Loving the church

Christ loved the church. He gave up his life for her. (Eph. 3:25)

Church-bashing is becoming a popular internet game. One recent article suggested that if Jesus was to return to earth, it would be the Christians who would want to crucify him again—particularly so-called ‘religious’ Christians from established church(es) who are, naturally, in league with the system etc. I find these articles both worrying and offensive.

I find them worrying because so many Christians give them oxygen by re-posting them on Facebook with comments like ‘Well, this really makes you think, doesn’t it. I don’t agree with everything, but there’s a lot of good stuff here.’ No there isn’t. Mostly there is very little ‘good stuff’, little engagement with real issues, but a lot of tabloid ranting from people who have been maybe hurt by a particular church situation, have failed to get over it, and who appear to have little understanding of wider issues. I find it offensive because I and many other people have devoted our lives to the cause of Christ and love Jesus deeply. Many I know have selflessly served their communities with little reward or recognition (often within churches that have been pigeon-holed by the critics as ‘religious’ or ‘conservative’) simply because they love Jesus. To suggest that they would be the first to crucify a returned Christ is, I repeat, deeply offensive. It is not thought-provoking in any meaningful sense.

There is, of course, a need to criticise the church, and we will look at that in a moment, but overriding all should be three key principles:

    a recognition that Jesus loves the church—whatever the failings of earthly organisations that give themselves that name, this should give us pause for thought;a corresponding love in ourselves of the church—in other words, an attitude of constructive criticism which leads to positive change; andthe courage, like John the Baptist, to live out what we claim to believe.

The motivation for prophetic criticism should be positive change, not destruction. I have been accused of being over-critical of the church because I refuse to be silent about the abuse and nonsense that appear to go on in the name of Christ, and I will continue to criticise, but I do so because I passionately love the church and want the best for her. So let us explore this a little more.

Loving the church is, perhaps, one of the hardest things to do. A cursory look at the average church may reveal much to commend it, but more often that not we are painfully aware of shortcomings: whenever two or three are gathered in his name, it seems, there are not only notices, but problems. I suppose this should come as no surprise, after all, the church is made up of human beings and — as someone once put it — ‘people do people stuff’. Becoming a believer does not equate to becoming perfect.

The above verse, however, is often used to suppress criticism, as if to speak out against injustice, malpractice or faithlessness in a church equates somehow to maligning something loved by Christ. Is this true?

It seems to me we need to bear in mind three important points: first, that we need to distinguish between the universal Church and local expressions of it — local congregations; second, that just as individuals are in a process of being made holy, so the Church (i.e. universal body of Christ) is not yet perfect—the Church as it now stands is part of a teleology whose end is not yet apparent; and third, to state the obvious, that not all that gives itself the name ‘church’ is church.

The use of this Pauline text from Ephesians 3 has, sadly, been used as a tool to suppress honest criticism of the church (just as the out-of-context use of 1 Samuel 24:6 has been used to make people feel guilty about criticising leaders): we should perhaps remind ourselves of how Jesus dealt with local churches, and we find this in the book of Revelation.

In Revelation chapter 1 we find John recording the words of Jesus as he ‘greets the seven churches’, so it is immediately apparent that here we are here dealing with local congregations. Of course the number seven in scripture — particularly in enigmatic books such as Revelation — speaks of perfection or wholeness, and one could read this as Jesus speaking about the whole church. Some indeed suggest that the subsequent letters to these churches (recorded in chapters 2 and 3) somehow apply to the universal Church in the different ages of her history (the ‘dispensationalism’ associated with, for example, John Nelson Darby), but perhaps it is better to read the seven letters as illustrative of the kinds of ‘normal’ or typical issues that local churches face. Most present-day congregations will probably identify with one particular letter more than the others (and, of course, no church wants to admit to being lukewarm like Laodicea which Jesus wanted to spit out of his mouth).

First, we note that Jesus describes himself as ‘the one who walks among the seven gold lampstands’ — in other words, walking among the churches. This is both good news and bad news: on the one hand, it is comforting to know that despite the shortcomings of local churches, Jesus graces us with his presence; he does not walk away from churches with problems unless he is genuinely not welcome. But the bad news is that he sees exactly what is going on, and — with the exception of two letters, those to Pergamum and Smyrna — Jesus is critical. Furthermore, although Jesus does walk among those who meet in his name, simply giving a group the name ‘church’ does not mean that Jesus will own it as his own: the church in Laodicea faces the very real possibility that Jesus will disown it — ‘spit it (or vomit it) out of his mouth’ (3:16).

So the danger is to think that anything called ‘church’ is somehow holy and above criticism. Being on a journey towards perfection should not blind us to the need for present criticism and evaluation as we try to work with Jesus to become more worthy of the name ‘church’. Any church that sees itself as above criticism is, it seems to me, in great danger.

The second issue we face is the confusion between the universal and the particular. Of course, Jesus loves the church, but does he really love the abuse that goes on in his name? The major theme of the book of Revelation is the consummation of all things, the final marriage of the bride and groom — the Church and Christ. This metaphor reminds us that the universal Church on earth is a work in progress whose final end is perfection and full acceptance by Christ, but until that day comes, we must continue to be self-critical and allow Jesus to criticise us; we need to measure ourselves carefully against scriptural standards, but — in my view equally important — use some common sense occasionally!

For completeness, we note, thirdly, that not all organisations that call themselves ‘church’ are church, or, as noted, worthy of the name. This is such an obvious point that it seems hardly worth making, but I make it as so much criticism appears to come from those who fail to recognise this. Should the beef-burger be damned as a food source because those from Barry’s Burger Bar do not, actually, contain any beef? Just about every human construct, product or organisation has its counterfeits, and we can normally, with perhaps a little guidance, spot them. Of course some may be more difficult to spot than others, but not many of us give up eating beef burgers because of Barry. If you think a local ‘church’ is not worth joining, then don’t join it, but please don’t assume that the whole worldwide Christian community is also not worth joining.

The local church, as small foretaste of that future destiny, is a precious thing. It is, or should be, a taste of heaven. A place of refuge from the storms of life where love, instead of ambition, rules. Let’s not be afraid to be constructively critical and work with Jesus to make our local church a more godly place, but let’s also not forget that our local expression of church is just one face of a beautiful worldwide diamond, much of it hidden, whose other faces all have the potential to reflect the glory of Christ.