“That church is going to die.”
I’ve heard that prophecy spoken over churches countless times. Interestingly, this doomsday prediction has been pronounced by people from almost opposite extremes of the “healthy church” discussion, each time about a church that differed from their convictions or preferences.
An elderly pastor who is used to traditional ways of worship looks at a new church plant, with their worship band and blue-jeaned leaders, and pronounces with certainty that this trend won’t last. “The old ways of doing church and worship have lasted for hundreds of years, and will still be here when this fad is long gone.”
The stylishly bearded member of the 10-year-old megachurch looks at the steepled little building on the corner in his neighborhood—where a small congregation has been faithfully meeting for over five decades—and feels certain it will be boarded up or turned into a vintage coffee shop quicker than you can say, “What happened to hymnbooks?”
Sadly, there is some validity to the pessimism that each feels toward the other. But thankfully, it is also true that God is in the business—and always has been—of using flawed Christians in less-than-perfect churches to fulfill his kingdom-wide, generation-spanning purposes.
I was reminded of this marvelous reality even as I recently wrote a book on “how to grow a biblically beautiful church.” Jesus is not only glorified in the Excellent Wife, or the Competent to Counsel pastor, or Radical family outreach, or the impeccably Centered church. Jesus is glorified in Christians and in churches—all over the globe and in every generation—who struggle to parent well, pastor well, evangelize well, or organize well.
In other words, Jesus can be glorified in you and me, and in the pitifully inadequate, sometimes myopic, church we attend.
God Uses Unhealthy Christians
The Bible staunchly resists our consistent temptation to make superheroes out of any of its main characters—except, of course, Jesus. Abraham, the father of the faithful, lacked faith. David, the great king of Israel, was a crummy leader to some of his most loyal subjects. Peter, the bold apostle, caved to social pressure more than once.
Not surprisingly, then, we find similarly imperfect people among the prominent influencers of Christianity. The great theologian Augustine was a severe opponent to other Christian believers who did not agree with his ecclesiology. The famous reformer Martin Luther would compromise some of his own convictions for the sake of expediency. Arguably the best apologist of the 20th century (and a personal favorite of mine), C.S. Lewis also argued for the extra-biblical concept of a Purgatory as part of the believer’s afterlife: “Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they?” This, in my view, is a significant error.
Think back over your own experience as a Christian. Of the people who have impacted your spiritual life the most—including perhaps your parents, various pastors, godly mentors, even radio or television preachers—haven’t you also noticed areas of weakness in their lives? Don’t they all have some obvious blind spots in their own understanding or behavior? (By the way, if you can’t think of any, that doesn’t mean the person is perfect—it means you know them imperfectly).
The fact is, God has always used flawed people to fulfill his perfect purposes. God uses weak people to show his own strength. God uses people who embrace some degree of doctrinal and practical error, or else he couldn’t use anyone at all.
God Uses Unhealthy Churches
When it comes to churches, just as with individuals, the Bible is strikingly short on perfect role models. The churches of Galatia were tempted by legalism, the church at Ephesus lost their original passion, the Christians to whom Jude wrote were inundated with false teachers, and … where do we even begin with the church at Corinth?
I could not help but notice the omnipresence of imperfect churches as I researched my book about church health. The book is essentially an unpacking of Titus 2. And do you know what Paul is warning Titus about in the first chapter of this letter? You guessed it: false teachers, who are “empty talkers and deceivers.”
But that’s not all. The very fact that Paul gives such clear and helpful instruction to Titus in the second chapter of the letter clearly stems from the fact that in some of these areas Titus—and the church he was leading—were falling short of the ideal. Did Titus himself ever perfectly follow all the useful counsel Paul provides him in Titus 2? I’m guessing not.
Having been a pastor for over 15 years myself, and knowing something of human nature, I’m fairly confident that Titus’ church—even at its best—had some unhealthy Christians in it, and had a number of unhealthy areas where they still needed further teaching or prodding.
In our hyper-critical era of sound bites and social media, I sometimes wonder if even a perfect person, or a very mature church, would meet our standards. Would we criticize Jesus because, even though he did reach out to paralytics and prostitutes in his own community, he did not do enough to battle the sex trafficking that was happening in his day in the Far East? Although Jesus himself had no word of rebuke for the church in Philadelphia (“I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name”), would we be satisfied that they had “merely” kept God’s Word and not denied his name? Or would we wonder why they weren’t more committed to picketing Caesar’s palace?
As glaring as the actual errors in the early churches are to our critical eyes today, it is equally plain that God used them. Paul did not give up on them; that’s why we have many of the letters that make up the New Testament. Jesus didn’t immediately reject them; instead, he warns and offers correction to them, plainly desiring for them to continue flourishing for years to come.
In the meantime, these are the very congregations through which Jesus established his Church. Members of these churches would disciple the next (second ever!) generation of Christians. Martyrs from these churches would testify to the truth of the risen Savior. Missionaries from these churches would carry the Christian gospel to new continents. God uses churches who embrace some degree of doctrinal and practical error, or else he couldn’t use any of them.
Why Then Does It Matter If Your Church Is Healthy?
If God uses unhealthy churches, made up at least in part of unhealthy Christians, why then do we have a proliferation of books on church health these days? Does it really matter if you have the nine marks (or twelve marks, or five marks, depending on who you are reading) of a healthy church?
I suppose I can only answer with certainty for myself. But I suspect that I speak for most of the other godly pastors and authors who have addressed this subject in recent years. My goal in unpacking Titus 2 for the church today is not to shame every Christian into feeling discouraged about how far their particular congregation is falling short. Nor is it to spur church leaders to redouble their already exhausting labors in order to fend off every possible criticism that may be tweeted against them.
My hope is that pastors and church leaders, in particular, will receive this in whatever way is appropriate to their specific situation—perhaps as an encouragement to their faithful labors in the church, or maybe as a helpful corrective if they see some areas where they have gone off-message from what Paul so helpfully describes for us.
By carefully studying and spiritually rooting ourselves in Titus 2 as a helpful model for the local church, my desire is for this book to provoke further conversations regarding how we as individual Christians can grow more like Christ, and how our particular churches can improve our intentionality regarding the Gospel.
Why then write about church health? For the same reason Paul wrote his letter to Titus. Not to set up an impossible standard of flawless well-roundedness, but to encourage faithfulness in the essentials, thoughtful consideration of weaknesses, and joyful effort for the sake of Jesus. Recognizing all the while that every church, like every Christian, must ultimately look to Christ to find the perfection for which we long.