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The Church in the Wilderness

Who is this that cometh up from the wilderness, leaning upon her beloved? – Song of Solomon 8:5

Chapter 19 of the Book of Revelation describes the future return of the Son of God to the creation.  He is pictured riding a white horse, and there are armies following Him out of Heaven to the earth.

Return, return, O Shulamite; return, return, that we may look upon thee. What will ye see in the Shulamite? As it were the company of two armies. – Song of Solomon 6:13.

If the Church is going to return with the Lord at His second coming, it stands to reason that she somehow has to get to where He is prior to His departure from Heaven.  Again in Revelation 19 the Bride is seen in Heaven getting prepared (clothed) for the marriage supper.

There is much talk today of the “perfection” of the Bride.  The Lord cannot come until the Church is without spot or wrinkle.  The timing of the Lord’s return is dependent on how long it takes the Church to mature.  Of course, those who teach thusly would probably not be able to agree with each other about what that kind of perfection or maturity would look like in practical terms.  In this connection, there is popular teaching regarding the “man-child” of Revelation 12.  This man-child, who will rule the nations with a rod of iron, is said to be the church, or Bride, as she(?) comes into a place of authority in the geo-political realm of the planet earth.

(This teaching, along with other components of “Kingdom Now” and “Dominion” theology, results in a maddening eschatological mish-mash that does not necessarily deny the literal, physical return of the Lord Jesus to the planet, but certainly renders it anti-climactic.  In our article on the Church of Laodicea in the Seven Letters to Seven Churches, we have pointed out that the charismatic movement has generally been so focused on signs and wonders and “greater works than these,” that it has become lukewarm in its anticipation for the Second Coming.)

Without getting bogged down in the quagmire that is the Rapture issue (we will get bogged down in that in another article), let us look at what we should expect to see in the end-time church, not according to the popular teaching of the day, but according to the Holy Scripture where it deals with the subject.

The Apostle Paul was very clear that there would be a great falling away prior to the Day of the Lord.  He also talked of a great deception, one accompanied by signs, wonders, and miracles, that would serve to draw off all those who were not firmly grounded in a “love of the truth.”  Strangely enough, much of the professing Church of Jesus Christ today is actually looking forward to this event, calling it “Joel’s Army,” “revival,” and the “end-time harvest.”  The set-up is pretty much complete.  All we need now is for actual miracles to begin, and much of the church will be drawn away in an instant.

The current Christian “pop culture” is basically divided into two camps—the Left Behind school and the Not Goin’ Anywhere culture.  The first group is waiting for the Rapture, and the second group is waiting for signs, wonders, and miracles that will somehow result in a great harvest of souls even as Christians undergo unprecedented persecution, even as they take over the world (is that confusing to anyone else?).

The strangest thing about both of these teachings is that for the most part, its proponents are totally oblivious to the work that the Holy Spirit has been doing in the Church for the last 40 years.  The true “movement of God” in our day has been the recovery of a scriptural understanding of the Church as the Body of Christ, and the Body of Christ as the Bride, and a recognition that no denomination can lay claim to this title.  This movement has come about not as a result of “greatly anointed” teachers and prophets delivering messages from grandiose platforms.  It has not been fueled by the Christian publishing industry or anything appearing on cable-channel Christian programming.  It has taken place totally independently of the great “men of God” in both camps of Christian culture—be they of the Tim LeHaye/Hal Lindsay/Jack Van Impe ilk, or the Stan Johnson/Rick Joyner/Kenneth Copeland variety.

What has happened in this move of God is that born-again believers in the Lord have sensed a relentless stirring in their spirits for a relationship with their Lord and fellowship with others of their own kind.  Innately, without a theological discussion or instructions from the great seminaries or Bible schools, these believers have come to realize that a denomination is nothing, that theology is a vanity, and that there is a wonderful, true, presence of the Lord being manifested among believers who meet simply in His Name.

This has resulted in the “house church” or “simple church” movement outside of the denominations, and the “home group” or “cell group” movement within the denominations—an effort to keep the people from leaving the denominations to find what the Lord has been putting in the hearts and souls of His saints—the need for an intimate relationship with the Lord and fellowship within the Body.  There is barely a denomination or fellowship or association that has not had to make some sort of change to accommodate this relentless movement within the Body of believers.  This in itself should be seen as evidence that this movement is of God, and not of men.

Come Ye Out from Among Them

But what has been the experience of countless thousands and tens of thousands of saints who have “gone without the camp” in search of the “true Church” as it was in the beginning?

The answer would be different for different people, depending on what they had expected to find “out there,” of course, but there are some factors that are relatively constant:

  • A dismal lack of trained nursery workers to watch the little ones while the adults attend the performances in the main sanctuary.

  • A shortage of paved and lined parking spaces.

  • No access to highly specialized youth pastors, marriage-counselors, and out-reach coordinators.

  • No tax exemption receipts for their tithes, gifts, and offerings.

  • No printed church bulletins to doodle on during the sermon.

  • No sermons.

And what would many of those who have endured the house church challenge for any length of time say they have gained in return?

  • A closer fellowship with other believers in the Lord.

  • Freedom to pursue one’s own giftings and calling within the Body of Christ.

  • A better appreciation for what the term “church” as used in the Book of Acts was referring to.

  • A heightened sense of the presence of the Lord among “two or three” that are gathered in His Name.

  • No sermons!

The worship is unprofessional.  The teaching lacks the entertainment value that many “great preachers” are able provide in the traditional church.  There is generally very little thought given to being entertaining. Most such fellowships are rather small, numbering in the dozens at the most.  And for many, there is the sense that we are truly “in the wilderness,” waiting for the Lord to provide further instructions.  There is a sense in which many of the small house churches that have proliferated over the last several decades are aware to some degree of being in a holding pattern.

The wilderness is the great staging ground for the preparation of the Church to greet the soon returning Bridegroom.  Freed from the distractions of building programs, deacons meetings, etc., the believers are able to focus on the Lord as the object of their worship and the source of their life and fellowship.  The rewards can be amazing.

One prerequisite for gaining any benefit from the church in the wilderness is to finally and forever relinquish any thoughts of maintaining a denominational identity or loyalty.  For those to whom the Christian faith is based on a set creed, a venerated, historical statement of faith, a liturgy, rites or rituals, the church in the wilderness will prove a barren experience indeed.  Theological squabbles and doctrinal debates generally do not go very far among these believers.  After all, doctrine and theology are for the most part intellectual and theoretical.  They add little to a true experience of the Lord’s presence.  As long as the Lord continues to bless these little gatherings with His presence, this will probably continue to be the case.

There are a few house church movements that stand in danger of being swept away by an overemphasis on such issues as the role of elders, the “proper” way to experience the Lord’s Supper, women in the ministry, huddling close together while singing songs about Jesus, etc.  As long as local gatherings are left alone to deal with these and other issues between themselves and the Lord, body life will continue.  When local gatherings are formed expressly for the purpose of seeing that these issues are handled according to the teaching of a few prominent “house church” leaders, that gathering is on its way to becoming just another denomination—albeit a denomination without parking lots or building programs.  Not at first, anyway.

The church in the wilderness is free.  Wild and free. And while freedom will always be challenged by those who seek to have the preeminence and the final word on who is right and who is wrong, the Holy Spirit winds of freedom continue to fill the sails of humble, unknown, nameless believers in the Lord Jesus who are willing to seek the “simplicity that is in Christ.”

If you have already found your way out of Churchianity into Christ, congratulations.  You may feel from time to time that your little group is not accomplishing much.  Relax.  You are adorning the wilderness.  A flower does not need to do much besides just be a flower.  Your little fellowship, if it is truly meeting in the name of, and under the authority of, and in the will of Jesus Christ is a beautiful thing.  Just take in the rain and blossom where the Lord has planted you.

For those who feel the house church movement is an unnecessary overreaction to overbearing ministers and legalism in the denominations, know this:  The perfection of the Bride will be displayed NOT in signs and wonders and raising the dead.  It will be manifest in the unity that these little groups exhibit, even though many times they are totally unaware of each other’s existence.  The mature church is a church that has “grown up together” in unity: …the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplies, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, making increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love. (Ephesians 4:16)

As long as you endeavor to promote unity while preserving divisions, you will be irrelevant to the work of the Holy Spirit in our day to “perfect” the Bride in love and in unity, in answer to the Lord’s prayer for the church in John 17.

And as they departed, Jesus began to say unto the multitudes concerning John, What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind? But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? behold, they that wear soft clothing are in kings' houses.  Matthew 11:7,8

So the, there is a movement of the Holy Spirit that has taken believers without the camp and into the wilderness.  What did you expect you would find there?

Nothing.  Nothing but the Lord.  Nothing but the Lord. Nothing but the Body of Christ--nothing but the Lord.

Amen.

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