What characterizes a healthy church? In this article David Murray identifies and describes six marks of a healthy church: divinity, veracity, purity, charity, equity, and diversity.

2013. 8 pages. Transcribed by Ineke van der Linden. Transcription started at 0:49 and stopped at 44:39.

Marks of a Healthy Church: Introduction Marks of a Healthy Church 1

Read 1 Timothy 3:14-15.

The Reformed church and Reformed confessions have generally said that true churches have three marks: preaching, the administration of sacraments, and church discipline. However, a church can have these three marks without being a healthy church. Just as you can have a body that has all the limbs in the right place and all the members in the right place and all the organs in the right place, and yet still be an unhealthy body. That's why we have to ask not just what are the marks of a church, but what are the marks of a healthy church? That's why I would like to begin our relationship together as pastor and flock trying to answer that question: What are the marks of a healthy church? And also the flipside of that: what are the marks of a healthy church member? Because as we see in Lord's Day 21 of the Heidelberg Catechism, both of these are tied together. We read in Lord's Day 21:

54: What do you believe concerning the holy catholic church of Christ? That the Son of God, from the beginning to the end of the world, gathers, defends and preserves to Himself, by His Spirit and Word, out of the whole human race, a church chosen to everlasting life, agreeing in true faith, and that I am and forever shall remain a living member thereof.

55: What do you understand by the communion of saints? First, that all and everyone who believes, being members of Christ, are in common partakers of Him and of all His riches and gifts. Second, that everyone must know it to be his duty readily and cheerfully to employ his gifts for the advantage and salvation of other members.

I would like to spend a number of Sundays in this Lord's Day, asking these two questions: What are the marks of a healthy church and what are the marks of a healthy church member? You may ask, “Well, why is this so important?” It is so important because the church is at the center of God's plan for the salvation of His people and the glory of His name. It is at the center of God's plan. As Mark Ross puts it, "God has entrusted to His church the glory of His own Name." John Stott said, "The church lies at the very center of the eternal purpose of God. It is not a divine afterthought. It is not an accident of history." This is especially important to emphasize this and centralize this because we live in such an individualistic age, where it is really every man and every woman for him- or herself. That's the spirit of our age, that's the culture we live in, and that's why this is so difficult at times to accept. It goes against the grain. It goes against our culture. It goes against our own human instinct in our striving for independence – the sense that any institution, any group can have a central place of influence and impact in our lives.

What I hope will come from this series is:

First of all, I hope it will be encouraging. When we go for a physical with our doctor, we might go with some sense of fear and apprehension. And sometimes, hopefully most of the time, we come away relieved and encouraged. We're not as bad as we thought we were. We're actually healthier than we thought we were. There are areas of our live we may be a bit concerned about, but the doctor's given us a clean bill of health and that's encouraging. I hope these series will be encouraging. That we'll find areas of our church's life and practice where we say, "Well, God be praised! There's health and life there."

Secondly, I hope it will be challenging. When we go to a doctor for a physical he might say, "Yes, this and this is good, but you know there's a bit here. There's your posture…extra weight here and there. This area's weak, so you'll really need to work on this, focus on this. Here are some steps to take…" And that's challenging. And it sets us targets and gets us to work, and I hope that this series will do that as well – that we will see areas of weakness, even of disease. And that we will be challenged and say, "Well, we've got to work at this. We've got to take these steps to try and repair and renew and revive these aspects of our church's life."

Thirdly, I hope it will be educational. It is all very well for adults to grow up in a church with very sound teaching, and to be taught regularly what the church is and what the marks of the church are, but we must never assume that our young people and children growing up in our midst know what we know. And that can often happen, can't it? We just assume and presume, and the children grow up and they really are none the wiser as to what a church is and what a healthy church is. So we have to educate. And also, those of us who have been taught in these things need to re-taught again and again.

My fourth aim is disease prevention. If you look at 1 Timothy 3:15, the apostle here speaks of that “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.” Notice the connection that Paul is making here between what the church is and what we do. There's a link between what we believe about the church of God and our conduct. He is saying, “That 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.” What we believe about the church will impact how we behave (at least in the church, and certainly beyond). So I'd like to give you a very broad overview of six marks of a healthy church. And I am going to take not all of them, but some of them, in future lectures and focus on them in more detail.


The first of these marks is divinity. Notice what Paul says to Timothy here: It is the “church of the living God” (1 Timothy 3:15). It has a stamp of divinity upon it. We see that even in the Lord's Day, the emphasis on whose church it is: “The Son of God, from the beginning to the end of the world, gathers, defends and preserves to Himself, by His Spirit and Word, out of the whole human race, a church chosen to everlasting life.” It speaks in Question 55 of our being members of Christ, partakers of Him. So you see, both Paul here and this Lord's Day are putting God in the very center of His church.


This first of all means ownership. This is not my church, and it's not your church, and it's not even the Free Reformed church, ultimately. This is God's church. He founds it; He establishes it; He owns it. His name is overall.


Secondly, ownership implies Lordship. It implies that we run this church not by our agenda, but by His. Not by what we want, but by asking: what does He want? Not, “What will I have us to do?,” but “What will He have us to do?” That must be the question that we ask in every gathering, in every decision: What will our Owner have us to do?


Thirdly, this means life. It's the church of the living God, not of the dead God. Not of dead idols. But it's of the living God, the God of life! He alone is the one that gives life, that sustains life, that nourishes life, that causes life to flourish. Without the living God, we're not a living church. We must keep this at the very center of our church. As the Catechism puts it, “He gathers, defends, and preserves His church.” It's His action; it's His energy; it's His power. As Jesus said, "I will build my church!" This is tremendously encouraging, isn't it? That the life and the energy doesn't come from ourselves, but it comes from Him. And if it comes from Him, then there will be life and energy. Martin Luther, the Reformer, was asked about all he achieved in his ministry and this is how he responded: "I simply taught, preached, and wrote God's Word; otherwise I did nothing - the Word did it all!" The Word did it all.

That to me is not a platform for despair, but of hope. If this depends on me, or on elders, or any or all of you, we're done! We're sunk! But if He is the One who gives life, if He is the Builder, the Gatherer, the Reviver of His church, we have great grounds to hope and of expectation and joy. The fact that God has established His church and God is in the midst of His church. It's still the church of the living God, and that should be a tremendous encouragement to us. And this should be obvious to everyone in the church and anyone watching and observing that this is the church of the living God. This is the One we look to. This is the One we are here to worship. This is what makes prayer so essential in the life of the church. If this is His church, if He owns it, if He runs it, if He is the life source of it, that means we need Him. We must pray to Him. We must call upon His Name if we have to have any hope of having His life and dwelling in our midst. Divinity is the first mark of a healthy church.


The second of these marks is veracity, or truthfulness. Truth. Again, it is in this text. It speaks of the “church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” As Dr. Waltke said, "There is something called the truth." It's very unpopular to state something so simple as that today, isn't it? Because we hear so much, "Well, there is his truth and there is her truth and there is their truth, and what's true for you is not true for them. What was truth then is not truth now, and there are many truths in the world." And contrary to all of that, the Bible says there is such a thing as the truth. And God says the church has it! It's the “church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” A body of truth, which we are told in the epistle to Jude, "was once delivered to the saints" (Jude 1:3).

Now, the truth is translated into different languages. And these languages are sometimes modernized and updated, but the truth does not change. The truth is the same. It's not to be amended; it's not to be adjusted; it's not to be qualified; it's not to be added to. It's simply to be read and preached and explained. It's as simple as that. And whatever else characterizes a church of the living God, is this:It is the pillar and ground of the truth.” That the impression we take away with us from each service is: This is the truth. This is not the minister's opinion. This is not what the Free Reformed church believes. This is the truth of God, ultimately. And the church is only the church of the living God insofar as it is “the pillar and ground of the truth.” Insofar as it provides a platform and a support for the truth. That's what we should be all about, in everything that we do. Are we providing a platform and a support for the truth?

And the primary way that we do that is by preaching. There are many, many ways that a church can be a pillar and ground of the truth. We have Catechism classes. We have Sunday school classes. We have Bible studies. We may write articles. We have confessional statements. All these are important ways of being a pillar and a ground of the truth. But, the primary way that the church is a pillar and ground of the truth is through preaching. The centrality of preaching of the Word.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism asks the question: “How is the Word made effectual unto salvation?” And it answers: “The Spirit of God makes the reading, but especially the preaching, of the Word an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners and in building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith unto salvation.” You see that? It says the Spirit of God uses the reading of the Word, for sure. There are many other ways that the Word is taught. But primarily, this means of a man – a sinful man, a limited man – standing in the place of God as the mouth of God, explaining the Word of God with the help of the Spirit of God (what Paul in another place calls, "the foolishness of preaching") is the primary way that God has chosen to save and sanctify His people! Preaching must ever take the central place in this church.

And the preaching of it for sure, but also the listening to it. No man comes into this pulpit without spending hours and hours of study and of prayer, of seeking the Lord's mind as to what he should say and how he should say it. No one comes into this pulpit with ill-thought out, ill-considered, little thought about sermons. There's much anxiety, there's much prayer, there's anguish, there's agonizing that goes into this process. We're not just doing a job. We're not just filling time. We're not just taking services. We stand here really, really, really believing that we are speaking for God. And yes, we make mistakes at times, but if this is what we are doing, then that impacts how you should hear, how you should receive the message of God's messengers. And at least give it some thought before you jump down the minister's throat. At least give it an hour, or a day, or a week, before you decide in a moment of time and a flash of temper that whatever you have just heard cannot be God's Word. The preaching of the Word is a solemn, serious matter. And the sent messenger of God is a solemn, serious man. And it requires solemn and serious hearing, and prayerful well-thought out consideration of what's been heard. If we get this wrong in this church, we are done! We are sunk! And it's over. No church has ever flourished where there is not healthy preaching and healthy listening to the Word of God. This is the mark of a healthy church: healthy preaching and healthy hearing of the Word of God.

If this is so important – that truth and the preaching of it are so essential – who is out to destroy it most? It's the devil, isn't it? It's the devil. If there's anything he hates, and if there's anything he wants to undermine, and if there's anything he wants to make secondary in a church, it's preaching. And we have to be very aware of the role of the devil in our own hearts and minds in undermining and weakening the place and the primacy of preaching in this church.


The third mark of a healthy church is purity. In two ways: purity of worship and purity of life. Purity of doctrine should lead to purity of worship and purity of life. If we have truth in our midst (if the truth is being preached), it should have these two effects: purifying of our worship and purifying of our lives. Let's take these two in turn.

Purity of Worship🔗

We have already said this is a church of God. God is in our midst. The Psalms speak of God being "enthroned" in our praises. He looks at our songs and He says, "I want to sit in them. I want to be enthroned and lifted up by these praises." And He loves to be worshipped. We read this phrase frequently in the Psalms: "worship in the beauty of holiness.” Worship is not to be a casual matter that we bring our preferences to. No, we are regulated by the principle that has characterized Reformed churches through the years – the regulative principle of worship. The regulative principle of worship is really very simple, and it is: In the worship of God it is not enough to ask, "What has God forbidden?" We must ask, "What has God required?" There are other areas of life where we can justly ask “What has God forbidden?,” and that can allow us big leeway. If God's not forbidden it, then we are at liberty. But in the area of worship – this vital, central area of a church's health – He has not left it to that more open question. It is more, "What has He commanded? What has He required?" And that's why we search the Scriptures for the elements of worship. And yes, there are differences in application, but this basic idea has to infuse everything we do in this church: what has God required? We need to explore this principle more in a future sermon, but I think it is really, really important, especially for the young people in this church, to grasp this principle.

Older people grow up in a church, and when you get older you get more conservative and more accepting of the way things have been. You don't question things so much, and it's just the way life has been, and it feels so normal. But, it's different for young people, and we need to sympathize with them. They certainly have not had all these years of tradition and habit to ingrain things into them. They maybe haven't been taught, or it's maybe been assumed. Also, they are living in a culture which is much more mixed. They are coming into contact with lots and lots of other different kinds of Christians with other approaches to worship and other areas of church life. And so we have to help them. We have to say, “Look, we are not just doing this because it is a tradition or because it's a habit.” It’s not just, “This is the way we do things and it is therefore the right way.” No, we have to do something much more than that. We need to show from Scripture for every single element of worship: "God required this? Has God commanded this?” And to show from the Word of God, vindicate from the Word of God, this purifying principle of worship and how it works out in church life.

Purity of Life🔗

If we have purity of doctrine and if we have purity of worship, it should have an impact. It should result in purity of life, in holy living. That's what the church is all about. We come here to hear the truth, to worship God, and to be sent back into the world to live beautifully holy lives. Again, this has two sides to it. It's not just negatively putting to death and choking and murdering and mortifying the deeds of the flesh – sins – and cutting off all that's rotten and diseased. It's also positive – giving life, fertilizing the fruits and graces of the Spirit, building up, edifying, nourishing. Sanctification in both of its dimensions and directions. If this church by its preaching and its worship is not producing purity of life, there's something wrong. If we're not seeing people growing in Christ-likeness, there's something wrong. That must be the mark of a healthy church – that there be holy lives resulting from it.


The fourth mark of a healthy church is charity. I wasn't sure whether to call this unity or charity, and really, they are two sides of the one coin. This charity, this love begins with one another. Love to one another. It begins to ripple out into love for our neighbour and our community, and even further, ripples into the lives of our enemies and those who hate us. Jesus said, "By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35). This was the distinguishing mark of the New Testament church. It's what the world saw as setting the church apart from anything they had ever seen.

And that's reflected in some of the writings of historians and early church fathers. Let me give you a couple of these. Tertullian, the apologist, described how outsiders viewed Christians: “They say, ‘Look how they love one another and how they are ready to die for each other.’" He went on to catalogue a list of groups that were cared for by Christian believers. He said, “In the period following the apostolic age there was an exuberant caring and sharing on the part of Christians that was unique in antiquity." Julian, the apostate and enemy of Christianity and a persecutor, admitted that the "godless Galileans" (as he called them) "fed not only their poor, but ours also." By 250 AD, Christians in Rome were caring for some 1500 needy people. Bishop Chrysostom said, "Every day the church here feeds 3000 people. Besides this, the church daily helps provide food and clothes for prisoners, the hospitalized, pilgrims, cripples, churchmen, and others. When epidemics broke out in Carthage and Alexandria, Christians rushed to aid all in need." The philosopher Aristides said, "[Christians] walk in all humility and kindness, and falsehood is not found among them, and they love one another. They despise not the widow, and grieve not the orphan. He that distributes liberally to him that hath not. If they see a stranger they bring him under their roof and rejoice over him, as if he were their own brother...If there is any among them who is needy and poor, and they don't have much themselves to share, they fast for two or three days that they may supply the needy with their necessary food." You see the love that was remarked upon and that was noted by those who were observing?

As Jesus said, "By this shall all men know you are my disciples, by the way you love one another." Just as love is the distinguishing mark of the church of Christ, so the lack of it is the demolition notice of any church. If a church has love, then it has God's blessing. If God looks down and sees no love, hatred, strife, then He puts a demolition notice on that church. “Every kingdom divided against itself," said Jesus, "is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand" (Matthew 12:25). This is very solemn. This is not an option. Charity and unity.


The fifth mark of a healthy church is equity. Here I am speaking of church discipline. That may seem very jarring. How can you go from speaking about love to law, to justice, to church courts and church discipline? Well, church discipline is an expression of love, when done in the right way, in the right manner and for the right ends, when the aim is restoration of the offender. Even if that cannot be accomplished, it still has to be done, out of love to the rest of us. Because church discipline, when rightly done – in the right way for the right reasons – causes other to fear. It reminds us that there are standards. That God requires us to maintain holiness in our membership. If every offence and serious matter was just let go, is that loving to everyone else? Of course not. It's saying, “Sin is unimportant. We can just forget it. We can just put that under the carpet.” That sends its own message, and it’s sin’s impunity. That's not love. That's not love for God either, because we must vindicate His glory and His honor. So church discipline, when done in the right way and for the right reasons, is an expression of love to the sinner, love to the church, and love to God. And again, if we go wrong here (as many, many churches have found), we will be divided and broken asunder. Christ has committed the keys of the kingdom, the administration of church discipline, to His church. And He has promised to be in our midst as it is exercised in the right way. Equity, justice, church discipline, is a mark of the healthy church.


The sixth mark of a healthy church is diversity. If you think back to the initial promise to Abraham, God said, "In you shall all the families of the earth be blessed" (Genesis 28:14). When you read through the Psalms and you read through the Prophets, you see more and more the hope of this vision being realized. Yes, in the Old Testament God's plan was narrowed down to Israel with a few exceptions, but there was always this great hope that one day this narrow channel of God's plan and purpose would eventually break and burst its banks and flood the nations. And this is what happened after the cross, isn't it? Jesus stands in front of His disciples and says, "Go out into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature." Peter had questions about that, so God gave him a vision early on of the clean and the unclean animals, and said, "Arise and eat them all!" He is saying to Peter, "Don't you dare call unclean what I call clean! Don't you dare bring national prejudices and cultural preferences into who you think is worthy of hearing the gospel!" And then we see in Revelation the ultimate fulfillment of all this in heaven where there's people from every tribe, kindred, and nation gathered together – all the colours, all the cultures, all the countries. He saved people out of them all, gathered together in one huge innumerable worshipping family. And it's held out as beautiful, as outstanding.

And that's why as a church we believe in mission, isn’t it? We believe in outreach. We believe in going beyond our borders nationally. But we have also got to do that more locally as well. Not just our national boundaries, but our cultural boundaries, our geographical boundaries, our colour boundaries, and reach out to the diverse communities around us. When you look at the terrible effects of racial prejudice and division in our country, you realize that politicians have poured so much into this – so much money, so many policies – and we are no further on in many ways (at least over the last twenty or thirty years). What is the solution? It's the gospel, isn't it? It is the gospel. Here is just an open goal for the church to score in to show the power of the gospel. To show the gospel can do something that no amount of money, no amount of politics, no amount of education can. The gospel can reach diverse people, different colours, different classes, all sorts of differences, and bring them in and unite them by the Word of God and the gospel of God. And it's beautiful, and I hope we can grasp the beauty of God's plan in this.

I was reading one of the reactions to a killing by a pastor from the Community Church near where the killing took place. Victor Montalvo, a pastor of a diverse congregation (a mix of Latino, Anglo, African American, Asian, no group more than 35%) said:

So what do we do? We grieve. We pray. We pray for the Martin family, who is grieving the tragic death of their son. We pray for the Zimmerman family, who will never be the same after this experience. We pray for Sanford, which has a mountain of fear, distrust and racial tension to climb. We pray for our nation, who is still deeply mired in racial distrust. We pray for the Church, that we would be a beacon of hope and a shining example of Christ’s desires for our world. The Church must model the way out of this racial abyss. As long as we preach racial tolerance we will get nowhere in remedying the racial divide we have in our churches and in our nation. At Reality Community Church, we preach racial tolerance is a farce. God is not color blind as so many popularly state. God is colorful! He made our various differences. The diversity of our young and beautiful community of faith is a testament to this truth. This philosophy is woven throughout our entire church. Our leadership, our preaching, our music, our marketing, our activities and even our food are all celebrations of diversity. We miss God’s plan altogether when we settle for racial tolerance. Don’t tolerate racial differences--celebrate them! It’s only when our brothers and sisters of differing races sense true love and acceptance that we begin to truly trust one another.Victor Montalvo, The Verdict is in.

That's a beautiful exposition of the plan of God in a very local, down-to-earth level. And it should be one of the marks of the church that it reflects the diversity of the communities we find ourselves in. That's extremely challenging on a number of fronts, but at least it should be our aim and our vision and our intention to get closer and closer to this, though it take many decades, perhaps, to achieve.


These, I believe, are the marks of a healthy church: divinity, veracity, purity, charity, equity and diversity. And the source of them all is in the Lord. It is the Lord Jesus Himself who said, "I am building my church.” It is His church. It's the Lord Jesus who said, "I am the truth; I am veracity” (John 14:6). It is the Lord Jesus who sends His Spirit to purify us and whose likeness we want to be conformed to. It's the Lord Jesus' love that is our model and motivation for loving one another. It's the Lord Jesus who instituted church discipline and who gave the keys to church officers to exercise. It's the Lord Jesus who has such a multinational, multicoloured love, that we too are to imitate.

But what do we do when we look at the church and we see, “Well yes, there are strengths, but yes, there are also weaknesses. There are areas of disease.” Well, we mourn, we grieve, we weep. We don't just accept, “Oh, that's the way it is, and that's the way it will always be.” No, we must repent, individually and corporately. We must come and pray for the Lord to change us, individually and corporately. But we must also appreciate the positives and not just see the negatives. Not just see where we lack, but be thankful for the many gifts and many graces, the many marks and signs of health and strength. Sometimes it's so easy to say, "Well, there are problems here and there are problems there," and say, "It's all done; it's all over, Give up." No, God is at work! He has placed plenty of encouragements in our midst to believe that we are part of His plan and that we are part of His purpose. And even if none of us live to see the church in all its perfect glory (and none of us will), does that mean we can't pray for the Lord's blessing? Do we have to wait until the church attains to some level of perfection and beauty before we can begin to hope for revival? No, it doesn't. This is the amazing thing: that while these marks are held out to us and we are asked to repent if we lack them and work towards them if we lack them, yet still, we can pray to a merciful God to bless His faulty, failing church. And amazingly, He often does! Most of us wouldn't be here if He didn't. So we start with Him and we end with Him, and pray that He would give us more marks, stronger marks, of a healthy church.

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