We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Friday, April 5, 2013

A Measure of Church Health - One

In a recent posting entitled, "Eight Diagnostic Questions for a Church's Health," Dr. Chuck Lawless of the Billy Graham School of Missions & Evangelism lays down what amounts to a set of standards by which churches can measure themselves.  If they measure up to the standards, they are healthy. First on his list of questions is:

"Is the church's teaching based on the Bible? Ultimately, a local church is a group of believers who proclaim, teach, and live out the gospel of Jesus Christ. Where that gospel is not taught, something less than the New Testament church exists. An inherent danger in church consulting is that the consultant will give ideas and suggestions that will, in fact, lead to "church growth"—but the final product will focus more on growing than on being [a] church. We must guard against that possibility by reminding churches of the importance of a biblical foundation, even while we also emphasize evangelism."

It is always easy to quibble about the use of words and phrases, but it seems better to me to consider a church to be a "community of faith" rather than a "group of believers."  Churches are not simply groups, and in my lexicon of faith the word "faith" always trumps "belief."  I believe in a lot of things but what matters is those things in which I put my faith (trust).

That being said, Lawless' first measure of church health puts the Bible at the heart of church health.  He equates it with the gospel of Jesus Christ.  He also ties it to the New Testament church, presumably meaning that modern-day churches are called on to be 21st century embodiments of the earliest church as described in the New Testament.  Other ways of asking this first question might be: does the church's teachings reflect the person of Christ as described in the gospels and elsewhere in the New Testament?  Or again, does the congregation reflect the key characteristics of the Old Testament people of God and the New Testament church as described in the Bible?  The point here is that the Bible is important only as a source of information concerning Christ and the foundational history of the church.  It's authority is in what it describes not what it is, and we need to treat those descriptions critically in order to be as sure as we can that the Bible does faithfully reflect the person of Christ.  And we need to be critical of what we read about the early church.  For example, Christ allowed a much larger place for women in his community of disciples than is reflected in certain New Testament passages (e.g. I Corinthians 14:34-35).  We are not constrained by the culturally driven prejudices of Roman times when those prejudices creep into scripture.  We are constrained by the love of Christ for those who are marginalized and oppressed.

If we understand that understanding the contents of the Bible is not a simple thing and amounts to more of a critical, thoughtful dialogue with the documents of scripture, then it is true that local churches as communities of faith must seek to reflect the person of Christ and the core characteristics of the people of God described for us in the Bible.  And Lawless is correct in arguing that a church's first concern must always be to be faithful to Christ as reflected in the Bible and not numerical growth or income.  It's just that we must also be careful and honest in our recognition that the Bible itself is a human document and does not perfectly reflect Christ.  It is our lot in life that we must always work at understanding and be humble and self-critical in what we think we know.  Amen.