A few days ago I received another of those emails that come fairly often. It said, “I’m going to be visiting in Little Rock this weekend and wondered if Central was a sound church?? This time, unlike most of this type email, it didn’t go ahead to innumerate what they considered a sound church. I’ve had them that asked and then asked specifically, “Do you clap?”, “Do you have instruments?” “Do you have a praise team?” and occasionally “Do you use translations other than the King James or American Standard Version?” Through the years I’ve answered such emails in a huge variety of ways, depending greatly on the mood I was in at the time.
Occasionally, I’ve taken the time to explain that when the Bible talks about being sound it has to do with being a healthy church. I’ve usually gone on in such times to encourage them to read the Book of Titus where Paul encouraged him to have sound doctrine or teaching and then went on to tell him what he meant by sound teaching. It involved telling the older men how they should live, the older women, then the younger women and men, then he told Titus the kind of teaching to do and how the slaves were to live in a way that made the teachings of Christ more beautiful. I suspect it may have also related to the ordaining of elders as he had just discussed in chapter one. There are many churches that teach the right things from the Bible that are very unsound or unhealthy churches that eat one another alive.
Now I will admit that when I’ve taken time to go through such explanations it has been on my better days. Sometimes I’ve answered in other ways such as “Sure we are a sound church. We make more noise than nearly any place you will go. We have tons of babies and most of them have lots of sounds.” Usually, this response hasn’t led to them visiting us or further emails.
Here would be my deeper question. Which of the churches discussed in the New Testament would you consider a sound church? Certainly not Corinth, they were overwhelmed with problems about teachings, morals and worship. They even had a significant group denying the resurrection from the dead. Yet Paul, by inspiration, addressed them as the “Church of God that is in Corinth, called to be saints with those who in every place call on the name of the Lord.” I saw an article on Facebook a day or so ago telling people how to decide if a church was a real church of Christ. I wonder if Corinth would have passed the text. Jerusalem certainly wouldn’t make the list for long. We tend to look only at Acts 2 and stop thinking of them. But they were a church in Acts 21 still made up of Jews that were zealous for the law. At least part of the reason God in his providence led the Roman army to come in and destroy the temple and its worship was to put to death the notion that this was the way of worship for him. They were still prejudiced against the Gentiles to the degree that Paul’s company with the Gentiles made him suspect. The elders advise was to have Paul go to the temple and make a vow and offer a sacrifice to show that the things they had heard about him telling the Jews they didn’t still have to be circumcised or follow the law were not true. It amazes me still that Paul was willing to do it.
Ephesus wouldn’t make most of our list because they, at least by the time Paul wrote I Timothy were going through significant struggles that Paul left Timothy there to correct. The churches of Galatia wouldn’t be considered sound by most of us because they were rejecting the grace of God to go back under the Jewish law that Gentiles had never been part of. The Thessalonians wouldn’t have past muster because they were messed up in their thinking about the second coming of the Lord.
So the reality is that when we come up with our list of what makes one sound we typically find ourselves rejecting the very churches talked about in the New Testament, most of which had many good things said about them as well as matters that needed correcting. It is also the case that even when we think a church is very healthy it may have some undying sickness that isn’t obvious yet, just like we do in our human bodies.
Beyond that, I’ve never known of a church anywhere that was totally healthy. Many years ago when I was a very young preacher and considering moving to a church that had multiple problems I visited with my mentor Brother Gus Nichols to ask for his advise. He said, “Leon if a church didn’t have any problems they wouldn’t need a preacher. Always look for a place with problems where God can use you to help solve them. Just don’t ever become part of the problem.” Notice particularly what he said next that I have found to be true everywhere I’ve worked. “In every church you have different groups of people who would like to take the church in one way or another. Some want it to be more conservative and some want it to be less so. The key to being effective as the preacher is to never alien yourself with either group. Just preach the word of God and be a peacemaker. Correct the wrongs on either side with equal fervor. If you ever become part of one of the groups you will lead the church to divide and set the cause of Christ back in that area by decades.”
It takes more than teaching to be sound. It takes people willing to hear, apply and change things in their life that need to be changed. It takes good leadership from those who will love each other even when they disagree and will be deeply involved with the people they wish to lead. It takes a constant willingness to keep studying and learning and growing in all ways to please God. For many years now I’ve made it a habit to read the Bible through each year from a different translation and from a Bible I haven’t marked in before. It seems silly in some ways. But I don’t want to get into the habit of only seeing things in the Bible that I’ve already seen before. When I go back to read a book I’ve read before, I tend to just read the parts I’ve underlined or made notes about. Every part of the Bible needs to be seen with fresh eyes regularly. It was said of Alexander Campbell that he made it a habit to try to read the Bible each year as though he had never read it before so that he might see things he hadn’t noticed before. I want to do that but also to be willing to reexamine the things that I have been certain about through the years. When we stop being willing to see our own mistakes and need to change we have mentally died at that point. Years ago I heard a well known preacher make the statement, “I haven’t changed my mind on anything the Bible says since I was a student at Freed-Hardeman College.” He was in his 70’s at the time. From that point on I questioned everything he said as though it were still coming from a person just starting.
Probably a better question than “Is it a sound church?” would be “Am I a sound Christian?” After all the church is nothing more than the community of those who are the followers of Christ. The church is always as healthy or unhealthy as the members who make it up.