The gates of hell? What in the world is Jesus talking about when he says that he is going to build his church and the gates of hell are not going to be able to stop that building—not able to withstand it? What it says, right up front, is that the church does not exist in neutral territory, that there is a formidable adversarial force present that will contest the building of the church, … so to be aware! Jesus, himself, had confronted that Adversary, Satan, at the threshold of his public ministry and was tested by him during those forty days in the wilderness. For those of us who are Christ’s followers, we are inescapably engaged in this same conflict.

So, the church has an adversary, a very real and malignant supernatural foe. One of the church’s earliest commissions was that it should go and turn men from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God (Act 26:18). Exactly what are we, then, to expect? Exactly how does Satan contend against the church? The final book of the Bible spells out that the battle between the Beast (Satan) and the Lamb (Christ) is a battle in which the church is always the target. The question, then, comes: Exactly how does Satan seek to thwart the mission of God through the church? Let me propose at least three, but focus on the third. From the outset, in those first centuries, the Prince of Darkness (Satan) sought to stand against the church by hostility and persecution, both from the Jewish community, but more formidably, by the Roman Empire.  That continues in many hostile cultures to this day (one thinks of the radical Islamic ISIS beheading Christians). It was exhibited in China during the Cultural Revolution. But persecution has only served to purify the church, not destroy it.

Then there is the scheme of the darkness to co-opt the church as (beginning with Rome) the governments of this world seek to make the church official in exchange for its support of their agenda. This was first graphically demonstrated when the Emperor Constantine made the Christian faith the official religion of the empire, gave it all kinds of ‘perks’ in exchange for its loyal support. This continued down through the Holy Roman Empire, in the divine right of kings, to God save the Queen, to Hitler’s tragic co-opting of the Christian church to support his Nazi regime, to our present “God bless America” politicians seeking to co-opt the church in exchange for its support.

But to the point, the third scheme, that is so obvious among the church in the United States, is to simply immunize it to its true calling. When the life of Jesus is truly present in a person’s life, and the life of the Christian church, then Christ’s DNA, his genome, becomes dynamic in producing his life and passions in their lives. To immunize the church, the Prince of Darkness makes the church to be a source of spiritual entertainment, what with endless Bible studies, colorful Sunday mornings, … but to make its participants indifferent to those whom Christ’s came to seek and save, those lost and hurting folk, hiding behind their laptops next to us in the coffee shop, or next door. Satan immunizes when it is possible to be passive in the mission of God, even while being a faithful participant in a church, even while listening to good preaching, even while reading all the best Christian literature. True disciples of Jesus are reproductive (to making disciples), and radically committed to his agenda 24/7, who are contagious with the gospel of the Kingdom of God.  Satan immunizes the church (or domesticate it) when he makes it normative for church members to ‘love the church’ but to never become personally fruitful in its mission. With such a strategy, Satan has already neutered it as a transformational, culture creating, colony of God’s New Humanity in Christ. The dominion of darkness is left intact, alas!


About rthenderson

Sixty years a pastor-teacher within the Presbyterian Church. Author of several books, the latest of which are a trilogy on missional ecclesiology: ENCHANTED COMMUNITY: JOURNEY INTO THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH, then, REFOUNDING THE CHURCH FROM THE UNDERSIDE, then THE CHURCH AND THE RELENTLESS DARKNESS. Previous to this trilogy was A DOOR OF HOPE: SPIRITUAL CONFLICT IN PASTORAL MINISTRY, and SUBVERSIVE JESUS, RADICAL FAITH. I am a native of West Palm Beach, Florida, a graduate of Davidson College, then of Columbia and Westminster Theological Seminaries.
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