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I once heard someone say, “I love Jesus, but I don’t care much for the church.” Many in our day are convinced that they can have a relationship with Jesus and yet have no relationship with His church, which is His bride. Some have a tenuous relationship with the church and make no real commitments to it. In their estimation, the church is full of weaknesses, it fails at its mission, it does not adequately reflect the glory of its Lord, etc. Others have no relationship with the church, thinking that the church is at best unnecessary and at worst a hindrance to their pursuit of a self-made spirituality. And perhaps there is another group that lives within the membership of the church but does so grudgingly and impatiently. People in this group will swap churches often in search for the ideal church, one without problems, one that meets their needs perfectly.
None of these approaches is honoring to Christ. Those who fail to see the importance and necessity of the church fail to soberly consider that the church is the bride of Christ. Those who easily move from one church to another fail to understand the church as a spiritual organism that is progressively being beautified by her husband, and they are impatient with the process. The Apostle Paul helps us understand how we should think of the church in Ephesians 5:25–27:
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
From this text we learn several truths about the church that should help us in knowing how to think rightly about the church and our relationship to her. First, we learn that the church is the object of Christ’s redeeming love. Paul states that Jesus gave Himself up for her (v. 25). This gives us a perspective on how we should value the church as the bride of Christ. If He so values His bride, should we not do so as well? It can hardly be conceived of as honoring to Christ to act in a dismissive manner toward His bride. He who loves Jesus must also love the church, which is His bride.
Second, we learn that Jesus is sanctifying and cleansing the church (v. 26). Of course, the implication is that the church is in need of sanctification and cleansing. The church is set apart from this world unto Christ positionally, and the church is being made holy experientially. Just as personal sanctification is a process, so collective sanctification is an ongoing process, for what is the church but a collection of believers, united in Christ and gathered together into an assembly? Jesus is yet cleansing His bride of her impurities. He is yet washing her with His Word. He does not reject her because of her impurities, and neither should we. He remains committed to her as His beloved.
Third, we learn that Jesus’ goal for the church is her beautification in glory (v. 27). This is His commitment to her, from which He will not depart. We should also be committed to the beautification of Christ’s bride, and we should not abandon her because she at present lacks the beauty of holiness. Like our Lord, we should stay committed to her and labor for her growth in grace, despite her many spots and wrinkles. Every church is a mixture of purity and impurity. Every church is in process. The Westminster Confession of Faith summarizes this teaching of Scripture:
This catholic [i.e., universal] church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them. The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error. (25.4–5)
We learn in Ephesians 5:27 that Jesus will one day complete the process. He will finish what He has started. It is certain. Jesus will not abandon the beautification of His bride. In Philippians 1:6, the Apostle Paul says to the church, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”
Now, it may be that some churches so degenerate from the truth of the gospel that they cease to be true churches at all. The Westminster Confession states: “Some have so degenerated, as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless, there shall be always a church on earth, to worship God according to his will” (25.5). All true churches are in the middle ground—that is, in process; not perfect, but not devoid of the sanctifying work of the Spirit either. Jesus is perfecting His church, but that work is far from complete. As in personal sanctification, the work is completed only at the return of Christ in glory.
Thus, we need to take a long-term view of the progress of the church’s growth and maturation in holiness. If it is a process that will continue throughout this life, then we must be patient with the church when we see flaws in it. Fatal flaws may warrant leaving to find a true church that preaches the Word, administers the sacraments, and practices discipline. But most flaws in the bride of Christ are not fatal flaws. Loving patience and a lifelong commitment to Christ’s bride are needed. Do we love the bride of Christ? If we love Christ, we must also love His bride and lovingly and patiently long for and labor for her beautification.