“The church” this. “The church” that.
One way professing Christians betray a small, thin, and weak vision of the risen Christ is by dumping on “the church.” They might speak flippantly of what “the church” doesn’t get. Or what “the church” does wrong. Or the problem with “the church” in our day. They claim to know better than “the church.” If only they could fix “the church.” Having become concerned about an oversight, error, or danger they see in some Christians or churches, they’ve become careless with their words about the church — and particularly so when we consider what Christ himself says about her.
As much as we may claim to esteem Jesus, and desire to speak highly of him, we reveal gaps in our devotion when we broad-brush his bride with negativity, evidence strange biases against her, and feed into popular opinion by suspecting, seeing, spinning, and spreading the worst.
“We show how little we think of Christ by speaking endless negativity about his bride.”
Whatever the motivations (which are varied and complex), we demonstrate how subtly, and perhaps deeply, we have been shaped by, and conformed to, the course of this world, when we talk about “the church” in ways grossly out of step with our Lord. And we show how little we think of Christ, by speaking endless negativity about his bride.
Wife of the Lamb
Make no mistake, the church is his bride. How startling that Christ himself would risk such an image?
Not only did John the Baptist speak of him as such (John 3:29), but Jesus cast himself as “the bridegroom” who is taken away (Matthew 9:15; Mark 2:19–20; Luke 5:34–35), and whose return is delayed (Matthew 25:1–10). In one of Scripture’s final climactic statements, Revelation 22:17 says, “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come’” — meaning the church. In Revelation 21:9, the angel says, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.”
The church is Jesus’s bride, “the wife of the Lamb.” And when we admire a man, respect him, appreciate him, and reverence him, we are careful what we say about his wife — and all the more so in public. We check our suspicions. We are vigilant to not let personal disappointments fester into a global cynicism toward her. We go out of our way not to regard her, speak of her, or criticize her in his presence in any way that would puzzle or dishonor her husband. We show little esteem for a groom when we insult his bride.
So, those who genuinely admire and worship Christ will not only reverence his person but also his perspective. They will want to know, and remember, What does Jesus think of his church? What does Christ feel toward her? How does he talk about her?
He Chose Her
First, the great Groom’s choice of his Bride is remarkable. Not only is she “a chosen race” (1 Peter 2:9), but he chose her in her ungodliness, not because of any native beauty in her. The Father chose the church for his Son before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4), writing the names of his people in “the book of life of the Lamb who was slain” (Revelation 13:8).
Not only did Christ and his Father choose the church for her salvation, but also to be an instrument of divine revelation in the world. And not just an instrument, but the central vessel in making God known in his world in this age. The vision of the church is astoundingly, almost uncomfortably, high in Ephesians 3.
When Paul there offers praise to God the Father, he says, “To him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus.” We expect “in Christ Jesus” as the focal point through which God’s glory is displayed — but here she is, his wife, side by side with Christ himself, the bridegroom: “to him be glory in the church.” This echoes the centrality of the church in making God known just a few verses prior: the manifold wisdom of God is being “made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” — and now he mentions only one instrument — “through the church” (Ephesians 3:10).
Disappointed as we may be with an unfaithful leader, or hurt as we may feel by particular people or ministries in a local community, we would do well to remember such a vision of the church — Christ’s own vision of his church. The church, worldwide and throughout the ages, is not mainly bringing reproach upon Christ. Rather, the church, alongside Christ, is bringing glory to the Father and making his wisdom known to all the powers, earthly and heavenly.
He Cherishes Her
Second, the church is not just a body. She is his body (Ephesians 5:22; Colossians 1:18, 24). “You are the body of Christ,” Paul says to the church (1 Corinthians 12:27).
In the best body reference of all, God not only has “put all things under [Christ’s] feet” as sovereign of the universe on the very throne of heaven, but also God “gave [Christ] as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:22–23). Christ’s vision and concern for his body boggles, stretches, and defies human explanation. Which might, at least, correct our uncareful speech.
Jesus loves the church as his own body. He emphatically does not hate his own flesh, but he nourishes and cherishes it (Ephesians 5:29). Jesus cherishes his church. He adores her, cares for her, gladly devotes his attention to her. He has pledged his loyalty to her, to be one flesh with her, to hold fast to her, to not give up on her, to never leave or forsake her. “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her (Ephesians 5:25).
He Cleanses Her
Jesus’s awareness of his church’s flaws and failures is far more extensive than any human’s. He knows every detail of ongoing evil. He knows the sins we try to hide. Jesus’s high view of his church is not owing in the least to his turning a blind eye to, or any codding or soft-peddling of, sin. He died to cleanse his church of her sin. He does not take her sin lightly. He is his church’s “Savior” (Ephesians 5:23). No one takes sin in the church more seriously than Jesus. He knows the depths of her sin. Yet he still loves her.
“No one takes sin in the church more seriously than Jesus.”
He not only chose her (despite her sin) and cherishes her (despite her sin), but he also is cleansing her from her sin. He died to both secure his bride and to sanctify her, to make her holy (Ephesians 5:26). And he rose, and lives, to cleanse her “by the washing of water with the word” (Ephesians 5:26). Do our words echo his? Do we join him in washing her, cleansing her, sanctifying her, building her up with our words? Or do we oppose him, insult her, sully her, tear her down by the spirit we harbor and the words we speak in the world and post on the web?
The day is coming when Jesus will “present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:27) — when all will see “the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 21:2). Christ is preparing his church for the wedding, purging sin, adorning his bride for that day when she will be presented to him, and every eye will see her, at last, in unparalleled majesty.
Hard Words of Love
Here we might ask about Jesus’s own hard words for his bride. Isn’t it the Bridegroom himself who says these devastating words in Revelation 3:15–16? “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” Love for the Bride of Christ does not mean silence about the sins of particular churches and specific saints. But it does mean that we take care how we speak about those failures.
Part of cleansing the church means correcting her, but correcting her does not mean despising her, or painting her sins in broad strokes. When Christ confronts the churches in Revelation 2–3, he addresses specific churches with their own failures. And in correcting them, he also woos them back to himself. Notice even in Revelation 3:
Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. (Revelation 3:19–20)
Jesus doesn’t sit back in his armchair issuing criticisms about the church, however much indwelling sin remains, for now, in his people. He “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession” (Titus 2:14). He is redeeming his church from her sin, purifying her as a people for himself. There is no place for hopelessness about the future of the church. Jesus will build his church (Matthew 16:18), and he will cleanse her.
He Covenants with Her
Finally, Jesus makes lifelong — eternity long — promises to his bride. He covenants with her.
He will provide for and protect her. The gates of hell will not prevail against her (Matthew 16:18). “The righteous” — his church — “will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13:43). Stunningly, Jesus will “dress himself for service and have [his people] recline at table, and he will come and serve them” (Luke 12:37). And not only will he come to them; he will bring them to himself, to sit with him on his very throne: “The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne” (Revelation 3:21).
For now, tears remain. We face death, battle remaining sin, endure mourning and crying, persevere in pain. Yet he promises, to his church, to “wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore” (Revelation 21:4). And this when we hear a loud voice from the throne saying,
Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. (Revelation 21:3)
And so we, his church, will receive the fulfillment of Scripture’s great, long-running promise: He will be our God, and we will be his people. He has pledged himself to us. We will have him. We will know him. We will enjoy him. We will dwell with him, forever.
His church is the people he has chosen to be among for eternity.
Would You Insult His Bride?
Jesus chose his wife before the foundation of the world. He cherishes her with energy and attentiveness. He cleanses her and prepares to present her pure and beautiful to himself. And he covenants to be hers, and with her, for all eternity. The Lord of heaven loves his bride. Does that not make you love her all the more? Does that not make you want to keep from carelessly speaking ill of her?
We do not whitewash the flaws of particular church leaders, or particular tendencies in sinful hearts. We do not cover for evil. Nor do we broad-brush the church, pretending to see and know flaws that are beyond our vantage nationwide, not to mention worldwide, and across the ages. And we don’t pretend the church is yet fully cleansed. Christ is still working on her.
When tempted to dump on “the church,” we who claim Christ will do well to remember his perspective, and his heart, and to speak with the grace and truth of our Savior toward his bride.