If Facebook has taught us anything it is that sensational titles are of paramount importance to being successful online. And I guess if this post were a video the title would run something like this: The Church Grew More Rapidly Than Ever Before, But You Will Not Believe How! “Can Satan grow the church?” The answer is a chilling, “Yes.”
In Matthew 13 we encounter a collection of what have been called Jesus’ ‘kingdom parables’, where our Lord warns his hearers that Satan would actively strive against the church. But notice one of the ways Jesus said he would do this, in the “parable of the weeds of the field” (13:36); Satan’s opposition is not ostentatious but insidious. In the parable, the enemy does not destroy the fields but sows weeds amongst the wheat (13:25). And these grow so closely intertwined with the wheat that the field owner tells his servants they cannot be separated, until harvest time. This parable can be understood to teach us a few things: the church visible is not the church invisible; on judgment day Jesus will vindicate his people whilst judging mere pew-warmers; and God is not deceived by Satan but fully aware of his designs. However, the point I hope to tease out in this short post, one which I do not think is regularly taught, is that Satan grows local churches. One of the ways that Satan deceives us is by growing the local church.
What got me thinking along this line was our recent series of posts on Jesus’ temptation, in Matthew 4. Reflecting on the temptations I had to conclude that they were not simply mock or pretend temptations. What we see in the verbal wrestling in the wilderness is Satan genuinely tempting Jesus with the spectacular rather than sacrificial service. While the episode legitimises Jesus’ steadfast obedience to his Father and self-giving love for those he came to rescue, it also presents us with a peculiar puzzle: how could worshiping being he created truly tempt Jesus? David Seccombe argues that Satan’s offer of dominion – through means other than the cross, resurrection, and ascension – was real, “[Jesus] saw just how easy it would be to win the kingdoms if he were to employ the armoury of evil tactics which have been used from time immemorial to achieve political power” (The King of God’s Kingdom, p132). Satan could give the Son what was deservedly his: all glory and honour and power. But due to the deceptive nature of that fallen creature, Jesus saw the relative hollowness of the offer in comparison to what the Father promised.
Tying the above together I want to address pastors, from all traditions, denominations and walks. Our adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8). And one of the ways that he can do this is through giving pastors what they rightfully desire: vibrant, impressive churches. If Satan can grow the local church then we should be wary of loading our confidence into the size of our congregations. Sam Storms, in To the One Who Conquers, warns against pointing to sizeable offerings and overflowing crowds as an indicative of divine approval, for the field may simply be full of weeds. Writing on Jesus’ letter to the Philadelphians (Revelation 3:9), Storms adds: “The greatness of a church is not measured by its membership roll or budgetary prowess, but by the size of its Savior, whom it faithfully honors and passionately praises and confidently trusts.” It sounds trite, but it is true. Satan is the surreptitious prince of this world, sowing weeds and causing us to look in awe at the size of churches. But we must remember, from Jesus’ encounter, that he can give what we know to be good and desirable, only through devious means or by deception. Pastors need to be aware of the temptation to adopt alternate means, as Jesus was, in achieving growth in the local church. As Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 3, our work will one day be measured, only that which is built on the foundation of Jesus Christ will last.
Let me conclude. From Matthew 13 we see that Satan can grow the church; indeed, it is one of the ways that he deceives believers. Therefore we must be cautious about seeing the size of our congregation as an undeniable mark of God’s blessing or presence. I know of very large churches where Satan’s promises, not God’s as he has revealed them in Scripture, are preached; I have also visited many seemingly insignificant but faithful local churches that I am sure God is pleased with. In Matthew 4 Satan tempted Jesus with a right and desirous end, but the means were idolatrous. For us today, especially those in ministry, the difficult line to walk is between desiring growth in the local church while keeping that desire from becoming an idol. Our enemy revels in a church where attendance is the mark of faith and its leaders worship growth.