What Are the Signs of a Healthy Church? #298
Happy Tuesday to you, friends! Our Bible readings today are 2nd Kings 1, Psalms 110-111, Daniel 5 and 2nd Thessalonians 1. I know that pride goes before a downfall, and therefore I am trying very hard not to be proud of myself, but I have to confess, that I am slightly proud today, and feel like I have moved from 5th grade to 6th grade perhaps. Why the pride, I hear you wondering? Well…an interesting thing happens in Daniel 5 today, one of our Bible readings. Yes, yes -the MOST interesting thing that happens is the hand of God writes on the wall of King Belshazzar’s throne room that his reign is over, and Daniel interprets the writing for the king. That is the most interesting and important thing that happens in Daniel 5…but something else happens too, and that could have made for a good Bible Reading Podcast headline question. Did King Belshazzar poop himself? Yes, I know – a most rude question, and thus, I opted not to put in the lede for today’s show. However, I am not yet mature enough to avoid the question entirely…so – let’s ask it. Did the King do one of the single most embarrassing things possible for an adult to do? I actually believe the translators of the Christian Standard Bible think he did! Let’s read Daniel 5 and then briefly discuss our non Big Bible Question of day.
5 At that moment the fingers of a man’s hand appeared and began writing on the plaster of the king’s palace wall next to the lampstand. As the king watched the hand that was writing, 6 his face turned pale, and his thoughts so terrified him that he soiled himself and his knees knocked together. 7 The king shouted to bring in the mediums, Chaldeans, and diviners. He said to these wise men of Babylon, “Whoever reads this inscription and gives me its interpretation will be clothed in purple, have a gold chain around his neck, and have the third highest position in the kingdom.”
I probably don’t need to tell you that ‘soiling yourself’ is a euphemism for exactly what you think it is. The Hebrew is much less clear, however. And yes, I went and studied this passage in the Hebrew…how embarrassing, I am rightly ashamed of myself. Anyway, the literal translation of the Hebrew indicates that the king’s loin/hip joints were loosed. Could that be an ancient Hebrew euphemism for having a bowel movement? It certainly could, but I didn’t study the issue for that long, as I have rather unfortunately loaned my copy of Dr. Shenayim’s Semitic Language Euphemisms for Bowel Movements to my friend Gary, and thus I couldn’t study this issue as much as I wanted to. That said,with the grammar being a bit ambiguous, and not at all clear, we turn to the context of the passage, and I don’t think the context indicates that anything particularly untoward happened. There seems to be no embarrassment, no King Belshazzar briefly dismissing himself, or anything like that – instead, he is entirely focused on quickly finding a translation for the writing…so my best guess is that the king was overcome with fright and his bowels were shaking, just like his knees, but nothing much more than that.
Our primary focus passage today is 2nd Thessalonians 1, and our question concerns what makes for a healthy church. I need to say at the outset that our question is not a 100% pure or fair question in one sense, because our passage today does not directly answer the question – at least, not in the clearest of ways. I actually don’t think there is any one place in the New Testament that fully addresses the question of what makes for a healthy church in a direct and obvious way. By that, I mean that we have no writing from Peter, Paul, etc. that says, here are the four signs of a healthy church. Absent that, however, I do think we have a lot of information on a church being healthy and a lot of exhortations in that direction, so we aren’t completely in the dark here. I suppose many would say that the number one sign of church health is growth. In some ways, I certainly agree with that. Growth is very important – not so much that you would have a big church that wins high attendance awards (are those still a thing?) but more that people would be reached with the gospel, baptized and becoming disciples of Christ. Growth is a a healthy thing if the growth is happening in the right way.
I suppose I should pause here and address what kind of growth would be unhealthy, and that would be a fair question. Let’s imagine a completely made up scenario where there is a town of 20,000 people about 10 miles outside of a big city. There are 20 or so faithful and Bible believing churches in that town of different denominations, and none have an average attendance over 300. Let’s say that a big megachurch from the city comes to the town, and plants a church where the sermons are piped in from the main campus, and a highly skilled worship team leads worship. The church spends thousands of dollars getting the word out on the ‘grand-opening,’ and gives away 20 iPhones on the first Sunday, or some such thing like that. 1000 people show up, and 95% of them come from the existing churches in town. Would that be an example of unhealthy growth? I’ll just say maybe so, and leave it at that. Another example, perhaps based a little more on reality. A church pastor preaches nothing but positive messages about God’s love and His desire to make everybody successful and wealthy and healthy. He is good looking, good at speaking, and the church does everything excellently. Sin is rarely mentioned, controversial Bible teachings are avoided, questioning of the leadership is avoided, and the gospel of Jesus is never preached – only the gospel of health and wealth. That church grows and becomes the hip place to attend church in a particular area. Does that represent unhealthy growth? I believe so.
Healthy growth would be more along the lines of a church that faithfully teaches God’s Word and the people of a church who faithfully, winsomely, persistently and prayerfully share the gospel. Growth is good, and I rejoice to see the church grow. That said, I struggle to find commands in the Word to grow the church and to have high numbers in attendance. I do see the church in Acts 2 rejoicing that thousands are saved, and the church in Acts 4 being strengthened and God adding to their number daily. Lord, let that happen in our midst! But I rarely read passages where Paul exhorts the church to keep growing in number. Instead, we see things like 2 Thessalonians 1:3-4
3 We ought to thank God always for you, brothers and sisters, and rightly so, since your faith is flourishing and the love each one of you has for one another is increasing. 4 Therefore, we ourselves boast about you among God’s churches—about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and afflictions that you are enduring.
It would appear that the sign of health in this church – the thing that Paul is thanking God for – is that the church is flourishing in its faith and growing in love for each other. Significantly, this isn’t the only place where Paul rejoices over a similar dynamic:
2 We always thank God for all of you, making mention of you constantly in our prayers. 3 We recall, in the presence of our God and Father, your work produced by faith, your labor motivated by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Thessalonians 1:2-3
3 We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, 4 for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints Colossians 1:3
The things that Paul seems to rejoice over include increasing faith – increasing belief in Jesus and increasing love for each other in the church. That doesn’t tell the WHOLE story of church health, but I do believe it points us to at least two important characteristics of a healthy church.
Mark Dever has written an excellent books that covers the 9 Marks – or distinguishing signs – of a healthy church. Tim Challies, in his review of that book, helpfully condenses them down to a short paragraph each, so let me close by reading through them as I believe they give us a good gauge as to what a healthy church in 2020 looks like:
Expositional Preaching Expositional preaching (otherwise known as expository preaching) is the investigation of a particular passage of Scripture whereby the pastor carefully explains the meaning of a passage and then applies it to the members of the congregation. The point of a sermon, then, takes the point of a particular passage. This is in opposition to the topical preaching showcased in the majority of evangelical churches, where Bible passages are woven together to support a pre-existing point.
Biblical Theology This emphasizes not only how we are taught but also what we are taught. In a sense this should follow naturally from expository preaching because the careful exposition of a passage should lead to sound theology. The majority of poor theology arises from a lack of careful Biblical exposition. Where there is poor exposition, we should expect to eventually find poor theology.
Biblical Understanding of the Good News There needs to be a proper understanding and necessary emphasis on the full gospel. Where many contemporary churches teach that Jesus wants to meet our felt needs and give us a healthier self-image, that is not the gospel. The gospel message is that we are sinners who have rebelled against our Creator. But Jesus took the curse that was rightfully ours and all that remains is for us to have faith in Him so God may credit Christ’s righteousness to our account. When we de-emphasize sin and damnation to make the presentation more friendly and less offensive we cease declaring the full gospel.
Biblical Understanding of Conversion When we have a Biblical understanding of the gospel, we must then also have a proper understanding of conversion. Conversion is a new birth from death to life and is a work of God. It is not merely a change of attitude or a change of affection, but a change of nature. Conversion does not need to be an exciting, emotional experience, but does need to produce fruit to be judged a true conversion.
Biblical Understanding of Evangelism The way we evangelize speaks volumes about how we understand conversion (and further, what we understand about the good news). If we believe that people are essentially good and are seeking Jesus, we evangelize using half truths and tend to elicit false conversions. When we present a watered-down gospel, we end up with a watered-down church. We need to be faithful to present the full gospel, the good news with the bad, and leave the results to God.
Biblical Understanding of Membership Church membership is a privilege and a responsibility and needs to be regarded as such. People should only be members if they are dedicated to the church – in attendance, prayer, service and giving. To allow people to become and remain members for sentimental or other unbiblical reasons makes light of membership and may even be dangerous.
Biblical Church Discipline Discipline guides church membership. The church has the responsibility to judge the life and teaching of the membership since they can negatively impact the church’s witness of the gospel. Leadership need to be firm in discipline as this is an expression of love to the congregation.
Promotion of Church Discipleship And Growth We need to recover true discipleship – discipleship that causes Christians to live lives of increasing holiness. The emphasis on growth needs to be directed at holiness rather than membership. True discipleship producing strong, committed Christians will present a clear witness to the world.
Biblical Understand of Leadership Until recent times, almost all Protestants agreed that in church government there should be a plurality of elders (which means that there should be an office of elder and not merely one or more pastors in positions of leadership). This is a Biblical and practical model that has fallen out of favor in modern times.