02.09.16

The Difference Between a Healthy and a Peaceful Church

stethoscope Bible

I love the Church. And because I love the Church, I long for both her health and her peace. Sometimes in discussions with other people who love the Church, I find myself in some disagreement. Sometimes the disagreements are major and substantial—we see the world very differently. Sometimes the disagreements are matters of degree or emphasis—we see the world largely the same way but we lean in different directions.

I’ve sometimes been puzzled about why people who love the Church and want its health and peace find themselves at odds. This morning I’m convinced that sometimes the disagreements arise because we can use “health” and “peace” as synonyms when they’re not.

On Peace and Health

Many people think the church is healthy simply because there’s the absence of conflict. The members generally get along. They enjoy gathering together for praise and preaching. They cooperate on church projects and activities. No one seems to be upset or dissatisfied, and perhaps the church is growing, too.

That’s peace. Peace is beautiful. Peace is precious. We should do everything to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace ().

But peace isn’t health. The health of the church is determined by its conformity to the Bible’s teaching at a number of points: faithfulness to the Bible’s teaching and the gospel; qualification and responsibilities of leaders; the progressive sanctification of its members; the practice of membership and discipline; and even the governance of the church. A church can be at peace while false things are sometimes taught, unqualified or disqualified leaders are at the helm, discipline and love are missing, and the church’s government is more worldly than biblical. People can get along and even grow in number despite all those things being out of whack. That’s because God is gracious.

But such a church is sick. It’s like a man who outwardly appears healthy, strong, active and full of life. But at his next doctor’s visit finds out unseen cancer cells have been devouring his bone marrow. You wouldn’t know he was sick looking at the way he enjoys life and peace. But inside he’s terribly unhealthy.

The Problem with Mistaking Peace for Health

So outward peace is not the same thing as health. In fact, such peace can cover up significantly unhealthy aspects of a local church’s life and ministry. And it’s not until there’s a major peace-destroying problem in the life of the church that members discover their congregation was unhealthy inside in some meaningful way.

Take, for example, the moral fall of a pastor or the need to practice discipline with an openly sinning and unrepentant member. Those problems disturb the peace of the church, and in the aftermath the church discovers that while it was enjoying a period of calm it was also neglecting important matters of health. When the peace is lost, then the importance of church health is felt. All of a sudden membership practices matter greatly. All at once questions of ministerial qualification () and how to censure a shepherd () come into play. The congregation has to think carefully and prayerfully about the difference between grace and license, condemnation and consequences, removal and restoration—all of which prove more complex and nuanced than they seem on the surface. The congregation finds out they needed deeper, richer teaching from the Bible on these themes in order to handle these emotionally difficult circumstances. Sadly, many churches find they were peaceful but they weren’t healthy.

A Peace Built on Health

So I’m learning that when I enter conversations about the health of the church and someone disagrees, it’s helpful to slow down and define terms. No doubt there are many peaceful churches that are thriving in various ways—powerful sermons, growing numbers, active in the community and so on. If that’s what we mean by “healthy” then we’d have to say most churches show good signs of life and vitality.

But if by “healthy” we mean a congregation thoroughly discipled in the Christian faith, leaders biblically qualified and focused, membership practices—including discipline—that are well understood and lovingly applied, governance structures modeled on biblical teaching, faithfulness to the full counsel of God with the gospel clearly central to the entire life of the church, then we likely have fewer healthy churches than peace would suggest.

What we want are churches whose peace is built on health. Where the peace of the church is built on the health of the church, then the temporary loss of peace will not threaten to destroy the church and the church stands a good chance of reclaiming the peace it has lost.

In conversations about the state of the church it’s helpful to make this distinction between peace and health. Because if those voices that maintain the church is “just fine” are actually talking about the visible peace of the church, then their defense of the church turns out to be harm to the church. It keeps the people of God from considering and treating the cancer it can’t see while that cancer quietly eats away at its health. Quite unintentionally we can commit the error popular in the prophet Jeremiah’s day, when God says, “They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (). Far be it from everyone who loves the health and the peace of Christ’s Church.

eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (ESV)

3:1 The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.

Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. 11 Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. 12 Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. 13 For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.

14 I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, 15 if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth. 16 Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness:

He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated by the Spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory. (ESV)

19 Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. 20 As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear. (ESV)

14 They have healed the wound of my people lightly,
saying, ‘Peace, peace,’
when there is no peace.

Jeremiah 8:11

11 They have healed the wound of my people lightly,
saying, ‘Peace, peace,’
when there is no peace. (ESV)

Thabiti Anyabwile
Thabiti Anyabwile serves as a pastor of Anacostia River Church (Washington DC). He is the happy husband of Kristie and the adoring father of two daughters and one son. Holler at him on Twitter: @ThabitiAnyabwil

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