The Measure of a Healthy Church

One of the significant measures of a healthy church in the New Testament is love for one another.  Many times the apostle Paul commends churches for their love.  To the church at Thessalonica, he writes, “We give thanks to God always for you, making mention of you in our prayers; constantly bearing in mind your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Thess 1:2-3) and, “We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brethren, as is only fitting, because your faith is greatly enlarged, and the love of each one of you toward one another grows even greater” (II Thess 1:3).

To the church at Ephesus, Paul wrote, “For this reason I too, having heard of the faith in the Lord Jesus which exists among you, and your love for all the saints, do not cease giving thanks for you” (Eph 1:15-16).  And finally, to the church at Colossae, “We give thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and the love which you have for all the saints” (Col 1:3-4).

On the flip side, in Paul’s first letter to the dysfunctional church in Corinth, he again thanks God for them (I Cor 1:4), but does not refer to the quality of their faith, hope, or love.  Why the omission?  Because these qualities are not visible in the Corinthian church; a church marked by selfishness and division.  In fact, the topic of love is not addressed until chapter 13 where it is presented as something they are missing; the solution to their carnality, not a description of their current state.  It is interesting that Paul acknowledges the Corinthian’s superior speech, knowledge, and giftedness (I Cor 1:5-7) and then holds these up as useless without love.

Now, if love for one another is the measuring stick for a healthy church, what kind of scale do we use to measure our results?  After all, love is a difficult thing to measure.  And if love for one another is so crucial to our community health, what steps can we take to put it into practice?  In what kind of environment will love flourish?  All questions we will take up in due time.

Where is the Love?

In her book, Walking Away from Faith, professor Ruth Tucker identifies five broad categories of reasons for people losing faith.  They are:

  • Scientific and philosophical issues, particularly evolution and naturalism.
  • Biblical perplexities and higher criticism.
  • Disappointment with God regarding personal and wide-scale suffering.
  • Hypocrisy and lack of caring among leaders in the church.
  • Lifestyle and perspective, including homosexuality, feminism, secularism, and pluralism.

We have slowly been working our way through this list looking at biblical answers to these faith challenges.  On point one, we emphasized the unnecessary box we place our students in regarding the creation/evolution debate.  God is the author of all science and is not surprised or taken out of the picture by new discoveries, even in the field of old earth geology.  Does that mean God has nothing to say to us in Genesis chapter 1?  Heavens no!  Genesis 1 emphatically teaches that God created the world from nothing.  This point was very important to Moses’ audience at the time since they were surrounded by cultures that worshiped the creation – sun, moon, stars, animals, etc. – not the Creator God.

We continued through the list by showing that we often compound the challenge of biblical perplexities by insisting on rigid theological boundaries that are not that clear in Scripture.  In doing so, we remove the appropriate mystery of the Sovereign God and in its place set up confusion around apparently contradicting scriptures.  We also add to the perplexity challenge our young people face when we fail to teach them all that changed between the old and new covenants.

On point three, we emphasized the work of Satan, God’s arch-enemy, in perpetuating the flow of evil and suffering in this world.  The New Testament makes clear that while not God’s equal, Satan has been given rule, for a time, over our present world.  But Satan has a flesh and blood enemy opposing his rule, and that is us; Christ’s body on earth.  Jesus enlists us to join Him in “destroying the works of the devil” (I Jn 3:8).

We now arrive at today’s topic, point four, “hypocrisy and lack of caring among leaders in the church.”  Throughout these discussions I have tried to highlight the critical part our attitude plays in delivering these answers to our young people.  How we answer these challenges to faith – with love, humility, grace, and truth – can be just as important as the answers themselves.  Our attitude, as church leaders at all levels, is exactly under scrutiny in point four.

But I would like to broaden our discussion to more than just church leaders as I believe hypocrisy and lack of caring is a church-wide problem.  And, in my opinion, it all comes down to a fundamental lack of love.  We have elevated programs over relationships.  We have elevated knowledge over love.  We have elevated a preferred personality over the diversity of the body as God formed it.  We have elevated numbers over depth.  We have elevated leadership by the professional class unconnected to the body.  We have elevated things we can measure:  attendance, budgets, small group participation, number of staff, etc. over things we can’t measure:  faith, hope, and love.  And the greatest of these is love.

The only theme more prevalent throughout the New Testament than the provisions of the New Covenant is the theme of love.  From Matthew to Revelation, love is the heartbeat of the New Covenant message.  A heartbeat we will investigate over the next several posts.

Humility and Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving!

I have previously written about the importance of the labels we give ourselves – and just as critical, the labels we give our brothers and sisters in Christ.  We like to think it is a sign of humility when we refer to ourselves as “sinners saved by grace who have not made much progress since.”  But this is a false humility at best.  At worst, it is an outright rejection of God’s gift of a new identity for those in Christ Jesus.

We become what we label ourselves.  When we label ourselves as sinners, first and foremost, we are turning our backs on God’s gift of a new identity, a new heart, a new nature, a new power, a new Spirit, a new purity, a new disposition, a new relationship with sin, a new everything we have been writing about for the past several months.  And, sadly, it becomes an excuse to not aim higher, an excuse to shirk the goal of spiritual maturity, an excuse to remain in our sin.  We were made for so much more!

So what does the idea of us being made for so much more – and celebrating the incredible outpouring upon us of all that’s new – do to our humility?  Do we become puffed up at the thought of Jesus now calling us His friend (Jn 15:15)?  Or Paul calling us “holy and beloved” (Col 3:12)?  Or John calling us the very “seed of God” and “born of God” (I Jn 3:9)?  By turning off the sinner label, does our pride rise up as we dwell on and experience our new capacity and inclination toward righteousness?

These are legitimate questions.  The line between our practice of the righteousness bestowed by the new birth and the self-righteousness condemned by Jesus can become a fuzzy one if we are not careful.  The important key to separating the two is an overflowing attitude of thanksgiving to God for the Gift and the gifts of the New Covenant.  After all the Gift and gifts of the New Covenant are just that:  GIFTS!  We did not earn them!  They are pure gifts of God’s grace.

Think about it this way.  If you live in a million dollar home, you may have a serious appreciation for the design or the craftsmanship.  But if the home was a gift, and you have any common sense at all, you will take no pride in its value.  After all, you had nothing to do with acquiring the house.  It was pure gift.  Instead of boasting about the home’s value, you will be looking for every opportunity to thank the one who gave you the gift.  Similarly, you are walking around with a “million dollar new identity”, but boasting in it is likewise foolish since we did nothing to earn it.

This attitude of extreme thanksgiving and humility in recognizing we have done nothing to earn God’s gifts sets the foundation for us to experience the gifts without apology.  Instead of insisting we have nothing to offer our believing community by way of our own spiritual progress, step up and use what you have experienced in the newness of the resurrection life to encourage others to join you on the path.  And give thanks to God for “His indescribable gift.”