By Allen Quist & Tim Robnett
Every Christian can identify with the tension Willis Krieger felt between letting God lead the church and trying to do the job on his own. This tension is between our affection for Christ—made clear by his Spirit leading and empowering us—and the insidious deceptive affection for life in the flesh. Most of the time we are unaware of the struggle or its influence on our lives.
What is “the flesh”? Physically, it is just what it says, our flesh—our skin, muscles, organs, blood, and bones. Then there is the spiritual application. The flesh has been described as “[p]roneness to sin, the carnal nature, the seat of carnal appetites and desires, of sinful passions and affections whether physical or moral.”
The flesh surfaced back at the Genesis account of humanity’s fall. The serpent said to Eve, “‘You will not surely die’ … For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:4–5). Adam and Eve believed the lie of the serpent, and they chose to try to be like God, to be autonomous, to make life work on their own without God.
Since the fall, humanity has continued to wish to be like God— self-existent and autonomous, trying to make life work without God. (Perhaps hell is God giving man what he wants, eternity without him.)
The Spirit, in contrast with the flesh, is the third person of the Godhead. The Spirit is the one Jesus promised to his disciples. He is the one who convicts us of sin and helps us live godly lives.
What is the tension? In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, the apostle tells us there is a war in our hearts between our affection for God’s Spirit and our affection for the flesh:
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please. (Gal. 5:16–17 NASB)
The Galatians were caught up with the law, and Paul attacked that entrapment. He questioned who was leading their lives and the life of the church, God or man in his flesh.
In today’s world, our independent and self-dependent spirit destroys a Spirit-led life in the church. We respect skill over spiritual connectedness to God. We measure success based on the numbers of people or the amount of money coming into the church. We choose programs based on how well they worked in other churches rather than specifically setting aside our opinions, asking God, and listening. We have redefined members of our churches into a resource.
We forget that humans cannot do a work of God. Only God can do a work of God!
We believe God is calling churches back to his leadership, to the sovereignty of Christ, to the place where we quit relying on programs or asking God to bless our plans. God is calling us to the place where we are simply asking him what are his plans … and then listening to what he tells us to do.
Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). We can do many activities that look good and even seem blessed by God, but they are not a work of God because God did not direct us to do them. We busy ourselves with ministry but not necessarily the ministry God wants to do through us. Doing church ministry work is not necessarily God’s work. But we keep trying.
One day when I (Allen) was a boy on the farm, my father asked me to clean the corrals—a very smelly job, complete with lots of flies and other bugs—some that bite. It was awful!
On my way down to the barn, I noticed the gate into the machine shed was in bad repair. It was decision time. Should I clean the corrals or fix the gate? I convinced myself that the gate was urgent and had to be fixed; so I took on the task of fixing it, deceiving myself that my father would be pleased and proud of my commitment to the wellbeing of the farm. He and Mom would probably brag to the neighbors about how clever their son was.
I doubt that he ever talked to the neighbors about it, but I do know that he talked to me—lectured me may be more accurate. He had asked me to clean the corrals, something he wanted done. However, I hated cleaning corrals so I somehow blocked the nagging truth in my heart and did something that was more acceptable to me, rationalizing that this was somehow for him.
What I did with the gate is the flesh in action. According to Paul, we deal with it all our lives. Central Evangelical Church was dealing with it, especially after they decided to let Christ be sovereign in every area in their church, even how they “do church.”
Has it been a walk in the park for them? No way.
Has it been out of the ordinary? Definitely!
What Willis, Adam, and the others in Central Evangelical Church did was to step out of safety and into the adventure of a Spirit-led life. They committed to being living sacrifices, to walking in the Spirit. Essentially, they decided to refocus their affections back on Jesus Christ. They asked God what he wanted them to do, and they listened to hear what he told them. (We will address listening in a later chapter.)
Every day when they get up, every time they meet, in all of their decisions, the battle continues. Today, who will they respond to? Who will we respond to?
What is new about their struggles now is that they know what the battle is! It is a lot easier to fight a battle when we know who or what the enemy is.
Can you imagine being part of a church like that? While unusual, it is not unique. Henry Blackaby’s book What the Spirit Is Saying to the Churches is the story of God’s work in another congregation that abandoned itself to the leading of the Spirit.
The point is if our congregation is going nowhere, or worse yet, if it is going “somewhere” and that somewhere is the “wrong where,” read on. God hasn’t changed. God is still in the transforming business—working in the lives of individuals and congregations that are willing to walk by his Spirit and let the Spirit lead them where God wants them to go.
The story of Word of Life Community Church did not start with Tom Lyman and Doug Frazier’s discussions of a rebirth. It began many years before, with the struggles of Central Evangelical Church.
What was getting in the way? Why did the people stop hearing God?
It reminds me of how we often are as Christians. God has a passion for lost people, but we busy ourselves doing all kinds of ministry—good ministry—but it keeps us too busy to listen to God’s heart. Central Evangelical Church did that for years. Remember the potlucks and bake sales? They can both be good, but if they are keeping us busy, too busy to listen to God, perhaps we need to shut down the ovens.
This is apparent not so much in what we are doing when we are “doing church.” It relates more to what we are not doing. We are not going to God with a receptive, listening heart, asking him what we should be doing in the day-to-day practical aspects of ministry. Or if we do go to God, we often lug along our own agendas, wanting to hear from God so we can decide who has the better plan. We ask for his will, but in our heart of hearts, we reserve the right to make the final decision. We want to decide whether we will clean the corral or fix the gate, even though we know he wants the corrals cleaned.
Then some elders of Israel came to me and sat down before me. And the word of the LORD came to me saying, “Son of man, these men have set up their idols in their hearts and have put right before their faces the stumbling block of their iniquity. Should I be consulted by them at all? Therefore speak to them and tell them, ‘Thus says the LORD God, “Any man of the house of Israel who sets up his idols in his heart, puts right before his face the stumbling block of his iniquity, and then comes to the prophet, I the LORD will be brought to give him an answer in the matter in view of the multitude of his idols, in order to lay hold of the hearts of the house of Israel who are estranged from Me through all their idols.”’” (Ezek. 14:1–5 NASB)
The leaders of Israel went to Ezekiel because they wanted to hear from God, just like we go to God to hear from him. But essentially God told them that their idols (their affections for power, influence, approval, or recognition) were in the way. They were not asking God for his mind with the intention of doing whatever it was that God directed them to do.
It is still happening today. We go to God asking for his will, yet we have our own idols of power, respect, approval, recognition, and safety, so we quietly and subtly keep the right to make the final decision. Certain programs, people, or traditions can become idols. Or we put limits on the answer. Or we don’t go to God at all. You may have heard the saying “If you don’t think you will like the answer, don’t ask the question.” Often in our hearts we know the answer to what would please God, so we do not ask.
This was the case for many years at Central Evangelical. They were satisfied with “doing church” the way they always had and therefore did not feel the need to ask any questions. But remember what happened once they did ask—with a heart willing to do whatever God revealed to them. They moved into the adventure of a God-directed life, both individually and as a congregation. Knowing God’s will has a lot to do with whether we are willing to let go of all our idols, and actually believe that God has the answer.
Henry Blackaby says this thinking is not popular. “Often, when I talk to others about God being present and active and involved practically like this in our work, someone will tell me I sound like a ‘mystic,’ like someone who isn’t practical.”2 Yet Blackaby goes on to point out that all through the Bible, God deals with his children in practical ways.
We have such a hard time staying dependent on God. We work hard developing skillful people in our churches, and then point with pride at the ministries and programs they maintain.
It is easy to imagine life in Central Evangelical over the years of the church’s decline. It is a familiar story lived out in tens of thousands of churches. We get up Sunday morning and dress in something that fits the expectations of our church culture. We go to church and sit in the same area of the auditorium, and the service follows roughly the same format each week. We sing out of a hymnbook, or sing choruses, or both. Pastors aim messages at the hearts of 80 percent of the members with the purpose of stimulating them to do more in the service of God. A little less than 20 percent of the members bury themselves in “ministry” for God, feeling guilty because they are not spending the quiet, unhurried time with God they know that God desires. A few quiet saints do walk before God on a moment-by-moment basis. Before and after the service people smile at each other, putting on their victorious faces even though they may feel discouraged.
People come, usually from other churches, and people leave—it’s been a long time since a visitor decided for Jesus Christ and stayed around. Occasionally someone gives his or her life to Christ, but when the church starts encouraging him to change certain behaviors, he simply quits coming. People think, “It’s just as well they leave because the church has a reputation to uphold. I mean, what would people think?” We have redefined “holiness” into an appearance and behavior issue, minimizing the heart.
Does any of this seem familiar?
The average church could engrave volumes of tablets based on all the unwritten rules and expectations we impose on one another. In reality, no one ever identifies the rules and expectations, let alone places them against the measuring stick of God’s Word.
There is never a time when we are not caught in the tension between the Spirit and the flesh for our affections, and therefore there is never a time when believers do not need to identify and crucify our idols and stumbling blocks. Yet there is little awareness of the struggle. Churches seldom do a spiritual triage. Central Evangelical didn’t for years, not until the death of the church became imminent.
Seldom does the church address the real problem—the flesh. We focus on the symptoms and problems that are revealed (and they should be dealt with). This is like taking the temperature of a sick child, finding a fever, and solving the problem by putting the child in a bathtub of cold water. Yes, it is important to control the fever, but we also need to address the cause of the fever.
Paul gives us a gauge for measuring who or what is in charge, the flesh or the Spirit. He identifies specific symptoms of the flesh.
When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, your lives will produce these evil results: sexual immorality, impure thoughts, eagerness for lustful pleasure, idolatry, participation in demonic activities, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, divisions, the feeling that everyone is wrong except those in your own little group [“factions,” NIV], envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other kinds of sin. (Gal. 5:19–21 NLT)
Most of us would like to believe that Galatians 5 only describes evil people. But Paul wrote this letter to Christians! Further, he wrote this letter to churches (or assemblies). While we are not suggesting that we should not interpret the Scripture individually, we are suggesting that we must also look at this corporately. Here is what we mean:
First, a church is made up of individuals and will therefore have a spiritual consensus or personality. We are all individuals, yet we are part of a greater body. When parts of our body are dealing with sin, the whole body is dealing with it. In a culture that prizes independence, this is hard to internalize and live out day-to-day.
Second, Paul wrote this letter to a group of churches (assemblies), and he meant it to be read to the congregations like a sermon. He can be speaking to both individuals and the church as a whole. Examples are the “one another” verses in chapter 5:
For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. (Gal. 5:14–15 NASB)
In this passage, Paul is addressing Christians as a group. It’s the voice of a parent saying to his or her children, “Watch out or you’re going to hurt each other.”
Later, Paul uses the group pronouns “we” and “us” to address the assembly as a whole.
If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us not become boastful, challenging one another, envying one another. (Gal. 5:25–26 NASB)
So clearly it’s appropriate to interpret Galatians as a message to a church body rather than only to individuals. This has critical implications.
Church leaders should not ignore the tension between the Spirit and the flesh that Paul is addressing! While leaders are examining their individual lives, they also need to look at the congregation and ask, “Are we as a body of individuals truly seeking to walk in the Spirit with all the inherent risks of change that God may direct, or are we allowing affection for things of the flesh to influence some of our members to set the tone for the body?” Paul warns about that, too.
You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth? That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.” (Gal. 5:7–9)
It is critical that church leadership remain intentionally on guard, seeking God’s transforming Spirit in the life of the church to prevent the flesh from controlling it. In Galatians, Paul says to be protected against the flesh, we must be led by God through his Spirit. And Paul immediately gives a gauge to us as individuals and as an assembly to evaluate this Spirit-flesh tension.
So I advise you to live according to your new life in the Holy Spirit. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves. (Gal. 5:16 NLT)
The New American Standard Bible uses the words “walk by the Spirit.” However we word it, if we walk (or live) in the transforming power of the Spirit of God, the power of the flesh will dwindle.
When there is immorality, bickering, gossip, or any number of other problems, we preach against them—as we should. Nevertheless, we often fail to address the cause of those issues: our affection for ourselves (the flesh) usurps our affection for God.
As we see these symptoms of the flesh, we can sense who or what is in control of us either as individuals or corporately—the Spirit or the flesh. Although we do need to address the symptoms, we also need to look at the underlying cause of those symptoms. Paul is saying that when we follow the desires (affections) of our sinful nature, there will be obvious results.
“Sexual immorality,” an endemic within the church, is ignoring the Spirit and trying to fill desires in ways not intended by God. God has called us to delight in him—to focus our affections on him. God loves us with his infinite and indescribable love, and he gives us the opportunity to receive that love and calls us to love him in return.
“Impure thoughts” are thoughts that are “alloyed,” thoughts of a double mind—not the mind of a living sacrifice. “Eagerness for lustful pleasure” could be thought of as lustfulness. Even churches can corporately lust after stuff, such as edifices that are a testimony to man’s glory and wealth.
“Consumerism” is the term that best describes our impatient society that is up to its neck in debt. Unfortunately, this term also applies to churches that must have all the latest things—a coffee shop in the foyer, plush chairs in the auditorium, a high-tech sound system—it can be anything that takes precedence over God’s ministries.
Most Christians would like to limit “idolatry” to something like worshipping a statue or idol—something on the surface that is easy to avoid. But Paul helps us understand this word in Colossians 3:5 when he associates covetousness with idolatry. That sounds like materialism, doesn’t it? Some churches have made their church buildings an idol.
The rest of the list—hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions, envy, selfish ambition, and divisions describe many churches. The problems have become so prevalent that many organizations have started ministries to deal with individual and group conflict within churches. In fact, it was a division that triggered our first contact with Central Evangelical Church.
There is another side to the conflict: walking in the Spirit. This is a life with our affections focused on Jesus Christ, not just the ministry of Jesus Christ. The Spirit-led life is a life of dependency on God, a life of growing love for him and increasing obedience to him, flowing out of our love relationship with him.
Just as there is evidence of the flesh, there is evidence of the life of the Spirit (the fruit of the Spirit). The evidence is obvious in both individuals and churches.
In a Spirit-led church, we find contagious love—a love for God that results in a love for people. In a Spirit-led church, we will still find problems, suffering, losses, and frustration. But in those difficult times, we will find a peace and gentleness in the congregation that creates a strong sense of safety for visitors and new believers to be comfortable growing in Christ.
In Galatians Paul describes the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (see 5:22–23). When a church truly seeks to live out these attributes, it is a Spirit-filled church. Our desire is for this to be true of our churches!