HEALTHY CHURCHLIFE-THE PRACTICAL OUTWORKING
Healthy churchlife is not something that develops spontaneously. It does not mean that whenever a group of Christians come together as a congregation, even though they may be sincere, that healthy churchlife will develop. What are some characteristics and features that contribute to and constitute healthy churchlife? Let us now ponder over some features which make up healthy churchlife in practical outworking.
It is fundamentally the people of God who contribute to healthy churchlife. The children of God, in one sense, can make or break healthy churchlife. It is not something static but rather, it is dynamic, either growing in quality with the passing of time or degenerating, as the case may be. It would very much depend on the response and cooperation of the believers involved in that context. Knowing this, we must ensure that we fulfil our roles and responsibilities in churchlife, and we must guard against just being mere “spectators” looking in, as it were, at churchlife and giving critical comments rather than being part and parcel of churchlife itself and seeking to contribute positively in any way that is fitting in the eyes of God.
Having said this, there is still the pattern and structure that need to be observed for churchlife to be healthy. Even though various believers may be sincere and may strive hard to fulfil their responsibilities as best as they can understand, without the healthy pattern and structure, there can be no definite headway made.
In Exodus 25:8, 9, 40 and 26:30, we see how Moses was clearly instructed to follow the pattern according to the plan God had shown him on the mountain, in his building and erecting of the tabernacle. Obviously, the following of this pattern is something very important, as God reiterated it to Moses again and again throughout the book of Exodus. Although we are not specifically told why the pattern is so important, we can reasonably form several conclusions. The tabernacle was to be a dwelling place for God and it is therefore imperative that it should be built and constructed in a manner that would be suitable for the Holy God to dwell in. Hence, the material used, the anointing of the tabernacle and so on must not violate the standards of the holiness of God. The various measurements and the various designs probably connote certain spiritual meaning which is relevant in the spiritual realm both in the Old Testament context and the New Testament contexts. Some aspects of the meaning may not even be obvious to Moses and the Israelites. However, they were told to follow God’s instructions accordingly.
In Hebrews 8:5-6, we are clearly shown that the tabernacle and its pattern serve as a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. Hence, as a copy and a shadow, it is significant that various aspects of the tabernacle should point to certain heavenly aspects and meaning. Here, we have an inkling as to why the pattern for the tabernacle and its erection is so relevant and significant. But in this passage, we also see the Lord Jesus as the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises. The Lord Jesus did not enter a holy place made with hands, a mere copy of the true one, but into heaven itself to appear in the presence of God for us.
In 2 Corinthians 6:16 and Ephesians 2:19-22, we see that in the new covenant, those who believe in the Lord Jesus collectively form the temple of God. Just as God chose to dwell in the tabernacle of old in the Old Testament context, He chose to dwell in His people in the new covenant, the temple of God. This temple of God is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets and the cornerstone itself is the Lord Jesus Himself. We see how the church is so central as the temple of the Lord, a dwelling place for God.
If the pattern is so important for the tabernacle of God in the Old Testament, the structure and pattern is equally important for the temple of God in the New Testament. The pattern and structure must be such that God’s holiness is not in any way compromised. It must also be such that the heavenly meaning and the spiritual meaning in the spiritual realm are illustrated and demonstrated in churchlife. The church of God and churchlife must be such that it prepares God’s people to dwell in the New Jerusalem, in the new heavens and a new earth. If churchlife is such that God is not pleased to dwell in and among His people, then the essential pattern of God’s temple has been compromised and violated.
Looking at Exodus 40:16-35, we see a picture of how Moses followed closely all that God had commanded him. The phrase “just as the Lord had commanded Moses” was repeated again and again. Finally, verses 33-34 reveal the glory of God filling the tabernacle. After Moses had followed closely God’s instructions in the building and erection of the tabernacle, God was pleased to fill the tabernacle with His glory. Similarly, we can look forward to God filling His temple with His glory in the New Testament context if God’s people follow closely God’s instructions and the pattern He desires for His people. In other words, if we take pains to build and nurture healthy churchlife according to God’s instructions, we can expect the Lord to release His power and manifest His glory among His people. A group of believers coming together and ignoring all that God desires for His temple cannot look towards God for His blessings and enabling. The temple of God must be suitable for God to dwell in. We cannot therefore take lightly this task and responsibility of nurturing and upholding healthy churchlife.
With the proper structure and pattern, the life of God is poured forth and the glory of God manifested in His dwelling place. We see these two principles so closely intertwined. Without the proper structure, we cannot expect the outpouring of God’s life and glory, and without God’s life and enabling, the structure becomes dead and useless spiritually. Why are we spending so much time in establishing these truths? It is basically because we must understand that for healthy churchlife to be established and to continue, we must ensure that the proper pattern and structure is maintained and that the life of God continues to flow. Otherwise, churchlife will slowly diminish and what we will be left with are just activities, schedules and traditions which may externally look impressive but, in reality, there is no true life and spiritual meaning. If we understand these issues well, then certain implications would follow.
We would not conclude that any kind of churchlife will do. It has to be healthy churchlife; for God would dwell in all His glory only within such a healthy context. If such a healthy situation is missing, then the life and power of God would be lacking. To the degree that the life and power of God is lacking, to that degree the children of God would find it more difficult to triumph in the last days.
God’s temple must be holy and conducive for the almighty God to dwell in. For the life of God to flow, it then becomes the responsibility of each and every member to ensure that the temple remains holy and true to God’s expectation. The maintenance of a life that is right and pure before God, the spiritual exercise in participation, contribution and prayer – all these are important for churchlife to be alive and well.
We see a parallel in the tabernacle in the Old Testament. If any Israelite were to contaminate the tabernacle, then there would be spiritual consequences. If the Israelites did not maintain a holy environment in their camp, then God would not dwell in their midst. Each and every Israelite was to follow closely the Lord’s instructions so that Israel will continue to be a people among whom God was pleased to dwell with and to manifest His life and glory. Similarly, every child of God must order his life in a way that will ensure that God is pleased to continue to dwell among His people, the church.
In our context today, it would mean that each and every member has a responsibility to live his life well before God – otherwise we can expect the quality of churchlife to be affected negatively, according to the seriousness of the failures of God’s people. This principle does not only apply when we fail God in the way we live our lives in terms of devotion and holiness; it also applies when we fail to exercise the gifts and responsibilities God has entrusted to us. As churchlife is a manifestation of the lives of all the members of the body, it would invariably suffer if any part of the body refuses to function for whatever reason. Hence we see how the lives of various ones are closely intertwined with the quality of body life and churchlife.
Take the issue of the headship and leadership in churchlife and also the authority of the Scriptures. If these areas go wrong, many other areas would follow and healthy churchlife will no longer be possible. Colossians 1:18 and Ephesians 1:22, 23 show us clearly that the Lord Jesus is the head of the body. Yet, in practice, we see the people of God putting church traditions or the traditions of organisations and denominations as more important than what the Lord has to say in the Scriptures. Some may not openly say that they are doing this. In reality however, they have ignored the instructions and desires of the Lord in preference to upholding the traditions of the group they belong to. It is very important that God’s people not only subscribe to the headship of the Lord Jesus in words but also in practice. They should not allow traditions or the teachings of organisations or groups to cause them to compromise the leadership of the Lord Jesus. All such teachings and so-called traditions need to be evaluated in the light of what the Lord truly taught and revealed.
The thrust and truth in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 are compromised by many who claim to be open-minded and modern in their views of the Scriptures. Healthy churchlife can only be maintained and sustained if God’s people appreciate and comprehend the teachings of the Scriptures wholesomely. They must also grow to a point when they can healthily evaluate many new claims and teachings that may be introduced especially in the last days, and be able to be positively critical in distinguishing what is of the Lord and consistent with the teachings of the Scriptures and what is false and unbalanced.
In some contexts, it may not be organisations but individuals who are responsible for distortion of the truth. Individuals with charisma who make claims that they are specially anointed and commissioned by God may lead many of God’s people astray. Many who follow them may be sincere Christians too. For healthy churchlife to prevail, God’s people must continually go back to the Scriptures and they must ensure that the headship of the Lord Jesus be preserved in His body. No man, no matter how impressive he is, should take the place of the Lord Jesus as head of His body.
Enough is said to help us realise that it is very easy for many things to go wrong in many areas in churchlife. What then is the guarantee that we can have to ensure that nothing major go wrong in churchlife? The Lord God is always faithful and He never fails. But the people of God do fail and the ways of God can be abandoned. So, we can say that from man’s point of view, there is no guarantee. It will depend on how we choose; it will depend also on how we live our lives and how convicted we are regarding God’s desire and purpose.
“But why the detailed emphasis on the centrality of the church and healthy churchlife?” – one may ask. A quotation from the writings of A.W. Tozer, from “Of God and Men”, at this point may be enlightening. He wrote, “Christianity will always reproduce itself after its kind. A worldly-minded, unspiritual church, when she crosses the ocean to give her witness to peoples of other tongues and other cultures, is sure to bring forth on other shores a Christianity much like her own. Not the naked word only but the character of the witness determines the quality of the convert. The church can do no more than transplant herself. What she is in one land she will be in another. A crab tree does not become a Grimes golden by being carried from one country to another…The popular notion that the first obligation of the church is to preach the gospel to the uttermost parts of the earth is false. The church’s first obligation is to be spiritually worthy to spread it. Our Lord said ‘Go ye’, but He also said ‘Tarry ye’, and the tarrying had to come before the going….”
We note that the quality of the church is important in fulfilling God’s commission to make disciples of all nations. Healthy churchlife is part and parcel of this quality. It is interesting to note that Tozer highlighted that the first obligation of the church is to be spiritually worthy to spread the gospel. A church does not become spiritually worthy because of activities, programmes, methods and marketing principles. And yet, many congregations employ these to increase their membership and to bolster church growth. They form an integral part of their strategy for church growth and expansion.
Charles Colson pinpointed this problem in his book, “The Body – being light in darkness”. He emphasised that the primary role of the church is to make believers holy and not to make them feel good. He lamented the use of marketing strategy to promote church growth. To him, true growth of the church has to be spiritual growth and not growth in numbers or statistics; it is the spiritual quality of the character of the church that truly matters.
We need to have our priorities right. We need to start measuring and evaluating quality of churchlife from God’s point of view and scale of measurement, as well as upon God’s values and assessments. All other measurements only give a false assurance and may lull us into spiritual complacency and myopia.