HOW A SPIRITUAL MOVEMENT DECLINES - II
In the history of Christendom, we see that every godly reformer sent by God to bring Christendom back to Him could serve God’s purpose only in his own generation. In almost every case, after the reformer died, his followers in the next generation laid greater emphasis on the doctrines their leader taught than on the life that he had. The form of godliness became all-important and the power of godliness was ignored. Thus decline and decay set in.
By the time such movements reached their third generation, the corruption and the decay within the group became total. The group thereafter bore no resemblance whatever to the godliness and the spirituality that had been found in their leader. They proclaimed the same doctrines he did and gloried in his name-but built Babylon.
A group can start as a spiritual movement, but still end up as soulish and carnal- and even demonic. A movement started by a man of God can easily end as a cult.
The same story of decline that we saw in the history of David, Solomon and Rehoboam has been repeated again and again in Christendom. Just examine carefully any movement that started with God and that is currently in its second or third generation - and you will see this truth before your eyes.
Why does this happen? The answer is simple: Because believers are more taken up with the letter of the Word than with the Person of Jesus Christ. When any doctrine becomes more important than personal devotion to Christ, decay, self-righteousness and Pharisaism are invariably the result. We have seen numerous examples of how even the doctrine of “taking up the cross” has been turned into mere words, without the life of Jesus being manifest in those who preach it.
All of this should be a serious warning to us. Consider the history of the church at Ephesus.
Paul stayed there for three years, preaching night and day (Acts 20:31). The Ephesian Christians listened to many hundreds of sermons from Paul’s lips. They had seen extraordinary miracles wrought by the Lord in their midst (Acts 19:11). From their midst, the Word of God had spread to all the surrounding parts of Asia Minor during a short period of two years. They had experienced revival (Acts 19:10, 19). They were the most privileged of all the churches in apostolic times. They were also undoubtedly the most spiritual church in Asia Minor at that time. (We can see that from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, where he had to correct no error in their midst, unlike the way he had to in the other churches to which he wrote.)
But when Paul was leaving Ephesus, he warned the elders that things would take a turn for the worse in the next generation, under the new leadership of the church. He told them that savage wolves would come into their midst and that from among their own midst would arise men speaking perverse things, drawing people after themselves, instead of drawing people to the Lord (Acts 20:29,30).
As long as Paul was there, no wolf had dared to enter the flock at Ephesus. Paul was a faithful doorkeeper (See Mk. 13:34), who had spiritual authority from the Lord, because he was anointed, because he feared God, sought the Lord’s interests and not his own. But he also had enough spiritual discernment to know that the spiritual condition of the elders in Ephesus was bad - and so he knew that things would deteriorate once they took over the leadership of the church.
Paul did not give the elders a prophecy of what would definitely happen at Ephesus. No. It was only a warning. It did not have to happen like he predicted-if the elders would only judge themselves and repent.
Jonah once prophesied destruction on Nineveh. But it did not happen as he predicted, because the people of Nineveh repented. The church at Ephesus also could have escaped the fate that Paul predicted. Alas, the new generation of leaders in Ephesus never took Paul’s warning seriously and drifted away from the Lord.
By the end of the first century, the third generation had come into power. Then things became really bad. Their doctrines were still correct and they were zealous in Christian activity. They probably still had their all-night prayer meetings and other special meetings. But their spiritual state was so bad that the Lord was about to remove His recognition of them as a church. What was their crime? They had lost their devotion to the Lord (Rev.2:4,5).
What does the history of the church at Ephesus teach us? Just this-that no doctrine is as important as a fervent devotion to the Lord Himself. There is one-and only one-mark of true spirituality:that the life of Jesus is manifested increasingly in our behaviour. And this in turn can come only by an increasing personal devotion to the Lord Himself.
Paul was a godly man-a fervent and faithful apostle who was devoted to the Lord Jesus until the very end of his life. He warned believers everywhere that Satan would try every means possible to turn them away from “simple devotion to Christ” (2 Cor.11:3).
Errors in doctrinal matters such as “baptism in water” and “baptism in the Holy Spirit,” are not at all as dangerous as losing one’s personal devotion to Christ. Yet many believers never seem to realise this.
We see that even Paul could serve God’s purpose only in his own generation. Those who lived with him, like Timothy, imbibed his spirit and lived in selfless devotion to Christ (Phil.2:19-21). But otherwise, Paul could not transmit his spirituality even to the second generation of believers in the churches he had founded.
We see a similar pattern being repeated in every movement that God has raised up - in every generation, since the first century.
God has a passion to have a pure testimony for His Name in every part of the world, in every generation. For this purpose, he raises up a godly man in a country, in a particular generation, to restore to the church in that country, the truth that the apostles preached, and thus to lead people to a godly life. A movement gradually starts around that man and a few wholehearted believers who are fed up with the unreality and hypocrisy of the Christendom of their generation gather around him. Very soon a pure testimony is established for the Lord.
Such a group is always small in size at the beginning and intensely hated and persecuted by the older churches. The founder is hated most of all. The hatred is usually most intense from the group that God had raised up in the previous generation-for the current leaders of that group, not realising that the Lord has left them, are jealous of the new group!! Satan too joins in the attack against this new group- and he does his work of accusation mostly through other “believers”-especially those from the older group.
All the persecution and the scheming of men and demons, however, do not hinder God from establishing a pure testimony for His Name in the new generation through the man He raised up.
But what happens when this man dies? Then the movement begins to decline. Personal devotion to Christ disappears and is replaced by emphasis on the doctrines that the founder preached. Those doctrines become more important to the second generation than the Person of the Lord Himself. And a cloud comes between them and God-as it did between the disciples and the Lord on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matt.17:5).
No doctrine, however important or good, can ever take the place of devotion to Jesus Himself. The founder knows the Lord. The second generation knows only the doctrine. Chaos results, and by the time the movement reaches the third generation, there is open division and strife.
One of the commonest things that happens to every movement is that by the time it reaches the second and third generation, it becomes rich and wealthy, with the members owning plenty of money, houses, lands, properties, etc. Wealth has a way of being accompanied invariably by pride, self-sufficiency and complacency-for very few believers know how to handle wealth. The first generation of a movement usually struggles in poverty and is close to God. The second and third generations are usually closer to the world, with all their wealth-and lose out spiritually.
God then withdraws from that group, which has by then become a part of Babylon-and He raises up another man and starts a totally new work through him.
But alas, the same story is repeated all over again-for no-one ever seems to learn from the mistakes of those who went before them!!
Those who are wise will therefore look around them to see where the anointing of God is resting currently-in their own generation-and associate fully with such a church. They will not care to see where the anointing had rested in previous generations. They will look to see where God is moving NOW and not where God moved a generation or two ago.
Scripture tells us very clearly that we must AVOID those who have the mere form of godliness (2 Tim.3:5) and seek to fellowship with “those who call on the Lord from a pure heart” (2 Tim.2:22). Those who have a pure heart are those who love the Lord with ALL their heart. Such believers have no place in their heart for money, for property, for anything of this world, for themselves, for their family members, or for their jobs. They love the Lord supremely and thus love their family members in a deeper way than they would have done otherwise. They are devoted to the Lord and not to any doctrine. We are told to seek fellowship with such believers at all times.
Thus God’s work proceeds from generation to generation, without ever failing-for all the machinations of men and Satan cannot hinder any of God’s purposes. Hallelujah!!