Sam and Sarah arrived just in time for their 8 p.m. dinner reservation with his co-worker, Bill, and his wife. Bill met Sam at the door with a smile and a hearty handshake and led them to their table where he introduced him and Sarah to his wife, Jan. Upon seating, the server took their order, and their friendly banter began. Those were the only positive highlights of the evening. The rest became pretty ugly pretty quickly.
At first, it seemed innocuous. A snide comment here. A tiny barb there. However, as the meal wore on, it became painfully obvious that something wasn’t just right between Bill and Jan. His stories and humor became more abrasive. He began to disparage her appearance and intelligence. Jan did the best she could to be a good sport and fend off her husband’s assault with humor, but after one particularly stinging comment, Jan became so affected she had to excuse herself to the ladies’ room. Sarah followed her to try to offer some comfort in the midst of Bill’s inappropriate tirade. Sam, on the other hand, stayed put and gently but firmly began to challenge Bill on the way he was treating his wife. “Some things just can’t be tolerated,” he said. “A man tearing down his wife right in front of me is one of them.”
No matter how we were raised, I would imagine most of us would agree with Sam, or at least his sentiment. There are some offenses that rise to the level of needing to be addressed immediately. Bullying, cruelty to the elderly, child abuse, a man berating his wife … these are the symptoms of a fallen world that call for a clear and decisive action. If we could all generally agree that these kinds of problematic behaviors warrant a response, let me offer a couple of perhaps more difficult questions.
If we wouldn’t tolerate Bill tearing down his bride in our presence, why would we tolerate the tearing down of Jesus’ bride — the church — in our presence?
Or, even worse, why would we engage in it ourselves?
Now, let me be clear. I’m not talking about people who don’t know Jesus or the media spewing verbal venom. We’ve almost come to expect that kind of behavior in our day. I’m talking about Christians complaining about the church and all her flaws. “Friendly fire,” if you will. I’m talking about the very people for whom Jesus spilled His blood, complaining about their brothers and sisters and the “bride of Christ” of which all who have turned from their sins and trusted in Christ are a part.
I’m sad to say I have been guilty of this. I clearly remember times of lamenting how the church should be more “this” or less “that.”
I bet you’ve done it, too, when you’ve become frustrated by the behavior of someone in your small group.
And we will likely do it again in our darker moments.
But we shouldn’t. And I’m writing this article in an effort to try to help us do it less.
Taking a Stand
There’s a number of different ways we could attack this problem. I could tell you sad stories and try to shame us toward change, but that would only work for a moment. I could YELL AT YOU IN ALL CAPS and fall into the same trap I’m trying to help us avoid. Instead, I want to share with you a couple of snapshots from Scriptures that I bet most of us haven’t really given much thought in hopes of showing us just how beautiful the bride of Christ truly is. Let’s begin in Ephesians 3:8-10.
To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.
As with any passage, context is key in rightly unpacking what God wants us to understand. In this passage, the Apostle Paul is heralding the wonder of God revealing the great “mystery” of Christ. When we hear this word today, our mind immediately conjures up images of Sherlock Holmes or Scooby-Doo, but in Paul’s day, his hearers would have understood this to mean “something that was once concealed is now revealed.” He states this clearly in verse 6 that this “mystery” is that Jews and Gentiles have been brought together and united in one body. This would have been amazing news for these hearers as these two groups were strictly separated. Here in verses 8-9, Paul shares what an amazing “grace” it is that he was allowed to see this “coming together” with his own eyes. In verse 10, we see the reason why this is happening in the first place: “so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.”
That’s right. The church is to be a megaphone to herald God’s “multi-faceted, many-colored” wisdom of God to the “demons and other enemies in the spiritual realm.” The church that we are prone to complain about. The church that we are so quick to see her faults and not her glory. That church has been chosen to display the glory of God and put the kingdom of darkness on notice. It’s a beautiful thing, really.
The Apostle Peter has more to say about her here in 1 Peter 2:9-10.
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
Here, Peter is speaking to a group of suffering Christians (and us) about some of the aspects of our new identity as people who have begun to follow Jesus. Look at those amazing descriptions in verse 9: “a chosen people,” a “royal priesthood,” a “holy nation,” a “people belonging to God.” Does this sound like a group of people that we should spend our time maligning? Absolutely not. Instead, we should be busy engaging ourselves in the purpose that verse 9 lays out for us: “declar(ing) the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” Our time would be far better spent, and Jesus’ kingdom would be far better served, if we spent our time declaring the praises of Jesus instead of telling Him His bride is ugly.
Putting Feet On It
In addition to meditating on and being corrected by passages like these, let me suggest some other useful steps in helping us appreciate the beauty of the bride of Christ.
1. Read the Book.
Though I’ve already touched on the Scriptures’ role in this process, I cannot overemphasize their importance. The culture and modern media provide a perpetual tide of bad press, black eyes and reasons to feel discouraged about the church. The Scriptures provide the opposite. The more time we spend looking at what God thinks about the church (Matthew 16:18-19, 18:15-20, John 17:21, 23, Ephesians 3, Hebrews 10:25) the more we will be drawn to see her in all of her glory, along with her imperfections that come from sinful people just like us. The Scriptures can and should define our reality on this and all other topics.
2. Watch the movie.
Though nothing can replace the role of Scripture in our lives, it is always an encouragement when we can see the Truth bearing fruit in a tangible way. I would encourage you to look around your small group or Bible study the next time you are together. Assuming that the members are following Jesus, think about the fact that Jesus has changed each and every one of their lives forever — both their present and their future — and that He is still changing them. And you have a front-row seat to get to see it each and every week. This is an amazing privilege!
3. Look in the mirror.
In addition to the wonderful, sanctifying work that God is doing in the lives of those around you, it is also important to remember that God is doing the same kind of work within you as well. Though we are often too quick to see our own failings and neglect our spiritual progress, God’s promise to the Philippian church rings true for us as well: “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6 ESV). Never forget, because of the finished work of Jesus on our behalf, we are a part of the beautiful bride that Jesus is building for himself.
4. Spread the news.
Our generation has no shortage of naysayers and cynics. In the same way that Sam “went to bat” to defend Jan, we should graciously, winsomely seek to do the same on behalf of the bride of Christ. If someone is deriding the church in your presence, I have found it helpful to try to help others not paint all Christians with the same broad brush and gently remind them that none of us (including them!) are perfect and are all in need of grace. I also look for concrete ways to acknowledge the essence of their concerns while steering them toward focusing on the perfection and power of Christ and His ability to use the church in spite of her imperfections.
For example, let’s say someone shares a concern that “the church doesn’t care for the poor like Jesus did.” I begin by agreeing all Christians should agree we should care for the poor, but also share that since we Christians are not fully like Jesus, there will always be some confusion and perhaps even legitimate disagreement about how these complicated waters can be navigated most effectively. Of course there are some circumstances in which certain practices of the church can and should be critiqued (e.g., squandering funds, ordaining gay clergy, abuse of children, etc.) but I have found these to be largely the exception and not the rule. In all situations, my goal is to not “throw the baby out with the bathwater” and to highlight both the beauty of Jesus but also the beauty of the church, even in spite of her flaws in this and all other areas. That’s what I do. But what will you do?
Will you help others see the beauty of the bride of Christ?
Copyright 2012 Dustin Neeley. All rights reserved.