Are You a Propagator or a Caretaker?

FORGET NONE OF HIS BENEFITS

volume 18, number 34, August 22, 2019

I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place-unless you repent.” -Revelation 2:5

The church at Ephesus (in the province of Asia Minor, modern day western Turkey) was established by the Apostle Paul on his third missionary journey (Acts 19:1ff). Upon his arrival he found a few believers there, who perhaps were converted many years before at Pentecost in Jerusalem (Acts 2:9). Ephesus was the leading city of Asia Minor with a population approaching two hundred thousand people. It had a sports stadium or theatre which sat twenty-four thousand people, and it was the center of the worship of Artemis, a false goddess, of which a beautiful temple, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, was built. Worshippers of this false goddess came from many miles away to worship her. The city was also notorious for licentiousness, corruption, and perversion. But Paul preached the gospel at Ephesus and the Holy Spirit brought conviction of sin and regeneration to many, accompanied by many apostolic signs and wonders which authenticated the witness of the gospel (Acts 19:11ff). The church was established around 53 A.D. and Paul’s letter to the Ephesian church was written some ten years later. In his epistle Paul commended the Ephesian Christians for their  faith in the Lord Jesus and their love for all the saints (Ephesians 1:15). And it appears that the church at Ephesus was an “epicenter church” in Asian Minor from which as many as ten churches were planted (Acts 19:10).[1] However by 66 A.D., as Jesus had given His apocalyptic vision to the Apostle John on the Isle of Patmos, He took the church of Ephesus, the leading church of the region, to task. He commends them at first saying, “I know your deeds and your toil and your perseverance (the personal pronoun “you”, used three times in this clause, is singular, meaning Jesus is personally addressing the pastor, who is the angel or messenger, as well as the lampstand which is the church), and that you cannot tolerate evil men (those who are false apostles and liars).” He also commends them because of their perseverance, the fact that they have endured for His name’s sake (each time “perseverance” is used in Revelation it deals with steadfastness in the face of persecution and martyrdom) and have not grown weary in the fight. 

However Jesus then switches gears and rebukes the church at Ephesus, saying “But I have this against you, that you have left your first love.” They, all of us, are to love God with all our hearts, souls, and minds; and we are to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:37-40). So Jesus is rebuking them for losing their white hot zeal for Him; and this zeal had been manifested in the propagation of the gospel which had gone forth so powerfully from Ephesus (Acts 19:20). So while the church at Ephesus was still doctrinally sound, being able to spot and eradicate heresy, while it had not left the field of battle, so to speak, it was not zealous in propagation. The church had developed a caretaker’s mentality.

So, Jesus is calling us to be propagators, not mere caretakers. A church can be doing all the right things-Biblical worship, theological orthodoxy, persevering in doing good, ministering to the church people-but still be under the ire of the Holy One, our Savior, whose eyes are a flame of fire, whose feet are like burnished bronze made to glow in a furnace (Revelation 1:14-15). From the time of the Ephesian church’s beginning (53 A.D.) to the time of Jesus’ letter (66 A.D.)[2] only thirteen years had passed. How quickly the gold had become dark (Lamentations 4:1). What characterizes a propagator church? What constitutes a caretaker church? A propagator church is outwardly focused, like the early Ephesian church with the Spirit’s power working in, on, and through the people, bringing mighty conversions, mighty assemblies, mighty holiness, and mighty societal impact. A propagator church exists to multiply itself. It trains and equips people (as Paul did at the school of Tyrannus, Acts 19:9) and sends them out to evangelize and plant more churches. This means the abundance of resources of the propagator church (time, talent, and treasure) are directed outside the walls of the church. Like a married couple, which decides to propagate the human race by bringing children into the world, is gladly willing to expend money, sleepless nights, and thousands of dirty diapers; so a propagator church looks beyond the comfort of the status quo. 

A caretaker church, on the other hand, plays everything close to the vest. They are all about protecting what they have. Their building, the expansion of the physical plant, becomes the end all. Prayer meetings, if they continue at all, devolve into “organ recitals” (a long litany of ills of church members, “pray for Aunt Gertrude’s bunion”). A subtle perversion of the Great Commission takes place in caretaker churches (Matthew 28:18-20). Instead of “teaching so that people may obey”, pastors and Sunday School teachers “teach for knowledge.” Knowledge, not obedience, becomes the driving force. Sooner or later in a caretaker church, people become upset with the preacher and elders. That’s because the members begin to believe the church is all about themselves. So maybe they don’t like the way the preacher dresses, how he preaches, what his wife and children look like. And because it is all about them, they will not persevere in the church when such things grate on their nerves. And like a married couple which chooses not to propagate children, which decides to spend all their time and money on nice get-away vacations and new cars, their name, sooner or later will die out. They have chosen not to leave a posterity.

So, is your church a propagator or a caretaker? What about you? You may object at this point by saying, “Wait a second, we are to care for the people of the church. We are to shepherd them.” Yes, that is true, of course, but this is all done in the New Covenant church in the backdrop of gospel expansion. All of the pastoral admonitions from Jesus, Paul, Peter, and John are in the context of a mighty movement of the Spirit in conversion and church planting.

And what happens if you, your church continue as a caretaker instead of a propagator? Well, Jesus told us that this is evidence of leaving your first love. Think back to your conversion. I bet you could not get enough preaching. One sermon on Sunday was not enough. You had to have one Sunday night and Wednesday night too. I bet you were so excited about how God saved you that you could not stop speaking what you had seen and heard. I bet you talked to just about everyone who gave you the slightest open door. And I bet you loved to obey what you were learning from sermons and your own personal reading and studying of the Bible. How is that going now? Are you a caretaker or a propagator?

What must you do? What is the remedy? Jesus is telling you to remember (present tense command) from where you have fallen (perfect tense, this has been going on for a long time). He then commands you once and for all (aorist tense command) to do two things-to repent (turn from your folly and return to the Lord) and to do the deeds which you did at first (attention to the word of God, prayer, gospel witnessing, giving your time and money to Jesus). If you are a caretaker and not a propagator, and if you persist in this value system, then Jesus says He is coming (present tense, He is right at the door) and He will remove the lampstand (the church) out of its place. The only remedy is to repent, to regain your first love which always leads to propagation. 

Could it be that the church of Jesus has lost its saltiness, is rapidly losing its light to the world, because she has steadily devolved into being a caretaker? The church in Ephesus no longer exists. Western Turkey today is Muslim. North Africa became a caretaker church and it now too is Muslim. Western Europe benefitted marvelously from the propagating influence of the Reformation but it too reduced itself to caretaker status; and is now being overrun by Islam as well. At least three thousand churches close annually in the United States. Jesus will take His gospel away if we choose not to propagate it. We may too become Muslim in one hundred years unless we repent. 

My friends-which are you? Are you a caretaker or a propagator? What about your church? You have left your first love if you are not given to gospel propagation. I am not saying you nor your church are not orthodox. All I am saying is that you lack power and authority and that you are well on your way to extinction. Therefore repent. 

________________________

1. Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea (Revelation 2,3), Hierapolis, Nympha, and the church which meets in her house (Colossians 4:15).
2. I realize scholars differ as to the timing of Revelation. Some take a later date, around 90 A.D. Others take an earlier date, prior to the fall of Jerusalem to the Roman siege of 70 A.D. I take the earlier date because of the language of imminence used in Revelation 1, “. . . things which must shortly take place, v. 1  . . . for the time is near, v.3.” Obviously the Lord Jesus is telling John of something cataclysmic which is immediate. The siege of Jerusalem, which left some one million people dead, according to Josephus, fits that description all too vividly.

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