Dear church,” the Facebook or Twitter posts usually start. And then the critiques follow.
If you weren’t so insular, you’d reach more people with the gospel.
If you weren’t so divisive, you’d make the gospel more attractive.
If you weren’t so materialistic, perhaps you’d give more.
If you weren’t so angry, people would listen to you more.
I wonder if, in our zeal to criticize the church, we often forget a simple truth: Jesus loves the church.
I usually find myself agreeing with some of these criticisms and have offered them myself. I’ve written articles and books that challenge God’s people. But I wonder if, in our zeal to criticize the church, we often forget a simple and inescapable truth:
Jesus loves the church. The Bible often describes the church as the object of His deep affection—His bride.
Imperfect. Unworthy. Unfaithful. And yet deeply loved by Christ.
Jesus Loves Her, This We Know
So if Jesus loves the church, why is it so hard for us to love her too? Perhaps because we see our own messy journey to sanctification and know that if the church is made up of people like, well, me, then how good can she be?
When we look at the church, what we fail to see is what Jesus sees. He doesn’t see the sins and imperfections of His bride. He sees a rescued, redeemed, pure church. He sees ahead to the great marriage supper of the Lamb. He sees past the thin vapor of this fallen world and on into eternity, where He will spend forever with His people.
Imagine if we saw our brothers and sisters as God sees them. This doesn’t mean we tolerate sin or abuse. God is also described as a Father who lovingly brings discipline in order to restore relationship. But even in our rebukes, even in our frustration and anger at the way sin fractures and destroys, let us rebuke with tears, with grace, with a sense of humility. At times we will be recipients of this rebuke and in need of our own repentance.
We should take this posture, not only with our personal critiques within congregations, but in the ways we offer necessary and prophetic rebukes to the worldwide church in our congregations. In our local churches, of course, we should favor the more difficult but necessary method of personal confrontation found in Matthew 18, instead of airing our dirty laundry on social media or dialing up friends. When it comes to public differences with public statements and events in the worldwide church, Matthew 18 may not always apply, but the caution and concern for our brothers and sisters should not be any less. We need to examine our true motives, and especially in a time when slamming evangelicals has almost become a cottage industry. It seems the fastest way into a book contract is to take broad swipes at the people of God. This doesn’t mean we have no need for prophets who exhort the church, but we might ask ourselves if we are genuinely, tearfully, humbly calling the church to repentance—or if we’re merely in search of clicks and quick fame.
Oh, the Humanity
The other reason we’re often cavalier with our critiques of the church, I suspect, is that we fail to see the humanity of our brothers and sisters. It’s easy to write digital bromides against “the church” but much harder to do that when we imagine the faces of the people we are critiquing. It becomes harder to be unfair when you imagine the deacon who volunteers his time tutoring kids at the local public school, or the businessman who offers jobs to young men with criminal records, or the doctor who spends several months fighting disease in a developing country.
This is how Paul, even as he’s delivering a blistering prophetic rebuke to the carnal church at Corinth, can address them as brothers. You can almost hear the tears hitting the parchment as he writes. “I always thank my God for you,” he tells them, “[and] appeal to you, brothers and sisters” (1 Corinthians 1:4; 1 Corinthians 1:10 NIV). Even as he goes hard at the sin and division, he reminds them, “I do not write these things to shame you, but to admonish you as my beloved children”(1 Corinthians 4:14).
This doesn’t mean we have no need for prophets, but we might ask ourselves if we are genuinely, tearfully, humbly calling the church to repentance.
This is why Jesus, even as He rebukes Peter, sees ahead to the day when this impulsive young disciple will one day preach on the day of Pentecost and eventually be martyred for the gospel. Jesus looks past the cowardly denials, past the impertinent statements and sees ahead to the Spirit-filled apostle whose preaching will be a catalyst for this new movement of God in the church.
We need prophets in our own day. We need people willing to call out systemic sin and urge repentance. We need pulpits that echo the urgency of repentance, as well as books and blogs and, yes, even tweets, that challenge the people of God. But before we fire off those words and press send, we should humbly, prayerfully, and carefully consider those at the receiving end of our statements: prayerful, sinful people God loves.
And the goal of every strong word should be repentance and unity. Jesus’ desire is for His people, His body, His bride to be marked by love for each other and unity under the cover of His truth.
Unity is hard and difficult work. It’s not the natural way of our sinful souls. It bends against the tribal ethos of our culture. And it often gets in the way of our ambitions. But if we are going to be people of the Book, we should aim to be humble, open-handed, and teachable.