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The Sign and Signature of a Healthy Church

4 years ago written by

llm_jan14_featureMost of us do not fully appreciate good health until we lose it. We take it for granted when we have it. When we lose it, we yearn for it with passion.

I languished inconsolably with a plague of kidney stones for more than three years until I discovered a remedy. The past five years of health have been marked with daily thanks for pain-free living.

Good health feels good. It is also attractive. When we feel well, we look it. That is why so many seek health. We find enjoyment in feeling and looking well.

Our society has a strong health consciousness because we have experienced enough unhealth to know that we don’t want it. Books and websites promote diet, exercise, balanced living, positivity and good relationships. Health is challenged daily and hard to maintain but we yearn for it and train for it — hence the overwhelming amount of materials promoting it.

Church health is similarly appreciated, attractive and sought out. I know of no one who seeks out an unhealthy church. I know many who bear the scars of personal experiences of church unhealth.

Like physical health, church health has its challenges. Nothing is more troubling to the soul than brothers and sisters living in conflict or a church that is stuck in a malaise or not living its mission. Unhealthy churches are unattractive, imbalanced and marked by pain and distraction. They rarely grow. When they do, the growth is not healthy.

Just as many people who experience unhealth may not realize the depth of their problem, many unhealthy churches live in denial. They ignore their unhealth as it seems more troublesome to fix it than to live in it. That, in itself, is not healthy. It is a greater shame to deny or simply tolerate unhealth than to confess it, name it, define it and work to resolve it.

First-Century Challenges

Nearly all epistles in the New Testament were written at least partially to address and resolve church unhealth. Philippi experienced disharmony. Rome experienced some ethnic tensions. Galatia had problems with legalism. Colossae labored with Gnosticism. Jerusalem tried to sort out how to care for different classes of widows. Thessalonica struggled with matters of theology and practice. Corinth had a smattering of all of the above, sprinkled with immorality, worship tensions and divisive leadership struggles. Timothy and Titus were coached on how to deal with conflict, critical attitudes, people with poor motives and folks who weren’t pulling their weight. James addressed the age-old problem of favoritism — a classic symptom of unhealth.

The Bible reveals that church unhealth was apparently common in the first-century church. I have always found it historically inaccurate and naive when people wistfully say, “I wish we could recover the first-century church in our day.” I want to answer, “We have.”

We have churches that ought to be commended for their good health and behavior. Other churches must be confronted for their bad behavior. That is the condition of the church today and in the New Testament. The assumption of a better church in
other ages is clouded by the presence of miracles in the New Testament days. Miracles have given the faulty impression that the first-century church lacked problems. This impression misses the fact that the church had people who were jealous, were cast out, fell dead due to lying, attempted to buy the Spirit’s power, were vying for authority, and wished for the imprisonment and demise of apostles. It even had apostles confronting apostles for behavior unbecoming of leadership.

The problems we see in churches today really fall under the same categories as those problems demonstrated in the New Testament. If we categorize problems as identified and addressed by the apostles, we could place all the conflict and problems in four categories of dissonance or unhealth: theological/behavioral, power/control, relational, or
structural.

In other words, unhealth came from poor belief and practice
(Acts 15, 1 and 2 Corinthians, James). It also arose from issues of power and leadership control (Galatians, Philippians 1:15–17, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Philemon). Church problems emerged from relational dissonance (Acts 15:39, Philippians, 3 John). Challenges to the health of the church came from structural or organizational unhealth — simple matters of poor management that allowed sectarianism or partiality to creep in (Acts 6:1–3; Romans 12–15; 1 Corinthians 12–14).

Matthew Thomas is a bishop of the Free Methodist Church – USA. Go to fmcusa.org/matthewthomas to read more from him.

Matthew Thomas is a bishop of the Free Methodist Church – USA. Go to fmcusa.org/matthewthomas to read more from him.

Ongoing Problems

When we see church problems or unhealth, we can usually trace the symptoms back to the cause of faulty beliefs or practices, power and control problems, relational dissonance or organizational matters that engender frustration and conflict. These issues are often so entrenched that they are hard to see for what they are or are difficult to address.

The most visible evidence of unhealth is disunity stemming from a lack of love. Deeply loving churches will work with vigilance to maintain church health. Their members love God and others so deeply that they will not tolerate untruth or a lack of grace.

Jesus came full of grace and truth. Healthy churches are full of grace and truth. Healthy churches are filled with a commitment to rid any plague (beliefs or sins) that would divide. Ephesians 4:1–13 is the recipe for church health: bearing in love, pursuing unity, using gifts for the building of others, and a church full of Christ and appreciation for one another. Unity is the sign of church health to those inside and outside. As Philippians 1:27–28 advises:

Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved — and that by God.

Standing firm together is a sign of health to people in the church. It is also a sign to those outside that this is an unusual fellowship of people who have what the world does not and cannot possess. Unity is a sign that God is at work in the church.

Known by Love

Love is the signature of God’s presence. Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).

A church filled with love is the signature of God’s loving presence. Loving people will address the problems that arise, but they will address them with the best in mind for all parties concerned. They will seek God’s best for the whole church. They will live in grace and truth.

Love is the signature of God’s healthy presence. Unity is the sign to everyone in and out of the church that the body of Christ is healthy and fruitful.

What to Do

What can you do to build, restore or preserve health in your church?

First, look for the signature of God’s presence (love) and sign of health (unity). If your church possesses them, celebrate the health of the church of which you are part. There is a difference between real love and unity and a benign lack of conflict. True unity and love are evidenced by a congregation of people who truly seek the best of others and not personal advancement or attention.

Second, if you sense unhealth, identify the kind of problems that exist — beliefs or practices, power or control issues, relational dissonance or structural issues. Allow the Spirit of the Lord to make that clear to the whole body. You are not trying to blame people. You are trying to find root problems. Unhealth may not be a matter of sin per se. It may simply be a matter of practices that tend to divide or a church that is organized for unhealth.

Third, speaking the truth in love, courageously seek to correct the problems as an entire body with a unified resolve. Church health is not restored or maintained by one person committed to fix it. You will notice that the apostles appealed to the whole church in addressing problems.

Fourth, “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). Do not look to make winners and losers in addressing unhealth. Unity will never come in that spirit. If you are seeking to find winners and extricate losers, church health will never come.

Fifth, celebrate every evidence of health. Do not take your church health for granted as it is increasing or being restored. Church health feels good and is attractive. It will make your church a safe and desirable place. People look for healthy communities as much as they look for personal health.

A healthy church will grow. God made it that way. Healthy churches carry His signature and the sign of His presence.

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[Feature] · Culture · Departments · God · LLM January 2014 · Magazine