Marks of a Healthy Church

Marks of a Healthy Church

Many Christians who move into a new community discover that searching for a good church proves very difficult. Often families decide upon a church for all of the wrong reasons. As a twenty-five year old youth pastor, I remember one mom telling me that her fourteen year old son was visiting our youth group that Sunday and that she and her husband had decided to let him choose the church to which they were going to attend and ultimately worship. In my head, I thought, “Now, let me get this straight: you are going to allow a young man, who is not old enough to responsibly drive a car out of your driveway, to determine the direction of the spiritual life of your entire family.” I didn’t say that, instead, I smiled and nodded and told her, “I hoped her son had a great experience at our church that day.” It ends up that he liked the youth group and as a result his family joined the church and I discovered then what a wise son she had.

The problem is that many base their choice of a church on how the church serves them; so questions regarding buildings and music and kids programs and sports facilities and nurseries and youth groups and social activities and a host of other criteria dominate our evaluation of a church. It is not that these things don’t matter at all, indeed they are important. It is not that these things shouldn’t be considered at all. The bottom line is not how a church serves us. The bottom line is not how a church suits us, but rather, the bottom line is how a church serves God, serves Jesus, and how a church “suits” our Lord, because the church does not exist for our glory, but the church exists for the glory of Jesus Christ. We begin by asking the question, “What kind of church glorifies Jesus?” This is what really matters.

In Acts 2, we have some help for we find a description of the church that glorifies Jesus Christ, and we find four specific marks essential for a church to bring glory to Jesus. There are many legitimate uniquenesses of each individual church; many pieces of variety that exists in healthy churches; uniqueness and variety in size; in culture; in music; in forms; in programs; in ministries; all differences that, I believe, God intends to build in this wonderfully, creative world that He has made for us to grow up in. Even as each individual person bears uniquenesses in their physical characteristics and their personalities and their emotional makeup, all of these things are essential and bring life and health to a world that God created to bring Him glory, but in every church, regardless of their uniqueness, regardless of the variety that exists within them, these four marks must exist for that church to have health; for that church to hold on to her purpose, for her reason for existence. No church bears all of these four marks in perfection.

In seminary, Dr. Howard Hendricks encouraged us as students. He would say, “If you ever find the perfect church, don’t go there. You’ll ruin it!” and that is true because we are imperfect people. If we find the perfect church, we shouldn’t go there because we will mess it up, but that is not to say that there is no standard for health. There is and this passage speaks to that as it describes this church that Christ initiated through the sending of the Holy Spirit.

All churches are made up of imperfect people, but even if one of these four marks is missing, then that church will have lost her purpose.

Mark Number One: a healthy church relates rightly to God’s Truth; that is to say it is a learning church. Second: a healthy church relates rightly to God’s people; that is to say it is a loving church. Thirdly: a healthy church relates rightly to God Himself; that is to say it is a worshiping church. And lastly: a healthy church relates rightly to God’s world; that is to say it is a witnessing church.

I believe the church that started in Jerusalem is meant for us as a model and example for us today, so let’s consider this church closely.

Mark Number One: a healthy church relates rightly to God’s Truth. A healthy church is always a learning church.

Look at Verse 40,

With many other words…

Peter is preaching to them and with many other words he warned them and he pleaded with them,

“Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.”

And it says,

Those who accepted (this) message were baptized…

And that was without exception, by the way. There were none that accepted the Message but weren’t baptized. Those who accepted the Message were baptized; they took on that mark, that external mark of their allegiance and followership of Jesus Christ.

And then it says,

…about three thousand were added to their number that day.

Can you imagine? People who repented of their sin, who believed in Jesus, joined themselves to a group then. “They were added to their number.” There is a group that has now a number; a group that began with one hundred and twenty, but now has three thousand one hundred and twenty as part of this new community. There was no believer that isolated himself from this community, from this new society that God had initiated. It seems to have been the custom in the earliest of times of Christianity for converts to join themselves to the church of Jesus Christ. That was part of the very beginning of the church. In modem times, it is a strong temptation for many to say, “You, me, and my God; between my soul and my Lord. I am not going to add myself to the number of any particular church,” and yet, about three thousand were added to their number.

The New Testament Christian didn’t think such thoughts of not adding himself or herself to the church. He or she delighted in the specific assembly of God’s people joined together for the purpose of worshipping God and serving Him faithfully in this world.

We read in Verse 42,

They devoted themselves…

It goes on to describe the four things that they devoted themselves to. They devoted themselves, first to “…the apostles’ teaching…”
It was the Apostles’ teaching the Truth that brought them to faith in Jesus Christ. Apart from Peter’s teaching, they would have never come to faith. It was natural then that they would continue to want to grow in that teaching. “If the Apostle’s teaching brought me to life in Christ,” they reasoned, “then surely the Apostle’s teaching will help me continue in it and to grow deeper in my relationship in my life with God.” It was unthinkable that they would have left the Apostle’s teaching, so they devoted themselves all the more to it. As soon as they possessed the Holy Spirit whom the Gospel of John will call “the Spirit of Truth,” they began to hunger after the Truth, for this is what the Spirit does in a life of one that He indwells, of one that He transforms and regenerates. He provides us with a deep thirst, a deep hunger for more of the Truth of God.

These Christians in this 1st Century church had the Apostles living among them, so when they devoted themselves to the Apostle’s teaching it meant that they gathered together to hear what the Apostles had to say. That these Twelve Apostles, and we remember how God had appointed through the church another to take Judas’ place so that there would be Twelve Apostles, these Apostles were given special revelation by God, Himself, to continue to lead the church in the instruction concerning who He is and what His plan is all about, and what our responsibilities are before Him.

In John’s Gospel, 16:12, Jesus is speaking to His Apostles and He says to them in that upper room right before He would die upon the cross,

“I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear.”

In other words, “There is more Truth that you need, but I am not going to tell you that Truth now because you are not going to be able to receive it just yet,” but He goes on to say, in Verse 13,

“But when he, the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak of his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you.”

It is the Apostles that God had given this revelation of greater and further truth, of more truth than they needed to know, to serve Him ably and to love Him. In John 14:16 and 17, He is going to say the exact same thing to them in an earlier part of His discourse because He wants them to understand how vital this Truth is.

In Verse 16, He says,

“And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you…the Spirit of Truth…”

In Verse 25 and 26, He says,

“All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you… things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”

God does this for these Apostles for the express purpose that the Apostles might be faithful to deliver these same Truths to His church. A Spirit-filled church is always enthusiastic and devoted to the truth. It always is, because the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth. Someone might protest, “We don’t have the Apostles living among us today. How can we be as devoted to the Apostles’ teaching when they are not living amongst us; when they are not here with us?” It is true we don’t have the Apostles with us today, but we do have the Apostles’ teaching; at least that part of the teaching that God intends for us to have received, because this is what the New Testament is. It is the teaching of the Apostles that God has given and then, supernaturally, allowed to be recorded on the pages of Scriptures so that we might still have the Apostles’ teaching to this very day. These Apostles were special men; they were chosen specifically by Jesus.

Acts 2:43, tells us that these Apostles were affirmed as being authoritative from God so that we could trust them, because everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles.

These signs and wonders weren’t done by just any member of the church, but specifically by the Apostles. Why was that – so that the early church would have visual, visible confirmation that what the Apostles taught was from God; these truths were from God, Himself. He authenticated their message through these signs and these wonders to reveal that, “Yes, this is the fulfillment of the promise that God had given through Jesus Christ” to these Twelve individuals. We find that this church devoted itself to the Apostles’ teaching, and that is true of any healthy church.

There are three applications that I might draw for you. The first is: we must advance and defend sound doctrine as the Apostles delivered it. We must advance it. We must defend it. We must beware of the spirit of mysticism that belittles the necessity of Doctrinal Truth today. Some focus so much on the mystical and subjective experiences of Christianity that they believe that Truth really is cold, it is unimpressive, and it is unessential. But that is not true of the early church and it must not be true of us.

The Day of Pentecost was perhaps the most mystical day in the entire history of the church. Look at what happened: the Holy Spirit came down upon them; this rushing, mighty wind was heard and shook the house; the tongues of fire divided and rested upon the heads of each of these men and women who were in that room; they began to speak in other languages, and yet, what did they do? Did they then lean toward anti-intellectualism; did they say, “You know, doctrine that is not important. What we need is to get back to this experience that we had in the upper room.” No! That is not the focus at all, but rather, the first focus is this devotion to the Truth, because it is the Truth that provides the life for us as we embrace it by faith, we allow God’s Truth to be implanted in our souls, and to grow. We find the Apostles and this church devoted to the Apostles’ teaching. The Apostles’ doctrine is worth fighting for.

If we look at Jude 3, he says,

Dear friends, although I was…eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.

How was it entrusted to the saints? It was entrusted through the Apostles, and he says, “You know, I really wanted to talk to you about this common bond, the common salvation that we share, but instead, circumstances have come to make me aware that, perhaps, you are moving away from this devotion to the Truth. You are allowing falsehood to come into the church and say, ‘That must not be any great deal because, after all, can’t we see the external signs of life,'” and what Jude says is, “No, I can’t write to you about those things that I really want to write. Instead, I have to write you to urge you to ‘contend for the faith.'”

We are called to contend for the faith without being contentious, but please understand that fighting for the Truth is an essential discipline of the church, and it is not mean-spirited. It is not hateful to simply stand up and speak the Truth and contend for that Truth and to refute error. Rather, such action is essential. The early church rooted herself in fixed, unspeakable Truth. It is very true that it is possible to become “merely, intellectually oriented in regard to the faith,” and that is why there are three other marks that are essential to the church. Certainly that is a danger, the danger of intellectualism, but also, the other side of the error is just as important for us to avoid. We hold so strongly to these ancient Truths because we know God does not save people by lies.

The second application we would make is: we must study God’s Truth for ourselves; we must study the Apostles’ teachings on our own.

Peter would later write in his First Epistle 2:2,

“…as newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the Word that you might grow there by it.”

Paul would say to Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:15,

“…study, study Timothy to show yourself approved unto God a workman who does not need to be ashamed rightly dividing the word of Truth.”

God has given us a special treasure as He has entrusted us with His Truth, and He calls upon each one of us as believers who have been transformed and regenerated by this Truth, to devote ourselves to it. A believer should consider it a wasted day if he or she has not gleaned some Truth from God’s Word that has encouraged them, that urged them on, that has caused a deeper understanding of who God is so that we might worship Him in a more lively fashion. We do not live by bread alone; by the things that we can see, feel, hear, smell, and touch. We live by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God, Himself. Devote yourselves to it.

You should expect to receive God’s Word from the preaching and teaching of a healthy church, of your church. You should demand it. If God’s Word is not taught, we have failed in one of the essential ingredients of our calling from God Himself. One meal a week is not enough to sustain a healthy soul, and it is vital that we learn to devote ourselves, not only together as we gather together to hear the Word, but also, separately as we go into our own homes so that the Word of God permeates all of our life, both in formal sessions, but also, informal. Later you are going to see that they continually went to the Temple, but, also, they went from house to house. They met in homes. In both formal settings, and informal, they devoted themselves to these things.

The early Christians were not coerced into reading the Bible. I don’t believe the Apostles had to stand before the early church and sort of twist their arm and make them feel guilty about not doing enough in the Christian life. I don’t think that that is effective motivation; a motivation out of guilt, a motivation out of obligation. But these believers who had their lives transformed, had an internal burning, an internal desire to know God’s Word because of what it had done. They were spirit-filled people. When God’s Spirit fills a persons heart, one of the things He does is He creates an essential hunger to know more of God through His Word.

If you are one who is not drawn to this Book, who has not much taste for it, who has not much hunger or thirst for it if you find this Book boring, if you find this Book lifeless, the answer is not to simply “to gut it out,” and to discipline yourself more. The problem lies much deeper, that if that is true of your life, there is a deep spiritual problem in your heart, and the first thing to attend to is not the symptom, but to attend to the heart itself. One consideration that a person should have when they have no taste for the Word of God, whatsoever, particularly if they have never had a taste for the Word of God, is to consider, “Am I truly born again,” because this is one of the characteristics of those whose lives have been transformed. It is possible that you have sat in church, and you have prayed in church, you have prayed the prayers of the church, but never have been regenerate, because this is one of the things the Spirit of God has done. It’s also possible that you have been born again and in a time in your life there was a hunger for the Word of God, but it’s been lost, and it’s been lost because you have allowed sin to come into your heart and to lead you away from the love of God and you begin to have a love for other things. If that is the case, I urge you to fall down upon your knees, confess your sins, repent before God, and ask for the Life of the Spirit to return to your heart. It is not enough to simply say, “I’ve got to gut it out better this year,” but instead, to recognize that if you have no love for God’s Word, no devotion to attention to the Scriptures, that there is something deeply wrong with your heart and to callout to God for His mercy and He will be gracious to you.

The last application that I would give to you is: we must submit to the Truth. It is not enough to devote ourselves to the understanding of God’s Word. When it says “They devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching,” it means they devoted themselves to the obedience of it, not just to the understanding of it. We afresh, come before God’s Word and we say, “God, we want to be like Jesus. We want holy lives and healthy churches that have members who are devoted to the Apostles’ teaching. Our churches that separate themselves more and more from sin and more and more from this world and become distinct and unique agents of God’s Grace.

The second mark of a healthy church is this – a healthy church relates rightly to God’s people; that is to say it is a loving church.

Verse 42, says not only did they devote “…themselves to the Apostles’ teaching,”, but also, “…to the fellowship…”

This “fellowship” is further described in Verses 44 and 45.

All the believers were together and had everything in common.

They had “everything in common,” and it says,

Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to (everyone) as (they) had need.

What does it mean when it says, “They had everything in common?” It means that they had a common life together. It’s just not talking about their generosity to each other, although that’s part of it. They understood that the church was no club that you joined through a certain membership process and you paid your dues and, therefore, you could say, “We are a part, we are members of, such-and-such’ church,” but, rather, the church was comprised of people who had everything in common together; they shared a life in God together. Notice that fellowship was something that they then devoted themselves to. It was first created out of their union to Christ, but then they devoted themselves to the exercise of such fellowship; to the commitment of such fellowship. God was the one who connected these people together and then, they, in turn, committed themselves to maintaining this bond that God had so lovingly provided for them, and so we have to ask the question at the outset, “Am I devoted to the fellowship of the church?” Often when we think of fellowship, we think about social gatherings of Christians where we get together for coffee or soda, for donuts or cookies, or if we are on the Adkins Diet, assorted meats, but, we consider that this is what fellowship is.

The meaning of fellowship is so much richer than that. Now it is possible to fellowship around food and in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, they are always having feasts, so food is good. It was an instrument whereby true fellowship occurred, true sharing in common of life itself. There are four elements that they shared, commonly, together.

The first is they shared a common salvation. This salvation is not “common” in the sense of ordinary. In fact, as one commercial would say, “This salvation is uncommonly good,” but they shared this together is such a way that their experience with this extraordinary Grace of God, while it was extraordinary to them and it was so amazing that each one of them would fall down in wonder and awe of God, that this same experience was not “so unique” that it only occurred to one or two or a few special, super-saints, but this was the common experience they had of God’s Grace, of God’s forgiveness, of His life through this union that they with Jesus, a union that was joyful, a union that was permanent. As we become partners with Jesus, we are happily joined with everyone else who has this same life in Jesus.

In our physical families, we are joined together to our brothers and our sisters initially through our common union with our parents. Now we might grow in such a way that we become more joined to our brothers and our sisters than we feel joined with our parents, but the truth is, the only reason why we are related to this One we have grown so close to is we first related to a mom and a dad that we shared in common. Now God, as our Father, joins us to Jesus Christ and as such we become brothers, we become sisters in Christ, in sharers of this life that we have in Him.

I consider my relationship with God most precious, but my relationship with God is not more precious to me than your relationship with God is to you. To put it another way, God’s relationship with me is not more precious than God’s relationship to you.

I remember, as a little boy, sometimes I would ask my mom, “Mom, who do you love more, me or my brothers?” My mom would smile and she would hug me and she would say, “Ritchie, I love all of you the same,” and there was a certain degree of disappointment in that. There was also a certain degree of joy in that. There is something selfish in our nature that wants to have us sense that we are “more precious” than someone else is precious, and that is simply not true. We share this common salvation that once we understand that it bonds a family together, can you see destructive it would be if one child “thought” that he or she were more precious than the others? Let alone if that were really so, but a family becomes a family when we realize, “My parents love us to the end and they love us the same and that joins us together.” We share this common life, this common salvation.

The second element that we share together is: we share a common sacrifice; Verse 44 and 45. It is really remarkable what they did for each other as they sacrificed for each other.

It says in Verse 45, they were

…selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.

Some would read that verse and say, “Boy that sounds a lot like communism, or at least socialism,” and the answer to that is, “Not at all! This is the farthest thing from communism or socialism.” In the first place, such generous giving was completely voluntary. There was no mandatory giving in this early church. It was all freely of the heart as God directed each one, and, secondly, the 1st Century Christian still owned property. We know that because they met in each one’s houses. This is not in anyway a view towards Christian socialism or communism.

They were generous, to an amazing degree, to each other. They knew that life did not consist in the abundance of their possessions, so in a committed way they came together and said, “We need to share these things with those who have need;” common sacrifice.

They also had a common service together. They worked together to build Jesus’ church; they labored in God’s field together, and there are few things that unite believers together as a common service to Him.

Finally, they shared in a common suffering. While we are not being imprisoned or put to death for our faith in our nation, we often share in the pain of being misunderstood, of being left out, of being ridiculed for Jesus’ sake, and as we are faithful to Jesus, and as we suffer for the sake of the Name, there is a sense that we join together.

Let me give three brief applications of this. Fellowship always costs us something and if we are to be devoted to fellowship it is because we are committed to paying the price in order to bring about this loving community that God intends.

First, be generous. Second, be active in God’s work. Finally, be hospitable to brothers and sisters in Christ. Be generous. Look out for the needs of others. Be willing to give up things that are even precious to you and to your comfort for the sake of meeting the needs of others.

Be active in God’s work. It is hard to enjoy fellowship apart from serving God. Someone says, “I’m not finding much fellowship in this church,” and the first thing I am going to ask them is, “Where are you serving?” because I think it is nearly impossible, in my experience, I have found it is nearly impossible to serve God along with other people without sharing this fellowship, sharing this sense of union with them. Be hospitable. Open up your homes. There are many who need friendship, so open up your homes even as this early church did as it is recorded

The third mark: a healthy church relates rightly to God Himself; it is a worshipping church as we see in Verse 42,

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching…to…fellowship…

and then it says,

…to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe…

The worship of the early church was awesome worship; “Everyone was filled with awe…” Do you notice the ingredients that were specifically mentioned? “The breaking of bread,” what is that? It is communion. It is the Lord’s Supper. It is where God’s people get together, recognizing their own sin before God, confessing that sin, but then holding themselves tightly to the essentials of the Gospel. Jesus Christ’s body was broken. Jesus’ blood was spilled out on our behalf. They devoted themselves to the breaking of bread, to the Communion, and then to prayer of humbled dependence together.
Worship in the church always focuses on God. That is why in Verse 47, they were

…praising God and enjoying…favor (with all) people…

because worship’s end is to bring glory to the One who redeemed us. Worship should never be dull; it is to be exuberant, to be expressive of God’s great worth to us. Worship is all about God. It is all about His glory.

I underline these things because I am deeply concerned that worship today is often bent and twisted into something horribly self-serving; into something that rejects the very purpose behind the worship. It is so vital for us to grab hold of the truth that the church exists for the Glory of God. That’s it.

There is a modern worship song that says, “I’m coming back to the heart of worship.” It says, “It is all about you. It’s all about you, Jesus,” and I yearn for this to be true of my life; I yearn for it to be true of our church that it would be all about Him, but often today, other things in worship take our focus.

One of those things is the sound; it is the sound of music in worship that presses far ahead in its importance over the content of our worship. This is disturbing because Scripture says nothing at all about the “sound of worship.” It tells us that there is sound to worship, but it doesn’t tell us anything, as far as the description, of what that sound might be. Nothing! Music is very significant to worship. The Scripture teaches that. It is significant as an aid to our focus not to distract us from it.

Let me offer an illustration. A church advertises a Christmas concert featuring Amy Grant and Vince Gille. The church next door advertises a Christmas worship service of the Lord’s Supper and a prayer. Which church might you attend on that evening? Which church would have its parking lot filled and overflowing? Which church might have only have a few gathered together? There is nothing wrong with concerts. It is not wrong to go to a church that has concerts. It is not wrong to have concerts. But, something is deeply wrong with the worship of a church if she looses her hunger for prayer; if she looses her hunger for corporate confession; if she looses her hunger for quiet meditation upon these sacred truths of the Gospel message, Jesus’ blood and His death upon the cross. If we loose our hunger for these things in worship then worship is no longer about God, it is about us. “They devoted themselves to worship.” Let us cry out to God that He might change our hearts.

Finally, a healthy church relates rightly to God’s world; that is to say it is a witnessing church.

Look at Verse 47,

And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Can’t you hear the disappointment dripping from Luke’s pen as he writes these words? Can’t you read his sorrow as he is thinking to himself, “Oh, how precious the church was when we were only one hundred and twenty? I knew everyone by name back then. Could we go back to the old days?” Of course, you don’t hear the disappointment in Luke’s voice; you hear the excitement, the zeal, that God has more people worshipping Him.

Beloved brothers and sisters in Christ, the church is not about us. It is not about whether we know everyone’s name and whether we like the same climate, and culture, and building, and paint, and carpet, and whatever else might be out there. The church is all about Jesus and the only question we need to ask is, “Is this church growing in its glory to Jesus Christ?” Everything else will fall in line.

Please notice that the Lord adds people to the church. Certainly He had His instruments – the Apostles and the new Christians that became testifiers to the Name. It is the Lord who adds people to the membership to the church. He adds only those who are being saved. You know it is possible to be added to the membership of a church without having the Lord add your name to the list of the membership of the Church and that is a tragedy. “And the Lord added daily to their number,” indicating that these were witnessing everyday. It was not just a weekend deal but it was a part of their daily lives.

Will you not join with me in praying that Bethany would be such a church that is filled with the health that is described here; that we might bring glory and honor to Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior?