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Spirits in the Church

church building, steeple
Photo: Unsplash/Chris Liverani |

Oprah sidekick and former pastor Rob Bell penned the controversial and theologically dubious book, Velvet Elvis and later wrote the equally shaky Love Wins………and then he lost………but I digress. He writes how his former church in Michigan saw one thousand folks show up on launch Sunday without a shred of advertising and then mushroom to ten thousand packing the seats within two brief years. But the blunt reality is that the average church in America has about a hundred faithful on Sundays with thousands of churches closing their doors or merge each year.  Researchers tell us that near 75 – 85% of our churches are at a plateau and some are hemorrhaging.

All of us scratch our collective heads and ask the proverbial why?

Ethnikitis, a seminary-coined diagnosis is a disease of the church that displays itself as a glaring cultural or racial disconnect that results when the church and its community no longer resemble nor speak to one another. We don’t like it, but it happens. And moral lapses on the part of church leaders and pastors strangle the life out of many churches. Flat church life is often blamed on the pastor’s lack of leadership skills, so much so that theological fidelity, solid bible teaching, and pastoral care are viewed as inadequate to atone for that weaker skill set, at least according to some pundits. God help us when secular leadership skills outweigh biblical fidelity in importance! I suspect that many churches have an ingrained infatuation with security and shy away from risky ventures like a plague while others retreat into isolation in fear of change.  Some close-knit fellowships may resist an invasion of new faces that may threaten the closeness of the fellowship and cause Uncle Leo to lose his favorite seat and throw a jaundiced eye at his replacement.  One person in a declining church recently told me, “Our church is just not risky enough.” Well said.

We love reading of the churches which have mastered the art of multiple services, meet in countless alternative venues with everything from Bach to rock and coffee bars for the flock, have facilities for kids like a virtual Disneyland, design stages that rival Broadway, and hand out bagels and backrubs and benefits. I instinctively cough and imagine I have emphysema due to the hazer machines in full use at some churches. Hazers are not inherently evil, of course and I kind of like the vibe but they will never replace the work of the Spirit or the faithful teaching of the scriptures.  A replication of shekinah glory they are not.

For a brief and perhaps painful moment I want to expose the dark side of church life, the underbelly as it were, the dirty and scandalous experiences that many of us have encountered and some actually survived to talk about it. H.B. London, Focus on the Family’s former pastoral adviser has written that as many as 40% of pastors have seriously considered seeking another line of work, and many have. Southern Baptist churches alone unceremoniously lose 800+ ministers every year as reported by SBC Life.

Let’s go figure.

Absalom was the long-haired golden boy of Israel impatiently waiting in line for the throne. A relative raped his sister causing Absalom to explode in anger and make sure the abuser died for it. He fled the scene but returned to hatch a cleverly designed plot rooted in personal evil ambitions in order to ascend to power. He used deception, underhanded accusation, touted his own abilities, and turned the people against King David. It’s a nasty story, indeed. Is that spirit alive today? You had better believe it. You may have met him last Sunday.

Emma is the top choice for baby girl names in 2019! Jezebel didn’t even make the list – I checked. Jezebel, the original Phoenician seductress mastered the art of intimidation through provocative glance. She was also skilled at berating her husband, and others, into submission. She not only wore the pants, as they say, she stole them from him. Her smooth and silky voice combined with suggestive dress served her well. And her display of raw political power and forced allegiance wilted the hearts and minds of her peers and common men. The spirit of Jezebel causes men and women to buckle and give in to her demands. It shows itself in her flirtatious and demanding ways thereby cleverly maneuvering herself into a position of control, her drug of choice. Her wily ways cause unsuspecting church leaders to make every effort to meet her expectations resulting in anemic leaders who cave in and pursue her whims and be driven by prevailing opinions rather than standing on biblical authority.

Have you noticed that the strength of Jezebel is often stoked by Ahab’s weakness? This spirit may show itself in men and women alike and roams the hallways of today’s church. God dealt with her, not with empathy or negotiation, but with annihilation under the sharp hoofs of Jehu’s horses. Short of her complete repentance and restoration, go thou and do likewise! God may not send Jehu’s horse, but at least show him, or her, the door. Now. Diotrephes, loosely translated cherished by Zeus is perhaps one of the most devious and overlooked characters in the scriptures. He had one foot in Greek philosophy and the other in the church. Sound familiar? He merits only two obscure yet potent verses regarding his evil habits in the church. He demanded exclusivity in the membership, had a closed inner circle of friends, refused to support spiritual leadership, and made veiled threats to those who did not readily agree with him.

This spirit often works quietly, builds support one secret meeting at a time, inflates the number of his or her followers, advertises his or her own abilities to the unsuspecting masses, and then launches his sinister coup to remove any church leader who stands in the way of his power. John promised to deal with him decisively when he arrived. Is that spirit alive today? No question. He may be an influencer, chairman of a committee, bible teacher, or stand in the pulpit. You may have met him last Sunday.

Please pardon the bleak tone of this note, but pastors are falling away in record numbers and church families ravaged, and I don’t like it. However, take heart! God is well aware of these spirits of darkness and no doubt had good and redemptive reasons to make sure these devious episodes landed on the pages of our Bibles. Indeed, we do wrestle with the powers of darkness, as Ephesians notes, but those powers often show up in the flesh wearing pants and skirts!

I realize that the vast majority of our churches are full of peace and joy and love their pastors and pastors do likewise in return, and you may have encountered none of this ugliness, but I contend that these spirits look for open doors. Yes, some few pastors, due to their sinful, power-hungry and unrepentant behaviors deserve to step down and be moved into a place of restoration while showered with grace and love, but as churches capitulate to these wicked spirits they become complicit in the abuse. It has always been curious to me that sexual abusers are required to register their whereabouts, but where do abusive churches or members go to register?

When these spirits show themselves, what do we do?  We must develop Godly leaders with spiritual backbone, pray our hearts out, stand strong on the scriptures, and be very prayerful and careful whom we place in leadership. Paul instructed his young protégé Titus to remove a factious person after two clear warnings, a hard yet necessary word! And to that I say, be like Titus!

Satan would love to strangle your church – let’s not allow him to clasp his nasty hands around the throats of our churches and one another. Absalom, Diotrephes, and Jezebel are alive and well today and deserve a watchful eye. And rest assured Jesus died for the church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it!

He loves you, and His church — don’t mess with it.

David Sylvester is a former pastor in the DFW area and writes teaching resources at

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