This new series is devoted to loving the church.
A hard sell. Especially for younger Christians for whom leaving the church, or at least heftily criticizing it, is vogue. Those departures and critiques not entirely without some justification. I wrote in my book on cynicism toward the church that as “an untidly conglomeration” of damaged, sinful people lunging toward redemption, we are bound to generate a lot of “in-house wounds.” Church on-the-ground is often messy and hurtful.
In “loving the church,” we are not interested in just loving the ideal of the Church—capital ‘c’—but also with loving its local instantiations around the corner and up the road. We want to love the Church conceptually… and to love local churches practically.
Many of us are disgusted with the “local church” because of how poorly it measures up with the concept of “Church” presented in the New Testament. And it is right to be disgusted… though not because we are indignant idealists. And our disgust should be grounded in love and should stretch only as wide as our compassion.
What I am hoping to clarify in this blog series is that the New Testament writers who have offered us such a robust, lofting vision for “Church” were in no way removed from the messy realities of local churches. They did not write as ecclesial idealists.
If our vision of church/churches is taken from the NT at all, then we will be quite at home in the tension between the soaring theological vision and the ugliness of the actual situations we find at the ecclesial ground zero. The most extensive treatment of the powerful church-as-body metaphor is found in 1 Corinthians, a letter addressed to a church doting foolishly on celebrity teachers, divided by socioeconomic castes and fragmented along lines drawn between the hyper- and the hypospiritual. There was even a case of sexual immorality that would make the pagans blush. The Galatians were carefully instructed in the theological largesse of the Gospel, and then exchanged it all for some hotshot apostles who rolled into town with a different message. Even the highly praised Philippian church had its struggles—two hard-working church matrons (Euodia and Synteche) seemed to have had a falling out that was spreading throughout the congregation. Outside of Paul’s letters, we see that the Apostle John had much to critique about “the seven churches that are in Asia” (Rev 1:4). Peter and the writer of Hebrews had to exhort churches to exhibit stronger endurance in hard times. James offered a wisdom-styled critique of public speech, wavering faith and reliance on wealth. And in spite of the deep Christology of the churches under Johannine influence, that divisions were underway seems clear from 1, 2, and 3 John.
And yet all these writers offered a dense, powerful, ecclesiological vision of the Church as a Bride of striking splendor (Rev 19, et. al.), as a “royal priesthood” (1 Pet 2), as “a pillar and buttress of truth” (1 Tim 3). Our divine status as a holy people is so unspeakably high that we find this prayer in Ephesians,
“…that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe….” (Eph 1:18-19).
Soaring vision, yet messy reality—it is all part of the entire ecclesial kit.
Luke seems to be the NT author most called on as a witness against the contemporary church. Specifically, Acts 1-4. There we have pristine church. Pure church. Simple church. We sing the song of wanting to be like the early church, the church of Acts. But let’s not forget that within a few days a couple is lying about their property gifts (Acts 5) and a huge interracial dispute erupts when widows are found to be going without meals. Luke may have presented an idealistic picture of the newly generated church, but he was no idealist. His vision is tempered by accounts of the actual struggles of the earliest communities.
I am wanting to experience church not as an idealist and not as a cynic, but as a realist (a hopeful one, to be precise!). It’s ugly out there in the pews and trenches. That need not surprise us. Neither should the beauty lingering between the same pews and in the same trenches… if we have the eyes to see it.