When Paul met with the Ephesian elders in Acts 20, he gave them this solemn charge:
Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. (Acts 20:28–31)
Elders are called overseers (in Greek, episkopoi), a word which means watchers or guardians. They should be eagle-eyed, keeping vigil over the flock and anticipating dangers on the horizon. In this way the church is protected from predators and poisonous ideas that can infiltrate the body. What do you think is the greatest threat to the church today?
As a pastor, I’ve heard from concerned churchgoers about the dangers of Christian nationalism, Critical Race Theory, “Wokeness,” racism, conspiracy theories, government overreach, sexual immorality, biblical illiteracy, and the list goes on. It’s hard to come to an agreement regarding the greatest threat to the church today, so I want to rephrase the question in a way that I believe is helpful: What’s the greatest threat to your church today? You see, different churches face unique dangers which if not identified can destroy them. The gates of hell will never prevail against the church (see Matt. 16:18), but individual churches and church “movements” fail all the time.
Facing Unique Threats
Jesus made this clear in Revelation 2–3. Addressing the seven churches in Asia Minor, he indicated that they each faced unique threats. The church in Ephesus had left its first love—perhaps an indication that they had lost their zeal for evangelism (Rev. 2:1–7). The church in Pergamum was situated right by “Satan’s throne” and some of its members held the teaching of Balaam, a false prophet who was characterized by greed (Rev. 2:12–17). The church in Thyatira tolerated the teaching of Jezebel, and members in Thyatira were compromising with the sexual immorality of the culture (2:18–29). The church in Sardis had what we might call a “dead orthodoxy.” They needed to be awakened from their spiritual slumber (3:1–6). The Laodicean church looked great externally (they were prosperous), but Jesus said they were also lukewarm. For all their earthly splendor, they were spiritually naked (3:14–22).
The key isn’t just to identify the greatest threat to other churches, or “the church,” but the greatest threat to your local church. If we don’t, we might make the mistake of sounding the wrong alarm. We’ll be like the man Jesus described, preaching on how to avoid the specks out in the world while missing the log in our eyes (Matt. 7:5). It’s far easier to identify and respond to the sins of others (even other churches) than it is to deal with the shared sins within our particular church. Imagine the tragedy of the church in Ephesus holding classes on Laodicean lukewarmness while ignoring their insular lovelessness. Yes, lukewarmness is a problem—but it’s not the problem for which Jesus said he would remove their lampstand (Rev. 2:5), i.e., shutter their church.
Let me give you an illustration: Captain Kirk was at the helm of a great big boat with hundreds of passengers, the SS Grace. When he was a child, his father had told him about the Titanic. “Son, a giant iceberg sunk that ship. The crew wasn’t paying attention and lots of people died!” Kirk knew when he became a captain someday that he’d never let what happened to the Titanic happen to his ship. He read everything you could read on icebergs. His crew underwent special “Anti-Iceberg” training and set up extra watches throughout the night. They were confident in their ability to avoid icebergs, but there was a dull anxiety felt by all (even the passengers) because of the horror stories Captain Kirk would repeat about berg-sunken ships. Once, a crew member had insinuated that perhaps since it was late in the summer, they could redirect attention to something else (icebergs being less prevalent). She was mostly viewed with suspicion by the rest of the crew members! Tragically, because of the hours of training the crew received on how to spot an iceberg, they didn’t know much about fire safety. When a grease fire started in the kitchen, the cook responded by splashing water on it. The SS Grace was going up in smoke, but by the time the crew realized there was a fire it was too late. They had been busy scanning for icebergs.
The point of that illustration isn’t to say that icebergs aren’t a problem. There are lots of things on the horizon which the church ought to keep her eyes on. I do wonder, however, if it isn’t the sins we’re most keenly aware of that end up sinking us, but the ones we overlook. It’s the foul smell of the sin beneath our nose that we’ve grown accustomed to that threatens us most of all. A smell which may no longer offend us, but which still offends Christ. Vigilance is good, but it starts with an examination of ourselves. Only when we deal with the logs at home will we see the specks on the horizon clearly.