I am not great at sound-bite theology. You know the kind I am talking about. It’s those pithy little sayings, often in 140 characters or less that seem so spiritual, deep, and insightful. They are easy to remember getting passed on time and again until they become accepted as a given, collective, cultural, truism. To oppose such massive wisdom makes one appear to be as out of touch as your basic Neanderthal. Worse yet, in Christian circles it makes people think you are certainly not spiritually mature and may not even be a true follower of Jesus.
The latest of these maxims drives a wedge between following Jesus and being connected to the church. I cannot count the number of times I have had people say, things like, “I don’t want to get caught up in all that church stuff. I don’t need all that. I just want to follow Jesus”. On the surface it sounds so pure, so right, so spiritual. But is it really? Is it what Jesus calls us to? I dare say that every time Jesus hears one of His followers jettison the church in favor of some personal, individualistic, walk with Him, He has to at least wince, if not weep, or even get a bit ticked. Why do I say that? Simply for this reason. Jesus says that the church is His Bride and He loves His Bride. He loves His Bride so much that according to Ephesians 5:25-27 He gave up His life for her, was willing to die under the excruciating pain of the Cross for her, was willing to sacrifice it all for her sake. Make no mistake, Jesus absolutely loves the church, more than we can imagine. It is His Bride who He intends to perfect and beautify so that on a great wedding day, at the end of this age, that Bride will be presented to Him, holy, pure, beautiful, and spotless. That Bride will be His glory and joy. Jesus loves the church. Why don’t we? Saying that you Love Jesus but can’t stand the church is like telling me that you think I am awesome but my wife is a complete loser. Sorry pal but we are going to have some words over that, and maybe a bit more than just words. You can’t have me and disrespect my wife. It is no different with Jesus.
The current issue of Newsweek Magazine has a very provocative article titled, Forget the Church Just Follow Jesus. In the article Andrew Sullivan does a masterful job of explaining this growing phenomenon. Sullivan points out that a major reason people are taking to this road of abandoning the church, yet still trying to follow Jesus, is because of the ways in which denominations, leaders, and local congregations have abused their positions and been drawn to power rather than servanthood. As a voracious student of history and a pastor for 30 years, I clearly understand the abuses, problems, and damage that is so often found in various expressions of the church. The history of the church is littered with heartbreaking examples of exactly what Sullivan writes about. On an emotional, psychological level I understand why people bail and want to go it alone, or nearly alone, with Jesus. It is simply easier. You don’t have the messiness of dealing with people. You don’t have the debates over theology or the practical out-working of it. You don’t have to deal with leaders who have gone off the deep end. It’s just easier. But it also breaks Jesus heart.
All of the problems that you see in the church are just like problems you see outside the church. People abuse power, from presidents of countries to presidents of home owner associations. People argue and divide over the smallest disagreements, from political parties to married couples. Since the church is made up of people we should not be surprised to see the same sinful behavior. But what we should see in the church is the people of Christ responding differently to those things. In the world we argue, attack, and vilify and then we take our ball and go home convinced of our own righteousness and everyone else’s depravity. Incredibly that same cycle has become part and parcel of life in the church. There will always be such struggles because we are still people beset by a sinful heart. But it should and it must be different in the church. It is the Bride of Christ that must show the world how to wrestle through those disagreements and struggles. It should be the church that shows the world what it means to reconcile with your brother or sister who has sinned against you. It is the church that should show what a redeemed community looks like. It is the church that needs to live out what it means to love your neighbor. Loving one another does not mean we always agree and get along. It means we continue to forgive and serve one another in spite of not always getting along. You can’t do that in isolation. It must be done within the context of this community we call The Church, the Bride of Christ, His Body.
Now the minute I say church, many people immediately go to the local congregation on the corner. They think of the organizational structure, a denomination, they think dead orthodoxy, religious legalism. They think of the pastor who hurt them or the church split that so devastated them. I am not talking about how a church is organized on a local level, or the various groups that have had such tragedy in their midst. I am talking about the church universal, what the Apostles Creed means when it says, “I believe in one holy, catholic, apostolic church”. That has nothing to do with the Roman Catholic church or any other particular structure. It is about the Bride of Christ throughout history. The Bride Jesus loves. I love that church. Right now she is a battered and disheveled bride. Her hair is a mess, lipstick smeared, gown torn, vail askew, one heal broken, knees scraped, and nylons full of runs. But she is still His Bride and He adores her!
The answer to the woes of the church is not to point out all her flaws and then retreat into isolation saying you don’t need or want the church. The answer to the flaws is to ask, what can I do to make that Bride ready for her wedding day? What can I do to help present her to Jesus as a beautiful, perfect bride who will bring glory to Him? To do that you absolutely must be in community with other followers of Christ. You must be willing to work through the hardship and struggle of community in order to experience the joy Jesus takes in His bride. I am not saying you have to be a part of any particular structure, denomination or group. People will make decisions to disconnect with local churches for many reasons. I am not debating that. What I am saying is that the sound-bite theology of forgetting the church altogether and just following Jesus is in the long run, dangerous! It is dangerous to your spiritual growth and well-being because you cannot grow in Christ with out being connected to the Body of Christ. It is simply not possible. Any part of the body that is connected to the head is by default connected to the rest of the body. Cut yourself off from the rest of the body and you cut yourself of from much that the head wants you to experience.
Jesus loves the church. It is the worlds best hope. For all its flaws and dysfunctions, the Bride of Christ is the worlds best hope. Rather than cast stones at her and flee into an individualistic, pietism of just me and Jesus, we must embrace the Bride, give her a hug of encouragement and then do all we can to prepare her for her wedding day. Idealistic? You bet it is! But that is because Jesus always places the ideal before us and says, reach for it, run to it, strive for the best that God has for you and the world. Failure is not an option and neither is giving up on the Bride. I love the church for a simple reason, Jesus loves the church so much that He gave His life for her. Can we do anything less?