Critical Mass

I Kings 18:30 - Then Elijah said to all the people, "Come near to me." So all the people came near to him. And he repaired the altar of the Lord which had been torn down."

Luke 2:49 - And He said to them, "Why is it that you were looking for Me? Did you not know that I had to be in My Father's house?"

John 2:16 - And to those who were selling the doves He said, "Take these things away; stop making My Father's house a house of merchandise."

The term "critical mass" is not drawn from Catholic theology, but from the field of nuclear physics! Critical mass is the amount of radioactive material necessary to sustain a chain reaction. If critical mass is attained without control, the result is an explosive and destructive nuclear reaction. Until the point of critical mass is reached, the situation could be said to be "more or less critical," but not critical enough for self-destruction. God has designed the laws of nuclear physics this way.

What does all this information have to do with the Christian faith? Like many things in the natural world, radioactivity and critical mass can be used as an illustration of spiritual realities. Radioactivity is a departure from the normal state. Radioactive atoms or isotopes are unstable. With this in mind, let's liken radioactivity to the state of affairs in a local church which is less than biblically ideal. Yes, there are less-than-perfect churches out there--in fact, can we ever say that any church is 100% biblically ideal?! There always seems to be at least one "radioactive" individual or problem around to mess up the "perfect church"!

In His unbelievable grace, God can and does work in and through far-from-perfect situations and less-than-perfect churches. However, a state of affairs that is less-than-perfect is certainly not the same as an explosive state of "critical mass." "Radioactive" situations and people can be "controlled" by correction and discipline--or even tolerated to a certain point. However, uncontrolled "radioactivity" of heretical doctrine and practice can build up to critical mass, and an "explosive" situation will follow.

Historical Critical Mass

The Reformation was a time of critical mass for the universal church. Critical mass was reached over an all-important doctrine that is absolutely vital to salvation - the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Tolerance was out of the question. This was not a matter on which Christians could "agree to disagree," and continue to have Christian fellowship! There is no Christian fellowship when the doctrine of justification by faith alone is denied! God permitted a state of critical mass to be reached, and drastic and explosive change took place.

The Reformation was an example of critical mass for the universal Body of Christ. What about local churches? Can "radioactive" unbiblical doctrine or practice reach a point where a church self-destructs and is no longer a New Testament church--even if it continues to exist physically? Yes! God has designed it this way. When this state of critical mass is reached the status quo cannot continue--"explosive" change will take place.

When the apostle Paul wrote to the churches of Galatia, a serious doctrinal problem existed. As a requirement for salvation, the "Works" of Judaism were being added to the pure and simple Gospel of the grace of Jesus Christ. False doctrine in such a vital area could not be tolerated! There was no question that this unbiblical teaching was leading to a state of critical mass in the Galatian churches. In the strongest terms possible, the apostle wrote, "If any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed" (Galatians 1:8). In other words, if the Christians of Galatia were to abandon the foundational truth on which the Church stands or falls, they would self-destruct as biblical fellowships!

Near the end of the first century, the Lord told the Church at Ephesus that it would be removed if the believers there did not correct a serious condition in the church (Revelation 2:5). The church did not heed the warning, the situation was not controlled, and critical mass was attained. The Church of Ephesus was removed and is no more.

Less than Ideal Churches

Well, what about a church that is not perfect or biblically ideal, but has not deviated from Scripture in vital doctrinal areas, and therefore hasn't reached the state of critical mass? If you fellowship in a church like this, what should you do? Suppose, for example, the teaching at your church is right on regarding the crucial doctrines of the Person and work of Christ, justification by faith alone, and the inspiration and infallibility of the Bible as the Word of God. From your perspective, however, your church is off-track on some of the details of the Lord's return, or the practice of the priesthood of all believers, or the methods and timing of the Lord's Supper, or the mode of baptism.

Or perhaps you feel that within your church there are certain forms of "idolatry"--or maybe even situations thatyou consider immoral, and you feel your church leaders are not dealing with these problem areas sufficiently or as you think they should. What should you do?Should you throw in the towel, loudly and publicly denounce your less-than-perfect church and its leaders, and switch to a church which more closely meets your perspective of the biblical ideal? Should you stay and violently "rock the boat" until the other believers either "see it your way" or you sink the ship? Should you hope that the Lord will lower His tolerance level so that critical mass is attained and self-destruction takes place in your lifetime and you can say, "I told you so"?

Or should you stay with your less-than-perfect church and continue to worship and fellowship with those who don't always agree with you on everything because they are fellow-believers, part of the Body of Christ and indwelt by His Holy Spirit? Should you continue, to the best of your ability, to serve the Lord and build up the "body" in this church--even though you must tolerate some things that, from your viewpoint, are biblically less-than-perfect? This latter position is probably the most scriptural position. In fact, the scriptural position is that followers of Christ should never tear down a local church before critical mass is reached! Remember, toleration of a less-than-perfect situation is not synonymous with "agreeing with" or maintaining total silence. But there is a tremendous difference between speaking out with constructive criticism, and tearing down!

Example of Christ

Let's consider the example set by our Lord Jesus during His earthly ministry. What was Jesus' attitude towards His place of worship--the Temple in Jerusalem? Jesus regularly attended the Jewish Temple which had been built mainly for political reasons by a pagan ruler, Herod the Great. The Lord even called this Temple "My Father's house"! (See Luke 2:49 and John 2:16.) We know that the doctrines and practices associated with the Temple in our Lord's day were very far from ideal. And yet our Lord worshipped there! Can you believe it?! Many of the ultra-conservative Jews would have nothing to do with Herod's Temple and the largely corrupt priesthood. They pulled out and lived and worshipped in wilderness communities such as Qumran, where the important discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls was made. But not our Lord! He continued to worship at the far-from-ideal Temple, even though He knew that critical mass was coming in 70 AD. In fact, He knew that it was only a short time before His work on the cross would forever change the old way of approaching God!

But in the meantime, in accordance with the Law, the Lord Jesus attended the Temple at the appointed times. He did speak out to correct what was biblically unideal at Herod's temple. He taught the people, He reasoned with the Jewish leaders and He dealt with the corruption of the money-changers. Did He rock the boat? He certainly spoke out against the major evils--but He never attempted to tear down His "place of worship." He never attempted to "sink the ship"! Think of what the Lord could have said and done and exposed about individuals if His goal had been to tear down and really clean house! Instead, on occasion after occasion, our Lord demonstrated patience and long-suffering.

In addition, our Lord never disrupted the true worship of God that was taking place at this far-from-perfect place of worship. Consider, for example, the Lord's treatment of the poor widow who put her two mites into the Temple treasury. (See Mark 12:41-44.) He praised her act of worship! He didn't call her over to reprimand her for "giving her all" to the corrupt and theologically unsound Temple system. (Statistically speaking, a certain portion of those two copper coins went into the 30 pieces of silver which came out of the Temple treasury to betray the Messiah!) Furthermore, the Lord Jesus did not "correct" this poor woman's act of worship by advising her to redirect her giving and join "His cause." And the Lord did not even make negative statements to His disciples such as, "If only she knew better" or, "How sad to see such worship in this corrupt and unideal setting"! On the contrary, the Lord commented on the beauty of the woman's dedication to God in a far-from-ideal setting. He showed an unusual degree of tolerance for participation in a Temple system that was biblically unideal.

God's Word to Elijah

As a further example, consider God's directives to the prophet Elijah in 1 Kings 17-18. The northern kingdom of Israel had seriously departed from the ways of the Lord. About 100 years before Elijah's time, the first king of the northern kingdom, Jeroboam I, had set up his own system of worship--including two golden calf shrines at the cities of Dan and Bethel! Just as Jeroboam had hoped and planned, many people of the northern kingdom stopped going to Jerusalem for the required Temple worship and functions and became involved in all kinds of idolatry. At the showdown with the pagan prophets of Baal, Elijah repaired "the altar of the Lord" in order to present his sacrifice. What altar of the Lord?! Apparently, when King Jeroboam discouraged travel across the border to the Temple in the southern kingdom, this altar had been erected on Mount Carmel for the worship of Jehovah.

An altar on Mount Carmel, of course, was technically unbiblical! Once the temple was built, all sacrifices were to take place at the central sanctuary in Jerusalem. There were to be no other altars throughout the whole land of Israel. (See Deuteronomy 12:1-14.) But in His grace God approved the reconstruction of this biblically unideal altar, and demonstrated His approval by sending fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice! The fact that the fire consumed the altar as well as the sacrifice may be an indication that this altar was a departure from the divine ideal. However, because of the idolatrous conditions in the northern kingdom of Israel, God not only tolerated this unorthodox altar--He called for Elijah to repair it! Elijah prayed, "I have done all these things at Thy word" (1 Kings 18:36).

Difficult Decisions

When pagan worship was introduced into the northern kingdom of Israel, many godly Jews quietly migrated south to live in the southern kingdom of Judah, to be free to worship God at the Temple in Jerusalem as God commanded. Likewise, it is not wrong for you, as a growing Christian, to quietly leave your present less-than-perfect church if you find a church fellowship which you believe is more biblically ideal and is "just right for you." It is far better for you to attend a local church where you will grow in Christ, find joyful fellowship with other believers, and be able to "build up the body," rather than feel the need to "tear down" what you believe are "unorthodox altars" to the Lord.

However, in these biblical cases before us, there are obvious lessons for Christians who find themselves in less-than-ideal churches and decide to stay. Sometimes conditions may be so biblically un-ideal that any step in the right direction is approved by God (although, like Elijah's altar, even that step is less than ideal)! And many situations cannot be corrected overnight, as with the corrupt priesthood and Herod's Temple in our Lord's day.

God's message to the Christians in the unideal church at Sardis was not to start a new church but to, "Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain.." (Revelation 3:2). And His message to the very unideal church at Thyatira was not, "Leave!" but, "What you have, hold fast until I come." Because some biblically unideal teachings and practices are less vital than other biblically unideal doctrine and practices, a position of tolerancemay be divinely approved (allowed or permitted, although not desired or condoned) before critical mass conditions are reached.

How long a Christian should hold a position of tolerance in an unideal church situation is not always easy to determine. Certainly growing Christians should not hang around and try to patch over a "radioactive" condition if a "critical mass" of heresy and unfaithfulness has almost been reached and the situation is about to self-destruct! Bandaids over broken arteries can never prevent the loss of lifeblood and eventual death. Even though it is possible for "Christians" to keep a church going after critical mass has been reached, such a "church" is no longer a living organism, but a lifeless unbiblical organization--sometimes actively promoting heresy and immorality.

But on the other hand, biblical determination of what is vital doctrine and practice is not always straightforward. Let's not "cry wolf" before the wolf of heresy has really arrived! Until a state of critical mass is reached, God's "rule of thumb" has always been love, patience and long-suffering--even when things are not ideal! Should we not follow the same rule of thumb, and manifest the fruits of the indwelling Spirit of God in our less-than-ideal churches? Love, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23) are all necessary for the tolerance position. As much as possible, in less-than-perfect churches and fellowships, let's try to follow God's position of patience and long-suffering, and allow Him to decide when critical mass has been attained.

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