Healthy: A Flexible Word
When it comes to our bodies, the definition of “healthy” is often a moving target that changes with each person you ask because people use different standards and reference points when comparing a given body to an imaginary “ideal” body. Does healthy mean there are no aches or pains right now or does it also include having none of the chronic disorders such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and elevated inflammation markers (with all of their ranges of progression)? Is a person with two previous heart attacks and slightly reduced heart function, but who feels great, has a sharp mind, and still has the ability to be “active” (another word that’s tough to pin down) considered healthy even though he is now at higher risk of future heart issues? What about age? Is an 85 year old who is able to keep up with the young guns who are just now turning 60 deemed healthy, even though his strength is no where close to the average 25 year old?
A growing approach to assessing health is to also consider the “whole person” rather than just the surface point of symptoms. Modern science is growing in understanding how the body’s incredibly complex organ systems, with each of their hierarchy of functions from the organs down through the tissues, cells, proteins, DNA, and necessary nutrients, impact and are affected by the other organ systems and their constituent parts. I.e., the digestive system sends signals through the nervous system that affect the blood supply via the cardiovascular symptom that intricately maneuver the muscular system in its proper functioning to digest food. And the effects are not all local to what we might consider its “primary” purpose. Eating a meal and the functions needed for it affect the brain, heart rate, respiratory rate, hormonal regulation, kidneys, etc.
Every function of the body, each with its own complex inter-workings, communicates with other parts so as to maintain homeostasis, which is the proper and effective functions and composition of the body. And when just one part is not functioning effectively, its effects can cause a chain of dysfunctional events that may or may not be apparent to the individual. The complexity I’ve briefly described has not even included the vast interconnections between the “hardware” of organ systems and the emotional status of the individual.
At the risk of pushing a biblical analogy further than its intended purpose, I believe the common image of God’s New Covenant people as the Body, of which Christ is the Head (Eph. 2:22,23; 3:11-16), itself made up of unique, yet unified, parts (Rom. 12:4,5) is such a good illustration for assessing our spiritual health both as a single unit and as individual members. What better way to illustrate the unity, maturity, unique tasks, mutual effects, and common purposes of the Church than to compare it to the chief object of creation, that which was made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). But qualified as being not under the headship of Adam, but of Christ, who himself is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1:15-20). He is the model of submission and yet effectively exercises God-given dominion over all things (Ps. 8), even death.
Jesus: A “Healthy Template” for the Church
Here we can have our standard, our reference point for what can be deemed “healthy.”
And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love. Ephesians 4:11-16
Here we have a standard for what it looks like for the Church to be healthy. A healthy mature Church looks like Christ in every way. The unity of faith and the unity of the knowledge of the Son of God is a picture of maturity and stature. A healthy thinking, healthy functioning Body does not chase the trends of human societies, is not swayed by arguments based on faulty human reasoning, or deceived by outright lies. Rather the mature Church boldly reflects the love and will of God into the world as we imitate God himself (Eph. 5:1,2). Much of Ephesians is a detailed description of what that looks like. Where God created man in His own image and subsequently gives him dominion to be the agents of God’s authority over the lower creation, the Church lives it out by ruling our bodies and properties in a God-glorifying way and serving and loving one another.
It is not 100% accurate to say that the Church ought to restore the 1st century church (is it desirable to imitate 1st century Corinth?). Rather, our goal is to restore it to the model of health and maturity revealed to us by Christ himself and the Spirit of God through the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:19-22).
Healthy From Every Angle
Consider the complexity of the human body once more. The body cannot be said to be restored to full health if all of the organ systems are sound but the vascular system is hardened. In fact, atherosclerosis will prevent the other organ systems themselves from remaining healthy. The body is not healthy if muscles are strong but the digestive tract is swollen and inflamed. In fact, decreased nutrient intake will eventually weaken the muscles. The church is not restored to Biblical health if beliefs about judgment and eternity are Scriptural but they neglect the poor and oppressed. In fact, Biblical hope and anticipation for the age to come shapes our motivation to implement the effects of God’s current reign in the “now time” (Matt. 25:31-46). A church who strives for the true and authorized ways to offer worship to God on a weekly basis but neglects opportunities to express brotherly love to one another will have not restored the characteristic of God’s church being a family. In fact, worship in an environment that is void of mutual love for one another will quickly deteriorate away from being worship done in spirit and in truth.
Just as restoring the health of the church must address the “whole person” and not neglect different “organ systems” (as if they can so easily be pulled apart from one another without destroying the person), a healthy body also relies on healthy organs within it. A person is not healthy if the liver hardened. Cirrhosis of the liver will in fact destroy the other organs and their functions. A person is not healthy if the thyroid is unregulated. In fact, a dysfunctional thyroid can destroy the bones, metabolism, hair growth, temperature regulation, and memory of a person.
The church is not restored to full health if its people thrive in benevolence, offers scripturally consistent worship, shares the gospel with many but whose members are giving up fights against addiction, are being swayed by the mindsets and powers of the world, scratching whatever itch comes around, or silently drifting off unnoticed. This aspect of the restoration ought to remind us that there should never be a feeling of “We have arrived.” A healthy church is evangelistic, bringing in younger generations, and growing in Biblical wisdom and knowledge at every level. All of these present opportunities for growth and maturity at every moment in time.
A Healthy Church is Full of Healthy Christians
If the church is to be restored to health, we must commit ourselves to being restored to health as individuals, which will include healthy attitudes and behaviors towards one another corporately (Rom. 12:3). Having spiritual health as individuals will result in looking different than the world. A collection of individuals that are different than the world will be a nation that looks different than the nations of the world. Ephesians 3 goes on to say in verse 22 that we are to “lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.” Healthy is good. Healthy is effective. We have a picture of what healthy looks like, but it is a conscious effort.