If someone were to ask how you characterize a healthy church, what specifics would you mention? Or perhaps a fill in the blank question would do: “Seeing _____________ in the local church would give me the impression that this is a healthy church.” Would you say the right programs, convenient service times, enough children’s programs, talented musicians with contemporary music, or the best technology around? I’m not saying these are all wrong, but these are some of the current trends taking place, and I think we would do well to examine Scripture closer and see what the Lord has the revealed there. I’m not implying that there are perfect churches out there. If there were such a thing as a perfect church, it would cease to be perfect the moment you or I entered it, because you and I are sinners. By God’s grace, He has given His people His Word which is their infallible, inerrant, and ultimate source of authority in all of life, including in establishing and building healthy churches.
Second Thessalonians 1:3-5 is a particularly helpful passage regarding thinking about the characteristics of a healthy church. The church at Thessalonica certainly had their issues (idleness in Chapter 3, deceived at times by false teachers –Chapter 2), but here we are given a glimpse into the character makeup of the church. Let’s look at this passage closely.
“We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring.” (2 Thessalonians 1:3-4)
The first characteristic mentioned of the church of Thessalonica is that their “faith is growing abundantly.” What does this mean? It means they have a growing trust in and understanding of their need for the Lord Jesus. Verse 4 informs us of persecution and affliction this church was facing. Throughout Scripture, as well as church history, we have seen that persecution and affliction are often used by the Lord to build and strength faith in Christ, as well as help us see our complete dependence upon Him. In the passage, we get a beautiful picture of a body of believers united to Christ and growing in their faith as they share in Christ’s sufferings.
Paul’s second description the church of Thessalonica is that the love of every one of them for one another is increasing. How astounding this is! Every member’s love is increasing for every other member. In other words, this a body of redeemed saints who genuinely love one another. And that love is increasing all the more! Notice the trend here? As their faith in Christ grows, their love for another grows. Oh, how we should pray for this to take place in our churches!
This is not a superficial love. Paul would certainly not commend a mere external, surface level false idea of love. They are enduring affliction together as a church. They are loving and caring for one another as they experience hardship and persecution. They are not splitting up in the face of danger. They recognize and embrace the unity they have with Christ and with one another. They are coming together, worshipping together, communing together, and persevering together. This increasing love for one another is the result of a growing faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
The final mark addressed here is the church’s steadfastness in the face of the persecutions and trials. Much has already been stated about their sufferings, but this is crucial to understand. As the church is persecuted, they are to remain steadfast. Their growing faith and increasing love have resulted in a firm devotion to Christ in the midst of trials. Christians, as we face sufferings, see their desperate for Christ and their need for the Church.
Following Christ is not a lone ranger task. We desperately need one another. The local church is God’s gift to us to help us persevere in the faith. Yes, we are being held by Christ! Yes, we cling to and wholeheartedly believe the promise that none can snatch us out of the Father’s hand (John 10:28-30). One of the ways in which God holds us is through the unity with and comfort of fellow church members! Dear Christian, rejoice in the God’s gracious gift, the local church.
Thanks, Be to God
Finally, we must see the result of all that has been mentioned. The result of the church of Thessalonica’s growing faith, increasing love, and steadfast devotion to Christ is primarily thanksgiving to God, and secondly, the edification of the saints of other churches! In verse 3 Paul writes, “We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers.” Two important points must be made here. First, we must see this church’s fruit as something done by God.
Paul’s reaction to the church of Thessalonica is to give thanks to God, which means that God is responsible for the fruit of this church and every church! God, by the work and power of the Holy Spirit, is growing their faith, increasing their love, and causing them to remain steadfast. Just as it is God who drew them to Himself and saved them, through the blood of His Son, so He is sovereignly sanctifying them by the work of the Holy Spirit. It is God who builds healthy churches, not man. We must, therefore, follow the prescribed means the Lord has given as we seek to establish healthy embassies of the Kingdom here.
God alone gets the glory and praise for church health and numerical growth in His church! The One who does the work gets the praise. Salvation is wholly of God’s graceand not of ourselves. Sanctification is the ongoing work of God’s Spirit in conforming His people into the image of Christ. There are certainly prescribed means in Scripture by which we grow, but it is God who gives the growth (1 Corinthians 3:7)
Paul goes on to mention that “we (Paul, Silvanus, Timothy) ourselves boast about you in the churches of God.” Paul is using the testimony of God’s work in the church of Thessalonica to encourage the saints in other churches. What a great model for us to follow! Hearing of the Lord’s work in churches in the Middle East or even in the church just down the road in Louisville are often an immense source of encouragement to me. Christians, do not be hesitant to boast about the Lord’s work in other local churches. Struggling saints will be greatly encouraged by the sovereign work of God all around the world. Thanks be to God who saves, sanctifies, holds us fast in Christ, and will one day bring us home to Himself!