it is maintained ideologically. Cults are dubbed dangerous and subversive and members condemned as culpable and beyond the pale.

There is no need therefore, let alone any imperative to prepare thoughtfully, witness intelligently and reach out lovingly. After all, we have decided that it is too dangerous and they are too far beyond talking to. The stories I have told in previous posts (and others to come) illustrate how this attitude manifests itself to a cult member. Thank goodness for people in “anti-cult” ministries!

The problem is that people who concern themselves with the cults are often embarrassingly emphatic about what they believe needs to be done about the cults and this does not sit well with either the middle class, liberal agenda or the conservative reactionary instincts found in many parts of the church. These people draw our attention to the uncomfortable issues surrounding truth and error, doctrine and teaching, mission and outreach. They inconveniently insist that the church has a responsibility in these things and should see outreach to the cults as part of fulfilling the call to guard the deposit of faith and to go into all the world; the church often sees it as unreasonable pedantry, and blushes in its presence.

Whichever way you look at it the church wishes these people would go away or at least like good cobblers stick to their last; become a picture on a notice board; be thankful for the occasional mention in the bulletin. Those in the ministry wish the church would live up to its responsibilities and actually learn to reach out to cult members not react to them.

Anti-cult ministry is traditionally looked upon as a specialist work and those involved are looked upon as a kind of "vice squad" of the Christian world. However, this type of ministry, which seeks to uphold biblical truth, has a long and noble history and has always been at the very centre of what the church is about, saving souls and championing truth.

Paul combated the cult of Gnosticism in his day (Colossians 2: 8, 18-19) as did the apostle John (1 John 2:18-22). Church leaders frequently stood against the doctrine of salvation by works. In the first few centuries of church history the work of clearly defining the faith once delivered happened largely in response to the growth of error. Classic examples include:

EBIONISM - A second century form of Unitarianism, that denied the deity of Christ, taught law keeping, and often practised circumcision. This was a Judaistic heresy that sought to go back to the law and preserve monotheism by denying the trinity. Men and women are naturally drawn to a religious system that promises salvation by good works. A mixture of grace and works is a primary characteristic of the cults.

MONTANISM - A charismatic heresy that, like the Mormons, taught continuing revelation which carried equal weight with scripture, practised a form of blood atonement which assigned sin-atoning power to martyrdom, and encouraged a spiritual elitism, claiming to be a new breed of super-Christians.

ARIANISM - a Fourth century heresy that, like Jehovah's Witnesses, taught that Jesus was a created being, different in essence from the Father, and therefore not God.

Our society is much like the one into which the early church was born. It is international, pluralistic, where all sorts of alternative spiritual realities are made available to the seeker. Our neighbours, our friends and work colleagues are looking to luck, fortune tellers, mystics, crystals, tarots, totems, the god within, the new age to come. They are looking for certainty and assurance, hope and comfort and they are finding them in the dogmatism of a conservative Mormonism, in the doom laden message of Jehovah's Witnesses, or in the deception of post-modern syncretism. It is the role of the Christian church to be a light bearer in the darkness and confusion. It is the calling of the Christian to "contend earnestly for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints" (Jude 1:3)

Church history is replete with stories of those who contended for the faith. Our spiritual forebears fought hard for eternal truths cherished by today's believers. Tomorrows believers will inherit what we contend for today. What are we doing about it?

Previous posts:
If These are Christians

The problem with the Church

Future Posts:

The Fear Is Irrational

The Prejudice is Petulant

The ignorance is Inexcusable

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Equipping the Cults to Deal With the Church - 02

The Problem with the Church

I sometimes imagine myself having the opportunity to address church leaders from across the UK on the subject of the cults. I imagine a lively question and answer session during which a hand would go up and someone would ask the question. “How well do you think we are doing in handling the problem of the cults?” After a pause to gather my thoughts and choose my words very carefully I would reply,

“Watching the church handle the cults is rather like watching a bus crash in slow motion. You know it isn’t going to turn out well, you wish you could do something to stop it, but past experience has taught you that all you can do is be there to pick up the pieces afterwards.”

Don’t misunderstand me, there are individual Christians and churches that do reasonably well, occasionally very well, but the picture across the church in general is so inexcusably poor as to be depressing. I have been the hapless Mormon victim of such poor practice and the frustrated Christian teacher whose efforts are often confounded by the irrational fear, careless indifference, profound ignorance and inexcusable prejudices so prevalent among even mature Christians and Christian leaders.

It seems that there are two extremes of behaviour and attitude that are common and thoroughly unbiblical. The first is the one in which the cult member is regarded as having no intrinsic worth unless and until they convert. Before that happens a Mormon is prey for anyone who fancies chancing their arm at a bit of witnessing, that witnessing usually involving a lot of shouting, finger pointing, denouncing, ridiculing and ‘casting out’ like it’s a universal panacea. Of course, some find this crass approach unacceptable and are often driven to the other extreme.

The other extreme is that liberal attitude that ‘respects’ other faiths, new religions etc. such that there are no meaningful differences between them. There is no objective truth, no way to be lost, no way to be saved and no faith for which to contend. In short no light in the darkness just a crowd of people scrambling around in the failing light politely repeating, ‘after you’, ‘no, after you’ as they defer to one another all the way down to hell.

My experience of the two extremes has seen some so bent on giving the cultist a good telling that they fail to model hope and forget their responsibility for the reputation of Christ. The message is not “look and live” but “turn or burn”. Disgust and disapproval are so reassuring. They anchor our moral sentiments and feel instinctively like a moral proof. To abandon our sense of disapproval seems to have the effect of cutting at the very foundations that support our innate sense of being right. Yet, if we are to be effective witnesses for Christ then grace demands that we overcome our instincts and look at the world through the eyes of Christ.

Others, however, are so determined to nurture a good reputation (usually their own is uppermost in their thinking, “see how liberal and enlightened I am?”) that they dare not risk offence even though the Bible makes clear that the Cross is an offence to those that are dying. These take every opportunity to find the good in Mormonism, downplay differences as experimental rather than fundamental, and reinforce in Mormons the false notion that they really are part of the wider Christian community and have something positive to offer. Such an approach would have robbed me of my salvation and I do not appreciate it.

What is the answer? Surely it is in the words of Peter:

"In your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander" (1 Peter 3:15-16)

Christians have a hope and it is uniquely founded upon Jesus Christ. There is one hope and one reason for that hope and there is a clear injunction to evangelise those without this hope. But it is to be done with gentleness towards others, respect for the Lord and concern for the good name of the One on whom that hope is founded.

Personally, I despair not so much of the counter-cult community that at least makes every effort to reach those lost in deceptive and destructive cults, as I do of the church in general that fails consummately to understand its responsibilities for those lost in false religions.

Previous posts:

If These are Christians

Future Posts:

The Problem With Anti-Cult Ministry

The Fear Is Irrational

The Prejudice is Petulant

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Equipping the Cults to Deal With the Church - 01

If These are Christians

The young man loiters outside the church office as though in a fog of indecision. Seeming to resolve his apparent doubts, he climbs the few steps leading up to the church building and walks purposefully through the door, not knowing what to expect when he gets inside. He finds himself confronted by a young woman, a secretary perhaps, who confidently asks him how she might help. He asks to see the pastor.

Ushered through the outer office into an inner sanctum, his resolve is already beginning to fail him. A middle-aged man sitting behind a large desk looks up and asks him what he wants. Words almost fail the young man but he manages, “I am a Mormon” immediately doubting the wisdom of such an opening as he sees a look of caution come over the pastors face. Pressing on regardless he stutters, “I want to talk about the differences between what you believe and what we believe.”

The pastor hasn’t risen from his chair, hasn’t offered his hand and nor has he offered his visitor a seat indicating that this might be a very short interview and getting shorter by the moment. “You know,” he responds dryly, “there is a vast chasm between what you believe and what we believe?” His tongue clinging to the roof of his mouth and his voice failing him, the young man says in what is almost a whisper, “Yes, I know.”

The pastor is silent and the combination of the cold welcome and his own failing nerve motivates the young man to mutter his thanks and retreat back out onto the cold pavement where, moments earlier, his resolve had seemed so strong. Where he was once confused and harboured questions about his faith he is now mortified and asking how he could possibly have believed this was a good idea.

That same young man stands on the perimeter of a Christian bookshop in the local indoor market, surreptitiously scanning a book that purports to expose the truth about “the cults”. If a pastor won’t help him understand, then he will just have to find out for himself and so he peruses the pages about Mormonism. An older man is looking over his shoulder but he is completely unaware of this man’s presence until he speaks.

“You don’t believe that rubbish?” He hears the disparaging words before turning to see the older man walking off briskly through the market. This time the young man’s nerve holds, indeed he is angry. “Who do these people think they are!” he thinks to himself. Putting down the book he rushes after the man, catching up with him at the other end of the market building. Putting his hand on the man’s shoulder, he makes the man turn to face him and demands, “Do you know me?” This has caught the older man completely off guard and he says, “No, I don’t know you.”

““Then why,” the young man demanded, “assume that I was a Mormon? I needn’t have been.”
He continued, “I am a Mormon, and want to know what exactly gives you the right to speak to me in that way when you don’t even know me?”

The older man squirms, turns and rushes off as a very angry and disappointed young man watches him go. He’s got the message; he’s fair game. “If these are Christians,” he thinks to himself, “I don’t want to be one of them!” I remained a Mormon for another ten years. When I finally became a Christian, I was convinced that it was a true miracle, and one that occurred in spite of most Christians and not because of them. That was twenty-two years ago and I have spent the best part of that time trying to equip the church to deal with the cults. I have chosen the title of this paper because I have wondered over the years whether my time would have been better and more productively spent equipping the cults to deal with the church.

Just a few years after coming to Christ my wife and I got involved with Reachout Trust and have spent the past eighteen years or so increasingly involved in cult work. For many years I have been a director and trustee and have written books and articles, given seminars at conferences and in churches, met with, spoken to and corresponded with cult members and with those Christians who are concerned with the work of reaching out to the cultist. Having recently (Summer 2008) stepped down from that official position with Reachout Trust I feel I can and should share something of my experience and my deep concern for the role of the church in that work.

Coming up:

2 The problem With the Church

3 The Problem With Anti-cult Ministry

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Seeking the Kingdom and Somewhere to Stand

The theme of Matthew’s Gospel is “Kingdom”. At its beginning we find John the Baptist declaring, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Mt.3:2). “Jesus went throughout Galilee...preaching the good news of the kingdom” (Mt.4:23). The word “Kingdom” appears 55 times and the phrase “the kingdom of heaven” 32 times. We are urged to seek it above everything else, called to enter it through repentance, informed that it is good news and promised that it belongs to the poor, the meek, the merciful and those who hunger after righteousness.

Kingdom Now!

The kingdom of God is not entirely something we look forward to in the future but can be experienced here and now as we give ourselves in obedience in him.

It is near (Mt.3:2), within us (Lk.17:21), can be seen whenever we see kingdom power in action (Mt.12:28), we have been brought into it through Christ (Col.1:13), we are in the process of receiving it (Heb.12:28) and we look forward when we enter into our full inheritance in it (Mt.25:34, 46)

We often miss the kingdom now because we are looking in the wrong places, looking to large movements, institutions and organisations. That is not to say that the kingdom is not organised or always operates outside the established church of any age. But it cannot be assumed that it is always identified with institutions. God’s kingdom can enter and quicken man’s institutions and leave them as dead as they were before God stepped in.

Kingdom in History

Too often, when we read our history we can focus our attention on those institutions that so easily impress or dismay us. Often our understanding of church history paints a picture of decline after the apostles, the Dark Ages, Medieval Catholicism, Reformation, Revivals, further decline until we seem to be just hanging on for Jesus to come back. But if we look again, seeking those things Jesus identified as kingdom characteristics, we find a more encouraging picture. There are so many examples of men and women demonstrating kingdom living in the midst of what might at first seem relentlessly dark times.

For instance, the Waldensians of the twelfth century, the Poor Men of Lyons, made the Bible available in the common language, stressed repentance and conversion, emphasised kingdom living and taught that the Christian life should be informed by the whole Bible, but especially the Sermon on the Mount. In the fifteenth century Jan Huss led a great revival in Prague. His followers were driven underground because of persecution but continued in Bohemia until they found refuge in Germany where Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf sheltered them on his estate. Later known as Moravians, they established a great missionary movement which swept across Germany, Holland, Scandinavia, France, Switzerland, America and England. It was the Moravians who preached to John Wesley on a ship bound to America and he would go on to do a work of such great magnitude through his Methodist Movement as to inspire us even today.

Kingdom Today

As we look at the church today some are encouraged by what they see as revivalism others dismayed by what they see as a moving away from kingdom priorities in apostasy. We may be discouraged by the apparent growth and success of aberrant groups teaching questionable doctrines, or we may just be confused by the many voices vying for our attention. Some people give up, sit in the back or stay away altogether. But if we are to know Jesus’ kingship in our lives we need to be sure of what are the signs of true kingdom living, and that can only be established from Scripture.

Four warning Signs

Fruit is the test, the life of Christ in his followers, and we need to be wary of judging by outward appearances. Jesus warned us against ways that seem plausible but that can lead us further from his kingdom giving us four warning signs:

1. Visible Piety: “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them...And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on street corners to be seen by men" (Mt.6:1,5)

People can, in pursuing a life of religious devotion, play religious games. In Jesus’ day men would make a great show of their charitable giving, having it announced, ostensibly to the poor. However, their ostentation in giving drew the admiration of others. Some would go to street corners or packed synagogues to pray. Their prayers would be long, eloquent and ‘worthy’, demonstrating their piety. They were looked upon as exemplars of the faith but Jesus frowned on such conduct declaring:

“When you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honoured of men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you...When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Mt.6:2-4, 6)

All too often today we find people conforming to a pattern that has more to do with looking good. All too often the left hand knows in some detail what the right hand is doing.

2. Material Success: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust will destroy, and where thieves can break in and steal” (Mt.6:19)

This is such a familiar theme and we are no different today than those people of Jesus’ day in all-too-often equating material success with God’s blessing, while a life of struggle and want is seen as a sure sign of God’s disfavour. It is an idea that is rife today and Jesus meets it head on with, “Don’t think this way!” Our treasure is to be in heaven and, while we are naturally concerned with how we might live day-to-day, nevertheless worrying about these things is a sign that our treasure is inappropriately banked. Bad things do happen to good people and God causes his sun to shine on the righteous and the unrighteous.

3. Exalted Authority: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Mt.7:1-2)

This is not to say that we should not judge wisely in our dealings with others but it highlights that there is a tendency among men and women to establish “authorities”, to seek exaltation above others. We see it at work, in our neighbourhoods and even in our families and it is often no different in the church. The problem becomes clear and the consequences of not paying attention to this lesson sobering when we realise that the judgement we so readily meet out to others “by authority” define the way we will be judged. Never was there a more urgent reason to “do to others what you would have them do to you” (Mt.7:12). Jesus taught an alternative, kingdom way of relating to others. We are not to judge but we are to ask, seek and knock in the way of the one who is aware of our total dependence on God for everything. We are all in the same position before God, sinners in need of grace, supplicants in need of life and wisdom.

4. False Leaders: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves” (Mt.7:15)

It is a fact that in the church today there is a woeful lack of discernment and, both inside and outside the Christian fold, there are false prophets, those who claim to speak for God but who will only lead people astray. Jesus tells us that they can be known, not by their words, but by their fruits (Mt.7:16).

False leaders are marked by:

Public piety rather than private devotion

A concern for rather an indifference to material things

A readiness to judge anyone who asks questions

Inflated claims to speak “with authority” into the lives of the saints

Four Signs of Kingdom Now

True Leaders:

Seek the approval of God instead of men – who is important in a leader’s life?

Are concerned for the things of heaven more than things of this world – what is important in a leader’s life?

Relate to others in humility rather than authority – Does the leader lead or drive his flock?

Bear the fruit of modest devotion, heavenly assurance and a servant heart – is the leader an example to God’s people?

True citizens:

Seek to please God rather than men – who is important in your life?

Trust God and seek his kingdom and righteousness – what are your priorities?

Show their trust in prayer that looks to the king – Are you led by trends or by God?

Act in obedience to what they hear from the king – when leaders lead do you follow?

God’s kingdom is marked by:

Modest charity (Mt.6:14)

Prayer, forgiveness and fasting (Mt.6:5-18)

Kingdom priorities (Mt.6:19-24)

Complete trust in the providence of God (Mt.6:25-34)

Slowness to judge (Mt.7:1-6)

Looking to God for our every need (Mt.7:7-12)

Discernment and fruitfulness (Mt.7:15-23)

Kingdom citizens are patient in waiting for the king:

Wisdom and solid foundations allow them to know the times (Mt.7:24-29; Acts 2:42-47).

Realise that often we will see the kingdom where we might least expect it, and that can be surprising and humbling. We must determine to please God and not men; trust God and seek his righteousness in our lives; seek God in prayer and determine to be obedient to his will. These things have marked God’s kingdom in every century and generation and they mark his kingdom today; whether in a faithful remnant, or a revived multitude, God rules in and through those who seek his kingdom and righteousness. If you seek the kingdom you will find it among people like this.