It should come as no surprise that in Western culture, triumphantly individualistic as it is, institutions tend to suffer in people’s estimations. Christians, shaped too much by this culture, predictably have a diminished appreciation even for their very own institution. They may recognize a certain need for the church, but neither loyalty to and love for her, on the one hand, nor a conviction that an individual Christian’s fortunes are bound up with those of the church, on the other, is as central to Christian piety as in earlier ages. Christians nowadays do not typically sing songs in their worship that express the same sentiment as did the once treasured hymns “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,” “The Church’s One Foundation,” or “I Love Thy Kingdom Lord.”
To be sure, it isn’t always easy to think the church glorious or to “prize her heavenly ways.” She has often disgraced herself, and many times, though our spiritual mother (Gal. 4:26), she has done her children more harm than good.
I grew up, like most every American boy, glorying in the achievements of the American military in the Second World War. As I grew older, I learned more, and much of what I learned was not to the credit of my boyhood heroes. Their victories in battles and the heroism of the sacrifices made by so many remained, but now I had to add these facts to my recollection of triumph: incompetent or vainglorious generals who kept mistresses throughout the war while their soldiers struggled to endure long separations from wives and sweethearts; stupid and often self-serving tactics that cost thousands upon thousands of lives unnecessarily; inter-service rivalries that sometimes seemed as bitter as the contest with the enemy; substandard equipment that made its manufacturers rich but left G.I.s to fight a better-equipped foe; vast quantities of such equipment siphoned off to the black market by soldiers hoping to profit from the war; and profane and ill-tempered soldiers, sailors, and airmen who must have often been as great a trial to put up with as the enemy himself. This was the military that won that war — and far too often, such has been the church.
Surely Martin Luther was right to say that there is no greater sinner than the church. It was, after all, the professed church that crucified the Lord of glory. Impossible as it seems, she was so theologically and spiritually corrupt that she thought she was serving God by putting the Son of God to death. And in the same blindness and stupidity, she has done similar things times without number. She has forsaken the Word of God and put obstacles in the way of her people’s reverence for the Bible; she has made peace with the unbelieving world around her; and she has persecuted those who have had the temerity to draw attention to her infidelity. It is one of the deep mysteries of divine providence that the visible church of the Lord Jesus Christ is not more impressive than she is.
It takes faith to love, admire, and respect the church. Her sins mount up before our eyes. But faith knows that the church’s failures are hardly the whole story. Augustine once said in a sermon that he had nowhere found better men and nowhere found worse than in monasteries. The same is true of the church at large, where despicable traitors and sterling saints jostle together. For all her failures — and they make for dismal reading — there is nothing like her in the world. As Archbishop William Temple once observed, the church is “the only cooperative society in the world that exists for the benefit of its non-members.” The church has done great things for the world. Anyone who reads church history knows how many exceptional people have belonged to her through the ages. The church’s hall of heroes must be very large indeed to have room for all who deserve to be remembered there. In addition, there are vast multitudes of simple people who lived in obscurity but who loved the Lord and lived lives of genuine faithfulness. Heaven knows their worth.
What Blaise Pascal said of the Word of God could just as well be said of the church of Jesus Christ: “There is enough brightness to illuminate the elect, and enough obscurity to humble them.” But then, we do not have to prove the church’s worth. The Lord Jesus has already done that by telling us that the church is His body, that He loved the church and gave Himself for her, that she is His bride, that He is head over all things for the church, and that He will not permit the gates of hell to prevail against her. Christians are duty-bound to think about things as their Lord and Savior does, and He has told us that the church is and remains the apple of His eye.
We must remember that there is but one institution in this world that will also exist in the world to come. It is not one’s country; it is not even one’s family. It is the church of God. It is disloyalty to Christ not to revere, serve, and prove loyal to His kingdom, His house, and His body, which is to say, His church.