The poison, carbon monoxide, presents a striking analogy to a spiritual poison which is currently taking the lives of the churches of this land. Many churches which seem to be very much alive are, in reality, spiritually dead. The archetype of such churches was the church at Sardis, to which Jesus said:
"Thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead."
The words might be paraphrased in modern speech: "You have
the reputation of being a really live-wire church, yet, in reality,
you are dead."
Carbon monoxide is a poison so deadly that a relatively small amount in the atmosphere is fatal to human or animal life. When the gas reaches a concentration of one part in 750 parts of air, death will occur within thirty minutes to those breathing such a mixture. Yet, as deadly as it is, carbon monoxide has no directly harmful effect upon the body tissues. It does not attack, nor in any way directly injure, the lungs or any other part of the body, as do the majority of gases used in chemical warfare. The poisonous nature of carbon monoxide is due to the fact that it deprives the body of oxygen. As we fill our lungs with air, oxygen from that air is picked up by the red corpuscles of the blood circulating through the lungs, and is carried by them to every cell of the body. This oxygen is absolutely essential to the cells and therefore to the body; without it the body would quickly die of oxygen starvation, or asphyxiation.
Now, the red blood corpuscles, which normally unite with the oxygen in the lungs, show a marked preference for uniting with molecules of carbon monoxide instead. This means that when carbon monoxide is present in the atmosphere in appreciable amounts, and is breathed into the lungs; the red corpuscles will ignore the oxygen which is present, and will eagerly unite with the carbon monoxide and carry it instead of oxygen to the cells of the body. Thus the circulatory system, on which the cells of the body depend to bring them the oxygen which they vitally need, is bringing them instead, carbon monoxide for which they have no use whatsoever. The person is thus killed by a gas which is in itself harmless, but which by its very presence, has deprived him of that which is essential to life.
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Carbon monoxide is odorless, colorless and tasteless, and
so gives little, or no warning of its presence. In a case of
carbon monoxide poisoning, therefore, the person may literally
never know what killed him. The irony of death by carbon
monoxide poisoning is that the gas (composed of carbon and
oxygen) actually contains the element so desperately needed by
the body, but not in a form which the body can use. Of
course, some carbon monoxide is always present in the air, but
in small, harmless amounts.
There is a spiritual poison which is as deadly to the spiritual life of a church as carbon monoxide is to physical life. That poison is fleshly religion - worship that is of the flesh and is performed, for the most part, on the fleshly level. It is a matter of allowing the flesh to dictate the manner and method of our worship; and, in the end, amounts to ecclesiastical suicide. Just as our blood prefers carbon monoxide to oxygen, even though it is utterly worthless to the body, so most church members prefer the kind of church service which appeals primarily to the flesh; even though it imparts no benefit either to the individual or to the church. The point is not that this fleshly worship is necessarily harmful or detrimental to the church itself; but rather that by its very presence it deprives the church of the spiritual oxygen which is absolutely essential for its life and growth.
The writer has long maintained that any form of worship which could essentially be rendered just as easily by a parrot (memorized prayers, etc.) or a monkey (making sign of the cross, kneeling, genuflecting, etc.) is basically of the flesh, and does not of itself confer any spiritual benefit either upon the individual or the church.
However, there are many other forms of fleshly worship whose predominance in our church services is deadly to the spiritual life. For example, music can be an important adjunct to the spiritual worship of the church; offering, as it does, a medium whereby the individual worshippers can pour forth the praises and thanksgiving of their hearts to God. However, the musical program of the church can be so designed that the appeal is primarily to the flesh. In such a case the spiritual message of the song (if any) is subordinated to a melody and rhythm which are calculated to set the foot to patting, and the body to swaying, rather than to direct the mind and heart God- ward. Thus, that which produces spiritual growth is pushed aside to make room for that which caters to, and satisfies, the flesh.
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It would scarcely be possible (nor perhaps profitable) to
list all of the varied forms that fleshly worship may assume in
the churches. Though we might easily list many; we might as
easily overlook many. It is more desirable to attempt to make
churches and ministers aware of the serious nature of the
problem and to point out the general principles by which we
should be guided in detecting and dealing with this danger.
In determining whether our own church services are being permeated by this poison, we should carefully re-examine our worship, asking ourselves how much of it is done, as Paul said it should be, unto edifying, and how much is done to gratify and satisfy the flesh. It should be remembered that practices which do not seem to be (of themselves) harmful, may vary well become so if they are allowed to crowd out the things are essential to growth in grace.
Even the preaching itself can be done in such a manner that attention is diverted from the message, which may be good, to the personality, mannerisms, or eccentricities of the minister. A flamboyant style of delivery, the overuse of humorous illustrations, and the practice of appealing to the fleshly emotions (rather than to the regenerate nature) may give the minister a reputation for cleverness, and may prove to be quite a drawing card in building up attendance. But such a ministry is obviously focused on the level of the flesh, and will provide no more lasting results that Jesus' feeding of the five thousand.
Just as there is always a small amount of carbon monoxide in the air, so there will always be some of the flesh in our worship. A small proportion of carbon monoxide in the air we breathe is not harmful. Neither is a small proportion of fleshly worship in our churches. It is when each of these becomes concentrated in larger than normal amounts that it becomes a threat to life.
John H Mattox