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Testing Church Health
What are the warning signs of a "sick" church, and how can you make sure yours stays healthy?

We often make the most important decisions in life with little thought, preparation or guidance. It can be that way with marriage and career choices. It can also be that way with church life. I have been thinking a lot about this recently because of some intensive study of people who have chosen to follow some pretty sick churches.

Paths to death, harm and loss are often paved with sincerity, faith, Bible quoting, and alleged words from God.

Item: A mother in a church near Boston allows her child to starve to death because the "prophet" in their group tells her to follow his word about the infant's diet.

Item: A young woman in a group in Ohio allows her church leader to seduce her because of "biblical" teaching that she should meet his needs as a man of God.

Item: Parents in a church in Illinois allow their child to die because they believe by "faith" that doctors should not be consulted.

Item: A group based in New England specializes in beating their children because of "spiritual" wisdom from their leader.

Item: A nomadic group of Christians eat out of trash cans because of their "trust" in the guidance of their "godly" teacher.

Item: An older Christian couple lose all their money planting "seed faith" into the hands of a very wealthy evangelist who promised them that God would reward them with mansions this side of eternity.

I picked these cases at random out of a long list of news reports that I have examined recently. What matters for this article is not the exact names of individuals or churches, but the generic pattern that is duplicated again and again in sick church life.

One of the most important things to realize in finding and maintaining a healthy church is to develop the kind of rigorous analysis that keeps one safe from the subtle ways in which religious disease is spread. Paths to death, harm and loss are often paved with sincerity, faith, Bible quoting, and alleged words from God.

Over the years that I have studied religion I have developed a series of tests that can help in the detection of sick religion. Here are some of the most important ones for Evangelical Christians.

The Freedom Test. Paul warned the Galatian Christians about the dangers of giving up their freedom in Christ. In that context it was about legalism, losing freedom to law-based religion. In other contexts it may be about being a slave to some preacher or blind follower of some prophet. It is so heartbreaking to see Christians imprisoned by their blind loyalties to false teachers and false doctrines.

The Bible Test. Sick religion will be detected through a commitment to a full and deep understanding and obedience to the Bible. The vast majority of false teachings in Christian churches are rooted in the abuse of Scriptural texts. The solution arises in a balanced and rich and wise handling of the Word of God.

The Love Test. Much grief in church life would be avoided if every pastor, elder and church member put 1 Corinthians 13 on their fridge door and paid attention to this most famous chapter. Love is patient, kind, gentle, unselfish, etc. The Pauline description of love would unmask the true nature of a lot of church business meetings, for example. Likewise, the list on the fridge door would speak to the real spirit behind hateful preaching.

The Authority Test. The Bible teaches us to respect authentic spiritual leadership, but we are often warned about the dangers of false teachers and false prophets. Abusive churches thrive on the cultivation of blind obedience to authority figures. Are you allowed to disagree with your pastor? Can your denomination be tested? Is your church accountable?

The Prophecy Test. It is quite amazing to see how often bad religion goes hand in hand with leaders who show their true identity by grandiose predictions of the future. Most cult leaders make bold claims about their divining of the future and make foolish predictions. In a word, false prophets are good at making false prophecies. Sick churches stick with false prophets, no matter what.

The Rational Test. Evangelical Christians have inherited an anti-intellectual mind-set that aids in spreading disease in church life. It is perfectly okay, and in fact, absolutely necessary to use your mind to make rational assessment of the bizarre, crazy, silly and wild claims that can be passed off as the truth. Don't be scared to test the spirits. Gullibility is not a synonym for faith. Love God with your mind, even in church, especially in church.

The Money-Sex-Power Test. Both Old and New Testament writers know the seductive allure of money, sex and power. Often Church abuse can be tracked by asking the right questions about proper boundaries in all three areas. Are the books open on church finances? Who holds the power and how is it wielded? Does your church have guidelines on sexual misconduct?

The Jesus Test. Ultimately the Church is the body of Christ. Sick churches and abusive religion is marked by a betrayal of the teaching of Jesus and a failure to duplicate the path that Jesus walked. Do we care for the poor as Jesus did? Do we really have His view of money? How do we treat our enemies? Do we fast as Jesus did? WWJD is a good test for healthy Christianity.

James Beverley is professor at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto.

Related article

Q & A on False Prophets

Originally published in Faith Today, September/October 2003




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