'Love the Church at All Costs' or 'Avoid such people'?
The Bible gives both answers. Which, depends on asking the right question.
Professor Dustin Binge’s article, “What Do You Say to Someone Who Says, “I Love Jesus, but Not the Church?” On Crossway and Southern Connect acts as an apologetic against those who say they love Jesus but struggle to love the church (meaning the people in it).
The article dismisses all critical stances toward the church as the result of personal hurt, poorly managed. Dr. Binge, a professor at the flagship Southern Baptist Seminary, proceeds to defend all church failure by asking the reader to see the institution of the church like Christ sees the Bride of Song of Solomon: “broken,” and “sinful,” but also “beautiful” (and by implication it demands your respect and affection, regardless).
I believe Mr. Binge has wrongfully analyzed the issue at hand by prematurely jumping to the defense of the institution. Instead of asking some hard questions about, “what is a Christian?” or even, “what is a church?” He runs into the fray questioning those who dislike the church like Pope Leo X responding to that troubler of Israel, Martin Luther:
“Arise, O Lord, and judge Thy cause. A wild boar has invaded Thy vineyard!”
To see Christ’s perspective on the Church, instead of jumping to Song of Solomon and getting lovey-dovey about something “sinful,” and “broken,” but “beautiful;” one should jump to when Jesus actually evaluated congregations one-by-one: Revelation 2-3. There one finds a much different picture than “you are beautiful my love” (Song of Solomon 4.7). Instead Christ’s love for the church manifests as,
“those I love I rebuke and chasten, therefore be zealous and repent” (Revelation 3.19).
In Revelation, the most faithful churches are charged to,
“be faithful to the point of death and [then and only then] I will give you the crown of life”
(Jesus to the church of Smyrna, Rev 2.10)
“hold on to what you have so that no one takes your crown”
(Jesus to the church of Philadelphia; Rev. 3.11).
To the half-hearted he says,
“Remember then how far you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. Otherwise, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent”
(Jesus to the church of Ephesus, Rev 2.5),
“Remember, then, what you have received and heard; keep it, and repent. If you are not alert, I will come like a thief, and you have no idea at what hour I will come upon you.”
(Jesus to the church of Sardis, Rev. 3.3).
Lastly, to the outright faithless congregations he says,
“because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I am going to vomit you out of my mouth….”
“I stand at the door and knock.”
(Jesus as though he were an unwelcome guest; to Laodicea, Rev 3.20).
As one can see, whether faithful, or faithless, Christ does not wax warm when it comes to sin and perseverance amongst his people. So a better starting point than, “the church is hard to love but you must love it” is, “is this thing called ‘church’ really the bride of Christ?”
Imagine, for instance, Martin Luther being criticized for forsaking Rome. “Martin, doesn’t the Epistle to the Hebrews say ‘don’t forsake our own assembling together?’” Any true Protestant has a locked and loaded response: the Church of Rome is no church, but an apostate institution pretending to be a church. It has the linen garments like the Song of Solomon’s Bride, but it is Babylon, not Zion.
So I simply ask, is this institution that makes the mark of one’s Christianity whether one is in a seat Sunday to Sunday the bride? When Christ speaks to the Ephesian church, seemingly a type of the Contemporary Reformed/Calvinistic movement in its zeal for sound doctrine, he threatens to “take their lampstand” (Rev 2.5). Revelation commentator G.K. Beale remarks that this likely alludes to the presence of the Holy Spirit (ie. Its use in Zechariah 4.2), and thus:
“Those who had contained and shed abroad so much light through their possession of truth might lose it entirely.”
G. K. Beale and David H. Campbell, Revelation: A Shorter Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015), 56.
In addition, the New Testament alludes to an apostasy (falling away) which was to occur in the last days:
“Now we request you, brethren, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him, that you not be quickly shaken from your composure or be disturbed either by a spirit or a message or a letter as if from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one in any way deceive you, for it will not come unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being God.”
“But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God….”
That above list sounds like a great portion of modern day church goers. The last item on Paul’s list continued from above is the post mortem autopsy for why:
“having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power.”
The power, that is, of the Holy Spirit within all the religious activity is missing among such people.
What does Paul say about such a people? Is it, “I know the church is messy, but love her like Jesus”? No, rather he says, “avoid such people,” (2 Tim 3.5), “they are always learning, unable to come to the truth” (v.7), that they are “corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith” (v.8), and that “their folly will be plain to all” (v. 9).
In other words, let’s test and see if the thing reported to be the bride of Christ, is indeed the bride. If found false, we are called to “come out of her” (Rev. 18.4), and “avoid such people,” just as the Reformers came out of and avoided the ‘church’ of Rome.
Are Christians to love the broken, sinful, but beautiful church? Only if it’s the church.