What Makes Us “Great”
by Nathan Brown
There are times in the lives of most organizations, and their leaders, when they are expected to report on their achievements for the past period of time. It might be an annual report or—in the case of our various church sessions and meetings this year—reflections on the highlights of the past quinquennium.
There is much that is good and worthwhile in these processes. But there are also temptations as to how we report, measure, and assess the progress of the church. The first response is probably to report statistics of both membership and finances. But while important and valuable to an extent, these are not definitive, or necessarily biblical, measures of the church’s success.
Then we might be tempted to highlight bold initiatives, growth of institutions, even buildings and other church projects. “But,” as the prophet Jeremiah warned King Jehoiakim, “a beautiful cedar palace does not make a great king!” (Jer. 22:15 ). As important, valuable, and even useful as the membership numbers, money, events, institutions, and infrastructure of the church might be, they do not inevitably make a great church, or a great leader.
Instead, Jeremiah pointed to the example of a king who demonstrated a practical kind of faithfulness: “‘Your father, Josiah, . . . was just and right in all his dealings. That is why God blessed him. He gave justice and help to the poor and needy, and everything went well for him. Isn’t that what it means to know me?’ says the Lord” (Jer. 22:15, 16).
This is a remarkable statement in that it equates knowledge of God with giving “justice and help to the poor and needy.” It is not that one leads to the other, whichever way we might argue that, but that they are the same thing. Commenting on these verses, Abraham Joshua Heschel emphasized how knowledge of God is intimately linked to thinking and acting in accord with God: “Knowledge of God is action toward man, sharing His concern for justice; sympathy in action” (The Prophets).
But Jeremiah’s description of Josiah adds another important aspect to our understanding of the Bible’s call to do justice, describing him as “just and right.” The most common words used in the Bible for these ideas in both Hebrew and Greek can be translated alternatively righteousness or justice, as two aspects of the same concept. The faithful goodness or right living God seeks from His people includes both righteousness—personal and corporate holiness—and justice, working for the good of others, particularly those most in need, most oppressed, most marginalized, most exploited.
Most older Bible translations use the word “righteousness” in contexts in which the original language could equally be translated as “justice,” as some newer translations do. A good example of this comes in the fourth of the Beatitudes: “God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice [righteousness], for they will be satisfied” (Matt. 5:6).
But in other well-known Bible verses these twin ideas are made more explicit: “Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress [doing justice] and refusing to let the world corrupt you [living righteously]” (James 1:27, see also Matt. 23:23).
So what makes a church, and its leaders, great by the Bible’s measure? It might not be so much of what makes up our usual annual, triennial or quinquennial reports. And certainly the glossy, slick reports themselves “do not make a great king!” The prophets both urge and demonstrate that faithfulness is always more important than success, and that faithfulness in knowing God will look a lot more like servanthood (see Matt. 20:25–27), even when no-one is watching or reporting (see Matt. 6:1-4). Our recognition of the justice core of the call of God will draw us toward seeing our greatest “achievements” in the lives of people and communities outside our usual reporting processes and measures.
Jesus Himself instructed us collectively to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness [justice], and all these things will be added to you” (Matt. 6:33, ESV ), even our membership growth, financial resources, initiatives, institutions, and infrastructure, particularly as they are used to do justice in the world around us.
Nathan Brown is book editor at Signs Publishing Company in Warburton, Victoria, Australia.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Bible quotations are from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ©1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked ESV are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.