in large part because I think the church takes a lot of flak that really isn’t fair; granted that there are a fair number of congregations out there which are truly poisonous (any pastor can tell you that), and a fair number more which are thoroughly dysfunctional (ditto), and another pile on top of that which are preaching something other than grace, to move beyond criticisms of specific congregations to dismissal of the church as a whole seems to me ungracious and unwarranted. Hence my three previous posts in this irregular series.
I have others of that sort I could add to them, and I may well, at some future point; but lately I’ve felt God poking me that there’s something else I need to say first, something that comes out of a place where he’s convicted me in the past. The most basic thing to say in defense of the church, the first thing that needs to be said, is that Jesus loves the church; in Ephesians 5, Paul describes the church as the bride of Christ (and says that we husbands are supposed to love our wives as much as Christ loves the church—remembering always that Christ wascrucified for the church). We’d best be careful, I think, what we say about the church, because I’ve never met a groom yet who took kindly to people ripping on his bride; I don’t imagine Jesus does, either.
Which is not to say that criticism of particular congregations (or denominations, for that matter) is out of line; as noted, there’s a fair number of them that have gone fair wrong. I come out of the Reformed tradition, which makes a point of the three marks of the true church; from our perspective, just because something calls itself a church doesn’t mean it is in any meaningful sense. (If anything, my theological forebears were probably a mite too willing to declare churches to be false churches.) And for that matter, fair, reasoned, gracious critique is important for all of us, as individuals and as the people of God, to grow, and so that’s never out of place or inappropriate. But when we go so far as to denounce “the church” and suggest that God doesn’t like “the church” any more than we do—no, that’s too far. Jesus loves the church, and that isn’t going to change.
Yes, this even means that he loves the people in it who hurt us and make us miserable—he died for them just as he died for the soldiers who crucified him, praying as he died, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” As brutal hard and painful as it is, he wants to bring us to the point where we can love them, too, even as he commands us to love all the rest of our enemies. The love and grace of God are hard things, because they go as much to the people we want cut off as they do to us; if we’re going to accept them for ourselves, we have to be committed to showing them to others. (Which is not to say that we have to be able to do so right away; forgiveness takes time. There are people in my past that I can’t forgive yet, so I know that full well. But we have to be committed to getting to that point, as we heal.) Jesus loves the church—and yes, that includes that pastor, that elder, that deacon, that member; which means we’d best be careful what we say about it, and about them, and in what spirit we say it.
I was going to link to this song, which I posted as song of the week over a year ago; but I think I’ll just post it again here. I like this one a lot, in large part because it continues to convict me, and to call me back to a proper heart for ministry; and because it gives me hope that someday, we as the church will live up to the love Jesus has for us.
Jesus Loves the Church
You say that you believe in us—at times, I wonder why;
You say you see the Father in our eyes.
But I think if I were you, Lord, I’d wash my hands today,
And turn my back on all our alibis.
For we crucify each other, leaving a battered, wounded bride—
But Jesus loves the church;
So we’ll walk the aisle of history, toward the marriage feast,
For Jesus loves the church.
We fight like selfish children vying for that special prize;
We struggle with our gifts before your face.
And I know you look with sorrow at the blindness in our eyes
As we trip each other halfway through the race.
I want to learn to love like you; I don’t know where to start.
I want to see them all but through your eyes.
For you believed enough to live amidst the madding crowd,
Enough to die before our very eyes.
Words and music: Sheila Walsh
© 1988 Word Music
From the album Say So, by Sheila Walsh