The Torah Can Guide Your Search for a Healthy Church
‘This feels like when my parents announced they were getting divorced after I graduated high school. I wondered how much of my life had been built on a lie.” My friend’s statement made me stop mid-step. We were talking about church. Specifically, our frustration with the American white evangelical Church (WEC) in the last 18 months.
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My friend was right. Watching the church abdicate her mandate to love God and love others felt like my parents were breaking up. As far back as I could remember, my local church had been the representative bride of Jesus; she was one who cooked the meals and hosted the parties. She set rules to keep good boundaries and help people stay safe. She was nice, if a little uptight.
But over the last 6 years I have barely recognized her. The reckoning started with #churchtoo and new revelations of abuse in the church, picked up speed with blind political partnerships, roared in a deadly pandemic, and was a full-on disaster in the face of George Floyd’s murder in our home state of Minnesota. My friend and I watched the WEC put up a desperate fight to maintain the status quo, instinctively bending to protect herself. She was afraid of losing her culture, her community, her rhythms, and (God forgive us) her giving units.
Especially as many young people continue leaving or taking a time out from church, with countless deconstructing their faith, we might return to the age-old question: What is the purpose of the church? Why should we keep attending, and why should we contribute to a system that is undermining the One it claims to represent?
Understanding the Church in Light of Ancient Israel
The Bible’s picture of the early church is not encouraging. The church was a hot mess back in 33 AD. It was a hodgepodge of converted Jews and new believers who were formerly Greek-goddess fans. Toss them together with their extremely different cultural values, sprinkle in a Holy Spirit, put them in an itty-bitty house, and voilá—that’s the church.
Some things in the first century were the same as they are today: squabbles and complaints about the way that guy treated that girl; customs violated and feelings hurt; shared meals, care for each other, hymns, prayer; beautiful miracles and sleeping through sermons.
In my exploration for what the church is supposed to look like, I found that the new covenant builds on the principles God established with ancient Israel. And thankfully, those principles can guide us in our search for a local gathering of believers.
In 1 Peter 2:4–10, using a firehose of old covenant references, Peter taught the infant church about their community mandate by reminding them of the temple system many knew well. Peter interpreted the Old Testament like the pro he was, making references to the temple building, the sacrificial system, and the identity God placed on Israel in Exodus.
This entire section in 1 Peter, this call to remember, wasn’t written so the church could pivot to something new, but so they would build on the old. Peter appealed to the underlying values of old covenant YHWH worship. The same principles that underpin the nation of Israel’s worship are the principles that form the foundation for worship in the new covenant. God had not changed. Peter is helping his readers see that the same mission God gave to Israel still applies; it just looks different.
Peter began with a picture of the community approaching the Lord. The image of Jesus as the “Living Stone” draws on the Psalms of Ascent or the gatherings of people for a feast as they walked together towards the temple (Isaiah 28:16, 8:14; Psalm 118:22). It’s appropriate, because in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) the Lord was present at the temple.
But then Peter makes a radical leap (one Paul makes too, in Ephesians 2:19–22): “You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house” (1 Peter 2:5a). In the original language, this “you” would be read as “ya’ll.” The stones are living, and the stones are the people of the church. Just as the temple held the presence of God, the people of God house the Spirit.
Further developing the image of the temple, Peter references the priesthood and the sacrificial system. The people who approach Christ are to be a holy priesthood. A main job of priests (2 Chronicles 17:7–9, Ezra 7:10, Nehemiah 8:1–9) was to know the word of God, studying it daily. Reading and teaching Torah was to be a hallmark of their positions (Malachi 2:7). Additionally, they were to instruct the community about appropriate sacrifices offered to the Lord (Malachi 1:6–14).
Alongside the Levitical offerings such as animal and grain sacrifices are those offerings that have always been the foundation of worship: a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart (Psalm 51:16,17), acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly (Micah 6:6–8; Amos 5:21–25). These same principles were ever-present in Jesus’ ministry, teachings, and parables. Peter also emphasizes that these sacrifices are to be done through Jesus Christ, the great High Priest who still intercedes for us in the heavenly tabernacle (see also Hebrews 8:1–2). These sacrifices are all to be performed within a community, in our relationships and daily lives.
In the middle of the building instructions, Peter inserts teachings about a cornerstone, the stone that is a structural security for a building. These references from Isaiah and Psalm 118 are not happy cheery life-verse references. Israel had not heeded the warning to build according to God and his instructions, so God left. The church needed to make a better choice. Jesus (God) is the living Stone: build according to him, or risk tripping over him.
Then we get to the BUT. Pulling from Exodus and Hosea, Peter recalls the identity God bestowed on Israel before they were carried out of Egypt, out of darkness and into light. Israel was God’s special possession. Then Peter pulls from Hosea 1:9, straight up calling out how Israel walked away from God, abdicating that identity (for more about how Israel abandoned God, see Jeremiah 7:21–29). I imagine Hosea longed to see his people turn back to God and once again follow his principles. It was not to be. However, Hosea received a promise that one day Israel would again be called “sons of the living God” (Hosea 1:10). It’s a terse history lesson, reminiscent of the prodigal son: Israel was God’s special possession, Israel walked away, one day Israel will be back.
In a beautiful reflection, Peter reminds the church that they are living the fulfillment of Hosea 1:10. Peter tells the church of her calling with a heartfelt “But you!”
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9–10)
The same calling that was Israel’s since the days of Moses (Exodus 6:6–8, 19:3–6) now applies to anyone who approaches the living Stone. Peter places all believers in the broad scriptural narrative.
In Peter’s tight exegesis, you can find what the church is and what the church is supposed to do. Just as God did with Moses and the Israelites, he does with his church. God calls us out, gives us an identity, and then sends us out to tell others who he is. Yes, the nature of the relationship between man and God has changed under the new covenant, but Peter says that the church still functions as a royal priesthood, a holy nation. It’s different, but very much the same.
Biblical Guidelines for Finding a Church
Looking for a healthy church community like Peter instructs is tough. We’d like a checklist with five easy-to-spot specifics. Do they worship on Sunday? Check. Are they involved with at least three charities? Check. A list would make life easier. Peter doesn’t give a list; he points to principles. And principles don’t provide specifics. However, the lovely thing about principles is that they have no exclusive ties to denomination, country, culture, or style.
Church is meant to feel like a group of people, together, demonstrating the presence of a holy and loving God. When it happens, it is truly miraculous. I wonder if Peter recalled the group of twelve radically different disciples. Together in a room they would have much to disagree about, but together with Jesus? That is where the extraordinary happens. The church is unified by their resurrected Savior (a living Cornerstone), not by uniformity or shared politics. Peter says that a healthy church comprises individuals, living stones, individually and corporately housing the Holy Spirit.
The reputation of a church reveals much about their unifying values. What are they known for? Jesus says that the answer should be love (John 13:35). Is there marked similarity (ethnicity, income level, political persuasion, gender) in their leadership and membership? If so, that might be an indicator that the building is held together by a shared social value, not a shared biblical value.
As the individual living stones are all called to be priests, a healthy church offers many opportunities for their congregation to learn and study together. They value teachers and leaders with wisdom (Psalm 1; 19:7; 119) and are themselves life-long learners. A congregant’s or leader’s love of learning isn’t only seen in degrees. My brother with his PhD will tell you that the most biblically literate person he knew was our non-Bible-degreed grandmother. Seek out congregations with a principled understanding of the Bible that comes from living, learning, and loving the Old and New Testaments.
A church community may follow all the culturally acceptable ways to worship, praise, and offer sacraments, but it’s necessary to look deeper. The prophets pointed out that it’s possible to obey the requirements of the sacrificial system but still be unacceptable to God (Amos 5:21–24; Isaiah 1:12–17). As counterintuitive as it is, the character trait of joy (as evidence of the Holy Spirit’s presence) is a great metric for identifying a church that is saddened by sin, resolute in acting on behalf of others, and humbly aware of the gift of grace. This is the joy that comes from restored lives, who laugh with children and are deliberately generous in their attitudes toward one another. Joy is very difficult to fake and is directly at odds with pride. A church with a contagious laugh likely has developed the heart behind the sacrifices God desires.
Back to my original question: Why should we keep attending and contributing to a system that is undermining the One they claimed to represent?
I think the answer is: we don’t need to attend those churches. Of course no church is perfect, but Christians should learn to discern when their congregation is displaying a systemic pattern that undermines the biblical purpose for the church. They need to find and help shape a community of believers where they are actively meeting to love God, love people, and make disciples (Matthew 28:18–20). If there are holes in any of these parts of the boat, it’s time to rebuild or bail. Because that’s not a church. Whether they know it or not, that’s a community club driven by cultural values.
Maybe that feels a little harsh. I believe that Peter’s references to the cornerstone also felt harsh to the initial readers. The Jewish readers would have felt the severe warning, as if Isaiah were standing in the room. It is not a small thing to bear his name. A functioning church is built on the living cornerstone of Jesus. Their beliefs, judgments, and decisions need to be squared with God’s values and principles, or they will stumble.
Some churches are built on a foundation of Christ. He is the cornerstone supporting the entire building. And some churches are built without a foundation, but the walls are decorated with pictures of Christ. He seems to be the foundation but is simply a decoration carefully nailed to the walls. Both churches can look the same—until a strong wind blows. Or until God allows a reckoning.
I get it. Church is hard. People are even harder. I’ve watched people walk away from a church because of style choices or petty frustrations. Pastors who are leading with humility have tremendous pressures, watching their parishioners clamoring towards charismatic pastors, podcasts, and flashy programs. That’s not the broad stroke WEC I speak about.
I am talking about WEC that practices favoritism, teaches from popular culture, and refuses to help and protect the vulnerable or repudiate racism—these are the churches my neighbors see in the media and know by their fruit. These are the ones that make my friends look at me with guarded eyes, fearful that some of the power-fed defensiveness has entered my heart.
Peter doesn’t end on Isaiah’s warning, though. He ends on the fulfillment of God’s promise to Hosea. A promise to us, too.
We are the ones who have received mercy. We are God’s special possession. And this is our calling. As much as it might be nice for the introverts among us (my hand is raised) to do this alone with our Bibles and a cup of tea, it’s a solo and group activity. God chooses to do this in individuals and among groups for his glory. All the things we seek in a community are also things we should be cultivating in ourselves.
The church’s purpose flows from its identity in Christ. We aren’t making up praises to declare; we’re praising the one who saved us from the darkness. We do justice, mercy, and righteousness because we are built on the perfectly placed author of justice, mercy, and righteousness. As little temples with the Holy Spirit living in us, we move in our churches and our communities, and we have the privilege to enact the kingdom values displayed in both the Torah and Jesus.
My new prayer has become: Show me a church I can attend, one built on the living Stone and one that allows me to contribute.
My search for the kind of church I can attend is mid-process, still undeveloped, but starting to take shape. I can see outlines, dark shades, and light shades. I’m looking at a developing photograph, watching the negative space, wondering if something will appear. The principles, values, and purpose of the church are slowly appearing in the frame.
Recently, I’ve gotten my toes wet in a liturgical denomination with a priest who laughs and where children are welcome interruptions. Other times, I’ve felt the love of Jesus in an evangelical church when my family was in crisis. Both congregations have living stones that individually and corporately are firm in their identity as children of the living God. Together they exude unity, wisdom, and joy.
It’s out there. I’m betting it’s small, the preacher doesn’t major in charisma, and the carpet is worn. Or maybe it’s simply a group of believers who pray together on a Saturday afternoon. I’m not sure how particulars will look. My search in the Scriptures, though, has given me hope that God has made his people to grow together in community. And if God ordains it, I’d be crazy to walk away.
Just as God was with Israel, I believe he is long patient with the church. I also know God will not be mocked, and the church exposure in the last six years has been a part of his plan to provide an opportunity for repentance. The position as God’s representative is one we must hold with holy awe and responsibility.
Image created by Rubner Durais
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