The Shema and Church Health

Bryan CribbBryan Cribb

Exercising with Dumbbells

In America, the “forever young” industry is thriving. Surgical procedures, Botox, hormones, vitamins, exercise facilities, health food stores, natural supplements—all are used in a “Ponce de Leon”-like quest to find an antiaging magic bullet.

Nothing is necessarily wrong with desiring good health. But are we just as passionate about church health?

What if Christians put the same amount of effort into keeping churches healthy as we do our bodies? How do we even maintain a healthy church?

Popular Christian culture says the answer is obvious: build bigger buildings, grow bigger budgets, pack bigger numbers of behinds in the pews. But in all those B’s, the one “B”-word you don’t see is “biblical.”

One oft-ignored biblical book may provide a better answer to church health—the book of Deuteronomy. Why Deuteronomy? Isn’t it just some boring book of laws? After all, doesn’t the name mean “Second Law”? I mean, who wants to study that?

But Deuteronomy actually has a lot to say about maintaining healthy churches—new covenant bodies of Christ. Remember that Deuteronomy was Moses’s last chance to influence the Israelites before they entered the Promised Land without him, and so it is filled with practical and passionate preaching on how to sustain a holy and healthy covenant community in the face of the perils of a pagan Canaanite culture.

The heart of Moses’s zealous message is found in one text—Deuteronomy 6:4. You could argue that this text is the heart of the entire OT.

This text is known as the Shema. The title comes from the first word in the Hebrew text, shema, meaning “hear.” Today, the Shema is the centerpiece of Jewish daily worship, and it is still recited every morning and evening by Orthodox Jews.

Here, you find the motivation for the rest of Deuteronomy and indeed all of the covenant. It is the sum of the relationship between God and his people. Simply stated, the Shema expresses loyalty.

Traditionally the Shema has been considered an affirmation of monotheism—the belief in one God. In this way, it is translated, “Listen, Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Although monotheism was no doubt a belief of Moses and many Israelites, I don’t think “oneness” is the main focus here. On this count, I’m indebted to my mentor Daniel Block, who argues that the traditional translation (based on the ancient Greek translation of the OT, the Septuagint)—“The Lord our God, the Lord is one”—is better translated in context as “Yahweh is our God, Yahweh alone.”

The Israelites were not questioning, how many is God? Instead, Moses wanted to ensure and encourage the Israelites’ commitment and exclusive allegiance to God alone. By reciting the Shema, the Israelites were declaring their complete, undivided, and unqualified devotion to Yahweh.

Yes, Moses wanted the people to have proper theology. But he was more concerned that they have practical theology. As a husband, I’m sure my wife wants me to acknowledge her intellectually and verbally as the only true “wife of Cribb”; but I think she is more concerned that I show her exclusive loyalty and treat her as that one true wife.

So here is the Israelites’ confession. But it was also their rallying cry as they entered the Promised Land. Think of the great rallying cries in history. Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death!” Mel Gibson’s cry of “Freedom!” in Braveheart. Inigo Montoya’s cry in the The Princess Bride, “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

Like these, the Shema united the Israelites, gave them purpose, gave them focus, gave them motivation. Indeed, it gave them the foundation of their covenant community.

What about Christians today? What is our common confession? What gives us purpose, focus, and a foundation?

We can ask the apostle Paul. In 1 Corinthians 8:5–6, Paul adapts the Shema in arguing against the existence of idols. Paul states, “For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth—as there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’—yet for us there is one God, the Father. All things are from him, and we exist for him. And there is one Lord, Jesus Christ. All things are through him, and we exist through him.” Paul clearly identifies Jesus as Yahweh, the one and only God to whom true Israelites (today, the church) declare allegiance.

In other words, the confession of every Christian, the confession of the new covenant church, the rallying cry, must be simply, profoundly, and foundationally, “Jesus is Lord.” This is the key to healthy churches as covenant communities today.

When people come to my church, my prayer is that people don’t go home thinking something like, “Man, they have a great building,” or “They have a great preacher.” I want them to say, “That is a church that exalts Jesus as Lord and lives it out.”

If you get “Jesus is Lord” right, everything else falls into place—including the good health of your church.

This article is excerpted from the forthcoming book by Dr. Cribb and Dr. Channing Crisler, The Bible ToolBox, to be released by Broadman and Holman in August 2019.