Propagators or Caretakers?
I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place – unless you repent (Revelation 2:5).
The church at Ephesus (in the province of Asia Minor, modern day western Turkey) was established by the Apostle Paul on his third missionary journey (Acts19:1ff). Upon his arrival he found a few believers there, who perhaps were converted many years before at Pentecost in Jerusalem (Acts 2:9). Ephesus was the leading city of Asia Minor with a population approaching two hundred thousand people. It had a sports stadium or theatre which sat twenty-four thousand people, and it was the centre of the worship of Artemis, a false goddess, for which a beautiful temple, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, was built. Worshippers of this false goddess came from many miles away to worship her. The city was also notorious for licentiousness, corruption, and perversion. But Paul preached the gospel at Ephesus and the Holy Spirit brought conviction of sin and regeneration to many, accompanied by many apostolic signs and wonders which authenticated the witness of the gospel (Acts 19:11ff). The church was established around 53 A.D. and Paul’s letter to the Ephesian church was written some ten years later. In his epistle Paul commended the Ephesian Christians for their faith in the Lord Jesus and their love for all the saints (Eph. 1:15). And it appears that the church at Ephesus was an ‘epi-centre church’ from which as many as ten other churches were planted (Acts 19:10).1 However by 66 A.D.2, as Jesus has given his apocalyptic vision to the Apostle John on the Isle of Patmos, he takes the church of Ephesus, the leading church of the region, to task. He commends them at first saying, ‘I know your deeds and your toil and your perseverance (the personal pronoun “you”, used three times in this clause, is singular, meaning Jesus is personally addressing the pastor, who is the angel or messenger, as well as the lampstand which is the church), and that you cannot tolerate evil men (those who are false apostles and liars)’. He also commends them because of their perseverance, the fact that they have endured for his name’s sake (each time ‘perseverance’ is used in Revelation it deals with stedfastness in the face of persecution and martyrdom) and have not grown weary in the fight. However Jesus then switches gears and rebukes the church at Ephesus, saying ‘But I have this against you, that you have left your first love.’ They, all of us, are to love God with all our hearts, souls, and minds; and we are to love our neighbours as ourselves (Matt. 22:37-40). So Jesus is rebuking them for losing their white hot zeal for him; and this zeal had been manifested in the propagation of the gospel which had gone forth so powerfully from Ephesus (Acts19:20). So while the church at Ephesus was still doctrinally sound, being able to spot and eradicate heresy, while it had not left the field of battle, so to speak, it was not zealous in propagation. The church had developed a caretaker’s mentality.
So, Jesus is calling us to be propagators, not mere caretakers. A church can be doing all the right things – biblical worship, theological orthodoxy, persevering in doing good, ministering to the church people – but still be under the ire of the Holy One, our Saviour, whose eyes are a flame of fire, whose feet are like burnished bronze made to glow in a furnace (Rev. 1:14-15). From the time of the Ephesian church’s beginning (53 A.D.) to the time of Jesus’ letter (66 A.D.) only thirteen years had passed. How quickly the gold had become dark (Lam. 4:1). What characterizes a propagator church? What constitutes a caretaker church? A propagator church is outwardly focused, like the Ephesian church with the Spirit’s power working in, on, and through the people, bringing mighty conversions, mighty assemblies, mighty holiness, and mighty societal impact. A propagator church exists to multiply itself. It trains and equips people (as Paul did at the school of Tyrannus, Acts 19:9) and sends them out to evangelize and plant more churches. This means the abundance of resources of the propagator church (time, talent, and treasure) are directed outside the walls of the church. Like a married couple, which decides to propagate the human race by bringing children into the world, is gladly willing to expend money, sleepless nights, and thousands of dirty nappies; so a propagator church looks beyond the comfort of the status quo. A caretaker church, on the other hand, plays everything close to the vest. They are all about protecting what they have. Their building, the expansion of the physical plant, becomes the end all. Prayer meetings, if they continue at all, devolve into ‘organ recitals’ (a long litany of ills of church members, ‘pray for Aunt Gertrude’s bunion’). A subtle perversion of the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20) takes place in caretaker churches. Instead of ‘teaching so that people may obey’, pastors and Sunday School teachers ‘teach for knowledge.’ Knowledge, not obedience, becomes the driving force. Sooner or later in a caretaker church, people become upset with the preacher and elders. That’s because the members begin to believe the church is for them. So maybe they don’t like the way the preacher dresses, how he preaches, what his wife and children look like. And because it is all about them, they will not persevere in the church when such things grate on their nerves. And like a married couple which chooses not to propagate children, which decides to spend all their time and money on nice get-away vacations and new cars, their name, sooner or later, will die out. They have chosen not to leave a posterity.
So, is your church a propagator or a caretaker? What about you? You may object at this point by saying, ‘Wait a second, we are to care for the people of the church. We are to shepherd them.’ Yes, that is true, of course, but this is all done in the New Covenant church in the backdrop of gospel expansion. All of the pastoral admonitions from Jesus, Paul, Peter, and John are in the context of a mighty movement of the Spirit in conversion and church planting.
And what happens if you, your church continue as a caretaker instead of a propagator? Well, Jesus told us that this is evidence of leaving your first love. Think back to your conversion. I bet you could not get enough preaching. One sermon on Sunday was not enough. You had to have one Sunday night and Wednesday night too. I bet you were so excited about how God saved you that you could not stop speaking about what you had seen and heard. I bet you talked to just about everyone who gave you the slightest open door. And I bet you loved to obey what you were learning from sermons and your own personal reading and studying of the Bible. How is that going now? Are you a caretaker or a propagator?
What must you do? What is the remedy? Jesus is telling you to remember (present tense command) from where you have fallen (perfect tense, this has been going on for a long time). He then commands you once and for all (aorist tense command) to do two things – to repent (turn from your folly and return to the Lord) and to do the deeds which you did at first (attention to the Word of God, prayer, gospel witnessing, giving your time and money to Jesus). If you are a caretaker and not a propagator, and if you persist in this value system, then Jesus says he is coming (present tense, he is right at the door) and he will remove the lampstand (the church) out of its place. The only remedy is to repent, to regain your first love which always leads to propagation.
Could it be that the church of Jesus has lost its saltiness, is rapidly losing its light to the world, because she has steadily devolved into being a caretaker? The church in Ephesus no longer exists. Western Turkey today is Muslim. North Africa became a caretaker church and it now too is Muslim. Western Europe benefitted marvellously from the propagating influence of the Reformation but it too reduced itself to caretaker status; and is now being overrun by Islam as well. At least three thousand churches close annually in the United States. Jesus will take his gospel away if we choose not to propagate it. We may too become Muslim in fifty years.
My friends – which are you? Are you a caretaker or a propagator? What about your church? You have left your first love if you are not given to gospel propagation. I am not saying you nor your church are not orthodox. All I am saying is that you lack power and authority and you are well on your way to extinction.
- We know of the seven churches of Asia Minor from Revelation 2-3 – Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea; but also churches are mentioned in nearby Colossae and Miletus. Finally there was a church in the home of Nympha (Col. 4:15-16).
- I realize many scholars believe the Apostle John wrote Revelation around 96 A.D. but the internal evidence in the book itself seems to suggest an earlier date, probably 66 A.D., a few years before Titus of the Roman Empire invaded Jerusalem, bringing death and destruction to the city. See Gary DeMar’s Last Days Madness, David Chilton’s Days of Vengeance, Kenneth Gentry’s He Shall Have Dominion, and Keith Mathison’s Postmillennialism: An Eschatology of Hope for support of an early date of Revelation.
Rev. Allen M Baker is an evangelist with Presbyterian Evangelistic Fellowship, and Director of the Alabama Church Planting Network. He planted (2003) and served as Pastor of Christ Community Presbyterian Church in Hartford, Connecticut, until December 2011. His weekly devotional, ‘Forget None of His Benefits’, can be found here.
If you would like to respond to Pastor Baker, please contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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