Do You Love Jesus, But Not the Church?

“I love Jesus. It’s Christians I can’t stand!”

I have heard this (or something very like it) declared as the decisive judgment which authorizes some to avoid engaging in the life of the church. What drives this sentiment? It is, I think, the offense of the gospel that Søren Kierkegaard wrote about in his book Training in Christianity.

Pagan Church

Kierkegaard lived in Copenhagen, Denmark, in the middle of the nineteenth century. If you were born at that time and in that place, you were baptized, and so by law and by custom, you were a “Christian.” And yet, few people were actually Christian. As Kierkegaard wrote in his book, such a diabolical and cultural Christianity converted Christianity into paganism.

Kierkegaard begins Training in Christianity with the call of Christ in Matthew 11:28: “Come hither!” With Jesus, he writes, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” But who was the Jesus who spoke these words? It was not the glorified Christ, but the Christ who is all too human, too humble, and without worldly power — the Christ who is despised and rejected of men.

And so, immediately, we are confronted with the offense. The offense is the Christ who “in his state of humiliation . . . uttered these words; from the seat of His glory he has not uttered them” (19). That is, it was not the glorified Christ who said these words — or who says them now. Indeed, all who sit on this side of the resurrection are too quick to think we can run to the risen and glorified Christ, bypassing the Christ who is “gentle and lowly in heart” (Matthew 11:29).

The clergyman, the philosopher, the statesman, the mocker, and even the solid citizen are attracted to the glorified Christ for their own reasons; all dismiss the true Christ as an offense. So Kierkegaard writes, “All pith and vigor was distilled out of Christianity; the tension of the paradox was relaxed, one became a Christian without noticing it, and without in the least noticing the possibility of offense. . . . In that way Christianity became paganism” (30). Yet the real Christ is the despised man, who commands us, “Come!” By knowing only the exalted Christ, Kierkegaard challenges, “we have deified the established order and secularized Christianity” (77).

Crown Without a Cross

What is this secular paganism? Paganism offers glory without the offense — a crown without a cross. But if we are to respond to the “Come hither!” of Jesus, we must come with a contrite heart, grieved, broken, and on the narrow way (62), answering to the man who claimed to be God, but in no way met our expectations of God. In fact, in a Christian culture, “one is not offended by the claim that He is God, but by the observation that God is this man” (87). Yet it is the humiliated Christ who invited and invites us still today. We cannot bypass the humble and crucified Christ to go straight to the glorified Christ.

How is this an offense? What is Jesus asking of us? “The humiliation of the true Christian is not plain humiliation; it is merely the reflected image of exaltation, but the reflection of it in the world” (179). Kierkegaard could have quoted Romans 8:17: “[We are] fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” Instead, he reminds us of John 12:32: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

Both texts remind us that we must want to be drawn to the impoverished and humble Christ — the one who is cursed and lifted up. He is the unattractive man who uttered this offer, not another. We must desire the despised One, in his humiliation, submitting to our own suffering with him. Will you?

An Offensive Bride

Many will say, “Of course I will! I have!” Good, but some who say this, even as they say this, fall into the very trap of which Kierkegaard warned us. You might say, “But how could that be?! Kierkegaard lived in different times. We do not live in a Christian culture — not at all! Ours is post-Christian, even hostile to Christianity. I have responded to the ‘Come hither!’ of Christ, and at cost!” Perhaps. Perhaps not. Not if you come to Christ glorified without the possibility of offense. Not if you avoid identifying with Christ’s church.

You see, while Christ is now glorified, the church is not. And this not-yet-glorified church is the very body of Christ who calls to all, “Come hither!” This church is weak and unattractive and . . . offensive. If Jesus was despised for eating with sinners, we are those sinners. When the church says, “Come unto me,” many flinch! The church reflects as much of the gospel’s offense as its glory. Perhaps more of the offense. Yet through us, God makes his offensive call; we are that offense of the gospel. I am.

And how many today reject Jesus’s offer “Come to me!” because the church looks so . . . offensive! We, the church, are “full of sinners and hypocrites!” Indeed. And those who say, “God, yes; Christians, no!” have a point, but God makes another: You do not understand the gospel call. To come to Christ exalted, one cannot bypass the offense — his church unglorified. Although a person can initially come to God without the church, no one can stay with God while rejecting the church. The former reflects the glory of Christ alone; the latter is a rejection of the offense.

“Come Hither!”

Christ said he was God, but the very fact that he was also a man was the offense. He had no sin, but nothing attractive either — not to a Jewish world waiting for a powerful redeemer. That is still the case today. One cannot walk around the perimeter wall of the church, trying to avoid the contamination of the sinners in it, as if to find another way to God. One cannot despise the body of Christ who continues to call out his offer “Come to me!” and instead go to the other side of the road to avoid her.

To come to Christ is to love his (very messy and not-yet-glorified) bride. Jesus still says, “Come hither” to a world impressed by the idea of a glorified Christ, but it is a weak and all too human church who calls in his name and by his authority, “Come!”

Are you offended?