Of all the varying ways the Bible talks about the Church, it’s hard to top her description as the bride of Christ. In one simple metaphor God declares His intentions for passionate intimacy and uninterrupted unity with us. Talk about marrying someone out of our league!
However, if we’re not careful we can view the bridal metaphor solely in terms of our personal relationship with Him rather than the relationship He has with the entire Church. To insure against the dangers that come with such an individualistic mindset, the Bible has another metaphor to describe His church … the body.
The body metaphor reminds us that, far from being independent Christians, we are an interdependent part of a larger whole (1 Corinthians 12:12). Although we are unified in our status as the bride of Christ, the body is composed of members as unique and varied as an eye is from a hand. Unity does not always mean sameness.
Nevertheless, there also exists an array of differences that were never meant to be a part of the Church at all. A variety in giftings is one thing but variety in beliefs is quite another! In other words, not all the differences we see in the body are healthy, and some of them even represent serious flaws within the bride.
A LONG WAY TO GO
In Ephesians 4:13 Paul states that the Church will one day “attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God … to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”
It doesn’t exactly take keen powers of perception to see how far the Church is from that ideal! Sadly, at the moment the variances within the Church have a tendency to define her just as much as the areas of commonality. If the Church is the body of Christ, then our differences are like teenage acne: an unpleasant reminder that we still have a lot of growing up to do.
God has no intention of ignoring the blemishes that exist in His bride, nor does He call us to ignore them.
In fact, in Colossians 3:16 we are commanded to teach and admonish our fellow believers. That being said, there is a right and wrong way to go about it. Ironically, in our approach to immaturities within the Church we often display more of our own need for sanctification than we reveal in others.
For one thing, as believers in Christ we naturally want God to deal with our personal shortcomings with both patience and mercy. While He certainly does that, we need to recognize that the same blessings we get from being the bride also extend to the person in the pew next to us or even those in the church down the street.
That being said, how do you treat believers who happen to disagree with you on some matter of faith? If we are honest, most of us would admit our propensities are not often toward patience and mercy. In fact, frustration and intolerance might be a better description. Not only is this reaction grossly hypocritical toward the bride, it can be offensive to the Bridegroom!
Can you imagine your response if someone treated your spouse with the disdain many believers treat the Church? Do we imagine Christ is any less jealous for His bride?
It’s only natural that we would want to distance ourselves from the faults we see within the Church. At the same time, we have to be careful that we don’t distance ourselves so much that we begin to treat the body of Christ as something distinct from ourselves. Being separated from the Church, even a flawed church, is the last place any believer should want to be!
Unfortunately, many of us have a tendency to regard the Church in much the same way as Paul did before his conversion. Needless to say, at that time he didn’t exactly identify himself as a part of the body either. As a result, he had no problem self-righteously tearing down those he found fault with.
On the other hand, Paul’s treatment of the Church after his conversion reflects that of a man who identifies himself as a part of the body. No one knew the shortcomings in the Church more than Paul, but far from ignoring those faults he strove to build up the bride rather than tear her down as before. He encouraged the saints to follow his example by treating each other with “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another” (Colossians 3:12-13).
WHAT DOES TRUE LOVE FOR THE CHURCH LOOK LIKE?
Above all, Paul knew the key element in approaching faults within the Church must always be love (Colossians 3:14). Christ loves the Church, and so should you.
Love requires us to have both the patience to bear with one another, and the boldness to confront each other. It is, at varying times, as meek as a manger and as fierce as a cross. We can’t forget that the same Paul who wrote about having "compassionate hearts" also sharply criticized those "foolish Galatians" when they strayed from his teachings.
In the end, true love for the Church can best be understood by the goal it seeks … unity. The type of unity that God is after does not come at the expense of the truth but finds its foundations in the truths of Jesus Christ.
While the disunity and flaws within the Church can sometimes seem insurmountable, they will always shrink in comparison to God’s promise to mature His bride. Not only that, but we can be sure He will use our loving exhortation, not prideful attacks, as a means toward that glorious end.