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.”

Joining the Fight

“The Son of God appeared for this purpose, that He might destroy the works of the devil” (I Jn 3:8).  And I believe Jesus calls us to join Him in this work.  So rather than throwing our hands up with insufficient or pat answers to the problem of “disappointment with God regarding personal and widespread suffering,” let’s lay a solid biblical foundation for our young people and then enlist them in the fight against Satan; against his works of evil, violence, disease, and corruption in this world.  What might this effort look like in our everyday lives?

  • Encouraging and assisting our friends who are experiencing marriage challenges to work through their problems and keep a household together that Satan would like to tear apart.
  • Helping a friend find answers for their depression.  Asking God to get out in front of this malady induced by Satan and heal our friend as well as helping them find treatment to alleviate this condition.
  • Joining a ministry to drill wells for clean water in a country where the water supply is contaminated by Satan’s disease bearing pathogens.
  • Building a house in Juarez Mexico for a family suffering in Satan’s poverty prison.
  • Sponsoring a child in a third world country through Compassion International or a like-minded organization to help break the cycle of poverty in one community.
  • Fighting disease at the prevention and treatment level such as the recent successful efforts against Guinea worm disease in Africa led by the Carter Center.
  • Rescuing children from a life of exploitation at the hands of Satan and his intermediaries.
  • Bringing simple western medicine and surgery to a specific group of suffering women in Africa.

The apostle Paul often used wartime language in describing our interaction with Satan (Eph 6).  Satan has indeed declared war on not only the people of God, but the people of the whole world made in God’s image.  And Paul entreats us – including our young people – to join the fight.  “Suffer hardship with me as a worthy soldier of Christ Jesus” (I Tim 2:3).  May we be found to be “worthy soldiers.”

Destroying the Works of the Devil

One of the crucial distinctions to make in our understanding of suffering and evil is the difference between the error of calling God the author of evil and the truth that God is in the business of turning evil into good.  The difference between these two concepts may seem subtle, but the implications are tremendous.  We do our young people a great service when we help them understand this distinction.  As the late Ralph Winter wrote, “God is not ‘behind’ the evil in the world, He is ‘in front’ working good out of evil.”

The story of Joseph in the book of Genesis is an example of this.  In their jealousy and dislike of Joseph, his brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt.  After many twists and turns, the story ends with Joseph, now in a position of power, saving his brothers and their families during a time of famine.  Joseph summarizes God’s work in the story with, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive” (Gen 50:20).  Who set the evil in motion?  Joseph’s brothers were the authors of evil against Joseph, not God.  But as is His habit, God turned the evil to good.

Not surprisingly, Jesus, “the exact imprint of God’s nature” (Heb 1:3), emulated the Father in this regard during His time on earth.  The apostle John wrote, “The Son of God appeared for this purpose, that He might destroy the works of the devil” (I Jn 3:8).  We are familiar with the great “work of the devil” destruction Jesus accomplished on the cross that set us free from both the penalty and power of sin; sin introduced in the world by Satan.  But are we as familiar with Jesus destroying “the works of the devil” in His earthly ministry?

Acts 10:38 describes Jesus’ ministry like this, “You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how He went about doing good, and healing all who were oppressed by the devil; for God was with Him.”  Is it possible that all the sick people Jesus healed were “oppressed by the devil”, not just those identified as demon-possessed in the classic sense?

We do know that in the case of the woman with the eighteen year illness that it was caused by Satan.  And in turning evil into good, Jesus “unwound” the evil, sickness, and suffering when He healed her.  Jesus also turned evil into good when He healed the Gerasene demoniac and returned him to his right mind.  Was every healing Jesus performed an “unwinding” of Satan’s work and turning the evil intentions of Satan into God’s redeeming purpose for good?  Just a thought.

In any case, the Jesus who went about doing good emulated God, the Father, by consistently turning what Satan meant for evil into His good purpose.  And of direct import to us, Jesus has enlisted us to join Him and continue the task of “destroying the works of the devil.”  Let’s talk about our role in the unfinished work next time.