Church: Joining Your Imperfect Self to Other Imperfect Selves
When the local church falls short of Jesus’ vision for the church as a “radiant bride” reflecting his glory, a “city on a hill” that shines with attractive good works, “the salt of the earth” that prevents decay and promotes flourishing, and “the light of the world” that makes dark places less dark, some Christians are tempted to leave the church for some other alternative.
For many such Christians, the common refrain is, “I want to be part of something that’s more like the New Testament Church.”
I always scratch my head when I hear Christians say this. In several incidences, the actual “New Testament Church” was less attractive, less authentic, less flexible, less loving, less truthful, less beautiful, and less Christ-like than the church of today. If anyone has ever been tempted to hit the eject button on the local church in favor of creating their own, more robust faith experience, it was people who were part of the actual New Testament church. It is because so many first century Christians had a foot out the door that the writer of Hebrews urged them to not give up meeting together, “as is the habit of some” (Hebrews 10:24-25).
One “New Testament Church” that we would all be tempted to abandon was the church at Corinth.
One of the most celebrated passages in the Bible is 1 Corinthians 13, famously known as “the love chapter.” In this magnificent chapter, we are told that love is patient and kind. It does not envy or boast, and it is not arrogant or rude. It is not demanding or irritable, and it does not hold a grudge. It resists things that are wrong and celebrates things that are true. It bears, believes, hopes, and endures all things.
Did you know that when Paul wrote to the Corinthians about love, he didn’t have wedding ceremonies or cross stitch art in mind? Did you know that he was actually rebuking them because each of the attributes of love was something that they lacked?
The Corinthian church, a prominent “New Testament Church,” was filled with problems. A brief journey through Paul’s first letter to this community of misfits tells us that they were known for judging each other harshly, creating major divisions over minor theological issues, committing adultery, initiating frivolous lawsuits, divorcing without biblical grounds, parading “Christian liberty” in front of people with a bruised conscience, ignoring the needs of the poor, and the list goes on. Paul could have very easily written off this community. He could have very easily thrown in the towel.
Why didn’t Paul throw in the towel on the New Testament Church? For the same reason that Jesus didn’t thrown in the towel.
Church is family.
Membership in a local church means nothing more and nothing less than this: Joining your imperfect self to many other imperfect selves to form an imperfect community that, through Jesus, embarks on a journey toward a better future…together.
Surprisingly, Paul begins his confrontational first letter to the Corinthians with affirmation and assurance. In spite of their many flaws, sins, inconsistencies, hypocrisies, and weaknesses, he is hopeful for them, not because they are stellar people but because Jesus is a stellar Savior. Jesus will complete the work that he began in them, and Paul knows this. So, instead of hitting eject on them, he doubles down on his involvement with them. Instead of shunning and shaming them, he speaks to them as his beloved brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters in the faith. Instead of running from them, he runs toward them. He names them not according to their failures but according to their redemptive status, using words like “saints” and “sanctified.” He thanks God always for them and reminds them that Jesus will sustain them until the end. Though they are messed up now, Jesus has a plan to transform them into people who are glorious and guiltless.
Paul looks at the broken local church and envisions beauty. He looks at the sinful local church and envisions sainthood. He looks at the undesirable local church and is overcome with desire for her flourishing. Paul thinks about the church in the same way that Jesus does. He thinks about the church as family. Daughters and sons of God, with whom he is well pleased. The bride of Christ, to whom he has betrothed himself forever. Sisters and brothers to one another, fellow heirs of the Kingdom.
As Saint Augustine once said, sometimes “the Church is a whore…but she is still my Mother.”
Not only is the Church our Mother, She is also Jesus’ wife.
Would any of us dare turn our backs on the Bride that he loves?
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