The Weak Church: Making Much of Christ

Planted in Weakness

Christianity has enjoyed a position of strength in Western society for a long time. The church once commanded kings, encompassed nations, and dominated the world. But things were not always this way. Before the Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the Byzantine Empire through the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D., Christianity was not known for its strength, but for its weakness.

Christianity was a strange sect to the Roman Empire. Belief in one God, not a pantheon of gods, was like atheism to the Roman mind. Christians also refused to deify Caesar and participate in ritual offerings to him, offerings that were often mandated by the Roman government. Rumors spread, claiming Christians devoted themselves to cultic rituals and incestuous practices at their love feasts. To make matters worse, Christians followed a man who had been publicly crucified as a criminal at the hands of the Roman Empire. Such devotion to Jesus invited scorn, ridicule, and even martyrdom.

No image better represents the reputation of the early Christians than the Alexamenos graffito found in Rome. It depicts the body of a man with the head of a donkey on a cross (presumably Jesus), while a man below raises his hand in worship. Crude Greek letters etched in stone read, “Alexamenos worships his god.” 

Enduring in Weakness

Today, Christians are once again beginning to taste a small measure of the cup of shame that we drink in association with Jesus. How can we, like those early Christians, learn to endure? By rediscovering one simple truth—we were meant to thrive in weakness. We have become so addicted to the luxury of strong institutions, strong cultural influence, and strong political power that we have forgotten and neglected the power of the cross. 

Paul latches on to this concept in 2 Corinthians 12. Since he could powerfully boast in the extraordinary experience of a heavenly vision, God crippled him with weakness.

 So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, 
a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me,
to keep me from becoming conceited. 

This “thorn in the flesh” could have been a physical ailment or perhaps direct Satanic opposition. We’re not sure. What we do know is God sent it to humble Paul. And, like most of us would respond, Paul prayed for its removal.

Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 

Paul was not wrong for seeking the Lord in this way. But God had work to do in Paul that he could not otherwise accomplish unless Paul was weak. So God left the thorn.

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 

What Paul learned, and what we need to grasp as Christians in the 21st century, is the truth that God’s power is perfected in our weakness. We probably wouldn’t say this out loud, but we often imply by our words and actions that a good church is rich, self-sufficient, ecstatic, and strong.

But Paul is telling us God delights to use humble, poor, needy, downcast, and weak people in his plan. Our weakness presents us with an opportunity to make much of Christ, but our strength prevents us from making much of Christ. Which is why Paul concludes,

Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Advancing in Weakness

What we need today is not a strong church, but a weak one. To advance the gospel in this world, the church must make much of Jesus Christ through our weakness. How can we make much of Jesus when we never need him? How can we make much of Jesus when we refuse the paradox of the power of the cross? The world will continue striving for power, seeking to cover up its weakness with fancy façades that vanish like grass in midsummer’s heat. But it cannot be that way for the church. In Christ, when we are weak, then we are strong.


The Fire of God

I recently trimmed the shrubbery around our house. The springtime growth was getting out of hand, and by evening I had a sizable pile of greenery overflowing my fire pit in the back yard. I pushed aside some of it to make room for a “real” fire. Standing a couple of big, dry logs end on end, leaning inward like a teepee, I carefully arranged a bed of small, short, and very dry sticks. I finished it off by inserting a couple of ripped up cardboard strips from Amazon boxes, and the preparation was complete. My plan worked better than I thought it would, and before I knew it I had a roaring fire. Every few minutes I would push some more shrubbery on top of the fire; the moisture inside would sizzle and pop, sending up plumes of smoke.

Maybe I had too much time on my hands as I stood gazing at the fire. But it seemed to me a perfect metaphor for the believer’s usefulness in ministry. The fire itself is the work of God in a local church. The oxygen that feeds the flames and give them life are the work of the Holy Spirit. And we are the wood God uses to keep the fire going.

Some believers have soaked up too much of the world to be very useful. When they are tossed on the fire, they create a lot of noise but their moisture actually douses the flames. Pile on enough, and they can actually threaten to kill the fire. In the end, though, if the fire prevails, it will consume those
bright green leaves
fading flowers
to curl and shrivel,
sending up plumes
of smoke
that choke every passer-by
billowing ashes
that float away,
ugly in the wind.
Every believer will be used of God, the only question is how willing we will be in that process. I do not believe in the existence of a “carnal Christian,” of a person who never bears fruit but somehow possesses faith. But I do believe in the dangers of the allure of this world, and as a pastor I am painfully aware of the impact worldliness can have on the people of God.

There are others, who, in their zeal, offer themselves up to God for service out of a willing spirit. But they have no patience. Rather than seeing the wisdom and value of studying the Scriptures, of stewarding their gift, and of learning from the leadership around them, they push ahead in zealous recklessness. I believe God loves their heart, but he groans over their foolishness. These may be, as it were, kindling sticks.
They are short,
they burn brightly,
and they cause a lot of light
but not much heat.
Kindling is useful for starting a fire, or perhaps for counteracting the dampening effects of suffocating shrubbery, but kindling can only last for so long. After all, it only has so much to give by way of zeal. So, in a moment, it comes and is gone.

There are some believers who take the long view in ministry. They see the seriousness of their mission and willingly sacrifice to make use of their gifts. They gladly give much of their time, abilities, and resources to the kingdom, and so their opportunity to contribute to the fire is equally great.
Like great, dry logs in the fire, the Maker lays them up to support one another.
They do not catch fire as quickly as the zealous kindling.
No, because these logs are so large, they take a great amount of heat to set ablaze.
They are too careful to burn up with passing fads, but when the flame burns brightly and the heat becomes overpowering with the all-important work of exalting Christ and his gospel, these logs burn for hours down to their very core.
They provide heat in the cold and light in the darkness.
They dance and flicker with joy, sending off pops and cracks that signify not a dousing of the flames but that of a healthy, roaring blaze.
They do not burn for sake of themselves, but for sake of the Maker who has placed them together into their perfect design for his own deserving glory.

Even as they burn up, sending their last flicker of light,
the hard wood falls blackened on a bed of coals beneath the fire
that make up the fire’s true center of blazing heat and energy.
Even in death and apparent weakness, this bed of dying coals can lay glowing with heat
through the coldest of nights.
And when day dawns, the Maker resurrects a new work from the ashes
by simply laying a few more well-placed logs and a little kindling.
Then, in an instant, the heat ignites a flame.
The work is alive again.

What part do you want to play in the kingdom of God? How have you made yourself useful in his service in your local church? We all have the opportunity to burn brightly for Christ, fully satisfied with where the Maker places us. May we make the most of it.