They are among us. They look like us, they talk like us, and they act like us. But they are not of us. They are… Pod People…
In a recent essay, entitled "Pod People" I used an admittedly silly analogy from badly made 1950's Science Fiction movies to illustrate the dangers of the unregenerate in the church. "Pod People" are those who have experienced a psychological "conversion" to the Christian faith, but not a spiritual one. Thus, at the core of their being, they are still in rebellion to Almighty God, even though they may have adopted Christian "camouflage" in their outward speech and behavior. I argued that despite the orthodoxy of their profession, in reality, their hearts were still in rebellion to God. Furthermore, these "pod people" have entered the church in vast numbers since the revivalism of the 19th century. I suggested that such people might well be responsible for much of the apostasy of the modern church; over time, they move churches, denominations and the accepted standards of the Faith as they become consistent with their rebellious presuppositions.
Response to that first essay has been astounding and I would like to thank the numerous readers who wrote in sharing horror stories, suggestions and asked good, penetrating questions. In this sequel (pod people movie always have at least ONE sequel!) I would like to address the important issue of how to remove the "pod people" from our midst.
First, just to reinforce the seriousness of the problem; our Lord Jesus Himself said that there would be "wheat and tares" in His church (Matt. 13:25ff) and that an ultimate disposition had to await the end of time. Jesus warned about wolves dressed as sheep (Matt. 7:15) and the Apostle Paul was concerned about wolves entering the fold (Acts 20:29-30). In fact, Jesus Himself warned that on the Day of Judgment, many who give every outward indication of being among the elect were in reality, never known by Him (Matt. 7:21-23). "Not all Israel is Israel" warns the Apostle Paul (Rms. 9:6).
However, and this is important, only God knows the Elect for only God knows what is really in a man's heart (Acts 15:8, 1:24, 1 Sam. 16:7, Jer. 17:10, Rm.s 8:27, etc.). Therefore, we cannot know what is really going on inside of a person. Is this man a "pod person" or just an ill-informed, immature Christian who needs love, discipline and instruction? The fact is, we cannot know and therefore must be extremely cautious in making judgments about the eternal status of others.
Yet, as we noted in the previous article, our Lord Himself told us "by their fruits you will know them" (Matt. 7:15-20). Therefore, we DO have an objective basis to make a reasoned and informed judgment. If in fact, a man's heart has not been regenerated, then it will be demonstrated in the "fruit" of his life.
In the previous essay, I argued that this "fruit" would be his attitude and his compliance with the Law of God. Jeremiah 31:33 says, "…I will put my law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God and they shall be my people." The promise of the New Covenant is clear; those who belong to God have His Law written on their hearts. The preeminent sign of true, spiritual conversion is that men are transformed from those who hate the Law of God, to those who love it (Ps. 119:97). The unregenerate man hates the Law of God because his very nature is to be autonomous, living according to HIS standards, rules and values. The Christian however, loves that Law because it represents the holiness and righteous character of God.
Now, sometimes, men are better than their theology. For the past 200 years, the doctrine of the Law of God has been under constant assault both from within the church, and the secular culture. Many Christians (yes, and I do mean Christians) have a poor, sometimes even heretical understanding of the Law caused by bad teaching. They may even preach, teach and write against the Law of God because their theology is sub-Biblical (see Matt. 5:19ff). But when you meet these people, fellowship with them, examine their "fruit," you discover that they actually live inconsistently with their theology! Technically, they are antinomian, but practically, they are theonomists! In daily life, they acknowledge the Lordship of Christ by humble submission to His commands, even when theologically they deny that they are under any obligation to do so! They yearn to worship the Lord in Spirit and Truth, protect His great name, keep His Sabbath, honor their parents, and protect the life, reputation and good name of their neighbor. They abhor immorality and strive to keep themselves pure from sexual sins. They love the truth, they respect another man's property and they humbly repent before God and their brothers when they sin in their hearts. But, if you asked them if a Christian should keep the Law, they will respond by saying, "No, we are under grace, not Law." But their actions deny their words. The Law is written on their hearts; they want to please God, and serve their brothers.
Sadly, their truncated theology often leads them astray (sincerity is no substitute for truth), but from the fruit they do produce, one can see that despite their words, they love and keep the Law. Remember the words of our Lord Jesus that there will be those who speak against the Law, and who will be least in His Kingdom, BUT, they are still IN His Kingdom! (Matt. 5:19)
Now compare this with a "pod person." Since his heart is unregenerate, he is still a slave to his own will. His very nature is in opposition to the Law of God, and he hates it with a passion. He does not just speak against the Law, but actively seeks to undermine and break it. Wanting to be a god in his own eyes, and determine good and evil for himself (Gen. 3:5), the essence of a "pod person" is a commitment to autonomy. No one, no thing holds his ultimate allegiance except his own self will. If his will happens to coincide with God's Law, then fine, he may go along for a while. But the "acid" test is what does he do when God Law requires one thing, and he wants to do something else? How a person responds here is most enlightening as to the true nature of his heart.
As mentioned above, even the Lord Jesus Himself said that we would always have tares among us. Furthermore, he warns his workers NOT to tear out the tares lest some of the wheat be torn out inadvertently. The only reason why Jesus allows the tares to continue in His church is for the benefit of young wheat stalklings that might be confused for a tare!
However, it is most interesting to note that tares only look like wheat when they are young. But over time, as they mature, they become quite distinct so that by the final judgment, the wheat and tare can be safely separated. However you cut it though, our Lord does not give us either the right or the responsibility of removing tares from the church; He reserves this job to Himself and His holy angels at the end of time.
Are we then just stuck with the situation as it is? Is there nothing we can do about wolves entering the fold, destroying the peace and purity of the church? Well, even though our Lord will make the final judgment, we can create an inhospitable environment for tares that will inhibit their growth. If nothing else, they might tend to migrate to other, more comfortable churches and leave ours alone. Does this sound cynical and self-serving? Perhaps so, but it seems only realistic. We cannot know who the pod people really are and remove them, but we can create a climate where their growth and influence is inhibited.
Preach, Teach and Discuss the Law
Now not everyone is in a position to formally preach the Law of God on Sunday mornings, but that is the "sacred/secular" dichotomy anyway. All of Israel was to love the Law of God, to meditate upon it, discuss it, teach it and encourage each other to obey it (cf Deut. 6:4ff). Therefore, all of God's people today have a responsibility to teach each other (Col. 3:16). This is not some upper story, academic and theoretical discussion about arcane aspects of intellectual theology; but rather the practical application of Biblical principles to real life situations (Josh. 1:8). This is the essence of true, Christian fellowship; gathering together for encouragement, discussing the things of God and exhorting each other to practically relate this Law to real life. Isn't it really sad and pathetic for Christians to find the only thing they have in common is supporting a particular sports team? Isn't true, Christian fellowship about helping each other grow in grace, humility and obedience to our Great King (Hebs. 10:24-25)?
Pod people on the other hand, hate the Law because they are autonomous. They do not want to change their lives, but rather want to change the Law to justify themselves. They want to be approved by men, not God and will back down from real, life-changing application of the Law. Oh, some might like to discuss the intellectual and philosophical aspects, but they do not want to put it into practice.
Now, never forget that Pod People want to enforce THEIR law on others. Hence, pod people are by nature legalists. They have all sorts of man-made rules, regulations and proscriptions they want others to follow. This is the heresy of the Pharisees. The Pharisees were not men who loved the Law of God, but rather those who loved the traditions of men! Furthermore, they were PROUD of their adherence to man-made rules and judged everyone else by their own standards. The Christian though has liberty of conscience under God's Law. Where God speaks, we must obey. But our gracious Lord has also given us many areas where we can make legitimate moral choices freely and responsibly under that Law. Pod People literally cannot stand such liberty, and will seek to overturn the Law of God and bind men's consciences to their own little rules and regulations.
Thus, a church where the people KNOW the Law of God, LOVE the Law of God and encourage each other in OBEYING the Law of God is inherently hostile to pod people. Because such people know the Law, pod people cannot manipulate them with false guilt and control them. Pod people find that they cannot enforce their own will on others because the objective standards of the Law bear constant witness against them. They may sneak into weak women's homes and deceive them (2 Tim. 3:6) but over all, the truth of God's Law is a shining light that drives them away. Usually, they will give up and seek some other, more "hospitable" church where they can control people without being interfered with.
Hold to A Confession or Some other type of Objective Doctrinal Standard
In the same way, a church that has and enforces an objective doctrinal standard is inherently inhospitable to "pod people." Remember, the essence of the unregenerate is autonomy. The unregenerate man wants to live autonomously from God and His Word. He may say that he loves the Scriptures, but so does every cultist and heretic. What he really wants to do is use the Word of God to bolster his own claim to power and authority. When a church has an objective Confessional Standard (Such as the Westminster Confession and Catechisms), and enforces those standards, Pod People go crazy. They can no longer twist and distort the Scriptures to give their power claims the illusion of authority. They are forced to admit that their beliefs, actions and attitudes are contrary to the church's official standards. It therefore inhibits their ability to gain unlawful power over others.
Sadly, "pod people" are devious, and in many confessional churches, they proclaim their submission to the Standards, while actively subverting or ignoring them when it suits their purposes. Elders are especially commissioned and responsible for enforcing sanctions against Confessional violations, but if the pod people have infiltrated the leadership, then often, they will simply pretend the Confession does not say what it clearly says. If they can get other elders to support them, then the church is well down the road to eventual apostasy. Just having good doctrinal standards is not enough; one needs to have men of integrity and guts who are willing to enforce those Standards to keep the pod people in check.
Follow Matthew 18
Our Lord Jesus gave us a wonderful mechanism in Matthew 18 designed to preserve both the peace, and the purity of the church. The procedures of Matthew 18 confront sin, resolve personal differences and allow us to live in peace and harmony with each other. It also requires individual men to assume godly responsibility to take certain actions. Matthew 18 protects the church against gossip, slander, tale bearing and other vicious attacks of the adversary, which do more damage to her ministry than outright persecution.
But since pod people HATE God's Law, therefore, they HATE Matthew 18. Instead of going to a brother with whom they have a problem and confronting him in private, they will go to anyone and everyone else to make their case. They will whisper, backbite, assassinate men's characters, all to make their case and destroy their opponents. But they will not follow Matthew 18.
If you see a man who refuses to follow Matthew 18, odds are, you are dealing with a pod person. If you then go to such a person, (via Matt. 18) and lovingly confront him with the requirements watch carefully how he responds. A regenerate man will be convicted of his failure, will repent and will seek to make restitution. A pod person on the other hand will rationalize, justify, and excuse his actions. If you push him hard enough, he may even reveal his real heart; an obstinate refusal to obey Christ, which is a sure sign of an unregenerate heart. He will not follow Biblical principles for resolving conflicts because he cannot; he is still enslaved to His own will.
One of the marks of the true church is discipline and all discipline begins with Matthew 18. Churches that will not follow Matthew 18 are already horribly compromised. Matthew 18 requires personal responsibility; it is hard to go to someone with whom you have an offense and confront him. And most people today are looking for the easiest route possible. But Matthew 18 is essential for the peace and purity of the church. Pod people flock to churches weak on applying Matthew 18 because they can work in the background without interference. They can lie, cheat, break their word, undermine authority, disrupt whole households and no one will ever confront them on it.
But in churches where Matthew 18 is understood and applied, their evil deeds are exposed. They are confronted in love, privately, just in case they are really regenerate. If they do not repent, then two witnesses are called to verify every fact. If they still do not repent, their wicked deeds are to be exposed to the entire church. Pod people HATE having their evil deeds exposed. They much prefer doing their dirty work in the darkness (Eph. 5:11-13). Like fungus, pod people hate the light of God's Word being shown on their deeds, and if you and your church practice Matthew 18 consistently, they will flee to some dark, dank place where they can grow and spread their poison without interference.
Practice Church Discipline
Formal church discipline is the last actual step of Matthew 18. It is a formal declaration by the lawful authority of the church that a person is in unrepentant sin, and therefore is to be treated as a gentile and unbeliever, outside of the covenant of grace. If a man is truly regenerate, he will repent of his sin and be restored to the Church. But if his heart is unregenerate, he will continue in his rebellion.
Formal church discipline, especially excommunication is a serious thing indeed, and never to be used lightly or as a club to threaten people. Yet, sadly, church discipline today is seldom used wisely or justly. Usually, formal discipline is not used against heretics, apostates, church-splitters, backbiters and others who may well be pod people, but only against people who are obnoxious. And yes, there are some of God's children who are hard to love sometimes. They have rough edges, they don't relate to others quite the way we would like them to. They are sometimes a burden, and since some people are concerned only for the "peace" of the church, pressure is put on such brothers with OPD (obnoxious personality disorder) just so we can get back to holding hands for Jesus without some annoying nob making us think about things we would rather not deal with.
Churches that refuse to practice formal discipline allow pod people to breed unchecked. Even worse, when their unregenerate natures are exposed in certain recurring sins, sometimes we don't confront because we are afraid that we might LOSE them! So many churches today are so concerned with church growth that they deliberately create an environment where pod people are welcomed and encouraged! After all, every pod person in the pew is another number on the church growth charts. The more pod people we attract, the better we look! After all, we must be doing SOMETHING right if we manage to build a huge facility and get all those warm bodies to fill it.
One solution that is actually quite often proffered for dealing with "pod people" is in fact no solution at all; removing oneself from the visible church. An amazing number of people are willing to excommunicate themselves from the church, because the church won't excommunicate the pod people. This is no solution. The visible church will always have pod people within our ranks; only the Lord Jesus Himself can separate them out. All we can do is love the Law, submit to it, and help the church rediscover her true calling.
The average Christian in the pew is unaware of just how powerful his love and submission to the Law of God is to the health and effectiveness of the Church. All it takes is a few people, loving, discussing and applying the Law of God to turn a church around. If the church is past saving (i.e., has become in effect "no church" as the WCF puts it), then the few Christians left will be driven out. Praise God! After all, He is sovereign, and isn't it a great blessing to suffer for righteousness sake (1 Ptr. 2:19)? However, we have the Spirit of the living God within us, filling us and empowering us. We have God's own promise that the gates of hell shall not prevail against His church. If more Christians would embrace the Law, meditate upon the Law and APPLY the Law in their churches, they would be amazed at how quickly the pod people would flee, the elders encouraged and the entire church be revived.
And if the pod people drive you out, why I know a great little church in eastern Washington that would love to have more real Christians!
- Brian M. Abshire
Rev. Brian Abshire, Ph.D. is currently a Teaching Elder associated with Hanover Presbytery. Along with his pastoral duties, he is also the director for the International Institute for Christian Culture, has served as an adjunct instructor in Religious Studies at Park University and is a visiting Professor of Comparative Religion at Whitefield College.