The State of the Church
January 6th, 1974 @ 10:50 AM
THE STATE OF THE CHURCH
Dr. W. A. Criswell
1-06-74 10:50 a.m.
On the radio and on television you are worshiping with us in the First Baptist Church in Dallas. We welcome you this first Sunday of the new year. I realize that all of you who live in New Mexico, and Oklahoma, and Arkansas, and Louisiana, to which states the service is cabled, and of course, all of you who live throughout the entire region of the northern part of Texas, and West Texas and East Texas, may not be as vitally interested in the kind of an address that the pastor delivers today as you would when he expounds a passage of Scripture.
But there are some things that we ought to share together, and the first Sunday in January is a time when we look at ourselves and at the future that lies before us. For many years now, on the first Sunday in January, I prepare a sermon on the state of the church. It is modeled, of course, the idea, after the president of the United States who delivers to the joint houses of Senate and House of Representatives, a State of the Union message. So on this first Sunday of the new year, this is a state of the church message, looking at us.
In the twentieth chapter of the Book of Acts, the beloved physician is writing of the journeys of the apostle Paul. And when he came down from Macedonia to Miletus, which is near Ephesus, beginning at verse 17, the Scriptures say, “And from Miletus Paul sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church. And when they were come, he said to them” [Acts 20:17-18], then he recounts his ministry there in Ephesus, how that with all humility of mind, and with many tears . . . he served the Lord and kept back nothing that was profitable for them, but showed them and taught them publicly, and from house to house, testifying to the Jew, and to the Greek, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ [Acts 20:19-21].
Then in verse 28 he admonishes them, “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock,” the congregation, the church of the Lord, “over the which the Holy Spirit hath made you overseers, episkopoi, bishops, to feed, to shepherd, to care for the church of God, which He hath purchased with His own blood” [Acts 20:28]. Verse 31, “Therefore watch, and remember, that I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears” [Acts 20:31]. This is an admonition to us today who shepherd the church of God, just as pertinently, as meaningfully, as it was to those Ephesian elders almost two thousand years ago.
First, to speak of my own pastoral ministry: when Brother Jimmy Draper accepted our call to come here and to be with us, immediately, in the daily newspapers and in the magazine articles written for our Southern Baptist periodicals, there was speculation about the retirement of the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. And those speculations have continued. And they are as much spoken of this minute as they were four months ago when Brother Draper came to the church.
So the people wonder what is it to happen to our pastor, and what are the things that are planned for him? Now there is a very definite and biblical answer to that question. First of all, do you notice that the Scriptures say, “And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called for the,” plural, “elders of the church”? [Acts 20:17]. In the Holy Scriptures there are three words that are used to describe the pastors of the churches. He is called a presbuteros. The word literally means “an elder, an older person.” In that day and in the patriarchal age of the Old Testament, the head of the house, the older man, was looked upon with great deference and respect. He was the head of the clan, of the family, of the tribe. So the pastor of the church was called a presbuteros out of deference and honor and respect to him.
And any time a church lacks that honor and respect for their pastor, they are facing inward decay and disintegration. You have to start there in the building of a great church. So the first word is presbuteros. The pastor is an elder, referring to the deferential respect of the people to his high calling in Christ Jesus. Second, he is called in the Bible an episkopos. It is translated in the King James Version a “bishop,” episkopos, “bishop.” The literal meaning of the word is “overseer.” That refers to his task as the spiritual leader of the flock, the administrator of the household of faith. He is the episkopos. He is the bishop of the church. The third word that is used to describe his office is, he is a poimēn. And the poimēn is the word for a “shepherd.” He is the shepherd of the flock. He is to minister to the people. He is to comfort them and encourage them. When they cry, he cries with them. When they’re glad, he rejoices with them; when they’re dead or to be buried, he is there to speak words of heavenly encouragement and promise.
Now those are the three words that describe the office of a pastor, and they are used interchangeably. All three words in the New Testament refer to the same man. He’s an elder, a presbuteros. He’s a bishop, he’s an episkopos. And he is a shepherd, he’s a poimēn.
Do you notice in the Bible––and it is from the study of the Word of God, as well as empirical experience that brought me to this persuasion––do you notice in the Word of God the word is always used in referring to the churches in the plural? “And from Miletus Paul sent to Ephesus, and called the elders, the presbuteroi, the elders of the church.” Not one, possibly not even two, but many, “called for the elders of the church” [Acts 20:17]. Now, when I turn through the Bible, I find that without exception; for example, in Philippians 1:1, “Paul and Timothy, servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are in Philippi, with the episkopoi and the diakonoi, with the bishops and the deacons.” Do you notice it’s in the plural, episkopoi, the pastors, the elders, the bishops, and the deacons, always in the plural?
Do you notice again, for example, in Titus chapter 1, and verse 5, Paul writes to his young son in the ministry, Titus, “For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders, presbuteroi, plural, and ordain elders in every church, in every city” [Titus 1:5]. Now just once again, in the letter of Simon Peter, chapter 5, verse 1, “The elders,” plural, “which are among you I exhort, I who am an elder” [1 Peter 5:1].
What he wrote there is, “I who am a sumpresbuteroi, I who am a fellow elder.” Simon Peter was the chief apostle. He was the head of the apostles. It was to him the Lord said, “On this rock I will build My church” [Matthew 16:18], but does he look upon himself as removed from his fellow ministers? No. For he himself in his own letter calls himself a sumpresbuteroi, a sumpresbuteros, “To the presbuteroi, to the elders, I am a sumpresbuteros, I am a fellow elder” [1 Peter 5:1].
Now you have in what I have just read to you, you have a secret of the building of the tremendous churches of the ancient days. You can take the Book of Acts that describes the growth of the church, and by the time you come to the fourth chapter, you have at least twenty-five thousand members of the church in Jerusalem. And B. H. Carroll says that, when you come to the Book of Acts, you have a minimum of sixty-five thousand members in the church. And G. Campbell Morgan, who I suppose was the greatest Bible teacher of these last modern centuries, G. Campbell Morgan says that the church in Jerusalem had at least 250,000 members!
I was at an evangelistic conference, and they referred to the fact that I was pastor of a church, as they presented me to the ministers, that I was pastor of a church that had twelve thousand members. That’s what we had then, at that time. So when I began to speak to the ministers I said that compared to the churches of the ancient days, our church is a little Sunday school class. It’s a small congregation though it’s the largest Protestant church in the world. It’s small.
And I used John Chrysostom’s church, the First Baptist Church at Antioch; I used that as an illustration. I said, “John Chrysostom had fifty thousand members in the church at Antioch.” So when it was over, why, some of the men asked me about that and wondered if it were true. So when I came back to Dallas, I got into my library and began digging among those old books. And this is what I learned; that John Chrysostom said that he had one hundred thousand members in his church at Antioch. John Chrysostom also was pastor of the church in Constantinople—Istanbul today. And if you go there to Constantinople you can see the church in which John Chrysostom preached.
It’s the greatest edifice ever erected by man without steel, without concrete, without any of the materials we know today. The dome of Hagia Sophia, St. Sophia, which is now, to my heartbreak, a Muslim mosque, the dome of St. Sophia is bigger than a baseball diamond. And that’s just the great central dome. There’s a dome, and a dome, and a dome, and then the great dome above. The church was built as though we were outside looking up to the very God of heaven. And when the preacher stood up to deliver God’s message in that day, there were no seats. The people stood close together. He’d preach to a congregation of twenty-five or thirty thousand people every service! How could such a thing be? I repeat. Compared to the services and the churches and the thrust back there in those first Christian centuries, our churches today are pipsqueaks. They are small and anemic.
How could you have a church of two hundred fifty thousand members? How could you have a church of one hundred thousand members? How could you have a great congregation when people press together twenty-five, thirty thousand in number to listen to the Word of God? The answer is found in the typical passages that I have just read to you. They had a plurality of episkopoi, of presbuteroi, of poimēns. They had many pastors. And that is what we’re doing in the First Baptist Church in Dallas. By the side of this poimēn, this presbuteros, this episkopos, there is to stand another presbuteros, episkopos, poimēn.
Now in the ministries of the church, God, if we are listening to His voice and reading His Word aright, God will add to that ministry. Brother Richard Peacock, our minister to adults, a poimēn, an episkopos, a presbuteros, an ordained minister of Christ; Brother Melvin Carter, a poimēn, a minister of Christ; and it pleased me, world without end that our business administrator, John Shanks, is an ordained minister of Christ. He had a far more lucrative position in the public school system and one in which he had opportunity of great advancement. Well, why did he resign that place to the much hurt and personal disappointment of Dr. Nolan Estes? Why did he resign that place to come to be with us? Because he had felt God’s call into the work of the Lord, and he wasn’t happy outside of it, and he wanted to come back and serve in a congregation of Jesus. That is the building up of the church of Christ.
Now what of the pastor? The senior poimēn, what of him? What of me? Well, this is what we shall do if we love God at all. We shall see what God’s will is for him, for me. If it’s God’s will that I lay the mantle down, as Elijah let it fall on the shoulders of Elisha [2 Kings 2:13], then we shall find, and listen, and heed, and obey God’s will. Will that time come at the end of this year when I’m sixty-five years of age? It’s in God’s will. Shall I continue in the work as a fellow presbuteroi for ten more years? It is in God’s will. Shall I continue twenty more years, until I’m eighty-five? It’s in God’s will. We don’t need to worry or be burdened. We’ll just see what God does.
And then in the meantime, oh, how we ought to demonstrate that spirit of comradeship, of fellowship, of sweet preferential deference, never a word of envy, never a feeling of jealousy. But when you look up here on the platform and you see the senior presbuteros, and then you see Brother Jimmy Draper, and you see our fellow ministers, what you see is men who have given themselves to the sweet offices of our blessed Lord. And in our comradeship, loving each other, praying for each other, encouraging each other, you’re going to find our spirit reflected in the church.
We may all forget to be envious, or jealous, or grasping, and we may, by the example of your fellow ministers, we may all grow in that grace where there is so less and less and less of us, and more and more and more of Jesus, until maybe the day could come when it would be nothing of us and everything of our Lord. So as we go into the year and into the years, working together, it is in God’s will and in God’s sovereign grace what your senior pastor ought to do.
Now number two: about our retirement center; as you know, it was the dream of the pastor that close to the church we would build a great structure in which our people with dignity and gladness and anticipation could live close to the church. A structure like that would have to be from forty to sixty stories high. We worked on that. We even had the property. But in the last little while, the costs of construction have arisen astronomically, so much so that a building a few years ago that might have cost fifteen, eighteen dollars a square foot, now the architect said that on those top floors it would cost more than sixty dollars a square foot.
And the price, the cost of the building rose beyond thirty million dollars! There wasn’t anything to do except just to re-pray it and reconsider it. So we’re waiting before God. If we cannot build the great structure here, then we’ll have to go out somewhere and build our retirement center some distance away from the church. We wait on God’s judgment and wisdom and what we are able to do. But God helping us, with Brother Peacock, we’re going to have that beautiful center someday soon.
Now about the financing of the church and its work: we labor under a great financial burden in the church. Why, because we are extravagant, because we are luxurious? No. This is the same auditorium in which we have worshiped since 1890. You go out there and look at that cornerstone, and it will say, “Erected in 1890.” We haven’t built another church house, and this old beat up church is like an old shoe. We’ve used it, and used it, and used it. How long is that? Eighty-four years where you’re seated now. Eighty-four years ago there were people seated out there listening to the Word of God.
It is not luxurious. I love it just like it feels good and comfortable to me. I love every stone in this building, every stained-glass window through which the light shines on our souls. We are not luxuriously living, or loving, or committed in the church, nor are we extravagant in what we do, though sometimes people think that we go to lengths to get a hold of these young people and some of their sessions and all. Not so. The church is not extravagant, ever.
Well, why is it then that we labor under a great financial burden? It’s because of this. We have capital outlays that are vast. We have bought these properties, and they are expensive. Our forefathers did not realize it, they didn’t see. That lot right across from that door there, to my right is a door right there, and then just beyond is San Jacinto Street. You go over there and look at that lot, right there on San Jacinto Street. The church refused to buy that lot with a big two story house on it for $3,500. The church refused to buy it, $3,500, with a big two story house on it. We bought it, and we paid $330,000 for it. All of these properties that we have bought have been expensive, astronomically so!
Now let’s take our latest acquisition. The first of February, we have entered into a contract to buy the rest of the property on that lot there, where the chapel building is. We own half of that lot from Ervay to Saint Paul, from San Jacinto to Ross Avenue, that big block right there. We already own half of it. We have contracted, beginning the first of February, to buy the rest of that block. It is sold to us for $1,700,000. It is tied to a prime rate. A bank is loaning us the entire money, all of it for that property. It’s tied to a prime rate, but since we entered into that contract, the prime rate has gone up, and up, and up, and up. And it’s now about ten percent. That means that we will pay in interest alone on that property $170,000 a year, just interest; $170,000 a year interest, just on the $1,700,000 that it takes to buy the property.
Well, why do you do that? One, if we don’t buy it, there’ll come along a company and build a fifty story building on it, and you will never be able to acquire it. Well, second, why do you want it in the first place? Because of a great, deep, everlasting persuasion that your pastor has in his soul, which is this––and may I preface it by saying, from the time I began my ministry to this present time, which is over forty-five years, I have never changed in that persuasion, but at the end of the forty-six years almost, I am more persuaded of it now than I ever was––which persuasion is this, that the church that lives tomorrow has to be a church that ministers to the entire life of the entire family. And if it does not, it will certainly die.
May I illustrate that? Let’s take a missionary that I can see in my mind’s eye that I’m talking to in a Muslim land. And he says to me, “It is impossible for us to have any hope of winning these Mohammedans to Christ unless we are able to create a Christian community in which they can live. Because, if they are won one at a time, in the Muslim communities, in the Muslim families they will certainly perish, they cannot exist. They have to be brought together into a Christian community.”
Now I think the same thing in the world today, even in America. We are standing before a veritable, literal floodtide of secularism and materialism, atheism! And we will perish in it unless we’re able to create a community of life in it for our families and for our children!
Yesterday morning, Brother Jimmy Draper and I were in a conference of gifted, dedicated people who live in the academic world. We were meeting at the Royal Coach Inn on the Northwest Highway. And the leader of that conference was saying to us that there are great universities in America today, where a man who is a devout believer, can hardly get a Ph.D. degree because his professors are atheists, and they don’t want Christians in their classes, and they don’t want to give a Ph.D. degree to a man who is a believer. They want him to be an atheist just like the professor himself is. That’s in America.
You extend that and this leads me to the next thing I want to speak about. I’m talking about building a Christian community, and it takes place, it takes space for it, and that’s why we ought to have these properties. No longer is the church going to exist in just a white crackerbox little house in which I grew up as a boy. It’s a different day. It’s a different time. It’s a different generation. It’s a different game. If the church exists it has to have a ministry to the whole family in every section and facet and part of its life!
All right, let’s take another instance. Why is it that the pastor has so given himself to the building of a school, our First Baptist Church School, and to our Institute? Well, let’s go back to the meeting yesterday morning at nine o’clock. The men said, “Down in Houston in a convocation in the school, they were told, ‘The Civil Liberties Union will close this school if you say the name of Jesus in the assembly of the high school boys and girls. We’ll close it down! The Civil Liberties Union will do it. You can’t name the name of Christ in the convocation.’”
And as I continued listening to them, they said, “And that same thing is true in Dallas.” And they mentioned a high school here in North Dallas where one of the unbelieving parents made it impossible for a convocation in which the name of Jesus was to be called. That’s by law. That’s the kind of a social order in which America is increasingly entering. It is one of atheism. It is one of secularism, materialism, unbelief! You can teach atheism world without end in the university systems of America, in our tax supported schools. But you can’t teach the Christian faith. It’s that kind of a society, it’s that kind of a social order in which we are entering. As the generations pass, as our children grow up under that, you’re going to find the spirit and the academic instruments of atheism and secularism. You’re going to see it in their lives and in their hearts. That is a social order we’re creating!
All right, one thing we can do is hide our heads in the sand and don’t look at it. Or another thing we can do is to cower before it, and to let it sweep us out of existence. Or there’s another alternative. Set up a banner against it and raise it high! That’s what the church ought to do. This isn’t a new thing to the church. That’s the way it began. It began in a sea of opposition and trial and persecution! It started that way. Christianity was born in blood! It has existed at its finest in blood. And it’s no new thing for us to face it today. So in facing it, what I’m trying to do is to lead our people into building a community where the boy can come down here and play. We have a recreational program for him. And we have a music ministry. We have an educational ministry and all these other ministries. And we have a tremendous mission ministry. That’s God’s way for us, if we’re going to live.
So in our school over here, oh! I pray God to bless it as He does. I want to make it a unique school. It is Christian. It is Christian. It is religiously, devoutly, namely, stately, publicly, unashamedly Christian! You want your boy and girl to have a Christian education? We’re going to make it possible for him to come and have it. And it will be excellent in its teaching standards and accreditation.
And I’d like to have it where they teach Hebrew and Greek; where the little children learn to read the original language, reading the Scriptures in Greek and in Hebrew, little children. “ Why,” you say, “pastor, that’s for the theologian. Those children can’t learn those languages, just children over there.”
Let me tell you something funny that happened to me. I was in Caracas, in Venezuela, and we were in a church service. And the missionary was up there preaching in Spanish. And right in the middle of the service, his little boy, little bitty kid, little, little bitty tot, the little fellow spoke up and said, “Daddy, that’s not the way to say it. This is the way to say it.”
So I went home to eat dinner with the missionary. And the missionary, when we sat in the living room, called the little boy over to him, and he said, “Now, son, you must not correct your daddy publicly. It embarrasses him. It embarrasses him.” Well, what happened was the father was learning the language. Oh, he was laboring over it! Man, he’s learning those roots. He’s learning those paradigms. He’s learning those declensions. Man, he was laboring over it. But the little kid was out there on the street and he was picking it up just like that, just like that. These little kids can learn a language beyond anybody in the world.
To my own embarrassment when I was walking around in Athens, I heard those little bitty babies speaking Greek. And here I’ve been laboring over it for years, and years, and years, and years. We can have a unique school and advertise it to the world.
How do the Jewish people live in the Diaspora, buried among the nations of the world? They are taught those Holy Scriptures at home in the Hebrew language and in the synagogue school; a unique school. This is Christian and we are teaching the Word of God, learning it in Hebrew, learning it in Greek. Oh, I think God is with us!
I must hasten to a conclusion. This year and I pray the years to follow after; Brother Jimmy Draper is going to lead us into a great outreach of evangelism. We’re planning now to have a school for laymen in the church, directed by men, with Brother Jimmy Draper, to saturate this city of Dallas with a personal appeal for Christ.
When I went to a Southern Baptist Convention upon a day, there was a man who invited about thirty of us to listen to Dr. George W. Truett. I never knew him personally, just see him upon an occasion like that, and as a young fellow, oh the impression that the incomparable, inimitable, far-famed pastor made upon my soul!
And in that talk, at the luncheon, the hotel, in that talk Dr. Truett said, among many other things, he said, in the death of a great London divine, a great British preacher, that a friend came by his bedside and said, “Do you have one word for the preachers of the world?” And the dying man said, “I do. O preacher, make it plain how a man can be saved! Make it plain how a man can be saved.”
Getting in a taxi in a southern city, I said to the cabdriver, “Do you go to church?” He replied, “No, I’m like a lost sheep. I don’t know where to go, and I don’t know what to do when I get there.” He said, “I grew up in a little tiny country church. And I knew how to do and how to act and what to say. But I’ve come to this big city, and I don’t know where to go, and I don’t know what to say when I get there. And there’s nobody to help me or to show me.”
The reason that found a repercussion in my heart is I grew up like that in a little tiny church. And I can well imagine a man coming to the big city of Dallas, and say he comes down here to this church. He never saw anything like it. I never thought of anything like this when I was a little boy. You put your baby here, and your children there, and the teenagers there, and they’d go some other place. They’d just be overwhelmed. And if all of us were strange to them, I think their hearts would just wilt. And they might want to, but they don’t have the spirit to try. That’s where I come in. That’s where we come in. My brother, here’s my hand to help, and my heart of love and friendship. And we don’t know how many thousands there are in this city who need us just like that.
This is to be a great year for our people. God is sending us helpers. There’s a family going to join this morning who’s going valiantly, marvelously to work with us in that outreach ministry. And by them, if the Spirit of God has spoken to you, come, come.
In a moment we shall stand and sing our hymn of appeal, and as we sing it, a family you, a couple, or just one somebody you, in the balcony round, on the lower floor, down a stairway, in an aisle: “Here I come, pastor. I’m taking the Lord as my Savior,” or “I’m putting my life in the fellowship of this church.” Make the decision now in your heart, and in a moment when we stand to sing, stand coming down that aisle. God speed you in the way, angels attend you as you come, while we stand and while we sing.