A Laboring Love

This is the second characteristic in our new series entitled “Ten Marks of a Healthy Church.”

In our last entry we considered the first quality – a working faith, not mere belief, but trust. Such a faith is essential to being rightly related to God. Faith is the antidote to anxiety, pride, fear, shame, impatience, covetousness, bitterness, despondency, lust, and a whole host of other ills that plague us. We learned that the true nature of strong faith is found in day-to-day persistence. Faith gets up every morning and goes to work. Genuine saving faith produces fruit and draws others to Christ.

The second mark of a healthy church is a laboring love. Again, Paul has combined two terms here that bring together a quality (love) and an action (labor). The virtue of love (here the term is agape and carries the nuance of high regard and appreciation) is proven by what it does. In this case, Paul uses the word kopos. This word is a little different from “work,” with a bit of intensification. While “work” connotes normal activity, “labor” indicates hard work, toil, and hardship.

Love is not a natural response. Human nature protects, pleases, and promotes itself. Loving Jesus and loving others means that you will often clash with the impulses you have naturally. To overcome is a labor. If a church is going to be healthy, its members must be motivated by love. Why else would someone arduously labor, sacrifice, and work to the point of exhaustion? Love drives selfless labor.

If I were to ask you what is the opposite of love, you might be quick to answer “hate.” But I want to you reconsider that notion. When you expend the energy required to “hate” someone, you are really not as far from love as you might think. If loving someone is to care for them, then not caring would be its opposite. The word for that is apathy.

Our world is very self-centered. People in our world, Christian and non-Christian, have developed an overemphasis on self. And what that does is destroys relationships that should be built on mutual concern for one another. When you are hyper-focused on yourself, you do not care about others.

The church has a real opportunity in this culture. Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35). Christians can show the world something different. Genuine love is a rare thing in today’s world. People do not care. And Jesus said, “Because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold” (Mt 24:12).

Paul offered this thought, “But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people” (2 Tim 3:1-5). The word “heartless” is a shocking word. It means “a lack of love or affection for close associates or family—‘without normal human affection.’ [Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 292].

Let’s take a quick look at love in the Bible. Let’s start first with Jesus’ teaching on Love. Matthew 22:34-40. The Greatest Commandment is to love God with all our being. The second greatest is like it — to love our neighbors as ourselves.

How did Jesus define Love? “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13). Love is selfless and sacrificial.

Now let’s move to Gal 5:22. “The fruit of the Spirit is love.” Without the Spirit of God we can do nothing. If we are filled with the Spirit, we will show love. The Spirit of God empowers us to obey the Word of God – the commandment to love. If a person is not loving, they are not saved. 1 John 3:14 – “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death.”

What does love look like? We find that in 1 Corinthians 13. Genuine love cannot be divorced from truth. In contrast to the way love is defined in our culture, it is not purely emotional. Love is commitment . . . it does not fail; action . . . it is not words alone; choice . . . it is not a whim that comes and goes; selfless . . . it puts others first; sacrificial . . . it is willing to suffer for the good of others

Now, you may say, there are too many people for me to do that for everyone. And that is true. I believe that biblically we have a responsibility first to our immediate family – spouse and children and parents, in that order. Next we are responsible to the family of faith, fellow church members with whom we have covenanted ourselves. After that, those who are outside those circles. Christians are called to put their love to labor. Leave a legacy of a laboring love.

Love begins when we are rightly related to God. As Paul wrote in Romans 5:5-6, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” The Good News is that Jesus lived and died and lived again so that you might truly live. Will you turn your life over to Him today? Will you let His love wash over you and change you? Yield your heart to Him today.


A Working Faith

Churches are not merely organizations. They are organizations (at least they should be organized) but they are not merely organizations. As is often said, churches are organisms. They have a life of their own. Consequently churches can be healthy and strong, or they can be diseased and sickly. Churches are kind of like people. In fact, one of the writers of the Bible compared the church to a body. The human body is made up of many parts. They all have functions. If one part of the body becomes diseased or does not function properly, the other parts are usually affected. That’s what it means to be an organism. Now all kinds of things can go haywire with our bodies. Some things are noticeable to others; some are not. The appearance of the body does not tell the whole story of what is going on with that body. Do you see where I am going with this?

Just as we can see some people and conclude quickly that they are not in good health. On the flip side, we can look at other people and think they are in good health, but they are not. The same is true with churches. We may look at a small, shriveled congregation and conclude that something is wrong. Usually that is the case, but not always. We may look at a large, rapidly growing congregation and think it is the healthiest church around. It may not be. In the human body, cells that grow very rapidly and abnormally are called cancer.

In this series, we are going to look at the first chapter of 1 Thessalonians. In that chapter Paul says some marvelous things about the church there. In fact, what he is doing is remembering them and thanking God for them. What does the apostle to the Gentiles thank God for when he thinks about a church? I call them ten marks of a healthy church. These are not the only marks of a healthy church, but I think they are perhaps the most important.

The first three marks of a healthy church come to us from a single verse, verse three, and reflect the Pauline trinity of godliness: faith, hope, and love: “remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” These first three are what Paul remembers about them.

Today we are going to consider the first – your work of faith. Paul highlights their working faith. The Thessalonians possessed a faith that works.

The word for “faith” occurs in the NT 243 times. That is not counting its verbal forms. It is an essential element for any church, because it is essential to being rightly related to God. Faith is our posture toward God. It is that expectancy, dependency, trust, and confidence that keeps us going. Faith is the antidote to anxiety, pride, fear, shame, impatience, covetousness, bitterness, despondency, lust, and a whole host of other ills that plague us. The church at Thessalonica possessed an active, productive faith.

One day, a friend and former student of mine, out of the blue, sent me a definition he found of faith. It comes from Art Azurdia, a pastor and seminary professor in Oregon:

“Authentic faith is the confident assurance in events not yet seen. Faith is not a call to believe in things when common sense tells you not to. Faith is not a mindless stab in the dark. It is not a crossing of the fingers and hoping for the best. It is not a leap into apparent nothingness. It’s a word that speaks of reasoned, careful, deliberate, intentional thought. Thought upon what? God and his promises. If you are absolutely gripped by the coming realities that have been promised to you by God, then how you live your life in the present will be radically different than if you did not possess that certainty. This is what faith is, my friends! Positive certainty expressed in action.”

He points out in his definition what Paul highlights – a working faith. The word here for work is ergon, and it means simply the day-to-day work that one normally does. Other ways to translate ergon are workmanship, handiwork, occupation, business, or job. Now I really like this pairing of terms, because it expresses the true nature of strong faith. We do not see strong faith in flashes of brilliance, but in the day-to-day persistence in the mundane and the ordinary. Faith gets up every morning and goes to work.

Some years ago, I saw a commercial for Monster.com, the online job search site. In it, everyone in the city begins climbing out of bed and they start running . . . to something. They grab umbrellas, furniture, mattresses and all sorts of things. It is just before daybreak when they all dash up a hill and throw up their possessions as if to block this massive tidal wave. Then, as it always does, the sun comes up and its rays peek over the hill. When it overcomes the crowd, they all sigh and give up. They groan and head back to their houses dragging their implements behind them. Then the screen says, “Don’t fight Monday. Monster.com. Your calling is calling.”

You may have trouble welcoming Mondays, too. But perhaps it would help if you had faith. If you saw your day-to-day responsibility not as showing up at the job site or punching a time clock or having to do this job or task, but as expressing faith in God. Your calling as a Christian is a calling to walk by faith. Faith works.

Another passage of scripture that has to do with this subject is James 2:14-26. An active faith, according to James, is a real faith, a genuine faith. Genuine saving faith produces works.

Now Paul has made very clear elsewhere in the New Testament (Romans 3-4; Galatians 2) that salvation is by faith alone, apart from works of the law. You cannot work your way to heaven. The only one who works for someone to be saved is God working to save us. Salvation is a gift. However, let us not be confused. One who is saved and transformed by God will produce works. “It is faith alone that justifies, but the faith that justifies is not alone.”

When Paul surveyed the Thessalonian church, he saw fruit, the produce of a living faith. If I may paraphrase James here, and pose a question: What use is it, brothers and sisters, if a church says it has a relationship with Jesus but is content to do nothing of significance? Is that not a self-deceiving illusion? Can that “faith” be real? Healthy churches put their faith to work.

Let’s look at a few more scriptures. Romans 1:5 indicates that Paul’s purpose as an apostle was to bring about the obedience of faith among the Gentiles. And in Romans 1:17, Paul quotes Habbakuk saying that the righteous shall live by faith. Then, Acts 16:5 says that one of the results of a church’s growing faith is the addition of more members. Authentic faith draws others to Christ.

You may want to know, How do I boost my faith? The Bible says, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). If you want to boost your faith, meditate on the Scriptures. Ponder the things of Christ. Focus on the greatness of God. Faith does not grow when we look at the world. It does not develop when we look inside ourselves. We must look beyond ourselves, hear the testimony of the scriptures, fellowship with the faithful, and cast ourselves on the all-sufficiency of God. When we do that, the results are immeasurable.

10 Marks of Healthy Churches

For the past fifteen years, I have been in a position to instruct, train, and counsel those who are called to lead God’s people through full-time vocational ministry. And I have in the past few years counseled several of them who are just absolutely scared of what might happen to them and their families when they accept a call from a church to become a pastor.

One student expressed to me this concern in this way. He said, “I just do not want to go to a church with problems.” Now, I could have given him a variety of answers ranging from silly to profound, but I believe the Lord directed me to say to him, “If a church does not have problems, then it does not need a pastor. That’s the reason why God has given pastors to the church.” And it is true. On the other hand, let’s recognize that there are some churches that are more problematic than others.

Some churches command respect; some destroy it. Some churches are very hard on pastors; some are pleasant to shepherd. Some churches are easy to love, some not so much. Some churches require that pastors exert authority; others follow with gratitude and submission.

The churches in Macedonia during Paul’s ministry were great churches. When Paul wrote to the Thessalonians and to the Philippians, he had no need to refer to himself as an “apostle”; the title is conspicuously absent from all three canonical correspondences to these two churches. In each of these three letters he gives an extended thanksgiving for them and expresses great joy upon his every remembrance of them.

In reading Acts, you will find that Paul’s experiences in both places, Philippi and Thessalonica, were not the best of circumstances. In Philippi he was imprisoned; in Thessalonica he was run out of town by the Jews. But when Paul considered the character qualities of these churches, nothing could damper his rejoicing. Paul says he always gives thanks for all of them. The basis of his thanksgiving consists of ten characteristics I will call “Ten Marks of Healthy Churches.” We will blog about them in the days to come.