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Here are 3 principles of spiritual health
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Here are 3 principles of spiritual health
By Dave Havir

The writer pastors the Church of God Big Sandy and is a Journal regular columnist.

BIG SANDY, Texas—On the evening of Saturday, March 19, my wife was watching the Heartland television program on Fox News. Curtis Freeman (of the Duke Divinity School) was a guest commentator who pointed out three characteristics that can contribute to an unhealthy church environment.

Since my wife taped the show for me, I was able to see the three characteristics after I arrived home from a business trip. Here is how I would paraphrase Dr. Freeman's points:

  • Exclusivism and isolation.

  • Authoritarian church government that does not allow dissent.

  • Dogmatic interpretation about end-time prophecies.

I agree that these three approaches are unhealthy. I base my conclusion on my experience with two Church of God organizations that had elements of those three unhealthy characteristics.

Someone could ask: Are there any remnants of those unhealthy characteristics in the congregation you presently pastor?

You know, I had that same question.

Board meeting and sermon

A few days later, on Monday, March 21, we had our monthly board meeting. At the end of each board meeting we have a segment called the "pastor's report." During that segment we discuss administrative details as well as philosophical ideas.

At that particular board meeting I showed the video of Dr. Freeman's comments to the board.

I had three reasons.

  • I wanted the board members to see his evaluation.

  • I wanted to state my opinion that our congregation had begun eradicating those approaches when we formed in 1995.

    When I say that I believe that our congregation had begun eradicating those approaches when we formed in 1995, I cannot dogmatically say that each member of the congregation has eradicated every speck of ideological errors from his mind.

  • I wanted the board's ongoing help in eradicating any lingering hangover from those faulty approaches. (For the record, we don't seek to kick out people with these faulty ideas. Rather, we want them to stay around so that we can help them grow.)

Therefore I gave a sermon on Saturday, March 26, titled "Three Principles of Spiritual Health."

At the beginning of the sermon I mentioned the three unhealthy characteristics. Then I told the congregation that we would look at the opposite of the unhealthy characteristics, and we would look at them in reverse order.

Purpose of prophecy

I listed an unhealthy characteristic as "dogmatic interpretations about end-time prophecies," and my first point was: Do you understand the purpose of prophecy?

I asked the audience the following questions:

  • Are you easily swayed by dogmatic interpretations (opinions)?

  • Are you preoccupied with listening to dogmatic opinions?

  • Are you preoccupied with proclaiming dogmatic opinions?

Personally, I don't mind hearing people who say they are giving their personal interpretations of prophecy. They are being honest.

What drives me crazy are the dozens of church leaders who dogmatically give hundreds of interpretations that have proved to be wrong, then get belligerent with people who don't want to hear their nonsense anymore. How weird is that?

I read two sections of Scripture from the law of God to help the congregation not to be seduced by dogmatic interpretations about end-time prophecies.

First I asked the question: What if the interpretations and proclamations do not come true?

I read Deuteronomy 18:20, 22, which shows that proclaimers of wrong interpretations were killed in the Old Testament.

Can you imagine how many church leaders would be wiped out if we followed those scriptures?

While I don't recommend that you kill these dogmatic pontificators, I do recommend that you avoid listening to their prophetic inanities.

Second, I asked the question: What if the interpretations and proclamations do indeed come true?

I read Deuteronomy 13:1-5, which shows that dreams, signs or wonders coming to pass do not mean that a person should follow the successful proclaimer.

If you want some New Testament support for this valuable Old Testament concept, consider reading Matthew 24:24 and Revelation 13:13-14.

The bottom line is this: Just because a proclamation comes true, so what?

In other words: Does the successful proclamation take a person closer to God, or toward other gods? Just because a proclamation comes true does not guarantee that the proclaimer is speaking for God.

Then what is the purpose of prophecy? People who desire to study prophecy love to read the Olivet prophecy of Matthew 24. But do you remember that the Olivet prophecy doesn't end at the conclusion of Matthew 24? It continues into Matthew 25.

Are you watching for the Groom? Do you have oil in your lamps?

Are you multiplying the talents God has given you? Or are you burying your talents?

Are you serving Christ by serving the least of the brethren? (Or are you using authority to stomp the life out of the little ones?)

The purpose of studying prophecy is to influence you to get closer to God.

The purpose of studying prophecy is to influence you to repent.

The purpose of studying prophecy is to help you in your practical Christian walk.

Servant leadership

I listed an unhealthy characteristic as "authoritarian church government that does not allow dissent," and my second point was: Do you understand servant leadership?

Some of the scriptures I read were Matthew 20:25-26, 2 Corinthians 1:24 and 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15.

The writing of 2 Thessalonians is interesting because many church leaders have misinterpreted these verses in an apparent effort to control the flock.

Many church leaders have said: 2 Thessalonians 3:6 shows that church leaders have the authority to disfellowship people who walk disorderly. Of course, the church leaders subjectively define the phrase walk disorderly.)

Yet 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15 says: Believers should take note of people leaders or otherwise) who try to make merchandise of the flock.

Interestingly, this section is not about church leaders disfellowshipping people who do not agree with them.

This section is about believers taking note of people (including leaders) who place too much emphasis on money. Hmm.

I asked the audience the following questions:

  • Are you inclined to want leaders to exercise dominion and authority over you?

  • Are you inclined to exercise dominion and authority over other people?

  • Do you freak out when someone in your congregation gives a different doctrinal view from yours?

  • Are you strong enough to handle different views?

Then I quoted Romans 14:1 from the King James Version: Receive those who are weak in the faith, but not to doubtful disputations.

To drive home the point, I read the same verse from three other translations.

  • From the Moffatt: Welcome a man of weak faith, but not to pass judgment upon his scruples.

  • From the Revised Standard: As for the man who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not for disputes over opinions.

  • From the American Standard: Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions.

A mature congregation understands that people have different opinions. Unhealthy leadership will wield the fear of heavy-handed authority to squash varying opinions.

However, healthy leadership will create an environment and atmosphere in which differences in a congregation are as normal as differences in a healthy marriage. A healthy congregation, like a healthy marriage, is built on common goals, a commitment to work together and the love of God.

Where is the church?

I listed an unhealthy characteristic as "exclusivism and isolation," and my third point was: Do you know where the church is?

I asked the audience: Do you realize that believers are spiritually connected to other believers (and not to religious systems)?

Some of the scriptures I read were Romans 8:11-17, 1 Corinthians 3:16- 17, Mark 7:7-13, Mark 9:38-40, John 10:16 and 2 Timothy 2:19.

At the conclusion of this third point and consequently the conclusion of the sermon, I read the following poem.

I was shocked, confused, bewildered
As I entered the Kingdom's door.
Not by the beauty of it all,
Nor the lights of its decor.

But it was the folks in the Kingdom
Who made me sputter and gasp—
The thieves, the liars, the sinners,
The alcoholics, the trash.

There stood the kid from seventh grade
Who swiped my lunch money twice.
Next to him was my old neighbor,
Who never said anything nice.

Stan, who I always thought
Was awaiting the fire of hell,
Was sitting pretty on a throne
Looking incredibly well.

I nudged Jesus, "What's the deal?
I would love to hear Your take.
How'd all these sinners get here?
God must have made a mistake.

"And why is everyone so quiet?
Would you please give me a clue?"
Jesus replied: "They're all in shock.
No one thought they'd ever see you."

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