The idea that divine favor manifests itself by way of worldly success goes back a long way. History shows us two things about the races of antiquity. #1: They all worshiped some form of god or plurality of gods. #2: They all believed that when your god (or gods) liked what you were doing, it would be evidenced by things going well for you in life. And the items on the list of evidences were always the same: rain, abundant crops, plenty of food, protection from enemies, victory over enemies, health, women bearing children, and good times in general.
But we don’t have to consult history to understand this, do we? The fact is that most people around the world today still believe this basic premise about God. For that matter, I’ll even go so far as to say that most CHRISTIANS believe it.
Let’s say that we polled each Christian right now and asked the question, “How do you know when God is pleased with a person’s life?” What answers would we get? I think you know. Those answers would typically involve health and wealth, not necessarily in that order.
Similarly, in terms of how God makes His favor known upon a local church or a national denomination, the answers would involve “big” things: big attendance, big offerings, big budgets, big buildings, big reputation, etc. This especially holds true here in America, where we Christians have concocted a bizarre potion that combines religion and consumerism to create our own version of church. As we tend to see things, the bigger the church or the denomination, the more God is blessing it. In other words, if you want to find where God is really working and pouring out the highest levels of His favor, follow the crowd.
Of course, the problem with this basic premise is that even a cursory study of the Bible disproves it. Consider the following ten classic examples:
- God didn’t start the human race with hundreds of people. He started it with one man, Adam.
- God didn’t save the human race from the flood by loading thousands of people into an ark. He did it by loading the immediate family of one man, Noah, into an ark.
- God didn’t mass convert an existing race of people and make them the nation of Israel. He started with one man, Abram, and started a new race.
- God didn’t use a large number of people to sustain Israel in the midst of an unprecedented seven-year famine. He used one man, Joseph.
- God didn’t raise up a team of elders or an army of soldiers to lead the people of Israel out of their Egyptian bondage. He raised up one man, Moses.
- God didn’t send a team of prophets to bring about a mass revival in the city of Nineveh. He sent one prophet, Jonah.
- God didn’t save all the Jews in Medo-Persia from certain extinction by organizing thousands of them to protest. He saved them by using one woman, Esther.
- God didn’t send the Messiah into the world by way of a vast army. He sent Him by way of one teenage girl, Mary.
- Jesus didn’t begin His missionary efforts in the Samaritan city of Sychar by calling together all the citizens of the city. He began by having a conversation with one citizen, the woman at the well.
- God didn’t impart His singular revelation about the future to a team of apostles. He imparted it to one apostle, John.
Continuing with this theme, God’s chosen nation of Israel in Old Testament times was small in comparison to other nations. Even when Israel was at its zenith under King Solomon, its size wouldn’t have come close to rivaling the coming sprawling empires of Assyria, Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome. Israel rose to prominence because God fought for it, not because it was so spectacular in geographical size.
Similarly in the New Testament, Jesus chose 12 men to be His apostles. That number stood in contrast, for example, to the 70 men of the powerful Jewish Sanhedrin Council. Also, the churches described in the New Testament were house churches (Romans 16:3-5; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15; Philemon 1:1-2; James 2:1-4), with the sum total of all the house churches in a single city constituting the “church” of that city (1 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Corinthians 1:1; 1 Thessalonica 1:1; 2 Thessalonica 1:1; Revelation 2:1; 2:8; 2:12; 2:18; 3:1; 3:7; 3:14). Church buildings accommodating large congregations didn’t come into existence until Emperor Constantine “Christianized” the Roman empire in the 4th century.
The New Testament’s only mention of a church of thousands being assembled together in one place occurs in the years immediately following the birth of the church, when the entire church was content to abide in Jerusalem. Those Christians met daily in the courts of the Jewish temple because that was the largest meeting place in the city (Acts 2:46; 5:42; Luke 24:52-53). They started with approximately 3,000 members (Acts 2:41), grew to approximately 5,000 (Acts 4:4), and kept growing from there (Acts 5:14, 6:7). However, it should be noted that even though those Christians met daily in the temple, they did their “breaking bread” (a reference to Communion, the Lord’s Supper) from “house to house.” (Acts 2:46; 5:42).
As might be expected anytime you get that many people trying to work together as one, problems arose. First, a couple named Ananias and Sapphira sold one of their possessions but secretly held back a certain portion of the profits for themselves. Normally that kind of thing wouldn’t have been a problem, but the early church in Jerusalem operated by way of a communal system in which all the members sold their possessions and gave all the profits to the church treasury. The apostles oversaw that treasury and took from it to distribute as each Christian had need (Acts 2:44-47; 4:37). So, by contributing only a portion of their profits to that communal treasury, Ananias and Sapphira, in essence, lied about their offering. What followed was the exposing of their deceit, which resulted in God striking both of them dead (Acts 5:1-11).
A second problem arose when some of the church’s Greek-speaking Jews registered a complaint against some of the church’s Hebrew-speaking Jews. The complaint was that the Greek-speaking widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. This charge may or may not have been legitimate, but either way it served as the impetus for what many believe was the first “deacon election” as seven qualified men were chosen to oversee the daily distribution (Acts 6:1-7).
It is obvious, however, that the Jerusalem church was a unique situation and wasn’t intended to be God’s ideal for what churches should look like going forward. For one thing, as I said, those thousands of Christians all sold their possessions and put the earnings into a communal treasury for the apostles to oversee and use to meet the needs of the church members. No other mention of such a setup is made in regards to any other church in the New Testament. For that matter, such a setup wouldn’t have even been possible once the apostles all died out.
For another thing, it couldn’t have been God’s will for all those Christians to permanently remain in Jerusalem under that big church umbrella because Jesus had clearly left instructions for His followers to go into all the world and preach the gospel (Mark 16:15-16; Matthew 28:16-20; Luke 24:44-49). Looking back through the lens of history, it seems obvious that this is one of the reasons why God allowed them to be uprooted by way of intense persecution. That persecution began with Peter and John being arrested (Acts 4:1-22) and culminated in Stephen being stoned to death (Acts 7:54-60).
Following Stephen’s stoning, a young Jewish zealot named Saul of Tarsus took the lead in persecuting the Jerusalem church, and the unrelenting persecution inflicted by him and others finally forced many of the Jerusalem Christians to flee the city and scatter to Samaria and other regions of Judea (Acts 8:1-4). Not surprisingly, the verses that immediately follow that scattering find Philip preaching Christ in Samaria and many Samaritans believing in Christ and being baptized (Acts 8:5-25). Clearly such an expansion of the gospel was what God had always had in mind, but it never would have happened had Phillip and all the rest of those earliest Christians remained in Jerusalem as one local church.
You say, “But Russell, don’t you believe that God can bless a large congregation and use it in His service?” Yes, I do. I’m not suggesting for one moment that large congregations are automatically wrong in God’s eyes any more than I’m suggesting that every small congregation is automatically right in His eyes. The point I’m trying to make is that we Christians need to lose the mentality that bigger must make better, might must make right, and affluence must make godliness. Friends, it just doesn’t work that way. That’s what human nature teaches, not what the Bible teaches.