Preferences. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a preference is “the fact that you like something or someone more than another thing or person.” I prefer hamburgers, pizza, hotdogs, or BBQ at every meal. I prefer to watch the NFL over College Football (Go Broncos!). I prefer to watch a movie of a classic novel than read the book (looking at you Lord of the Rings). I prefer to be outside during a thunderstorm than be inside. I prefer vanilla over chocolate. I prefer to study late into the night over getting up early. I prefer the mountains over the beach (unless I’m on the Oregon coast, then I can have both at the same time). And on it goes. Life is full of preferences.
Where this gets weird is preferences in the church. In my 10+ years in fulltime ministry, I have had many conversations on why people attend a certain church over another. In the vast majority of the conversations, it has to do with preferences. For some it was the aesthetics of the church-building (warm color tones, updated light fixtures, etc.). Others it was the type of sermon (expository, topical, etc.). Still others it is the broad range of ministries available for their families.
One of the more interesting preferences is music. For some, they attend a certain church because the church sung hymns over praise choruses and vice versa. In that first group, some attend because the church sings out of a hymnal rather than words on the screen. Also in this group, people have preferred hymns led by a piano & organ over hymns lead by a guitarist. And still others in this group want only revival hymns that will “get this country back to what it used to be!” Crazy stuff!!
In light of all these preferences, I have asked myself over the years what seems like a very basic, foundation, and simple question: How do you know if a church is a faithful church? Is it about these (or my) preferences, or has God given us instructions (or better an example) of what a faithful church look like?
I think this is possible is multiple places in Scripture, but I want to draw your attention to one text that I think gives us the key to unlock what a faithful church is.
Romans 15:14, “And concerning you, my brethren, I myself also am convinced that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able also to admonish one another.”
Notice up front what is NOT here: Paul says nothing about music styles, preaching styles, aesthetics, order of a church service, or church programs (for the records, I do believe you can tell something about a church with these, but it is definitely not the full picture). What Paul does mention is something you can only learn if you are around a church-people for some time. Three characteristics of a faithful church are:
“I myself also am convinced that you yourselves are full of goodness.”
“Goodness” is a great one-word-description for a Christian and for a body of believers. “Goodness” is a broad term that conveys the ideas of uprightness in personal character, generous, kind, charitable toward others, etc. “Goodness,” in the simplest terms, is the evidence of true conversion, because it is a part of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22), is a fruit of being in Christ (Eph 5:9), and is part of being worthy of our calling from God (2 Thess 1:11). In other words, “goodness” is proof that the Spirit’s presence is at work in a person’s heart & life.
As a result of this personal goodness in each Christian, the proof of a good, faithful church is that there are people full of goodness. Not selfish people who are self-absorbed and preoccupied with their own personal interests. Not people filled with evil intent, selfish ambition, or a personal agenda. But rather genuinely good, kind, generous, gracious people who see needs and care for other’s needs. Goodness marks a faithful church.
Now, granted, this is a high bar to set, because all people are inherently selfish. And sadly many churches have decided not to fight this selfishness by catering to it with loads of self-affirmations and self-love, while avoiding anything that could drive anyone away. But this attitude does not fix the problem of selfish people, it only perpetuates the problem further and makes the spiritual character of humble goodness a thing of ancient history.
Let’s not forgot, however, that selfishness is a mark of the unsaved, while peace, gentleness, and goodness are marks of true believers (Titus 3:3ff). And since a church is to be full of true believers, you can bank on a faithful church being full of the spiritual character of goodness.
“filled with all knowledge“
Literally, “abounding with all kinds of thorough knowledge.” Paul is pointing out that a faithful church, a good church is one that has no weaknesses, no shortcomings in their depth of their understanding the Christian faith. Obviously they didn’t know everything; they are not omniscient. But they possessed an adequate knowledge and understanding of the Scriptures. In other words, their doctrine was sound and firm and correct.
Sadly, some people in churches thing that in order to be “authentic” you cannot know too much because, after all, “Knowledge puffs up” and if you are too heady in the books, then you’ll be out of touch with people or reality and then we lose being relational. The problem with this thinking is that it is the churches mission from Jesus to “go make disciples.” The term disciple implies learning. Learning implies teaching. So, if you are going to be a disciple or discipling, then knowledge (specifically, God’s Word) must be taught and learned. Plus, Psalm 119 makes clear that for the genuine Christian, the Bible’s content (its teachings) are a treasure that they cannot get enough of, because the Bible is filled with teaching about our great God & Savior. In other words, no Christian—and therefore, no church—can ever have too much knowledge about the Bible!!
And, again, since a church is to be full of true believers, it should be easy to spot its faithfulness by the knowledge of God, of Christ, of salvation, of the gospel, of doctrine, etc., that they possess (cf. Col 3:16).
“able also to admonish one another“
This one is interesting! A faithful church has people that are able to do something. Many times in Scripture we are told what we are unable to do—unable to understand spiritual truths apart from the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 2:14); unable to pray as we ought (Rom 8:26); unable to save people (Rom 9:3); unable to cause spiritual growth (1 Cor 3:6); unable to stop sinning (Rom 7); and, in a sense, unable to really do anything apart from Jesus (John 15). These are our limitations and they show our dependence upon God to do and act in us and in our world in ways that we cannot be effective.
But, here in Rom 15, Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we are able to do something. We can “admonish one another.” This is where the goodness & knowledge come into application. When you have goodness and genuine care for people and you have the knowledge of God, you are able to effectively admonish, teach, encourage, exhort, and counsel one another. Incredible!!
This is the greatest mark of a faithful church. It’s not about how many people attend, or how great the worship the preaching or the building is. Not how many pastors there are and how skilled they are. But, how many people in the church are able to admonish one another? How many people in the church are actively doing that? That’s how you measure how good a church is.
Don’t ask how good the preacher’s teaching is; ask how good your teaching is. Don’t ask how good the pastor’s counseling is; ask how good your counseling is. Don’t ask how well the elders shepherd you. How well do you shepherd one another.
That’s the goal. That’s what a faithful church is after. Equipping you so that you can do the work of the ministry (Eph 4:11ff), so that you can build up the body.
All this to say, finding a faithful church is not about visiting on a Sunday morning and discerning by the parking lot attendents, the greeters, the style of the building, and the service that it is a good church or not. Rather, determining the faithfulness of a church is about relationships. It’s about being connected, knowing people, being life-on-life. Being humble enough to receive admonition and looking out for other’s needs that you can meet. Goodness, knowledge, and ability to admonish makes a good church.
One more note: spiritual character, fullness of knowledge, and admonishing ability are the characteristics that are to be true of the leadership of a faithful church (1 Tim 3; Titus 1). And so the saying is true: the sheep go where the shepherds lead them. A faithful church will follow faithful leaders.