Reformed Theology

Attributes of a Healthy Church

I jotted down a couple thoughts during a recent worship service at the local Presbyterian church:

Tiny church: you feel alone, like it’s you vs. the world.
Big church: you worship God in community, gathered, hundreds of voices together. You don’t feel like it’s “us vs. world”.

Driving around downtown Chico on a Lord’s Day morning, you’ll see lots of people walking all in the same direction, and you know where they’re headed. You see people you recognize outside on the church patio between services catching up over coffee. The rest of the week you may find yourself smiling to random people on the street instead of ignoring them. You start to see yourself as part of a large community of Christ-followers. It’s a far cry from fundamentalist isolationism.

9 Marks
One of of the modern standards for rating churches is the so-called “Nine Marks of a Healthy Church.” The mainline Presbyterian church we have started attending, surprisingly, seems to exhibit more of these marks and in greater measure than any other church I have been to. There’s expository preaching where the sermon topic is taken from the text, and is taught for its objective message rather than twisted for some allegorical practical application. And biblical theology: they still have the Westminster Standards in their denominational Book of Confessions, and so, they are the spiritual heirs of the Puritans. The gospel is central (more about this in my upcoming “Law & Gospel” post).

The traditions I’m coming from don’t require their pastors to be seminary-educated. As a result, especially as I’ve grown in my personal studies, I sometimes find myself feeling smarter than the pastor. When it comes to engineering or math, this may be okay, but not when it comes to theology. So I am very much encouraged to be able to sit in the pews and listen to some really smart guys preach and I know they have considered the Reformed tradition while preparing (even if they’re not saying it explicitly for the sake of the hearers).

There is real conversion… as a Presbyterian church, the understanding is that the invisible church is known only to God, but they really do emphasize the “response” we have to God’s call, and there is a real focus on sanctification as God’s word is worked out in your life. They focus on the kind of fruit someone who is converted would bear, but not on the so-called “conversion experience” that has plagued the modern church and made good kids feel like they have to go out and get a testimony. Evangelism… locally, encouraging members to share their faith through friendships and loving the community vs. fly-by-night proselytizing; and several global missions projects, short term and long term, even missionaries to muslims in Bosnia, using real relationships that meet people where they are. Membership… growing quickly! (Adding a couple dozen this month, even.) Discipleship… “real life groups”, and all kinds of adult education classes. There are even discipleship programs for the youth. Pastoral staff have even been known to go through Reformed dogmatics books with other members.


Not just 9 Marks, but the Belgic Confession also says discipline is one of the marks of the true church. My wife and I were both burned really bad by an abuse of the concept of church discipline, so I will say that it’s not sufficient to have discipline in your arsenal, but you have to do it right, and know when, and when not, to wield it.

A church planter once told me he thought the very reason for a church having formal membership was discipline—i.e. you can’t discipline someone who’s not on the roll. But it’s the other way around. Discipline exists to protect the members, to protect the weak and vulnerable—the “little ones” Jesus always speaks about—from the wolves and hypocrites who want to devour them. The end is membership.

Implicit in its inclusion in the 9 Marks is the idea that church discipline isn’t practiced enough, but it seems to me there is plenty of ostracizing and spurning of people—or even just gossip—when they don’t fall in line with the rest of the crowd. The passages in Scripture used to support discipline actually put the emphasis on restoration and forgiveness, not keeping people in line. It should only affect those sinned against, a small number of witnesses, and the elders. But, since the point is restoration, it should be invisible to the congregation if it is done properly. It seems strange to me to list it as one of the 9 Marks because you shouldn’t see it, since people should fall into such situations only very rarely; i.e., you can’t visit a church on any given Sunday with a notepad and check discipline off your list when you see it.

I do know that small churches, with a lack of heinous sinners, like to pick on tiny things.

Matthew 18 is the proof text for church discipline. When Jesus talks about the “testimony of two or three witnesses”, he’s quoting Deuteronomy, where the phrase is used in descriptions of court procedures for a murder conviction, which carries the death penalty. This is serious stuff, people! We’re talking gross, “mortal” sins here, real crimes that people should go to prison for, not mere trifles or offenses.

You shouldn’t matthew-eighteen somebody just because they have a different opinion from yours.

Discipline is supposed to be done under community and accountability, not from an authoritarian stance, and it should include some sort of an appeals process in case those performing it are in error. In the Presbyterian Church, church discipline occurs at the Presbytery, which is a level above the local church, where elders from each congregation in a region meet to judge such matters. As the Presbytery meets only four times a year, there’s going to be some space between the incident and the discipline. Also, it provides accountability because it forces the elders to consult with other churches and not act unilaterally.

Ideally, discipline shouldn’t be necessary. Discipline is not a sacrament.

Speaking of sacraments, notice there’s nothing in the 9 Marks list about sacraments! Most Reformed believers would define a healthy church as a right handling of word and sacrament (baptism and the Lord’s Supper).

The answer to Heidelberg Catechism question #66 is, “[The sacraments] are visible, holy signs and seals instituted by God in order that by their use he may the more fully disclose and seal to us the promise of the gospel, namely, that because of the one sacrifice of Christ accomplished on the cross he graciously grants us the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.” Baptism is a sign not only to the one being baptized, but to the church witnessing the sacrament. Just as participating in the Lord’s Supper is a regular sacrament, so witnessing regular baptisms of new members of the covenant community is a regular sacrament for the whole body. If your baptist church isn’t baptizing, then it’s not fulfilling the mission of the church in word and sacrament. At the last two “baptist” churches I’ve been to, I’ve never once seen a baptism. In two months at Bidwell Pres, I’ve witnessed at least four.

The credobaptist view is: “I want to show the world that I’m identifying with Jesus.” The Reformed view tries to reflect that grace is something that happens to you, it’s not a “decision” you make: “You are being identified with the covenant community through no act of your own, symbolic of the grace of God, who covenants with you and saves you through no act of your own.” In a roundabout way, I can reflect on these views of baptism as representative of different phases in my faith walk. I really appreciate the emphasis on God’s grace as effectual in your salvation. “We love him because he first loved us.”

Safe Childcare
Not one of the 9 Marks, but I’m putting it on my list. The idea of being able to check in the kids to childcare before worship is very appealing to us. When I was in, probably, the fourth grade, I used to get more out of sitting in the main service with my bible and notebook in hand than in Sunday school with the other kids. When I later became involved in church plants myself, I would advocate for the absence of children’s church programs concurrent with the service, since I’ve seen these programs abused to the point where you have age-specific churches within a church and nobody interacts with anyone from another age group unless they are the teachers. Later on when I had kids, though, I began to see the merit in nursery care for the youngsters who are simply incapable of sitting still for a half hour, much less 2 hours (at our new church it’s just an hour!). Having known the Schatzes, whose children were extremely well-behaved and sat quietly in a row during Sunday services, I now feel I’d rather suffer the embarrassment of unruly kids than open the door to abuse by assigning biblical importance to a length of PVC tubing. But having our kids in childcare gives me and my wife the freedom to relax on a Lord’s Day morning and not have to worry about such things.

Diaconate Resources
I’ve already mentioned the isolationism, smallness and lack of resources in the small churches I had been part of in the last few years, and how it made it difficult to spot warning signs.

There is another aspect to the presence of resources, and that is meeting one another’s needs in times of need. Scripture calls us to “bear one another’s burdens”. The biblical churches had deacons and diaconate ministries to take care of their members. Bidwell Pres has a full-fledged, multi-department diaconate ministry, where the deacons aren’t just junior elders or elevated ushers, but they actually do the things that the deacons did in the book of Acts, taking care of people’s real needs. My wife and I were going through all the brochures from the different “care ministries”, and there are an abundance of programs for all kinds of different areas of life.

The diaconate is very important to us, personally; the churches we had been going to did not have the resources for it, nor even a single deacon. Last year, my wife had surgery on her arm, and soon after the surgery we found out it could take a year to heal. It has not been progressing very well, and we missed church because she needed to rest and I either needed to take care of her or the kids, and couldn’t handle both babies on my own. When we didn’t show up, nobody from our old church called to check on us. We did get one call, but it was someone asking her if she could bake them a cake (note to all: she can’t bake right now with her bad arm). It was like nobody was paying attention. We made some requests for help, but we only got a much larger response from our Facebook friends (no one from our old church is on Facebook). Bidwell Pres really looks like a good place to heal for people in all kinds of situations.

Plurality of Elders
And now we come to the final mark. Where better to find a plurality of elders than the Presbyterian church, which is governed by elders rather than senior pastors or congregational democracy? I’ve seen church plants hesitate on choosing elders, as they purport to avoid being “hasty in the laying on of hands.” But you really can’t plant a new church without elders already in place; putting the intent of elders in the constitution isn’t enough, either. On Paul’s missionary journeys, when he planted new churches he made sure he had the elders set up before he moved on to the next town.

It’s not enough to have a plurality of elders locally, though. The church needs to have greater accountability in a global, or at least regional, sense. Rather than “going it alone”, a church needs to participate in synods, councils, and assemblies with other pastors and elders who can hold them accountable and provide pooled resources for missions, theological education, etc. This has been the practice of the church since the First Jerusalem Council, ca. 50 A.D. (Acts 15). I have become convinced that “non-denominationalism” is dangerous. Independent churches open the door to isolationism and authoritarianism, and heterodoxy. I would even submit that my Reformed baptist friends should consider this when looking for churches, as Presbyterianism is a lot closer to what Reformed baptists really want than independence is.

Interestingly, I heard our pastor mention another list of healthy church qualities. There are only eight on this list, and they are very different from the 9 Marks ones: Empowering leadership, gift-oriented ministry, passionate spirituality, functional structures, inspiring worship service, holistic small groups, need-oriented evangelism, and loving relationships (Christian A. Schwarz, Natural Church Development). Our church has all of these, too, which is good to see. (I suppose functional structures overlaps with plurality of elders, small groups overlaps with discipleship, and they both have evangelism.) When our pastor mentioned this list, he referred to the passionate spirituality item as “joy”, and one of the characteristics the new members really noticed about this church were the smiles. But these aren’t fake smiles, or smiles for fear of being found out in your pain. You wouldn’t hear people at this church say something like, “Oh, it’s not God’s will for you to suffer! That’s all from the devil!” There is real recognition that people hurt, but with these Reformed roots, there’s also understanding that God is there with you through it all, and he has something to teach you through it.


One thought on “Attributes of a Healthy Church

  1. Pingback: I Have Issues With… | I must follow, if I can

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