Philip Yancey’s Three Marks of a “Healthy” Church: Way Off the Mark

Pop Christian author Philip Yancey, in a post in Christianity Today,  says that he could usually sense the “aliveness” of a congregation within five minutes by observing some of the things that go on in a church: “Were people conversing in the foyer? Did I hear the sound of laughter? What activities and issues did the bulletin board highlight?”

He lists three qualities to look for to find an “alive” and “healthy” church:

  1. Diversity: “When I walk into a new church, the more its members resemble each other—and resemble me—the more uncomfortable I feel.”
  2. Unity: “Perhaps a whiff of the fragrance of unity is what I detect when I visit a new church and sense its ‘aliveness.'”
  3. Mission: “Saddest of all are those churches whose vision does not extend beyond their own facilities and parking lots.”

He then disappointedly concludes that there is no perfect church, and the church is but “God’s own bold experiment: to allow ordinary people like us to embody his presence on earth” (emphasis added). In experiment after experiment since he created Adam, God has failed!

A church buzzing with all kinds of programs – healthy and alive? Yes, possibly. But is it a true church? No, not by that criteria alone. Even liberal, apostate churches that have unity in diversity and socially active meet his criteria.

In contrast to Yancey’s three qualities of a “healthy” church, the 16th century Protestant Reformers set the Bible’s standard for the “three marks of a true church”:

The true church is to be recognized by the following marks: It practises the pure preaching of the gospel (Gal 1:8; 1 Tim 3:15). It maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them (Acts 19:3-5; 1 Cor 11:20-29). It exercises church discipline for correcting and punishing sins (Mt 18:15-17; 1 Cor 5:4, 5, 13; 2 Thess 3:6, 14; Tit 3:10). In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God (Jn 8:47; Jn 17:20; Acts 17:11; Eph 2:20; Col 1:23; 1 Tim 6:3), rejecting all things contrary to it (1 Thess 5:21; 1 Tim 6:20; Rev 2:6), and regarding Jesus Christ as the only Head (Jn 10:14; Eph 5:23; Col 1:18). – 1561 Belgic Confession of Faith Article 29 Paragraph 2.

Gospel, sacraments, church discipline – the three marks of a true church. Read Acts 2:42. Also, a very useful article, “Finding a Church,” by Dr. Michael Horton.


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3 thoughts on “Philip Yancey’s Three Marks of a “Healthy” Church: Way Off the Mark”

  1. could it be that he isn’t even considering the place a “church” without the preaching of the Gospel? because the Biblical definition obviously doesn’t allow for a place devoid of the Gospel to be considered a church.

    if you start from that definition of a church, what he says is not wrong, heretical (as has been implied), or misleading.

    Revelation 2 and 3 give examples of churches that were intensely unhealthy and even “dead”. So the idea of what makes a legitimate church healthy or unhealthy is a valid issue.  it’s foolish to imply that yancey is a wold in sheeps clothing (which is the tone of the piece) when his method for his entire career has been to ask questions that people normally aren’t asking and through the course of his manuscripts, or articles, come to conclusions regarding those questions. 

    be careful that you don’t dedicate yourself to being stale in your orthodoxy.  GK Chesterton said that there is nothing more exciting or perilous than orthodoxy.  the cross is a multi-faceted jewel that should be meditated on, read about, and looked at from every angle possible so that we might find ourselves daily enraptured by the sacrifice of our Lord, humbled by His mercy, and changed by His love.

  2. i bought a NIV Student’s Study Bible with Philip Yancey as its contributing editor as a Christmas gift to myself. i even read some of his book then, but i did not know that he thinks like this now.

    i hope he doesnt fool people like me anymore.

    anyway mr. yancey, there will be judgment day for all of us.
    God be merciful to us.

  3. First Presbyterian Church, Redding, CA

    AMEN, and Amen, let the church always keep the main thing (the Lordship of Jesus Christ) the main thing!

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