I remember telling an old pastor that if I just lived a certain way on the outside, conforming my behavior to the accepted Christian norms of that local church, then no one within the church would ever ask me about my walk with God. They would assume—from what they observed externally—that I was walking in faithful obedience to God. These common external practices shared by the members in my church were all good things. The problem came when, at a certain point, some of the members had twisted the gospel, equating some specific practices with godliness and placing matters of personal preference on the same level as the Word of God. It didn’t seem to matter what was going on in the heart of those who lived in a certain way, they were automatically considered godly as long as they followed the accepted practices.
This was a difficult season for me, wrestling with and trying to discern what is true godliness and what is living fueled by culture and legalism. I struggled to understand the gospel. I struggled to understand grace. And I struggled to know what is true and what is just man’s opinion. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever love the church again. I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to attend church. But there was something—Someone—greater pulling me toward that glorious and broken institution.
He Loves the Church
In Ephesians 5:22–33, God gives specific instructions for how husbands and wives are to relate to one another. At the same time, He also gives us a beautiful picture of the gospel and how Christian marriage reflects the relationship between Christ and His church. Paul writes:
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
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. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.
We are prone to focusing only on the commands given to the wife and husband in this passage. But don’t miss all that God is saying about what Jesus accomplished through the cross. In Ephesians 5, we get a glimpse into the marital love that Jesus has for His bride, the church. The church isn’t a pragmatic way to organize Christians for maximum effectiveness—it’s far more. The church is the object of Jesus’ intense focus and love. Listen to how the New Testament speaks about Jesus’ love for the church:
- Christ is the head of the church. He is the reason the church exists. Without Christ, there is no church (Col. 1:18).
- Jesus is the Savior of the church. His death made a way for people to approach God and we are now counted as brothers and sisters in Christ (Rom. 12:5).
- Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her (Rom. 5:8). It’s God’s amazing demonstration of love for us.
- Jesus sanctifies and cleanses His bride, the church (1 John 1:9; Phil. 1:6).
- Jesus stands in our place, intercedes for us, and will one day present His bride as spotless (Rom. 8:34; 1 Cor. 1:30; 1 John 3:2).
- Christ doesn’t hate His body; He nourishes it (Eph. 5:29).
Our Motive to Love the Church
When you read those truths and realize they apply to you, doesn’t it make your heart sing? It’s amazing how much Jesus loves His people. And we know that these truths aren’t in reference to just one select individual, but to the church as a whole—all people who have trusted in Jesus for their salvation. If Jesus loves the church this much, there’s no doubt that we ought to love it as well. Understanding all that Jesus has done motivates me to press in to love and serve the body. Jesus was sinned against, so we will be as well. The difference is, Jesus never sinned. We, however, will sin against our fellow man and need the grace that Jesus has provided.
I’ve only been a member of a few different local churches since I became a Christian. Those churches came with their own unique joys and sorrows. But I know that I need the church and the church needs me. We are not called to walk out our faith alone. Paul gave us another picture of our mutual need for one another in 1 Corinthians 12:12–26. The church is one body with many parts, each part possessing an important role to play. But if we allow hurts and sin to divide the body, it simply won’t function as it should. Because of sin, the church will always be a slightly dysfunctional family. But, by the grace of God, we can continually grow in love for one another. This kind of growth is only possible when we set our eyes on the cross of Christ and our resurrected King. Jesus’ sacrifice enables us to love the broken church and contribute to her, knowing that one day He will come back for His bride and we will perfectly worship as one.