When King David numbered his fighting men in a census, he was punished for committing a grievous sin (2 Samuel 24). Today we count and announce numbers relating to church membership, worship attendance, and offerings. Are we then committing the same sin in making numbers the measure of our growth and spirituality?
One of the principles of biblical interpretation is to distinguish between narratives and commands. Not everything that is required or forbidden in a narrative is universally applicable. We need to consider the immediate context as well as other parts of Scriptures where there are clear commands or prohibitions. Moses also took a census of the people (Numbers 1). What King David did was judged wrong, but what Moses did was not.
What makes the difference? The clue may be found in the response of Joab, the commander of the armies, when David ordered the census. Joab asked the king why he wanted to do such a thing. Presumably, David had fought and won all his battles, his kingdom had secured peace and no threat remained. The reason why David wanted to know the size of his armies could be to match the size of his ego. He had lost sight of God and was counting (pun intended) on the might of his armies.
The Bible warns against taking a census. A half-shekel, token “ransom” money, is required for each person counted, to be paid to the Lord (Exodus 30:11-16). Such a provision was probably put in place to ensure that the attitude behind taking a census was right. No glorying in numbers – every person is there by the grace of God.
As to numbers recorded and made public in churches, the practice is not necessarily bad. They may not be the ultimate or foolproof measure of spiritual growth, but they serve as useful indications.
Why should we be afraid of numbers when there is a book in the Bible called Numbers which contains much numerical information? Jesus’ disciples counted the number of people fed, of fish caught, and of converts baptised (Mark 6, John 21, Acts 2).
At a practical level, there are dangers in avoiding numbers as there are in relying on numbers. Of course, glorying in big numbers plays into the hands of pride and presumption. Yet careful and honest interpretation of numbers can help us know where we are in our growth path and pattern.
For example, a church which has not seen significant numerical nett growth over, say, 10 years, should be concerned. So should a church whose giving is meagre in proportion to attendance, though both numbers may appear large on their own.
Only God sees the heart and knows the true picture of each church or organisation. But since we are not God and cannot perceive things perfectly, we depend on numbers to help us.
As long as we take numbers as helpful indications, and not precise measures of spirituality; as cause for self-examination, and not for self-glory, we won’t be guilty of wrong-doing.
Reprinted with permission from IMPACT Magazine, Apr/May 2013, Vol. 37, No. 2.
The Rev Dr David W. F. Wong –
is Senior Pastor of Zion Bishan Bible-Presbyterian Church, Leadership Mentor of Finishing Well Ministries, and author of a dozen books. He is married to Jenny, a pre-school consultant, and they are blessed with two daughters, two sons-in-law, and four grandchildren.
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