We want churches to succeed. As Christians who may serve in a church we hope that church is all that God wants it to be. However, that is not the case with a lot of churches these days or even during the last 2,000 years.
The New Testament is filled with examples of problems within the local church, some more serious than others. Though we all agree that there are no perfect churches on earth, we don’t seem to all understand what characterizes a terminally sick church in God’s eyes. What looks bad to one person might not seem so bad to another.
How can we tell what is right and what is wrong?
The answer is to test all things according to Scripture. If we believe that the Bible is God’s inspired word and is clear on all major matters, then we should take the Bible’s blessings and warnings seriously. This is especially important for new churches that are starting up.
Many church plants begin with much zeal and good intentions, but it is in these new projects that Satan tries to destroy. Churches can get so infected with spiritual poison that if left unchecked, it can cause the church to die over time. This happens in one of two ways: Either it will shut down completely or it will apostatize from the faith and live on as a heretical, Spirit-less institution.
The Apostle John’s letter to the seven churches of Asia Minor in the book of Revelation is an excellent guideline that shows us what God values and despises in a church. Christ calls out both the good and the bad, and He warns us not to ignore the warnings of what constitutes the bad.
As Revelation 2:7 commands, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
Here are five signs of an unhealthy church:
1. Lack of love. This is the Ephesian church of Revelation 2:1-7. Jesus commends the church for its impeccable doctrine, perseverance in the faith, and intolerance of false teachers. But this church had a dangerous flaw: It was loveless. As unfathomable as it might seem, it is possible for a church to have the most zeal for the truth, yet be a church that is condemned by the Lord. The lack of love is demonstrated practically in multiple ways: It is legalistic. It is self-righteous. It is cold and uncaring. The church members’ spiritual identity revolves more around the church than it does on Jesus Himself. These practices are found in many hyper-fundamentalist churches. Christ warns that such churches risk having their lamp stand removed from its place (v. 6), meaning that God will no longer bless the church, and might possibly dismantle it in due time.
Bottom Line: The example of the Ephesian church teaches us that right attitudes are important to a healthy church. Churches should operate on love and grace, and keep Jesus as the head of the church.
2. Doctrinal compromise. This is the Pergamum church of Revelation 2:12-17. Jesus commends the church for its perseverance in the gospel. But this church also had a problem: It compromised with some false teaching. According to verse 14 and 15, some key members within that local assembly held to the “teachings of Balaam” and the “teachings of the Nicolaitans,” that caused congregants to stumble into sin. Churches these days can be firm in the gospel and persevere in the faith, but once it starts tolerating false teaching, the church can quickly go downhill. That is why it is problematic when church leaders affirm or incorporate philosophies that are clearly antithetical to God’s Word. Examples include evolution, pop psychology, pluralism, and ideas adopted from liberal theology. When a church no longer affirms the inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture, it is only a matter of time until that church falls into complete heresy. These practices are found in many mainstream and neo-orthodox churches.
Bottom Line: If there is anything that the Pergamum church teaches us, it is that truth matters. Along with being a gospel driven church it must also maintain doctrinal purity since the church is called to worship the Lord both in spirit and in truth (John 4:24).
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3. Moral corruption. This is the Thyatiran church of Revelation 2:18-28. Jesus commends the church for its love, works, faith, and perseverance. But this church had a cancer: A Jezebel teacher who misled the church into immoral living. Unchecked sin is never good for the church, especially when loose living is promoted by the church leaders. It is not uncommon to hear of churches that do nothing about sinful practices within the life of the church. They fail to church discipline the unrepentant leaders or lay people. People in this church hold to the gospel, but at the same time, practice such things as cohabitation, idolatry, adultery, homosexuality, abortion, drunkenness, orgies, and various forms of worldly conduct discouraged by Paul in Romans 12:1-2. Jesus warns congregants not to be partakers with such licentious teachers, lest they incur the same discipline from the Lord.
Bottom Line: The Thyatiran church teaches us that holiness matters. That is why leaders must be held to the above reproach standard outlined in 1 Timothy 3:1-13, and laity must strive to excel in all godly conduct as an act of worship to God and an example to others.
4. Spiritual Deadness. This is the Sardis church of Revelation 3:1-6. Jesus has not much to commend this church for other than its name of appearing “alive.” In reality, this church is dead. The Holy Spirit does not dwell within that church. This is another way of saying that the local assembly was full of unregenerate, unsaved people. This happens when churches do not preach the gospel. As a result, no one gets saved. The church ends up appearing more like a weekly social club, devoted to community bonding activities and maybe some social work on the side. But other than that, this kind of church does not really teach the Bible and serves no kingdom purpose. This condition is found in many Mainline Protestant denominations today.
Bottom Line: From the example of the Sardis church we learn that the gospel matters. A strong church must be committed to preaching the gospel within its walls and being grounded in the word of God.
5. Half-Hearted. This is the Laodicean church of Revelation 3:14-22. Jesus has not much to commend about this church either. Because the church is lukewarm, Christ vows to spit the church out of his mouth (v. 16). These churches are overly comfortable – and maybe even proud – because of their financial resources and size of attendees. People here do not reject Christ, but they are not sold out for Him either. They are half-hearted when it comes to serving Christ. The teaching in the church is not heretical. It is orthodox, but not very strong in execution. It is seeker friendly, watered-down, and non-offensive to the point where it does not have much power to motivate any believer to fulfill the Great Commission and live a zealous, radical life for Christ. This condition is found in many mainstream Christian churches that teach more about self-fulfillment and personal improvement than self-denial and service.
Bottom Line: If there is anything from the Laodicean church to learn, it is the importance of spiritual zeal. It is necessary to have that kind of passion to do the Lord’s work. When churches teach in such a manner that addresses both the easy and the hard sayings of the Bible, especially when it comes to salvation, discipleship, and outreach, then that zeal can come.
Even in the worst of these church examples there is always an opportunity for the church to repent and to get back on the right track. It is never too late. Church leaders and attendees should take note of these warnings so that when they see these symptoms developing they can address them before they become worse. The last thing we want is for our healthy, vibrant church to one day turn into a dead or apostate organization ripe only for judgment — especially in our day and age, the church cannot afford to lose its blessings and power from God.
Steve Cha is the teaching pastor of Grace City LA.