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 (Eph. 4:3).
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 (1 Tim. 3) and how to censure a shepherd (1 Tim. 5:19-20) 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” (Jer. 6:14; 8:11). Far be it from everyone who loves the health and the peace of Christ’s Church.