“…a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:27).
Anyone can criticize the church. It’s the most vulnerable institution in the world, the most victimized, and the most vilified.
Criticizing the church is like clubbing baby seals. It has no way of fighting back, but just lays there and takes what you dish out. The difference is that, after the beating, the church stands to her feet and goes on about her business, while you the critic walk away beaming as though you have done something heroic.
You haven’t. You have picked on the easiest target in the world.
In this morning’s newspaper, some (ahem) rocket scientist wrote a letter to the editor taking on the church for the Spanish Inquisition of the Middle Ages and before that the Crusades. I assume he just discovered these.
No institution on earth has been so targeted for villainy as has the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ.
–Satan and his legions persecute it and when that doesn’t work, they imitate it in order to make people think the wickedness they’re perpetrating is actually done by the people of God.
–The world at large has never quite known what to do with the church, even while reaping a thousand benefits from its benevolence, but represses and persecutes and harasses and outlaws it.
–Governments pass laws to fence it in to safe areas, at the same time they enjoy the benefits of peaceful people doing peace-loving work.
–Even the Lord’s people are sometimes their own worst enemies, serving Him half-heartedly and playing at the most serious work on the planet, while offering shoddy soiled offerings of fake righteousness to Him and calling it holy.
–Perhaps worst of all, the leaders of the church have frequently violated the teachings of the Master and manipulated their congregations for ambition, greed, power, or wickedness.
As a result of all this and more, what was said of the people of God in the First Century can be said of every generation since: “When (Jesus) saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were harassed and scattered, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36).
We need to keep reminding ourselves and teaching the Lord’s people of the dual nature of the Church. If we miss this or if we focus on one aspect to the neglect of the other, we will err big time and mislead others.
One: The Church of Jesus Christ is magnificent and glorious, a holy thing, and destined to reign with Him in Heaven.
The New Testament calls the church the bride of Christ, the body of Christ, the household of faith, the family of God, a holy priesthood, and a hundred other terms.
Jesus said, “I will build my church and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). 1) It’s His church; He bought it with a price (see Ephesians 5:25 and Acts 20:28); 2) He builds it. He is both owner and operator. He is the Head of the church and thus the chief decision-maker. 3) When He owns the church and calls the shots, He guarantees its victory.
Paul calls it “the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth” (I Timothy 3:15).
Scripture teaches that as the Body of Christ, the church is so identified with Him that whatever anyone does to the church–or those who belong to it–Jesus takes personally.
–In Acts 9:4-5, Jesus tells Saul of Tarsus that in harassing His people, he is persecuting Jesus Himself.
–In Matthew 25:40,45, the Lord teaches that by ministering to “the least of these my brethren,” we are ministering to Him.
–In Matthew 10:40, He tells the departing missionary disciples that “whoever receives you receives me.” Truly amazing.
Nothing elevates the church more than knowing the incredible value Jesus places on it.
In John’s vision of Heaven, he saw the Lord’s church, and described it as: “A great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb!'”
When someone asked who these people were, the response was equally as rapturous: “These are the ones who have come out of the great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore, they are before the throne of God, and serve Him night and day in His temple. And He who sits on the throne will dwell among them. They shall neither hunger any more nor thirst any more; the sun shall not strike them, nor any heat; for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7).
Surely, the church has a glorious identity and an even more magnificent future.
The Lord has big plans for His people, now and in eternity.
Two: The church is made up of flawed, limited, imperfect people like you and me, can fail big time, and is often a royal mess.
We might have wished the Lord had sought out some counsel before setting up the church in such a vulnerable way, composing it of sinners who are so prone to failure. What was He thinking?!! (smiley-face goes here)
Thank God He did.
Had He built the church only of the perfect, He would have skipped me and I would have missed a lifetime of blessings and of ministry. Thank God “He included me.” As He did you.
No scripture says it more pointedly than this line from David: “He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust” (Psalm 103:14).
My friend, the Lord is under no illusion about you and me.
He knew He was getting no bargain when he redeemed us.
When we sin, the only one surprised is us.
“God demonstrated His love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
God’s people are hemmed in by their limitations. Consider that…
–“No one has seen God at any time” (John 1:18).
–“We see through a glass darkly….we know in part….” (I Corinthians 13:12).
–“We do not know how to pray as we should” (Romans 8:26).
–“We all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2).
–“In my flesh there dwells no good thing” (Romans 7:18).
–“We do not know what a day may bring” (Proverbs 27:1).
–“Without (Jesus), you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
–“It is not in man who walks to direct his own steps” (Jeremiah 10:23).
So, take a group of people with such baggage (of sin, guilt, fears) and such severe limitations and throw them into a church with instructions to take the message of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth, and stand back.
–They will get it right sometimes and just as often, get it wrong.
–They will squander their resources on themselves sometimes and at other times amaze even Heaven with their generosity and sacrifices.
–They will sometimes go to the ends of the earth to spread the word and at other times not rise from the recliner to help a neighbor.
Throughout history, the church has rung up some fairly notable failures. In the Deep South, most churches of the first half of the 19th Century approved slavery. Then, for the rest of that century and the first half of the 20th, the same churches approved segregation and second-class status for African-Americans. (This is not to say all churches failed in this way. After all, Martin Luther King was the product of the church.)
The church has much to be humble about. These days, in the United States, denominations have to guard themselves against becoming identified with one political party or the other. The more liberal denominations want to join themselves in an unholy matrimony to the Democratic Party, while the more conservative denominations shack up with the Republicans.
How does that line go? “The church that weds today’s culture will be a widow tomorrow.”
The human and frail side of the church’s makeup should keep us on our knees and in the Word seeking the Lord’s protection and guidance.
The glorious, heavenly nature of the church should keep us looking up, giving our all, and preaching the good news of the Lord Jesus Christ.
We must teach both natures of the church.
Teach only the grand and glorious side of the church and we grow disillusioned with the reality we see all around us. Few churches can maintain the glory side of the Lord’s work long without descending into self-centeredness, bickering, and arguing. It’s a constant struggle to stay on track.
Teach only the frail, human side of the church and we lose all hope, find ourselves joining other organizations which seem nobler and holier, and deserting those who look to the church for light in their darkness, hope in their despair, and salvation in their depths.
Thank God for the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is indeed the “pillar and support of the truth.”