The bride of Christ and the hope of the world
Why Christians must love the church
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Not many of us are suffering from overexposure to optimism and hope.
In her famous Sonnet 43, Elizabeth Barrett Browning asked, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” In today’s world of doomscrolling and digital overload, we are trained to ask a different question, “How have you failed me? Let me count the ways.” It’s not hard to be angry at our politicians, frustrated with our elites, and disappointed in the church. In fact, it’s hard not to count the ways that leaders and institutions have let us down. Just think about the top news stories from the past twelve months: the election and its aftermath, the handling of the pandemic, and the withdrawal from Afghanistan. No matter what you think should have happened in each case, no one would mistake these events for encouraging moments in our national mood and psyche.
And then there is the church.
I can’t remember a time in my 20 years of ministry when we’ve seemed further away from reformation and revival. Whether you think the evangelical church today is rotting from within—filled with hypocrisy, lovelessness, and the abuse of power—or capitulating to the woke-ified, genderless, God-denying spirit of the age, the reality is that many Christians would resonate with the heartbroken cry of Jeremiah, “How the gold has grown dim, how the pure gold is changed!” (Lamentations 4:1). If there is one thing that unites polarized Christians in these divisive days, it is that The Lego Movie got it wrong: everything is not awesome.
And yet, as people of the promise, we must never let lamentation have the last word. There is a fine line between criticism of the church and cynicism for the church, and some of us may be sliding from a faithful version of the former into a faithless form of the latter. We must not believe that the worst things we see are the only things to be seen. Maybe I’ve just been fortunate to be around good churches, but I am convinced that the rise and fall of scandals and podcasts do not reflect most of our congregations, most of our pastors, and most of the tithe-giving, choir-singing, note-taking, meal-making, Bible-studying men and women who fill up our padded chairs and hardback pews. Remember: Bad news travels fast and far; good news often trudges along slowly and in secret.
As Christians, we cannot love Jesus if we do not love what Jesus loves. And that means training our senses to view the church not first of all as an engine of failure or as a failed institution, but as the body and bride of Christ, the fullness of Him who fills everything in every way (Ephesians 1:23). The theological distinction between the visible and invisible church is not only about the physical people of God and the spiritual people of God. It’s a reminder that there is a church we can see with our eyes, and there is a church that we labor and long for with the eyes of faith.
Surely it is significant that upon hearing the disciples confess faith in Him as the Messiah, Jesus proceeded to make His first theology lesson about ecclesiology. “And I tell you,” Jesus said, “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). Set aside the exegetical controversy about “this rock” (which I think is a reference to Christ Himself) and focus on the promise: “I will build my church.” Who builds the church? Not the pastor, not the seminary, not the sheep, not the government, not the publishing house, not the critics, not the powerbrokers, not a class of people called the oppressed, not the social media influencers. Jesus does. And what does He build? Not a brand, not a school, not a magazine, not a campus ministry, not a nation, not a party, not a platform, not a webpage. The church—the only institution on earth that Jesus promises to build and promises will last.
Are you wondering what you can do to make a difference in the world? Go to church. Give to the church. Pray for your church. Correct the church when she errs and encourage those serving the church whenever you can. Things are probably not as bad as you think, and even if they are, the gospel is better still. The grass withers, the flowers fade, but the word of our God will stand forever (Isaiah 40:8). Invest your life where that word is taught and cherished. That’s the Jesus way. The church remains the hope of the world, not because we put our hope in any man, but because the God-man, Jesus Christ, has told us to put our hope in the church.
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