Asking good questions leads to better thinking. When it comes to church, there is a balance between avoiding a critical spirit and thinking critically about our faith. We shouldn’t let loyalty to our church, leaders, or denomination prevent us from asking tough questions because our ultimate allegiance is to Christ. Several months ago, I posed five questions for the church, but more have surfaced after much reflection and conversation.
Is Your Church Successful or Fruitful?
Inherent in the question is that success and fruitfulness are not synonymous. The two may overlap or contradict. Churches may be filled to capacity with a strategic plan to facilitate their growth and be theologically askew. Alternatively, a church may be small in number, meager in facilities, and faithful in Gospel witness.
Scripture is replete with agricultural examples that highlight kingdom growth. The modern concept of producing results is counterintuitive to planting seeds and waiting in faith. Church growth seminars would not include planting and waiting.
Is it wrong to use modern tools to inform and share? Absolutely not. Should we be cautious about letting our trust in technology, marketing strategies, and church growth philosophy outweigh our faith in God and his means of growing his kingdom? Yes! Success can quickly become an idol that supplants fruitfulness.
Monergism or Synergism?
Is salvation wholly the work of God, or does it require cooperation with individuals? The difference between a monergistic (entirely God’s work) and a synergistic (cooperative) view is a pillar of the reformation and Christianity itself. Making salvation partly a work of man denies justification by faith alone.
We are made righteous before God, not because of our works. The Gospel is the good news that Christ has lived a perfect life, died on the cross for our atonement, and rose again three days later because of his great love for us. We are saved by grace through faith as a gift from God and not by works unless anyone should boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).
The church’s great danger is slipping into synergism and functionally contradicting the Gospel. Such an imbalance often stems from confusing or conflating salvation and sanctification. One way this happens is by emphasizing personal holiness or practical Christian living too heavily. Instead of good works being the overflow of grace into our neighbors’ lives, they become the litmus test for our right standing before God. Directing people to look internally for a spiritual checkup practically slips into synergism. Instead, churches should lead people to look externally to Christ alone for their right standing before God from beginning to end.
What is the Standard of Truth?
Some churches wear relegating Scripture to spiritual stories like a badge of honor. This question is not for those churches. We need to ask churches who affirm the inerrancy and authority of Scripture about their standard of truth.
Do they affirm sola scriptura in their doctrinal statements while leaders appeal to demographic studies, seminary church growth classes, or para-church organization statistics to make critical decisions? Is the appeal by leaders to act based upon the Bible or Ed Stetzer or Thom Rainer’s latest research? Are we driven more by the Bible or Barna’s reports? Does sacred Scripture have the final say, or does sociology?
Does the foundation of church ministry stem more from what other people say the Bible says or from Scripture itself? The sermon displays the source of a church’s standard of truth. Is the service driven by reading and preaching Scripture, or is Scripture used, perhaps even out of context, to support points the pastor wants to make? The studies and classes the church conduct also highlight its source of truth. Studying books about the Bible can be helpful, but it isn’t the same as studying Scripture. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).
Are Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy in Harmony?
Does what the church affirms in belief match what the church practices in ministry? Would the elders passionately outline justification by faith alone while Sunday school classes and sermons implicitly teach works righteousness?
Are the foundational doctrines of Christianity contradicted or undermined by how we do ministry? The church’s mission statement may highlight a Gospel focus, while most of its ministry centers on behavior modification. We may recite the Apostle’s Creed one moment only to be scolded by a law-driven, gospel-less sermon for the next forty-five.
A church may be monergistic and embrace sola-scriptura on paper while all its studies, resources, teaching, meetings, and outreach pursue measurable transformation results. Is there alignment between the church’s confession and their ministry’s weekly routine?
Head, Heart, or Hands?
Individuals, churches, and even denominations tend to lean more toward the head, the heart, or the hands of spirituality. Scripture is full of examples highlighting the tendency. Mary sat at the feet of Jesus while Martha was busy serving. Peter, a man of action, quickly jumped out of the ship and raised the sword. Paul was the author of nearly two-thirds of the New Testament with theological depth and occasional difficulty.
People or churches may not be exclusively intellectual, emotional, or action-oriented, but they likely tend to emphasize one more significantly. Does your church preach grace as a concept to believe in or as a reality that offers redemption? Does your church serve until hands are blistered but neglect the glorious truths of the Christian faith in doctrine and teaching? Does your church so emphasize passion that there is a weekly spiritual high at the service yet no theological ground to stand on in adversity?
The greatest commandments summarize the need for each element in proper balance.
And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
There is no greater commandment than loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Are God-ward love and passion optional? Can we neglect the mind, or should we ignore our neighbors? Answering good questions can help us think, love, and serve better.
I don’t pose these questions to provoke criticism but to encourage critical thinking and soul searching. I don’t have all the answers, and Scripture isn’t a field guide covering every scenario that could arise. The Bible is a revelation of our God; its central message is the Gospel of grace. While God’s word doesn’t answer all our questions, it does answer the most critical questions, and we need to wrestle with them continuously. So do our churches.