I am grateful to the Lord to be the father of five children. Being the father of five by no means makes me a parental expert, but it does mean I’ve had some repeat experiences with each child. One of those experiences is taking your newborn to the pediatrician for their first appointment. The nurse measures, weighs, and may even do a bilirubin test on the little one. And then the doctor gives you the results. As a father, what I was always most interested in with these exams is, “Is my child healthy?” The doctors, you see, have a standard, and by this standard, they are able to give you a pretty good idea of whether or not your precious baby is on a healthy track.
As Christians, we have a standard too. We have the Word of the living God. The Bible is a sufficient plumb line for measuring the health of an individual Christian, individual local church, or even a group of churches choosing to cooperate together like we have in the Southern Baptist Convention.
Much has been written over the last few years about areas of drift in our convention. I am among those who’ve written about matters of concern. But this is not what I want to do in today’s post. My goal is to give you a standard for what a solid, healthy convention looks like, not based on history or experience, but on the Scriptures. I do not mean to suggest history and experience have no place. Of course, they do! But the goal of today’s post is to give you God’s standard for what constitutes a strong group of churches. In doing this, I urge you to consider our convention’s state for yourself and pray for any area that we are weak in based on this evaluation.
I am sure other verses could be used for such a test, but the passage I want to examine is found in Ephesians 4:7-16. I have a couple of disclaimers before we begin. First, I cannot get into verses 7-12 in this post as that could take a whole book to get through! Secondly, I understand that Paul is writing to a specific local church here. However, the same principles that apply to one local church necessarily apply to a group of local churches.
With that being said, and understanding this is not a full exposition, let’s dive in. Our focus is primarily upon verses 13-16. What does a strong convention of churches look like? Here are seven signs:
- Genuine Unity
“until we all attain to the unity of the faith…” (v.13)
As local churches focus on Bible-centered, prayer-saturated, local church loving, Christ exalting ministry (cf. v.11-12), they are brought into greater unity. This unity is not centered on secular ideas, skin color, or social issues. Instead, this is genuine unity created by the Holy Spirit of God (cf. Eph. 4:3) as He continually grows us together by faith in Christ.
Because of Christ’s sovereign and gracious gifting each local church may have certain areas of ministry they thrive at better than others. But the diversity of gifting comes together in a convention only to strengthen cooperation together in unity for the same mission: Seeing Christ exalted over the nations.
Churches rooted in the Scriptures, bowing to their authority and trusting their sufficiency, and focused on the glory of Christ have genuine unity even if they may disagree on certain peripheral issues. Not every church in a strong convention will look exactly the same. But each one will have full dependence on the gospel as the hope of the nations and seek to have the Bible as their final standard on all matters of the faith, including soteriology, anthropology, ecclesiology, and so on.
- Doctrinal Fidelity
“and knowledge of the Son of God…” (v.13)
Knowledge of the Son of God is certainly necessary for any person to be a Christian. Yet, it is also true that a strong Christian, church, or group of churches is continually growing and standing firm in the knowledge of the Son of God.
A healthy convention is one that is faithful to sound doctrine. It possesses confessional integrity. And this doctrinal fidelity leads to greater unity! Curtis Vaughn writes,
“Unity” is to be taken with both “faith” and “knowledge,” and the latter two words are both modified by “of the Son of God.” What Paul contemplates is a oneness of faith in, and a oneness of knowledge concerning, the Son of God…The word “faith” is to be taken in the sense of trust and confidence. The Greek word for “knowledge” is a particularly strong one, denoting full, accurate, and true knowledge.
A strong convention is one strong in the doctrine of the Son of God and all of the implications for His local churches that flow out of His life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and coming return.
- Increasing Maturity
“…to mature manhood…” (v.13)
A strong convention is a mature convention full of mature and maturing local churches and Christians. This doesn’t mean there is no room for those who need to grow because we all need to grow!
It does certainly mean, however, that the leadership of such a convention consists of those mature in the faith. The metaphor Paul uses here is one of “manhood.” True, the church is often referred to as the “Bride” of Christ. But here, there is another image: one of a strong, healthy adult man unwavering in his convictions and resolution in his commitments to Christ.
Churches in a strong convention seek to spur one another on into greater maturity in the faith, holding one another accountable to the Scriptures and the convention’s stated confession. A mature convention is not afraid and even compelled to separate from churches that repeatedly and persistently show a lack of concern for God’s Word or growing in Christ.
- Christ Conformity
“to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,” (v.13)
This is how we know maturity is never finished. Because our goal for maturity is the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. Complete conformity to Christ is something not fully and finally realized until glory. Yet, a healthy Christian, church, or convention constantly strives toward sincere holiness of life.
Being full of Christ means loving all He loves and hating what He hates. It means, like Jesus, we are concerned first and foremost about the glory of God. It means having the powers of our discernment trained in differentiating between good and evil. It means loving the Word of God, biblical worship, the local church, and the lost. It means bearing the fruit of the Spirit and understanding the moments that call for humble compassion and those that call for a strong rebuke.
In sum, a strong convention is a holy convention seeking to follow Christ in all areas.
- Steadfast Immobility
“so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (v.14)
A healthy convention of churches is one that shall not be moved. It is not a ship drifting too far from the shore or a crumbling leaf blown around by an autumn wind.
The contrast here in this passage is between a grown man and a small child. A child can be easily tricked, but not a mature man. Thus, a strong convention is on guard against the godless ideologies and worldly philosophies constantly seeking to infiltrate the church.
A healthy group of churches understands that the Evil One is perpetually seeking to destroy the work of Christ on earth. It understands that today’s liberal tendencies might not look exactly like yesterday’s because Satan is crafty and will adapt his tactics custom-made for every epoch of history. Therefore, a strong convention will stand resolutely upon God’s Word and warn and even rebuke churches or leaders who are not showing appropriate care when it comes to guarding against deceitful schemes.
- Loving Honesty
“Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (v.15)
A strong convention speaks the truth in love. That is, churches do not speak deceitful schemes or faulty doctrine. Rather, they speak, preach, teach, and live out the truth of the Scriptures. The only way to “grow up” is through the Word of God. Therefore, a healthy convention of churches loves to speak the truth to one another and to a lost and dying world. It holds the inerrant, infallible Bible as its highest authority and it trusts the Bible to teach it on all matters of the faith and to speak a sufficient word to every generation.
Often, this speaking the truth encourages and edifies the churches. But at times, the truth will convict, challenge, and rebuke people. Consider the opening illustration of taking your newborn to the doctor. If something was wrong, you would want to know, right? It would not be loving of the doctor to lie to you. So, a healthy convention of churches speaks even difficult truths to one another. Yet, all of this is done in love. In the words of R.C. Sproul, “we call attention to the truth in an extraordinarily compassionate and tender and loving spirit.”
And finally, when speaking the truth to the unregenerate, a healthy convention does not seek to minimize God’s Word. Instead, it calls upon all to repent of every sin and come to Christ in faith, finding Him as the only suitable and all-sufficient Savior for all mankind.
- Godward Affinity
“from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” (v.16)
A strong convention of churches builds itself up in love. Though its churches may be in different geographical locations, have diverse demographics, and possess a variety of gifts, there is a genuine love for God and one another that binds the convention together.
A love for the triune God and bringing Him glory in all things means that a strong convention is concerned about honoring God in all things, from worship to evangelism, to everyday life, to convention practices. Loving God means that a convention of churches seeks to please one another by first and foremost pleasing God. A strong convention understands that we love one another best when we love God most. And it is through this that a convention will be continually built up in love.
This is not an exhaustive list, of course. But it reminds us that God would not have any convention of churches to be childish. A strong convention must be growing in the Lord, aspiring to mature manhood. A childish convention would have symptoms that are the opposite of the signs of health above, like Superficial Unity, Confessional Infidelity, Acceptable Immaturity, Worldly Conformity, Drifting Carelessly, Hating Honesty, and Cultural Affinity.
God has given us a standard, brothers and sisters. It is by His own Bible that we are to assess our spiritual health. May we not compare ourselves to contemporaries or generations past. We must look into the mirror of the Word of God. Take some time today to consider your own walk with the Lord, the state of the local church you are a member of, and the Southern Baptist Convention. Pray for our health. Pray that the Lord would be pleased to bring about the recovery of the gospel and the reformation of churches in our convention.