Scripture places great emphasis on the need for soundness. It urges us to promote “sound doctrine” (1 Tim. 1.10), “sound words” (2 Tim. 1.13), a “sound faith” (Tit. 1.13), etc.
“Sound” translates the Greek term, hugiaino (‘hygiene’). In a literal sense, it denotes: “to be healthy” (Mounce, 671), “in good health” (Vincent, 208), “whole” (Vine, 589). Metaphorically, it has to do with being “free from any admixture of error” (Thayer, 634).
As we have observed in several previous articles, the church of Christ is the Lord’s metaphorical “body” (cf. Eph. 1, 4, 5; 1 Cor. 12). As such, it too must be healthy — sound; free of defect.
But what precisely constitutes a sound church? How can we tell whether a church is truly healthy?
Many apply the wrong criteria to determine a church’s soundness. Consider a few of these:
Merely owning an elaborate building has nothing to do with a church’s soundness. The first church of Christ, meeting in Jerusalem, did not even own a building at all, for it borrowed the temple precincts for its assemblies (Acts 2.46). Never do the scriptures make the meeting-place a criteria for soundness.
Having a prestigious membership is not a factor either. Some are particularly drawn to congregations in which well-known, socially or financially well-connected people have placed membership. The prospect of hobnobbing with such distinguished and influential people can be irresistible to some.
Yet, in the soundest congregations in the New Testament, the vast majority of members were poor and unknown (cf. Acts 2.44-45; 4.32-37; 2 Cor. 8.1-2, 8-9). Even in the wealthy and prestigious city of Corinth, there were “not many” who were of the higher social classes (1 Cor. 1.26-29). And though this implies that there were some in the congregation of this caliber, the congregation itself was far from healthy (1 Cor. 3.1ff).
The Laodicean church of Christ also boasted of both wealth and status, but that congregation was nauseatingly ill (Rev. 3.15-17). Hence, earthly prestige is not a prerequisite to soundness.
A well-known preacher is also a non-factor in determining soundness. The preachers of the Jerusalem church of Christ were both unknown and uneducated (Acts 2.5, 7, 13), as were most evangelists in the first century church. Yet, their efforts in expounding the most holy faith to the brethren contributed greatly to the soundness of their respective congregations (cf. Acts 2.40-47).
What’s more, a sound church is not necessarily one with a famous name. The church in Sardis had “a name that [they were] alive, but [they were] dead” (Rev. 3.1). And though a congregation’s reputation is important, its soundness is not contingent upon its good name.
Finally, a sound church is not necessarily one which promotes true doctrine. Consider the church at Ephesus. The apostle Paul had labored with the church for years (Acts 20.20, 26-27, 31). Furthermore, they had received additional, protracted instruction from Timothy (1 Tim. 1.3), an equally faithful preacher of the gospel (cf. 1 Tim. 1.2). In turn, they had become exceedingly deft at spotting false teachers, and of knowing what doctrine truly comes from God (Rev. 2.1-3, 6). Still, they were an unsound church (Rev. 2.4-5).
Divine Criteria For Soundness
To be truly healthy, every human body needs:
(1) to consume wholesome nutrition (uncontaminated food and water);
(2) to breathe in a nourishing environment (with pure air quality);
(3) to exercise or exert energy;
(4) and, when disease infiltrates the system, to rid itself of the infection.
It is no less true of the Lord’s church.
First, to be sound, the Lord’s church must consume the right food and water. Jesus blessed those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (Mt. 5.6). Peter implored us to “desire the sincere milk of the word” (1 Pt. 2.2). The author of, Hebrews, further pleaded for us to consume “solid food,” in addition to the milkier parts of sacred instruction (cf. Heb. 5.11-14).
Hence, the “doctrine,” “words,” and “faith” which we accept and promote must be identical to the instructions of the Bible (cf. Gal. 1.6-9; 2 Tim. 3.16-17). Only those congregations which embrace entirely the inspired authors’ teachings can truly be deemed, “sound,” by the Lord (cf. 1 Jn. 4.1-6).
Second, the Lord’s church must have a wholesome environment of loving fellowship. A congregation which treats each other with love and respect is in far healthier condition than one full of back-biters and brother-haters (cf. 1 Jn. 4.7-8; Gal. 5.15). A congregation that is excited to leave the wicked environment of the world (Eph. 5.11; 1 Cor. 15.33) and breathe in the higher climes of Christian fellowship is constantly rejuvenated in their devotion, for deriving enjoyment from the company of like-minded saints is the spiritual equivalent of fanning the bon-fire flames (Heb. 10.24-25; Rm. 14.19).
Conversely, when individuals feel that meeting with certain disciples will inevitably lead to a quarrel, a personality-clash, or some level of grief, excitement for being a servant of God will wane, and the church will suffer to bout.
To be sound, then, the church must breathe the right kind of “air”: love, kindness, joy, brotherliness, etc. Otherwise, knowing the truth (consuming the right food and water) will not matter one wit (1 Cor. 13.1-3).
Third, the Lord’s church must exercise its faith. In other words, it must be a church that works.
Good sense is useful only if it is “exercised” (Heb. 5.14). Paul instructed Timothy:
“But reject profane and old wives’ fables, and exercise yourself toward godliness. For bodily exercise profits a few things, but godliness if profitable for all things” (1 Tim. 4.7-8).
Accordingly, a working church is one that:
(1) Goes and teaches the gospel (Acts 8.4; 2 Cor. 4.13).
(2) Gives to the Lord (1 Cor. 16.2) and to those in need (Gal. 6.10).
(3) Greets others with friendliness (3 Jn. 14).
(4) Is godly in all its conduct, public and private (Tit. 2.1-15; 1 Tim. 1.10).
(5) Is gladdened by the hope inside them (Acts 2.46-47).
(6) Gathers together frequently (Heb. 10.25).
(7) Is governed well by men who profess allegiance to God and his inspired word; to the church and its divine blueprints; to living holy lives, setting a godly example; who are accountable for their choices and accept that responsibility; and who cherish the pulpit, despising the hucksters and joke-mongers who make a mockery of the most holy faith (cf. Gal. 6.1-2; 1 Pt. 5.1-4; 2 Pt. 2.2; 2 Cor. 2.17; etc.).
Finally, when error creeps into the church, a sound church is one that is willing and able to remove the blight from its midst.
Disciplinary measures must be pursued to save the sinner from his error; or, if he is unwilling to repent, to save the church from his negative influence (cf. 1 Cor. 5.1-8). Those congregations which refuse to confront and warn the openly defiant sinners in their midst are letting cancers spread like a wild-fire — “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” (1 Cor. 5.6; cf. 2 Tim. 2.16-18).
Only by fighting the vessels of error with the spiritual “sword” (Eph. 6.17) — the word of God — can the Lord’s body be truly sound.
Each of these components must be present in the church for it to be sound. Otherwise, it will be incomplete — spiritually unwell.
What about your church? Has it embraced the meaning of the church, as defined by scripture? Was it created by God as the fulfillment of his eternal plan, or is it a mere after-thought? Does it bear the identifying marks of being the Lord’s church, or does it appear to be of human derivation? Does it teach that its existence is essential to human salvation, or that you do not have to be a member of it to be saved? Is it receiving all that it needs from its members? Is it being hindered by men of corrupt minds? Is it, in sum, a sound church?
Certainly, not every church will be totally free of problems. But the New Testament shows us that establishing a sound church is possible, even though it consists of error-prone human beings.
Let us, therefore, make every effort to ensure that his church does not have “spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5.27) — in short, that she might be “in good health.”
This is a series of articles, with the following parts:
The Lord's Church (7): Its Soundness
Mounce, William D. Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006. Thayer, J.H. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. New York: American Book Company, 1889. Vincent, Marvin R. Word Studies in the New Testament: Volume 4. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1973. Vine, W.E. Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1985.