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The Task of the Church (Part I): Guarding Children (Ephesians 4:14)

The Task of the Church (Part I): Guarding Children (Ephesians 4:14)

What is the church supposed to DO? If you ask 10 Christians this question, you’ll get fifteen answers. Is it to send out missionaries and evangelists to share the gospel? Maybe it’s to attract the unchurched to our Sunday morning event so they can hear about Jesus? Maybe it’s community involvement so we can serve the poor and needy. Or political involvement to change the world for the better. Or maybe the church is to provide top quality worshipful experiences for the believers who gather on Sunday morning? Or maybe it’s high quality biblical teaching to help Christians grow in the knowledge of Scripture.

Thankfully, in Ephesians 4:14-16, God, through the pen of Paul, provides some clear instructions on what the church is supposed to do. There are two parts to these instructions of God about the task of the church, and so we will consider them in two different studies. This study will look at Ephesians 4:14, and the next one will look at Ephesians 4:15-16.

Both of these studies, along with all the others in this series, are drawn from my book, God’s Blueprints for Church Growth.

First, however, I want to invite you to download an app that has recently added my YouTube Channel to their recommended resources. The app is the Grace Zone. It is a free app available on the Apple store and the Google Play Store. Along with my YouTube Channel, the app also contains hundreds of recommended resources from other Bible teachers and authors. I highly recommend you get the Grace Zone App.

The Task of the Church: Guarding Children (Ephesians 4:14)

“… that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting …” (Ephesians 4:14)

Anyone who has been around children for very long knows that they can say and believe some of the most amazing things. One little boy came home from Sunday school very excited about the lesson he had learned in Genesis 2 about how Eve was taken from Adam’s side. But a few days later, he came home from school in a very distressed mood. When his mother asked what was wrong, he replied, “My side hurts. I think I’m going to have a wife.”

Another little boy, after being told that God is One, asked when He would be two.

I also read about a group of children who were asked what God does all day. One responded, “He walks on water.” Another said, “He lives! He lives!” A third said, “He organizes heaven, sending people down here in cloud elevators so they can help us earth people out.” One of the little boys said, “He builds boats. All kinds of boats. Nobody knows why.”

When this same group of children were asked what God creates, one little boy answered, “God makes bees with little wings all day. Probably out of mud.” A different child said, “He makes grass a lot of the days. That takes up a lot of hours. Did you ever see how many pieces of grass there are?”

Then they were asked if they could name any of the Ten Commandments, here is what a few of them said:

“Buckle up for safety!”

“Don’t smoke in the bowling alley.”

“Don’t drink beer.”

“Brush your teeth.”

“Don’t go to work on Sundays. And if your boss says she’ll fire you, call in sick.”

“Don’t copy someone else’s paper.”

“I think ‘Don’t kill’ is one. But maybe not.”

“Don’t eat when you have a fever and feel like throwing up.”

“Say ‘No’ to drugs.”

“Don’t talk to strangers.”

“Thou shalt not stab.”

This is part of the wonder and joy of working with children. They are so trusting and have such vivid imaginations. But at the same time, children have some of the most amazing misconceptions and misunderstandings. Sometimes this is the result of their own immaturity and innocence, while at other times, it is due to their gullibility. Children are easily deceived. Children can be told the most outrageous lie and they will believe it because they often don’t know any different.

There was an old Peanuts comic strip where Lucy told Linus that snow didn’t fall from the sky the way most people thought. Rather, it grew up from the ground in the night like a flower and then the wind blew it around. Linus, because he didn’t know any different, believed her.

Children are easily tricked. Easily deceived. And most of the time, it’s a cute characteristic that children have. Almost any story can captivate a child’s attention. Almost any magic trick, no matter how silly, can amaze them.

But it is far from cute when adults have the same gullibility. What is adorable in a child is not at all adorable in an adult. Children are not supposed to stay children forever. Children are to grow up and mature so that they become productive members of society. Sadly, many adults, though they may have matured physically, are still mentally, emotionally, and psychologically immature. It is a sad state of affairs when this happens.

The same thing can happen when it comes to spiritual maturity. When people first believe in Jesus, they are born again into the family of God, and are spiritual babes in Jesus Christ. No matter how old they might be physically, they are spiritual children. And just as humans are supposed to mature as they get older, the same thing is supposed to happen with people the longer they are “in Christ.” But just as physical maturity can sometimes be stunted, so also, some Christians never mature into spiritual maturity.

In fact, it is a sad reality in the church that many modern Christian adults are childish in their thinking. While immature spirituality should be expected from a new believer, many Christians remain childish for far long. While every Christian starts off as a baby Christian, some Christians remain that way for most of their Christian lives.

God wants baby Christians to become mature Christians. He wants Christians to move on from “milk doctrines” that make us feel warm and fuzzy, and start ingesting the meat truths of the Word that we mull over and think about (cf. Heb 5:11–6:3). It is only when Christian do this that they lose their gullibility, and become able to discern good from evil, truth from falsehood, correct doctrine from heresy.

As we think about growing the church God’s way, we have learned that God’s church grows as the people of the church develop into Christlike maturity. And believe it or not, this maturing process is the main activity which God desires for the church. Though people often say that evangelism and world missions are the primary activities of the church, effective evangelism and world missions only take place as Christian mature in the faith and develop Christlikeness in their beliefs and behaviors. All of the activities of the church in this world depend upon Christians growing into spiritual maturity. The task of helping baby Christians grow into mature Christians is to be the primary program of the church.

One of the important parts of planning and constructing a building is the “Architectural Programming” phase. This phase of the design process usually begins before the blueprints are drawn up or the ground is broken. This phase of the construction process helps determine what kind of building will be planned and built. Architectural Programming determines how large the building will be, what materials will be used, how many people the building can hold, the number of rooms it will have, and a whole range of similar details. Therefore, it is appropriate to think of the programming of the church. And as we have just seen, “The Program” of the church is to turn baby Christians into mature followers of Jesus Christ.

God’s Program for His church is not primarily about a music program, an educational program, or a youth program. God’s Program for the church He is building centers around helping people mature in the faith. While music, education, and youth events might help people mature, they are not the only ways that people do mature. God does not care so much about the number of meetings at the church, or the frequency and variety of church events. He doesn’t even care about the number of people. The primary thing God cares about in the church is whether or not the people within it are developing into spiritual maturity.

So when a local gathering of believers is trying to decide whether or not they are accomplishing God’s will for the church in their community, they must not look at the numbers of bodies who sit a pew, the amount of money collected in the offering, or the square feet of the building in which these things take place.[1] The only Program God wants to know about is whether or not the people who make the church look, act, and love more like Jesus this year than they did last year.

This is exactly what Paul writes about in Ephesians 4:14-16. Back in Ephesians 4:13, Paul wrote about the model for the church, which is the measure, stature, and fullness of Jesus Christ. He now turns to describing the two steps for accomplishing this Program in the church. The church must first seek to guard and protect new believers (Ephesians 4:14), and then it must seek to help guide and grow mature believers into greater depth and Christlikeness (Ephesians 4:15-16).

These two aspects of the church Program will be considered in two different studies. This study looks at the topic of guarding the spiritual children in the church (Ephesians 4:14), and the next study will consider Ephesians 4:15-16 about guiding and growing spiritually mature Christians into greater depth and Christlikeness.

No Longer Be Children

When Paul wrote about children in Ephesians 4:14, he was not thinking about those members of the church under the physical age of ten. He had spiritual children in mind, regardless of whatever physical age they might be. A new believer is a child in the faith, whether they are five years old or ninety-five. When we first believe in Jesus, we are born again into the family of God, and start our live as a spiritual babe in Jesus Christ. But we are not to remain in such a state.

The sad fact, however, is that many Christians remain in the infant stage for far too long. While many Christians sit in pews and sing worship songs on Sunday morning for decades on end, some of them remain immature the entire time. So Paul calls the church to help these Christians grow up so that they will no longer be children.

But how can you tell who is a spiritual child and who is not? Christian maturity comes down to two things: beliefs and behaviors. Christian maturity is not measured by how much time a person spends sitting in a pew or reading their Bible. It is measured by how well a person understands the life of God and how well their own life imitates His. Let us briefly consider both aspects, beginning with beliefs.

Beliefs are critically important for growth into maturity. We are what we know. Furthermore, sociologists and psychologists have discovered that a person’s view of God largely determines how that person lives. People who believe that God is vengeful and angry will often be violent and unforgiving. People who believe that God is gracious and loving will more readily love and serve others. So the beliefs of a person help guide that person’s behavior.

Yet how can we know which beliefs indicate maturity? Scripture helps us in this regard. For example, Hebrews 6:1-3 contains a list of six key doctrines which are foundational for every new Christian to understand. The author of Hebrews states that people must understand these six truths in order to move on to the true “meat” of Scripture. These foundational teachings are (1) repentance from dead works, (2) faith toward God, (3) the doctrine of baptisms, (4) the laying on of hands, (5) the resurrection of the dead, and (6) eternal judgment. Do you understand and comprehend what the Bible teaches about these six areas? If not, then according to the author of Hebrews, you are still a Kindergarten Christian. This is not wrong; it just means you have some learning to do.[2]

Sadly, by using this one instrument to measure the maturity of modern, western Christianity, it appears that the majority of Christians might very well be classified as immature. Earl Radmacher was exactly right when he once said that American Christianity is a mile wide but an inch deep.

Similarly, A. W. Tozer said that much of the failures of our Christian experience can be traced back to our habit of skipping through the corridors of the kingdom like children through a marketplace, chattering about everything, but pausing to learn the value of nothing. The church has great power and influence in society, and our presence is evident by the vast number of church buildings and Christian slogans that dot our cultural landscape, but few Christians have progressed much past a milk diet of basic Christian truths.

These basic truths are a great first step, but they are only the first step. We must move on to maturity. We must grow up.

But it is not just theology that indicates maturity. It is not just about what we believe. It is also about what we do. Proper Christian behavior is also required for growth into Christian maturity. Earlier in Ephesians 4, Paul revealed that spiritual maturity can be measured by involvement in ministry. Each member of the church is part of the work Crew on God’s construction site, and each person only grows into Christlikeness as they discover the ministry to which God has called them and start practicing it in their life.

Church ministry is not fulfilled by sitting in a pew on Sunday morning while trying to stay awake during the sermon. Christian behavior does not consist in smiling happily while chatting with friends in the foyer for twenty minutes on Sunday. True Christian ministry and behavior consists of how we live our day-to-day lives with our friends, family, and coworkers. It is measured by how we interact with our neighbor, the server at the restaurant, and the check-out lady in the store. Ultimately, the true test of Christian maturity is love.

In fact, love brings us full circle, back to our beliefs. Christianity is known for its large diversity of beliefs. This is one of the reasons there are so many denominations. How can we know which beliefs are right and which are wrong? The answer is love. Love is the litmus test for good theology. More specifically, love that looks like Jesus Christ is the litmus test for good theology.

If our beliefs do not lead to loving behavior toward others, then we can be sure that our beliefs are wrong. Since God is love, and everything God does is focused on revealing His love, this means that when God’s life is working through us, we too will live with love for others.

But sadly, once again, much of Christianity is not known for its love. Though we Christians often describe ourselves as loving, the average non-Christian rarely describes us in similar terms. Instead, words like “hypocritical, judgmental, and mean” are more often used.[3] Therefore, on this basis, much of modern Christianity can be described as immature. Christians who do not have a ministry and who are not lovingly serving others through the daily and weekly use of their spiritual gifts are not living the way a mature Christian would. Many Christians are immature Christians because they are not doing what God intended the members of His church to do.

Many people seem to think that the longer they are Christians, the more mature they become as a Christian. But this is just not true. Maturity in Christianity is not measured by the length of time one has been a Christians. While it is true that a new Christian cannot be a mature Christian (1 Tim 3:6), a long-time Christian may not be a mature Christian either. A man who has been a Christian for forty years is not necessarily more mature than one who has been a Christian for two. Maturing in the faith takes discipline, correction, training, teaching, instruction, and lots of practice (2 Tim 3:16–4:4).

It is like anything else in life that takes time and practice. For example, I play bass guitar. I’ve been a bass player for thirty years. When I first started playing bass guitar, I remember talking to every bass guitarist I could about how to play the bass. I wanted tips and suggestions on how to improve my ability no the bass. One question I always asked was how long they had played bass. Most of the answers I got were in the eight to ten-year range. So as I set out to learn bass, I couldn’t wait to be able to say that I had played bass for ten years, because by then, I would certainly be good.

But I never took a single lesson. I never bought an instructional book. I never took a class. In fact, after the first year of playing, I put the bass aside, and have only played about a dozen times since then. Yet I still own the bass, and I pick it up every couple years to play for twenty minutes or so. Yet I can truthfully say that I have been playing bass for almost thirty years. However, I am worse today at bass guitar then I was at the end of that first year. I have not improved because I have not practiced. So also, just as length of time does not guarantee mastery of a musical instrument, length of time as a Christian does not guarantee maturity in the Christian life.

But everybody must start somewhere. And everybody, when they first believe in Jesus for eternal life, starts out as a newborn Christian. They are an infant. A spiritual babe. As new Christians, the first thing they must do is focus on growing up. They must learn what to believe and learn how to behave.

However, just like regular children, new Christians don’t really know what they need to grow up. They don’t know how to talk, eat, get clean, or move around. All they really know is that sometimes they are hungry and sometimes they are tired. Sometimes they cry a lot. If given a choice, many of them would pick candy as the main element of their diet, and television as the main activity. But this is because children simply do not know what is good for them. They must be taught and trained by loving, protective adults. The children in the church must be protected and provided for. Those who are spiritually mature must guard the children and give to them what they need. This is what Paul goes describes in the rest of Ephesians 4:14.

Guarding Children

In Ephesians 4:14, Paul mainly emphasizes the guarding of spiritual children. He writes that there are false teachers prowling about, looking for immature Christians who can be led astray. Therefore it is the responsibility of the spiritually mature Christians to make sure that this does not happen to the immature Christians. It is the responsibility of the spiritual adults to guard the spiritual children from false teachers and false doctrine.

God wants the people in His church to have correct doctrine. And although God makes all believers into new creations when we first believe, this does not mean that all of our incorrect ways of living and wrong ways of thinking are instantaneously and completely corrected. Though we pass from death to life when we believe in Jesus, this transformation does not immediately affect all our beliefs and behaviors. We still retain many bad habits and ideas. It is the responsibility of the church, and specifically the pastor-teachers, to teach and train new Christians about what they are supposed to believe and how they are supposed to behave.

God gave the ability to some Christians to use the Word of God to teach and train other Christians, so that these new Christians can start doing the work of ministry. When new and immature Christians are taught what to believe and how to behave, they grow up in the faith and start loving and serving others, so that the entire church is strengthened. But until new Christians have matured a bit, they often fall prey the false teachings that abound in our fallen world. This is why it is important for church leaders to guard immature believers from false teaching and false teachers. Let us consider both dangers more closely.

From False Teaching

Ephesians 4:14 reveals that when new Christians are not adequately guarded by mature Christians, several bad things happen. First, the immature Christians are tossed to and fro. Like a child in a professional wrestling match, immature Christians get tossed around in the ring when they try to stand against sin and Satan. They are easily defeated and easily deceived. This is because they have not yet been trained to correctly discern truth from error. They fall prey to false doctrine and those who teach strange ideas.

This has been true of new Christians since the very beginning of the church. The early church fought against numerous heresies. One of the earliest was the heresy of the Gnostics. In the Greek language, gnosis means knowledge, so the Gnostics taught that in order to receive all that God wanted for you, you had to be given a special and deeper knowledge of God. This heresy led a lot of Christians astray, and the book of 1 John was written to combat an early form of this heresy.

Sadly, various forms of Gnosticism are still rampant in the church today, especially among those that place a heavy emphasis on gaining special knowledge, blessings, or experiences in the Christians life. Gnostic ideas are also found in the dualistic tendencies of some churches to emphasize the spiritual realm over the physical. Any group of believers that focus more on the Holy Spirit than on Jesus has likely succumbed in various ways to this ancient heresy. After all, the Holy Spirit does not like to take center stage, but always points people to Jesus. So mature Christians today can help immature believers avoid these ancient false teachings.

Then there was the heresy of Arianism. This teaching has nothing to do with Hitler’s sadistic dream of an Arian race. Instead, this false teaching claims that Jesus Christ was not fully God, but was just a human like the rest of us. Many Christians fell into this trap in the early days of the church, and there are some even today who argue that Jesus was not God, but was just an enlightened human who shows us the way that we too can become enlightened.

Later in church history, the church struggled against the heresy of Pelagianism. Pelagius taught that humans were born sinless and that, through sinless living, could attain heaven by good works and human effort. Many followed his path, and indeed, many still do. Any time you encounter someone who teaches that good works are necessary to make it into heaven, you are encountering remnants of the Pelagian heresy. Oddly, many of those who most loudly decry the Pelagian heresy turn around and teach the necessity of good works in order to attain heaven. They say things like “Salvation is by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone” or “Faith without works is not really faith at all.” Such statements show that good works are required to attain heaven.[4] The anti-Pelagians have become Pelagian.

We could go through the centuries of church history and list one heresy after another, one false teaching after another. The truth is that the church is always being attacked by falsehood. But as every new wind of false doctrine rises, the church also rises against it, to teach the truth and call people to hold fast to what we have received. Nevertheless, there have always been those within the church who were immature, who were children, and who fall prey to these false teachings. They are the ones that Paul refers to in Ephesiains 4:14 who are tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine.

The picture Paul describes is of a small boat on a stormy sea getting tossed to and fro by the waves. Those who have been on a stormy sea, or even on a stormy lake in a small boat, know that it is a very frightening experience. Every swell threatens to capsize or crush the vessel. And there seems to be no end to the threatening waves. They just keep coming, one after another, pounding, crashing, and breaking. You expend all of your energy trying to get to the safety of the shoreline without seeming to make any progress. This is how it feels to be caught in the torrential waves of false doctrine. It is frightening and exhausting.

A new Christian reads some book or hears some teacher who says one thing, and the statements seem to be logical and biblical, so the new Christian thinks that what they heard was correct. They often begin to excitedly tell their friends and family about what they have learned. But it is not long before one of these friends questions or challenges some of these ideas, and suggests that the new Christian read a different book or hear a second speaker who teaches the opposite. When the new Christian follows this suggestion, these new ideas also sound logical and biblical. So the new Christian becomes confused, and a little bit scared. They want to believe what is right, but have trouble determining which teaching is right and which is wrong. After a few of these issues pile up in their minds, they begin to feel battered, beaten, and tossed about by the winds of doctrine.

But note that the waves which might toss a small boat back and forth will barely touch an ocean liner. The church is a like the giant ocean liner. Church history, tradition, and teachings provide stability in the storm and firm decks on which to stand, so that there is no fear for those on board. But those who stray from the teachings of the church will get tossed to and fro by the waves, and will face the fear and uncertainty that comes with them. It is the church’s responsibility to call all new Christians to board the ocean liner, where they can gain their sea legs in a manageable and safe environment.

Paul continues this line of thinking by the next phrase in Ephesians 4:14, where he describes these children as being carried about with every wind of doctrine. Again, picking up the imagery of a boat at sea, this would be like a boat which has no sail and no oars. A boat of that kind is at the mercy of the wind. If the wind blows east, the boat goes east. If the wind changes direction and blows west, the boat goes west. A boat without any way to maneuver is a boat that is carried about with every wind. And that is exactly what happens to children who have not been grounded in the Word of God. When people fail to become founded upon the Word, they get carried about by every wind of doctrine (cf. Jude 12; Heb 13:9).

But it is not just the winds of doctrine that blow immature Christians around, it is also the false teachers who teach these doctrines. The false teachers are the true danger that Paul focuses on in the rest of verse 14, for without false teachers, there would be no false teaching.

From False Teachers

Paul continues in Ephesians 4:14 to write about the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting. False teachers are tricky, cunning, and crafty. They are deceitful. They plot schemes and carry them out. Part of this is because they themselves are deceived. Many false teachers, I believe, don’t set out to become a false teachers, and often do not realize they are false teachers.

Most people who teach false doctrine are fully convinced of the truth of it themselves. False teachers truly believe that they are right. This is what makes them so persuasive. They honestly believe that they have discovered a set of truths which everyone needs to believe. But the real truth is that they too have been deceived and tricked into teaching what they teach.

There are, of course, some who purposefully set out to deceive. The old Steve Martin movie, “Leap of Faith,” though intended to be a satire of modern-day healing ministries, also revealed how some false teachers are simply in the ministry for the money and the fame. Some don’t believe a word of what they are teaching, but they teach it anyway because it bring in lots of money.

Nevertheless, for the most part, false teachers do not know they are false teachers, and therefore, false teachers are hard to recognize. False teachers do not wear signs proclaiming who they are. They are, as Jesus said, wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matt 7:15). Sometimes, the most vociferous and argumentative defenders of the truth, who go about accusing everyone else of being a false teacher, are false teachers themselves.

Furthermore, just as no false teacher believes they are a false teacher, nobody sitting under a false teacher believes that they are receiving false teaching. After all, if a person knew that they were learning from a false teacher, they would stop listening to them. Nobody intentionally listens to and obeys a teacher they know to be false and deceptive.

So how do false teachers become false? It happens in a variety of ways. Sometimes a teacher gets tired of not getting the attention they think they deserve. So in order to get attention, they invent or develop a brand new idea or an exciting way of teaching, and oftentimes this teaching turns out to be false. Through sly words, fine-sounding arguments, and phrases that tickle the ears, they gain support and popularity.

Though they do not intend to teach falsely, they do not teach with the right motives. Rather than teach to spread the truth, they teach to gain popularity or a following for themselves. They want to be known and recognized. They want to be the largest church in town or the most popular podcast online. Often, money is a factor as well, so that rather than teaching to grow spiritual children into adults, they teach to grow their own wallet and bank account.

This means that two reliable signs of a false teacher is when they only seem to care about growing the numbers of followers they have, or they often talk about giving money to support them and their ministry. Any time a teacher starts talking a lot about numbers, red flags should go up in the minds of the mature Christian. The sad reality is that these false teachers are not just led astray themselves by the lure of power and riches; they also lead astray spiritual children who have not been grounded in good doctrine.

And lest we get too puffed up with pride about our own ability to spot false teachers and sniff out bad doctrine, we must recognize that all Christians (including you and me) have occasionally fallen prey to false teaching. In fact, we can also say with a high degree of certainty that all Christians (including you and me) currently believe some false theology. There is not a single person on the face of the earth who is 100% correct in everything they believe. This is why we must continually be learning, studying, refining, and correcting ourselves under the authority of Scripture.

If you have been caught up in error in the past, or if you are afraid of being caught up in error in the future, you can mature and protect yourself from false teachers by taking time and making effort to study good biblical teaching and listen to good biblical teachers. Ask God to reveal to you where you are wrong in your thinking and theology, and then ask Him to direct you to good resources and teachers who can help guide you into the truth. Most importantly, never be afraid to question or challenge anything you believe. You can only discover false ideas if you question those ideas.

To truly see where you are lacking in your theology, seek to put into practice what you have learned. Only by ministering and serving others will you be able to see if what you are learning is truly leading you into love. After all, love is the litmus test for good theology. When you learn and live this way, you will no longer be spiritual children (cf. 1 Cor 13:11), tossed to and fro and carried about by every wind of doctrine, but instead, you will become a mature and Christlike spiritual adult.

This is the first aspect of God’s Program. It is what keeps us from false teaching and false teachers. Although Ephesians 4:14 mainly talks about the importance of guarding the spiritual children in church, the other aspect of proper parenting is giving to the children, or providing for them. Paul doesn’t mention this, but it is appropriate to include it because there is so much confusion today about what exactly a new Christian needs.

Giving to Children

Children are not born into this world knowing what is good for them. They need to be trained to eat their vegetables rather than fill up on licorice and Twinkies. They need to be told to not sit too close to the TV, to go to bed at a decent hour, and to treat other children with respect. If parents allowed children to make all their own decisions, few children would live past the age of ten.

It is the same with spiritual children. When we first become Christians, we do not know what is good for us. We want cotton candy sermons that are light, airy, and sweet on the tongue. We want high-energy music that gives us goosebumps. We don’t want to hear about getting rid of sin or practicing spiritual disciplines. We prefer to be carried everywhere, and don’t want to learn how to walk in the Spirit. And oftentimes, when we don’t get our way, we throw temper tantrums and get angry at the leadership of the church for not giving us what we want.

Sadly, most churches today seem to operate under the conviction that new Christians (and even non-Christians) know best what they need. They run surveys to discover what the “felt needs” are of new and non-believers, and then organize the church around these needs. When the church operates under this mentality, it functions like a family that assumes children know what they need. The end result of focusing solely on these “felt needs” is that the young Christians remain weak and sickly children who never grow up or mature.

I agree that it is critically important to meet the physical, emotional, relational, and psychological needs of new and non-Christians. After all, if we only seek to meet the spiritual needs of people, we have fallen into the ancient trap of dualism, thinking that it is only the spiritual aspects of life that matter. The church is to minister to the whole person. Nevertheless, the church must not primarily take its cues from new believers or unbelievers about what the church should be doing and offering. Why not? Because new Christians and non-Christians don’t really know what they need. They know what they want, but this is quite different from what they need.

If parents met only the “felt needs” of their children (as far too many are now doing!), we would be near the end of civilization as we know it. When my daughters were young, they thought they needed a dog, a pony, a kitten, a fish, a horse, a lion, a bird, and just about every other animal they saw. When it came to food, they thought they needed jelly beans, licorice, chocolate ice cream, juice, chips, and green olives. (Yes, my oldest daughter loved green olives when she was two.)

But as parents in the family, my wife and I (actually, my wife more than I) knew what our daughters needed better than they did. Did they need food? Yes, but not junk food. They needed healthy food, and we added in sweets and candy as a treat after the healthy food was eaten. Did they need companionship and something to take care of? Yes. It is good to develop the caretaking abilities of children. But they didn’t need to be Noah, gathering two of every animal they saw. Did they need time to relax and be entertained? Sure. But this doesn’t mean they get to watch television all day long.

The same is true for the church. Those who are more mature in the faith and who know sound doctrine, should be the ones who decide what to teach. And those who, through constant practice, are able to discern good from evil (Heb 5:15), should be the primary decision-makers about what to give to the new and immature believers in the church.

New Christians do not know what they need. Most think they need big churches with numerous options and lots of activities to divert their energy and attention from the troubles of life. They want a large children’s program and youth group, forty-five minutes of quality, heart-pounding music, and a dynamic speaker who takes them on an emotional roller-coaster complete with side-splitting jokes and tear-jerking stories. When they leave church, they want to feel all warm and fuzzy inside and as if God Himself has sung them to sleep.

None of these are bad things. Youth groups and children’s programs are good. Quality music is a must. It is a sin to bore people with the sermon (the ideas in Scripture are the most exciting ideas that exist). And people should absolutely feel closer to God when they hang out with other believers. But these are not the only things that new Christians need.

New Christians, like new babies, need milk—and lots of it. Milk helps newborns grow, and it helps protect them from sickness and disease. There is also a bond that forms between the mother and the infant as the baby feeds. Spiritually, the mother of the new Christian is the church. So with all of these benefits, it is the responsibility of the spiritually mature adults in the church, and especially of the pastor-teacher, to make sure that milk is what new Christians get. Whether it is provided through a special service or in a small-group study, new Christians need spiritual milk.

What is spiritual milk? It is nothing but the pure and simple teaching of the Word of God, and the activity of showing them how to practice these truths in their lives. Peter writes in 1 Peter 2:2 that Christians, as newborn babes, should desire the pure milk of the Word, so that they may grow (cf. also Heb 5:11–6:3). If a church is not giving to its people the clear and systematic teaching of Scripture, complete with explanation and application, and finished off with actual practice in the community, then they are not giving to the people what they need. Such church leaders are starving their children and should not wonder why the Christians in their church never seem to mature.

And note that as a child grows and develops, they eventually should become self-feeders. That is, while it is important for parents to feed their children when they are young, people should not continue to be fed by their parents for their entire life. Part of the maturing process is that children learn to prepare their own meals and feed themselves.  So while it is a valid criticism for new Christians to say that they “are not being fed” by the church, it is not valid for those Christians who think they are mature to make the same complaint. By the time a baby Christian becomes a mature Christian, they should be able to plan, prepare, and eat their own spiritual meals.

If parents continue to feed their children for 48 years after they are born (barring any special mental or psychological factors, of course), that parent is a failure. At some point or another, those parents must show their children the door, saying, “It is time to be an adult on your own.” Yet ironically in the church, it is usually those Christians who consider themselves to be “mature” who complain that they are “not getting fed” by the pastor’s sermons. It is important to be fed spiritually … when you are spiritual baby. But as you mature as a follower of Jesus Christ, you should learn to feed yourself.[5]

And so it is a pastor-teacher’s responsibility along with the other overseers of the church, to protect the church from false teaching and false teachers. The best way to do this is to provide good teaching from good teachers, and then lead by example on how to live out these teachings in our daily lives. It is not enough to tell a child they can’t have Twinkies and soda pop every day. The spiritual leaders of the church must also provide good, healthy meals to the children so that they can grow and mature. These children will ultimately be able to study Scripture for themselves and teach it to others also.

As great as children are, the main goal of child-rearing is to help them grow up to become productive members of society. This involves guarding them from harm and giving them what they need. The same is true for the church. As great as new believers are, the goal of the church is to help new Christians mature into productive members of God’s kingdom. For this to happen, they need to be protected from what will harm them and they need to be guided into sound doctrine. This is what Paul goes on to explain in Ephesians 4:15-16.

Notes:

[1] See my book, Church is More than Bodies, Bucks, & Bricks (Dallas, OR: Redeeming Press, 2015) for more on this subject.

[2] I have written a book on all six doctrines, but it is not yet published. Join my discipleship group at RedeemingGod.com/join/ to get notified when this book is available.

[3] See Dan Kimball, They Like Jesus But Not the Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan: 207) and David Kinnaman, UnChristian (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012).

[4] See J. D. Myers, The Gospel According to Scripture  for a longer explanation of why such statements are wrong.

[5] For a longer explanation of this point, see the article here, which is mostly written by Vince Antonucci: “Waa! I’m Not Getting Fed!

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