When Satan is in the Church...
I sometimes fear that there is a willful naïveté in the church with regard to the presence and power of Satan. One doesn't have to look far into the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, or the New Testament Epistles to discover the reality of the spiritual forces of darkness and to develop a theology of the assault tactics of the evil one. But it might surprise some to see what exactly these tactics are in their more subtle forms. There is one fact, in particular, about which we must be convinced––namely, the Gospel is always the central object of Satanic assault. Stopping the advance of the Gospel is the singular goal of Satan and demons. It does not come, first and foremost, in the form of demonic possession––though that was certainly a primary manifestation of Satan's counterfeiting work in the days of incarnation of Christ (Demon possession was a counterfeiting incarnational power at the fullness of time). But it principally manifests itself in 1) false religions, 2) political oppositions and persecution aimed at the church, 3) false doctrine, 4) hypocrisy, and 5) unwillingness on the part of Christians to receive repentant sinners. These schemes are the common tactics employed by Satan to stop the spread of the Gospel throughout the world. The first two––false religions and political opposition aimed at the church––are brought against the church from without. The latter three––false doctrine, hypocrisy, and unwillingness on the part of Christians to receive repentant sinners––come from within. An appraisal of the church in our day will reveal that the majority of Christians readily focus on the former, almost without regard to the latter. The latter are the more subtle, making them more dangerous in some respects.
A professor in seminary challenged us to read the New Testament in a redemptive-historical manner with regard to the work of Satan. When we do so we discover that demon possession is mentioned less and less after the Gospels, and false doctrine is mentioned more and more. It is, as Paul told Timothy, "doctrines of demons" that come to the forefront of spiritual warfare. Additionally, Paul explained this satanic tactic to the Corinthians when he wrote:
"But I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. For if he who comes preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or if you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted you may well put up with it!" (2 Cor. 11:3,4)
False doctrine is the principle way in which Satan seeks to gain a foothold in the church. It is not, as so many suggest, false religions existing without that threaten the life of the church--it is false doctrine within (Acts 20). The apostle Paul--who many would probably classify as one of those "paranoid reformed folks"--were he alive today--wept over the prospect of false teachers rising up from among the Ephesian elders after he would depart. As John Gerstner once put it, "The Ephesian elders were weeping because they would see Paul no more. Paul was weeping because false teachers would rise up from among the elders." False teaching is a real and powerful reality in the church of Jesus Christ. However, false teaching is not the only tactic Satan employs within the church--false living is of great use to him as well.
In the book of Acts, the first instance of Satan's assaults comes in the form of external opposition to the spread of the Gospel. It is the political forces of darkness rising up against the apostles, threatening them to speak no more in the name of Jesus. But, no sooner had they been delivered from this assault, there was another Satanic blow in the form of hypocrisy within the church. Ananias and Sapphira, we are told, allowed "Satan to fill" their hearts so that they might lie to the Holy Spirit. Concerning Satan's working in this case, John Calvin wrote:
"Satan invented a plot to get into that holy company...under color of such excellent virtue; for he has wonderful wiles of hypocrisy to insinuate himself. Satan assaults the Church in this way, when he cannot prevail by open war."
This is a trumpet call for us to watch over our own hearts against the hypocrisy that Satan wishes to employ in order to pervert the church. Pervert the church, lose the Gospel. There is an undeniable relationship between the truth of the Gospel and the truthfulness of the people of God. The truthfulness of the people of God is not the Gospel, but the Gospel is denied where there is hypocrisy and deceit. If we walk deceitfully we are giving the evil one entrance into our assemblies. Eric Alexander makes the observation that Ananias and Sapphira's sin "was in pretending to a godliness to which they were strangers. Their sin was in being more interested in reputation than in reality. And that was like a dreadful blight which could have killed the early church. So God rooted it out vigorously." Ananias and Sapphira––as well as Simon the Sorcerer––are examples of those who needed to be taken away from the church. And, it is important to note that in the case of Ananias and Sapphira it was God who took them out of the church. Satan had filled their hearts to corrupt the church, so God took their breath to purify it.
There are two small but important lessons that need to be learned with regard to the account of Ananias and Sapphira. The first has to do with the fact that Satan tried to get his way through the use of one couple, William Still observed:
"Satan only needs one individual in a fellowship to give him an opening, to let him in to wreak his havoc on the work of God."
It doesn't take a coup to destroy the church's mission--it takes only one couple. There is an Old Testament parallel in the record of the sin of Achan (Joshua 7). Achan took and hid some of the gold from Jericho when the the LORD had told Israel not to keep any of the accursed things Because of Achan's theft and deceit, the children of Israel were not able to defeat Ai. There is a warning here for us to keep our heart free from greed and deceit. But there is also the lesson that Satan uses the sin of one to bring devastating consequences upon the church.
Another lesson to learn from the example of Ananias and Sapphira is that Satan loves to work through marriages. This was the case with our first parents. Satan immediately sought to work through the marriage in order to bring sin into the world. This may be why the apostle Paul couches his teaching on marriage in his letter to the Ephesians (Eph. 5:20-22) in the context of the spiritual realities in the heavenly places (Eph 1:3 and 6:1-14). It is in the context of spiritual warfare that marriage is brought into focus. Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, and Ananias and Sapphira are all examples of the way in which the evil one seeks to gain an inlet into the church through marriages. Those who are married must especially be on guard against his assaults in this regard. Eric Alexander again observes:
The first warning note of danger in the church is seen in Ananias and Sapphira's marriage. It is essentially a warning about marriage (even Christian marriage) where something is kept back from God. (Cf. 5:2, "with his wife's full knowledge" and 5:9, "how could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord?") It seems, then, as if Ananias and Sapphira had sat down together and discussed the whole issue. They were really discussing the level at which they proposed to live before God and the extent of their consecration together to him and to the cause of the gospel. And in the process, they made a travesty of the marriage bond, which in the providence of God was intended to enable a man and woman to be helpers to each other, that they might live for his glory. But Ananias and Sapphira made it a concordat for abetting one another in robbing God of his glory, lying to the Holy Spirit and putting the whole church in jeopardy. Will you allow me to say to those of you who are married or contemplating it that here is a whole area which you need to bring before God, and the earlier the better.
There is still another way in which Satan comes into the church, with his schemes and attacks; it is by means of moving the hearts of Christians to be unwilling to receive repentant sinners. The apostle Paul charged the Corinthians to put the man living in unrepentant adultery out of the church. That man was handed over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh (which is incidentally what it means to be excommunicated), he at some point had become the recipient of the grace of repentance and came back into the fellowship of believers. One might be tempted to think that all was well. The man had been taken captive to Satan's wiles by lusting after another man's wife, then he had been delivered to Satan for the destruction of the flesh. He had returned to the house of God, and it would seem that Satan's work was finished. But the apostle Paul warns the church that they must receive this brother, so that Satan would not get a foothold. The rationale for such admonition is found in Paul's exhortation concerning the man who had repented:
I urge you to reaffirm your love to him. For to this end I also wrote, that I might put you to the test, whether you are obedient in all things. For if indeed I have forgiven anything, I have forgiven that one for your sakes in the presence of Christ, lest Satan should take advantage of us; for we are not ignorant of his devices. Now whom you forgive anything, I also forgive. For if indeed I have forgiven anything, I have forgiven that one for your sakes in the presence of Christ, lest Satan should take advantage of us; for we are not ignorant of his devices.
Whatever else may be said about the ways in which Satan works in the church, of this much we can rest assured, the Gospel is the object of satanic assault. Satan loves to work through the hypocritical lives and censorious spirits of members of the church to pervert the grace of God in Christ in the message of the gospel. May we not be found ignorant of the devil's devices. God has revealed them to us in the warnings, expositions, and examples of Scripture. We must give ourselves wholly to a consideration of what we find there and to our own hearts as we seek to faithfully proclaim the Gospel and live lives worthy of it.