October 28, 2020

How Do I Love The Church? (Or Why Jesus Isn’t An Enabler)

I assume that we are supposed to love the church, even though there isn’t a direct command with those words in the New Testament.

The love of the Psalmist for the people of God is obvious. Paul’s love for particular congregations causes him to recite his sufferings and sacrifices for their sake. His love for the churches he has planted is obvious in his affection for the Philippians and his correction of the Corinthians.

Jesus loves the church, and gave himself up for her. If the love of Christ controls us, then we should love the church as well.

These days, however, the command to love the church is complicated. The churches that most of us are dealing with are constantly dictating to us what it means to love them. Much like a dysfunctional family member who tells you that your love must help them continue their self-destructive patterns of behavior, so the church in America asks for “love” that many of us are hesitant to give.

Does your out of control, substance abusing sister really need that car loan, your credit card and your agreement to stay out of her business? Do you only love her if you bail her out of jail and pay her insurance every time she calls? Does the collection of abusive men she brings to the house every weekend give you the right to draw some lines….in the name of love?

The church, someone will say, is the bride of Christ, and should therefore be praised and loved as beautiful. Jesus loves her, so should we.

The problem is, I don’t think Jesus’ love for his bride is a kind of codependent enabling of her worst tendencies. And this is a bride who, for all her good points, far exceeds your out of control sister in asking you to support her destructive habits.

When I read Jesus’ letters to his bride in Revelation chapters 2 and 3, I see a much healthier kind of love.

He sees the truth. He tells the truth. He is bold in pointing out sin. He knows and names the consequences of unchanged patterns of behavior. He makes it clear where authority and accountability lie. He invites his people to repentance and deeper relationship. He is passionate in his love for his bride, but also passionate in his love for his Father’s glory and the powerful presence of his own gospel in the world.

So how do we love the church? We aren’t Jesus, but can we still love the church like he does?

We can make a beginning.

1) We should love the church with the purchase price in mind. Jesus bought the church with his own blood. It’s not ours to abuse. If the church is wrong and I happen to be right, that doesn’t change the ownership dynamic. I am someone purchased along with the rest of the church and I am a sinner whose sins crucified the son of God. My love for the church can’t be wrapped in a smug superiority when I realize all of us were purchased- together- by the incarnation, obedience, suffering and resurrection of the Son of God.

2) We should love the church with the goals of Jesus for the church constantly in mind. The church is his bride in the world. She is glorious in him. We should love her toward his holiness, his purity, his freedom, his ultimate purposes. He does not give up on her, nor should we, but we must keep the end in mind and when the church herself tells us to stop short in our love where she draws the line, we must refuse.

3) We should love the church truthfully. The church today is full of a lot of spin and rhetoric. True love often must look and listen beyond what is being said and presented to the soul of the one who is loved. The truth is an essential component of love. It is never loving to avoid it. We cannot be cruel with the truth, but we cannot be avoiders of the truth. Of course, the codependent dislike the truth and want everyone to just read what’s on the website. We must not cooperate.

4) We should love the church as part of it. Most of us owe the church our spiritual birth, nurture and affirmation. The church invited us to the table and took us into the waters of baptism. We are never more or less than members of the people of God and members of the body of Jesus Christ. When the Bible speaks to the church, it is speaking to me, not to “them.”

5) We should love the church with humility. Even with the evangelical circus going on around us, the church still has enormous wisdom for each one of us. None of us know so much that we can sit in judgement on the church as judges without humility. Yes, the particular portion of the church you are looking at may be unimpressive and may have lost its way, but you and I have not achieved greatness by standing outside the church and hurling rocks. (Constructive and helpful criticism always needs humility to be constructive and helpful.)

6) We should love the church with balance. Is there anything more obvious in Revelation 2-3 than the balance Jesus has in his view of each congregation? Those of us who find ourselves critical of the church need to remember that the entire body of Christ isn’t the Prosperity Gospel or an imitation of corporate consumerism. Christ’s church still looks and acts like the community of Jesus if you take the time to look away from the hype, the ads and the media coverage.

7) We should love the church with hope. Jesus will not abandon his church, even though some of us must walk away from parts of it for the sake of our own spiritual health and integrity. Still, our ultimate view of the church should be the optimism of the Bible, not the cynicism that may occupy our own experience at present. Note that Jesus says that if what is wrong cannot be corrected, then the lampstand is removed. Yet in this same book he gives us visions of the final wedding banquet of the lamb and a church so numerous and glorious it takes your breath away to contemplate it.

8. We should love the church sacrificially. That doesn’t mean that we have to make a pledge to the building program. It doesn’t mean that the ridiculous demands of excessive time and loyalty are always right. It does mean that there will be no true love of the church without some Christ-imitating sacrifice, and finding where meaningful sacrifice is not wasted is part of finding the right community.

How should I love the church? Let me count the ways….that Jesus teaches this lesson throughout our journey. And so many of us who have a strained and troubled experience with the church need to contemplate Jesus’ love for the church and imitate it in our own.

Perhaps a second post will deal with “Why it’s so hard to love the church like Jesus.”

Comments

  1. See, posts like this one are why I love this blog so much. Terrific stuff, Michael.

    If you were more the liturgical-calendar type, a fitting title would have been, “How do I love the Church? (Let me count the days)” with the content modified accordingly. 🙂

  2. Quite possibly the Post of the Year. By anybody.

    Thanks, Michael.

  3. I know this may be too big to deal with in a blog comments section, but what *IS* the church? Is it the “institution”? If so, how do we factor different denominations into the equation? Is it the worldwide body of Christians (i.e the greater ecclesia)? If so, how do we separate/differentiate the ecclesia from the institution? Is it all of the above? How does the concept of “Church Militant” and “Church Triumphant” fit into this? And do we have Scripture to back our answers up? If not, at what point did our answers form (Apostolic Age, Apostolic Fathers, etc)? It’s times like this I almost wish I was Catholic, ‘cuz at least I’d have an easy answer!

  4. There are any number of books that need not have been written this year, if only their readers had read this short essay first. There are any number of scandals and disappointments that would have been avoided, any number of saints whose faith would not have been misplaced, if only this wisdom were more widespread. I think you nailed it, brother.

  5. “what *IS* the church?”

    It reminds me of another question: “And who is my neighbor?” Asked after love thy neighbor as thyself.

    The answer to “And who is my neighbor?” is “Go and do likewise” (go and be a neighbor)

    So in my warped thinking I would extrapolate that if the question is asked “what *IS* the church?” after hearing a clear call to “Love the church…” the unsatisfying answer is:

    Go and be the church.

    (Now the question is how 🙂

    (which brings us back to this Post of the year 🙂

  6. Hi Michael, I think the challenge today is to love the church with hope. It’s so easy to get cynical and abandon ship. Thanks for the post. It’s a wonderful reminder that we can be part of “who-Jesus-loves”.

  7. Michael,

    Thank you for making me,who have had a long lover’s quarrel with the Church, feel less lonely.

  8. Great, great post, Michael, and on a subject very near to my heart. Well said.

  9. Why is this not elementary?

  10. Jeremiah Lawson says

    Maybe it is, but as a teacher of mine once put it, never underestimate the obvious.

  11. iMonk:

    I read the essay you linked. It reminded me that I forgot one possiblity in my original question: the local congregation! So, to sum up “what IS the Church,” it’s the Church Universal and the Church Local. And while that can be expressed in denominations or the Church Institutional, it doesn’t have to be… correct?

    I feel good about that. It seems reasonable. It seems biblical. It fits in with our Christian liberty with regards to expressing the culture/flavor/etc in the local body (as I’ve I’ve often pointed out, the NT doesn’t create a systematic religious form beyond a few sacraments).

    Keith:

    I see what you’re saying, but in the face of some of what’s going on in Evangelicalism as well as my own denominational experience, pinning down what we mean when we use words that can be interpreted in so many different ways is important to me. Sometimes what we mean by “church” is obvious from the context. But other times (if not most of the time) it’s a little vague for me. The real irony is that the usage I forgot about is probably the most common usage for most folks!

  12. I think that at this point you would run in to that problem, What is it that I love?

    The questions about the institution or the local or the universal, those though may be of human interest are not realy important.

    It is more important to consider why you must love the Church?

    Because it is the bride of Christ and it is his body without which there is no salvation.

    As far as your ten points are concerned:

    1. The Church can’t be wrong because it is the pillar and foundation of Truth. If the Church is wrong and you are right then Jesus was mere man and not God in the flesh. Though if you believe to be in a church that can be wrong I would question your reasons for wanting to belong to it, or even if that is the church that you should be following.

    2. I can not agree with this proposition, to do so would be throwing away that which Christ gave to us. The Church is there for us to tell us when we are wrong when our “superior” intellects tells us that we are right.

    3. I agree

    4. I agree, except I would say that the Holy Bible is speaking to us including them that do not listen.

    5. This one does not agree with your previous statements, once again the Church is the pillar and foundation of truth, humility absolutly but in it obedience must be paramount.

    6. I agree

    7. Our differences in ecclesiology makes it impossible for me to answer this comment.

    8. I can not agree with this, it seems that you are saying that you will die for the Church but I won’t sacrifice Super Bowl Sunday for it.

    As far as your last question is concern, you can not love that which you don’t know, Jesus knows his sheeps his sheep know his voice and follow him.

  13. This is excellent. Thanks for the thought-provoking commentary. I needed this right now.

    — Danni

  14. Thanks, very helpful post. I’ve been kinda coming to a similar conclusion recently – that though I’ve been deeply frustrated with many of my experiences with church, I still have to view it as family. Doesn’t mean I have to like much of what it does, but it does mean I can’t completely renounce my connection with the broader church body. Kinda like having a slightly weird bachelor uncle who embarrasses you from time to time, but is still family…

  15. Who or what is the church really.
    So who or what is that we are to love?I
    t is the truth that we are to love! !
    And this is the truth this blog is more of a church than any building Ive ever been in and Ive been in plenty over many decades.

    “Whenever 2 or more are gathered in my name there I am”

    The church is visible and invisible at the same time.
    Only God can seperate the wheat from the tears

    I personally feel no more obligation to a false church than to a government that continually lies and cheats its citizens.To hell with them both.

    MATTHEW 7
    22 Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy by thy name, and by thy name cast out demons, and by thy name do many mighty works?
    23 And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.

    Whether its men in funny hats with long robes & staffs or churches with big budgets & buildings and bloated Preachers who huff & puff and blow the house down.
    They all seem to have something in common and thats to spiritually lord it over others.Nothing even remotely close to that goes on here.
    Even when people disagree theres a self regulated respect and humility that goes on here as spoken of by the apostle Paul and because of that people are able to share and grow.
    Perhaps you should rename this website internetchurch.com

    “Ye shall know them by their fruits”

  16. As a confirmed member, contracted employee, and the spouse of a clergy person, I was abandoned and exiled by the church’s leaders when I came to them for safety and help because of my husband’s abuse. He is still working and supported by them. He kept my personal belongings and sold some of them. I have no idea how I am supposed to love a church that has betrayed and rejected and exiled me in order to protect one of its leaders. I would like an answer to this question, but no one seems to have one. No one has even offered to pray with me about it. I have lost my faith in the church as God’s people, and lost my general sense of a personal God. I wish it weren’t so, but I am not going to start being insincere and pretending now, just because that is what the church is doing. So, I tell the truth, and I live in isolation, while being called a liar.

  17. Dear Edge of Raisin,

    My heart goes out to you. NO ONE should be treated as you were.

    I suspect that if Jesus would have some very harsh words for those who hurt you. (As he did about the religous leaders of his day) And also, invite you gently to come closer so that HE could give you a healing hug.

  18. Edge of Raisin:

    You are not alone in this situation, and I know God is grieved by it. I believe its called denial, and not wishing to come outside of their comfortable bubble. At times I wonder if they choose that road called, “The path of less resistance”. Its easier to push it away rather than deal with it. Alot of men, women and children are in the same boat as you are…and my prayers are going up for you today!

    There are a number of organizations out there that will believe you, support you, and walk along side you in support, love and prayer. I hope you seek them out. You will find other spouses of leaders that can relate to what you are dealing with.

    I do believe that once a door is closed that God finds a way to open a new one. I ponder at times if he has some of us go thru this pain to grow so that we maybe able to help others as well. I can understand your lack of faith in the church, because it seems their faith is not strong enough. I pray that you break your isolation, and find fellowship with others to help each other and grow in a true relationship in Christ.

    IMonk: I really enjoyed this article. Thank you for writing it.

  19. Ever notice that there is no group or place for abuse victims INSIDE the church? Ever notice that Christian preachers are NOT preaching sermons about spousal abuse? They are not telling men they don’t have the right to treat their wives like a sexual possession or a slave FROM THE PULPIT? Why? What would Jesus be doing if he were here now? All the organisations that help people who have been abused by clergy and church people are outside of the church. The church people won’t confront abusers. They blame and criticise the victims instead, or just push them away and try to pretend they don’t exist. Why would any victim go to a group of Christians for help and support and love when this has happened to her/him? What do you think the chances are that she/he will be rejected, condemned, or lectured about how to forgive and return to the abuser again so he can continue abusing her? When Christians in a community or body start acting as Christ would in situations of abuse, that will be a sign of Christ’s presence among them, and a sign that they are acting as The Church. I haven’t seen it anywhere. I have found help from non-Christians, instead. Sad commentary, I think, as I went to my ‘Christian leaders, brothers and sisters’ first, over a period of years. No help there, only blame, disbelief, and tacit complicity with the abuser. He divorced me on false grounds of ‘desertion’ and still stands in the pulpit.

  20. Sometimes I imagine that God must have shuddered a bit when He decided to inclue free will in the attributes He gave to humans, knowing the crazy, horrible things we would do with it.
    But I have to believe it is also part of the glory when we follow Christ fully in the hope He suffered so much to give us. Because the church always has the option to bail out of tough, uncomfortaable situations, and sometimes it does. But…not always, and maybe not often. I’m not sure.

  21. edgeofraisin, Hannah — you gals know me, we’re singing from the same hymnal, and trying to say the same thing out here in blogland because of similar experiences inside the church. I’ve reached the place of having to “de-church” at least for awhile because there is no place left for me with this “scarlet D” tatooed on my forehead. I am “less” and am only acceptable within that context – everything about me is colored through that lens.

    But I need to find out how to live in peace with the church, even if nothing ever changes. I cannot be bitter. I want to be a voice of change, and that can’t happen if I am waylaid by my own hurt. This post was certainly insightful in that direction.

    — Danni

  22. Christopher Lake says

    Edgeofraisin, Hannah, and Danni,

    My sisters in Christ, my heart aches for you and what you have been through, and I mean that sincerely, as a Christian man. At my previous church, the pastor did openly speak from the pulpit about the sin of men mistreating their wives– and specifically men who *claim* to be Christians. I will not belong to a church which does not practice church discipline regarding this sin– including public confrontation of abusive men, if necessary, and excommunication, if there is no repentance. May God’s people faithfully, consistently bring to light, and deal with, this sin which hides in secrecy and hypocrisy!

  23. Hearing a man speak like this is very heartening and encouraging, indeed. Thank you very much for your understanding, your integrity, and your voice. May it be heard and heeded. Let’s try to remember that the church, as a people, is the eyes, ears, hands, feet, and mouth of Jesus Christ. He never turned away from suffering and injustice. He confronted it not counting the cost to himself.

  24. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    ometimes I imagine that God must have shuddered a bit when He decided to inclue free will in the attributes He gave to humans, knowing the crazy, horrible things we would do with it. — Mary

    Chapter preface from a science-fiction novella in progress:

    “The Church’s First Contact contingency plans gave much thought to the possibility and danger of encountering an unfallen race. So far, we have not contacted any… All the (alien) species…are as fallen and tainted with sin as humanity, just in different ways. Apparently true sentience carries with it the potential for sin; the Imago Dei, expressed in whatever form, is always vulnerable.”

    I’ve reached the place of having to “de-church” at least for awhile because there is no place left for me with this “scarlet D” tatooed on my forehead. — Danni

    Scarlet D?

  25. Scarlet D — allusion to a Scarlet A for adultery, only the Scarlet D is for divorce. The divorce is the one I ultimately obtained after nearly dying of cancer after 20 years in an abusive Christian marriage and many years of trying to get help from my pastors (2 different churches) and multiple Christian counselors who kept sending me back into it to pray and submit and have more faith.

    By getting a divorce I also stayed alive to raise my then-infant daughter so she wouldn’t be raised by her abusive father alone. I am determined that she will not grow up in the same household her older brothers did.

    — Danni