Godliness and Church Health

Rev. John Marshall Crowe, D.Min.

This Article appeared in Sharing The Practice: The International Quarterly Journal of the Academy of Parish Clergy. Volume XXIV No. 4, 2001 pages 11-19.


I. The Wesleyan Concern for Cleanliness and Sanctification.

For century after   century the idea prevailed among Christians that filthiness was akin to   holiness. This only helped the spread of diseases like the "Black   Plague."  John Wesley and the early Methodists not only called   people to justification or forgiveness by the free grace of God, but also to   Sanctification or perfection in love by God's amazing grace as well. On one   occasion Mr. Wesley said "Cleanliness is next to godliness."    His concern for personal hygiene rose out of his understanding that the   application of sanctifying grace was for the cleaning up of the whole person.   It also came from his concern for people's mental and physical health also   coming from his understanding of sanctification, pastoral care, and Christian discipleship.

A. Both   Justification Based and Sanctification Directed

The whole early Methodist mission sought to first bring people to faith in Christ and then to  Christ-like character.

Wesley, as a  modified Anglican, drew his understanding of sanctification from catholic   Christianity, especially the Early Church Fathers. Wesley, thus, defined   sanctification primarily as a relationship of pure love to Christ. In   particular, the church season of Lent provides the opportunity to examine the   growth and the need for growth of our relationship with Jesus as a   congregation. However, anytime is a good opportunity to seek the Holy   Spirit's light via God's written Word on the state of our spiritual hygiene   in Jesus.

It is very important to remain focused on the ethic of loving God with all the heart.   Otherwise, we may fall into a legalistic, moralistic view of sanctification   where do’s and don’ts alone define a life of holy love. At the heart of the   call to the spiritual hygiene of our whole life in Christ and the whole life   of Christ's church, are healthy relationships of holy love. Therefore, true   spiritual hygiene does not truly exist where authentic Christian love is not   present. Even if it shines brightly with an outward appearance of holiness,   it is but a form of genuine religion without the empowering of God's love to   perfecting people in a healthy love for God, themselves, one another, and   others.

A legalistic tone   concerning holiness unto the Lord is more akin to the judicial views of John   Calvin and the Reformed tradition. It is also reminiscent of Ephesian church   in Revelation 2.

The season of   Lent is a time of self-examination and repentance. Given the influence of   American individualism upon churches, we tend to only think of individual   introspection and penitence. Thus, we may wrongly conclude that good   spiritual hygiene is only personal but not corporate and social. From our   United Methodist perspective of the Gospel, Christ’s holy Church is not only   justification-based but also sanctification-directed. Such sanctified living   in the Spirit leads us from private piety and holiness to our relationships   with others as well as our roles in society.

II. The New Testament’s Penetrating Perspective.

The book of   Revelation portrays Jesus Christ standing amidst the churches with fiery eyes   examining their faith according to the measure of their love for God and   others. Jesus said that by our love, people would know that we are his disciples. 

The church at   Ephesus had become a moralistic, over-functioning, doctrinaire church minus   its first passionate love for Christ. As Jesus said, “Yet I hold this against   you: you have forsaken your first love” (Rev. 2:3). George Beasley-Murray   views this exhortation as focusing on the decrease of the love of the church   for others. As he states in his commentary,

where love for   God wanes, love for man diminishes, and where love for man is soared, love   for God degenerates into religious formalism. . . . The Ephesian believers   were not wholly without love. It was their early love which had failed, and   the early love must be recovered. (75)

Several NT verses   speak of the importance of brotherly love within the church. In particular,   the NT speaks of faith as demonstrated by loving truthfully in our attitudes,   actions, and speech. If a church does not have loving relationships within   itself, strangers and those in need are in trouble.

If the   relationships within a congregation are angry, tense, irritable, out of   biblical balance and otherwise not loving, then strangers, those in need,   leaders of the church and others mentioned in Hebrews chapter 13 are in   trouble. They will not find the holy Christ-like love that the whole NT calls   us to demonstrate. 

Biblically speaking, the fiery eyes of our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ scan the   churches of the world, our country, our state, our conference, our district,   our county, and our community. Jesus wonders if he will find faith on earth   upon his return. He knows the love of many will grow cold because of sin   hardened, embittered, unforgiving, hearts.

Jesus is looking   for faith filled churches whose love for God and others is not lukewarm.   Jesus is looking for faithful churches who have not left their first love for   God, each other, the stranger and those in need. He tells churches with only   a lukewarm love that he feels like throwing up and calls them to repent. He   warns those who have left their first love like the church at Ephesus that   unless they repent, he will take their lamp stand for God is a consuming   fire. 

The good news is   that as the Ephesian church heard Jesus’ words calling them to repent,   churches are returning to their first love Jesus Christ. Other congregations   have acquired the fire of God’s love afresh so that they are no longer   lukewarm in their love for God, each other, and others.

As he did in the   book of Revelation, Jesus is encouraging the faithful to keep on for their   labor of love in the Lord is not in vain. May the cry of our hearts be “Lord,   I want to be a Christian, Lord I want to be more loving in my heart.” May   God’s love divine descend upon our hearts and set our hearts aflame a new   with love for God, for each other, for strangers and for those in need. May   we together serve God acceptably by holy, Christ-like, loving attitudes,   actions, and words for our God is a consuming fire!

A good question   to ask during Lent or anytime for that matter is “How does Jesus see   _____UMC?” A good way to prayerfully discern the answers is by reading the NT   Epistles (see some examples below the end of this article.). 

As you read, look   for the examples of holy love for God and others the Apostles compliment.   Also, look for the examples of its lack that the Apostles call for. Then ask   the Holy Spirit to show you what is true of your church? Such spiritual   discernment is God’s calling upon you to intercede for your church in prayer,   never to fault finding. Then ask the Holy Spirit to help you see where such a   lack of holy love might be true of you.

A. A Great Tragedy of Love.

If someone asked   you to tell them the greatest tragedy of the American Church within our   lifetime, what would you name? Was it the scandals of the TV evangelists   several years ago? Is it the increased interest in non-Christian religions like   the New Age movement, Islam, and Buddhism? Is it the decrease of biblical   values and morality among church people? No, as Robert Moeller wrote in 1994   in his book, Love In Action,

The   well-publicized televangelist scandals of the late eighties did minimal harm   to the reputation of the church in our culture—that is, in comparison to the   true scandal of our time. The true scandal is the way Christians mistreat one   another, fighting and conducting uncivil wars against one another in churches   across our nation. (41)

Even the recent   scandal in the Roman Catholic Church does overshadow this reality.

Space does not   allow for the startling statistics concerning unloving relationships within   so many churches in America. The findings of a study by the Board of Higher   Education of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod People give us a   representative view of the American church scene. Their report includes the   following statements.

People, both   laity and clergy, are verbally and emotionally beating on each other;

Outward oriented   clergy are consistently mismatched with inward oriented churches;

Failing to send   only the most mature pastor and strong pastoral family in hopes of bringing   peace into a fighting congregation;

The extremely low   level of trust held by pastors concerning denominational means of assistance;

A large number of   pastors are in the advanced stages of professional and personal burnout;

Pastors’ wives   and children stand in greater need of support than pastors;

Grossly   unreasonable expectations too often lead pastors to neglect their own health   and family;

Allowing churches   with a long history of chewing up one pastor and family after another   continue without any substantial intervention;

A few   congregations who are held hostage by an EGO-centered minority who Edge God   Out;

and the need for   pastors to address what drives them in ministry and live balanced lives.   (Klaas and Klaas)

Some may vainly   hope that only the Lutherans are experiencing such church health problems.   H.B. London and Neil Wiseman’s book, Pastors at Risk, wakes us up from   such a dream with the following statistics about pastors as a whole in   America.

Consider the   following sobering survey results of the personal and professional lives of   the clergy:

80% believe that   pastoral ministry has affected their families negatively.

33% say that   being in the ministry is a hazard to their family.

70% say they have   a lower self-esteem than when they started in the ministry.

70% do not have   someone they consider a close friend.

40% report a   serious conflict with a parishioner at least once a month. (22)

Sometimes the   unloving relationship styles of either church members and/or pastors as well  as their families arise from either family-of-origin issues and/or   personality disorders hiding behind various religious masks and a shallow   spirituality.

This description   helps us understand why people are writing so many books about church health.   They also make clear the reason for the recent works about spiritual abuse,   sick churches, unhealthy conflict, exit interviews, and the de-churched. To   see more statistics and my references, read “A Sick Body”.

B. Christ’s   Calling of Holy Love for Members, Officers, and Clergy.

A holy lifestyle   without love is like a sounding brass or a tinkling bell. A loving lifestyle   without holiness lacks biblical boundaries. Neither by themselves have the   moral authority to speak the truth in love. In Jesus Christ, we see the   prefect expression of God’s holy love. 

As responsible  recipients of God’s grace, the diversity of the Church calls Christians to   maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace through Christian love.   Our guidelines for living a life of holy love are found in both our General   Rules and in our Social Principles.

A concern for  holiness of heart and life of people within the Church is very often   reflected in the qualifications of Christian character, and competency to   serve for church officers (Book of Discipline 95, 144), and in   the installation vows for church officers (UMBW 600). In the United Methodist   Church, the “Installation of Church Officers” calls officers to sustain or   enable a congregation as a people of love (UMBW 600). Those who are immature   in Christian character are not competent for such a task.

Christ’s Holy   Church’s concern for holiness of heart and life within the body of Christ is   also reflected in the standards for persons qualifying for ordination, and in   their ordination service. For example, since the days of early Methodism,   candidates for full connection or ordination in an Annual Conference of the   United Methodist Church and related denominations are asked questions like   the following from John Wesley:

1. Have you faith   in Christ?

2. Are you going   on to perfection?

3. Do you expect   to be made perfect in love in this life?. Are you earnestly seeking after it?   (Book of Discipline 214)

Therefore, United   Methodist pastors are expected to completely dedicate themselves to the   highest ideals of the Christian life.

To this end, they   agree to exercise responsible self-control by personal habits conducive to   bodily health, mental and emotional maturity, integrity in all personal   relationships, fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness, social   responsibility, and growth in grace and in the knowledge and love of God. (Book   of Discipline 184)

In the United   Methodist Church, the “Order for the Celebration of an Appointment” focuses   on the pastor’s commitment toward sustaining or equipping a congregation as a   people of love (UMBW 595).

Jesus calls all   of us as members, officers, and clergy to live and minister together in the   holy love of God shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. During the   season of Lent and other times as well, may each church sing “Take Time to Be   Holy” as a congregational prayer. May what we sing with our lips, we may   believe in our hearts, and what we believe in our hearts, we may practice in   our lives. (UMH 69).

Works   Cited

Beasley-Murray,   George R. The Book of Revelation. New

Century Bible. Greenwood, SC: Attic P, 1974.

Klaas, Alan C.,   and Cheryl D. Klaas. Clergy Shortage Study.

Conducted in November of 1999 by Mission Growth

Studies for the Board of Higher Education of The

Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. 20   Jul.2000

<http://higher- ed.lcms.org/200-church-voc.asp>. 

London, H.B.,   Jr., and Neil B. Wiseman. Pastors At Risk. Wheaton: Victor Books,   1993.    

Moeller,   Robert. Love in Action: Healing Conflict in Your

Church. Sisters, OR: Questar Publishers, 1994.

The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church 1996.

Ed. Harriett Jane Olson. Nashville: The UM Publishing

House, 1996. 

The Holy Bible:   The New International Version. Grand

Rapids: Zondervan, 1978.

The United Methodist Book of Worship. Nashville: The United

Methodist Publishing House, 1992.

The United Methodist Hymnal: Book of United Methodist

Worship. Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing

House, 1989.



A list of the Epistles of the NT and their focus upon the congregation   not included in this article.

Sixteen of the 22 NT Epistles address the congregation first before dealing with   individuals. For example:

Romans God’s free   grace is not a license for sinning more that grace may abound more, but the   key to living a transformed life

I Corinthians   exhorts several symptoms of divisions and spiritual


II Corinthians   calls for congregational forgiveness of a repentant brother in Christ and   upholds Paul’s apostleship

Galatians rebukes   legalism also known as loveless holiness.

Ephesians focuses   on the unity of the Church between Jews and Gentiles in Christ and the   church’s high calling.

Philippians   rebukes pride by focusing on Jesus’ humility.

Colossians   emphasizes Christ as the head of the church and warns against trusting in   worldly wisdom.

I Thessalonians   exhorts a very young church to personal & social holiness, brotherly   love, and being industrious in light of Jesus’ promised Second Coming.

II Thessalonians   comforts those alarmed by misinterpreting parts of the first letter and   rebukes those who are lazy, busybodies or stubbornly disobedient.

Hebrews calls   Jewish Christians back to the central focus of Jesus Christ instead of   Judaism or attaching too much importance to ceremonial observations.

James calls for   good works, particularly taming the tongue and not showing favoritism to the   rich and not mere profession of Christian faith.

I Peter   encourages Christians throughout Asia Minor to victory over suffering as   exemplified in Jesus’ life.

II Peter warns   against false teachings and rebukes scoffers of Jesus’ promised Second   Coming.

I John calls for   holy living, love among Christians; warns against false teaching and assures   them of eternal life.

Jude warns the   church against immoral teachers and alarming heresies that endangered the   faith of believers.

Although I &   II Timothy, Titus as well as II & III John are written to individuals,   the emphasis is on some aspect of congregational leadership and life.

In the book of   Revelation, Jesus called 5 of the 7 churches to repentance? Read chapter   3:19-22