The Dysfunctional but Cherished Church

The last few days, I’ve been meditating on phrases from Ephesians 4 that caught my attention when working through Ephesians for By His Wounds You Are Healed. Here are some thoughts on the dysfunctional (though cherished by God) Church, which were first published in that study.

4 There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

Here it is the great summary of why we must eagerly pursue unity with other believers despite the dysfunction we have likely witnessed in our church experiences—because there is only ONE Body. Paul is talking about the Body of Christ, which is made up of all those Christ has reconciled to Himself—i. e. the Church. How do you define the Church? It is not church membership or denominational status, nor is it the building or the programs. What Paul is talking about here is simply all those who are IN CHRIST as he has described in Ephesians 1-3. The church is the people—not the building, the programs, the denominational bylaws, or the membership roles. You and I have an obligation that extends well beyond the boundaries of our particular “church.” We have an organic union with all those who are in Christ no matter where or when they lived. All believers, past, present, and future make up one Body. The ramifications of Paul’s point here are extensive.

The Church is notoriously unlovable. Consider the picture of God’s people painted in the book of Hosea. By God’s own order, Hosea marries the harlot Gomer and has a child with her. She then has two other children with different men. Hosea takes Gomer and her children back despite her adultery. But she leaves him again, returns to harlotry, and eventually becomes a slave. Hosea buys her back in public auction and brings her home, not as his slave, but again as his wife. God uses Hosea’s life story as a picture of His pursuit of His own people. God’s people have broken their covenant with Him throughout history. In return, God has relentlessly pursued His people, the Church, not because of her beauty or worthiness but for His own glory. As Paul said in Ephesians 1, God has lavished His love on us to the praise of His glorious grace. He is sanctifying His Church, rooting out her sin, and transforming her into the beautiful bride that He will present to Jesus at the marriage supper of the lamb in Revelation.

God is certainly doing a beautiful thing in and through His people. The Church will one day be presented spotless before God. But she is not there yet. The Church is a mess. This should make sense to us since she is made up completely of individuals who are all messes. The problem with the Church is that you and I are in it! Each of us in Jesus’ Body were by nature children deserving of God’s wrath. Each of us has no righteousness to offer God on our own. Each of us was saved by God’s grace and not our good works which Isaiah likened to filthy menstrual rags (Isaiah 64:6). It is important that we have a Biblically informed understanding of just who exactly the Body of Christ, the Church, is. If we do not, we are going to be disappointed and disillusioned, likely to the point that we give up on the whole idea altogether.

However, if we understand the Church, both the good and the bad, as Scripture presents her, then when she fails us, we understand that this is just her nature. We fight for unity in her anyway because we know she is Jesus’ Body. There is a great line from a song by Derek Webb in which he sings as Christ would about His church. “You can not live for Me with no regard for her. If you love Me you will love My church.”

You cannot say to Jesus, “I like your Head, but your Body disgusts me.” It is His BODY. God chose this picture to communicate to us something deep and beautiful about His people. We are one with each other and one with Christ. Therefore, we have to deal with the Church. We cannot cut ourselves off from her and expect a healthy relationship with Christ. It is all one glorious, supernatural entity. To believe the gospel means that we are in Christ, and to be in Christ means that we are supernaturally connected to His Body. Therefore, to reflect well on the gospel, we must diligently pursue unity with his Body for we are ONE.

13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

In dealing with our Christian community, it is essential we keep our eye on the prize—the end result of the Body of Christ growing together in unity and maturity in the true knowledge of God. As the daughter of a cotton farmer, I remember a farming illustration I heard growing up. If a farmer wanted to plow a straight line for a row of crops, he needed to keep his eye on a fixed point at the end of the row. If he looked down where he was, he would make a crooked line. But if he kept his eye on the spot that he wanted to reach at the end, he would maintain a straight line for his row of crops. That is a helpful illustration for us as we deal with issues and relationships within the Body of Christ, the Church. We have to keep our eye on the goal. What is the end result of all God is doing now? It is a church that is unified in the faith and the knowledge of God, measuring up to the stature of Christ. God is moving us toward the goal of Christian maturity in which we are no longer weak Christians easily deceived by every new doctrinal error. We will be a Body that works together in harmony and unity, each part doing its job. And what does fully realized Christian maturity look like? It looks like Christ! (Eph. 4:13)

As we discussed before, the Church is NOT there yet, but God calls us to choose the proper place to fix our focus. He calls us to focus squarely on the goal to which He is conforming his Body. This does not mean we stick our head in the sand and ignore the Church’s failings. That is not Christian unity either! But our perspective on the current failings of the Church must be informed by the end result that God promises He will accomplish—a beautiful, mature Body steadfast in correct doctrine where members work together and support each other. Knowing where we are going is a great help to making choices now on how to respond to current struggles.

How do we live in the tension between what God’s people currently are and the unified faith, knowledge, and maturity that God is moving us all toward? Paul has already given instructions on the necessity of humility and persevering love to maintain unity in the Body of Christ. Now, he gives us a concise summary statement we would all do well to make the guiding principle for all of our relationships within and without the church—speaking the truth in love.

The first thing I notice in this phrase is that speaking the truth is not necessarily loving in and of itself. I grew up in a segment of Christianity in which the greatest command was minimized while obnoxious methods of proclaiming the truth were promoted. During my teenage years, I asked one pastor why our church never talked about the greatest command to love. His response was that “liberal” churches had abused the concept of love so much that he was justified in rudely proclaiming truth without any effort to be loving and obedient to the greatest command. Paul is teaching here that both positions—love without truth and truth without love—are unhelpful to, and downright destructive of, the ultimate goal that God has painted for us of the mature, unified, doctrinally steady Body of Christ. We must both speak the truth and be loving. The two are not synonymous. We must not choose one or the other, and we must not delude ourselves into thinking that the fact we have one of them right excuses us from incorporating the other. We must do both!

We are not left with the task of determining what is or is not loving on our own because Paul does not deal with this concept subjectively. The term love is not used in Scripture the same way it is used in our culture. Biblically, it is not a mere emotion that leaves you warm and fuzzy but is otherwise hard to define. Instead, God gives us clear instructions in I Corinthians 13 as to exactly what He means when He instructs us to speak the truth in love. Did we speak truth kindly, patiently, and humbly? Or were we envious, proud, and boastful? Were we rude, self-seeking, and easily angered? Did we secretly take joy in evil? Did we give the benefit of the doubt, hope for the best, and endure with others? By the I Corinthians 13 definition, love is not simply a characteristic we should have when there is no sin, but it defines how we respond when there is sin. In fact, some of I Corinthians 13’s characteristics of love have no function at all except in response to sin and conflict.

In Ephesians 4:15-16, Paul continues drawing the picture of the finished product that God is making for Himself—the mature Body of Christ, with Christ as the Head and individual members joined and held together, growing and working properly together. At the end of this section he repeats the words that are becoming the central idea when we consider what distinguishes healthy church practices from unhealthy ones—in love.

John 13:35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (My pastor preached an excellent sermon on this verse last Sunday.  You can listen here.)

If you do not get Biblical love and exhibit it to others, John goes as far to say in I John 4 that you do not know God at all.

7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him…. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. 21 And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.

Perfection in a church is a totally unreasonable standard to expect of a church right now. The Bible is clear that the perfection Christ promises to work in us is not going to be fully realized until we are seated with him in heaven. We are part of an imperfect Church—both corporately and individually. And imperfect churches only demonstrate the profound need for consistent love. Without love, every issue is potentially divisive. Love gives us a specific way for speaking the truth, for teaching correct doctrine, for calling others (and ourselves) to repentance, and it involves kindness, gentleness, humility, and patience. You cannot present truth without love and expect a healthy church.

I’ll end with powerful words from John Stott’s Message of Ephesians commentary.

Thank God there are those in the contemporary church who are determined at all costs to defend and uphold God’s revealed truth. But sometimes they are conspicuously lacking in love. When they think they smell heresy, their nose begins to twitch, their muscles ripple, and the light of battle enters their eye. They seem to enjoy nothing more than a fight. Others make the opposite mistake. They are determined at all costs to maintain and exhibit brotherly love, but in order to do so are prepared even to sacrifice the central truths of revelation. Both these tendencies are unbalanced and unbiblical. Truth becomes hard if it is not softened by love; love becomes soft if it is not strengthened by truth. The apostle call us to hold the two together, which should not be difficult for Spirit-filled believers, since the Holy Spirit is himself ‘the Spirit of truth’ (John 14:17), and his firstfruit is “love” (Galatians 5:22). There is no other route than this to a fully mature Christian unity (p. 172).

7 Responses to The Dysfunctional but Cherished Church

  1. Luma Simms March 2, 2012 at 5:08 am #

    Amen Wendy!

  2. Angela March 2, 2012 at 4:35 pm #

    What a fantastic blog, I am so glad I have found you! I never usually read such long posts (says me who writes longs posts too) but yours keep me gripped from begining to end.

  3. Wendy March 2, 2012 at 9:44 pm #

    Thank you so much for this post, Wendy. I've really enjoyed your blog. After leaving the same church described in earlier posts, and admittedly still feeling confused about the role of the church and how we are to participate in it, this helps provide perspective of the church's humanity which is often overlooked by those (myself included) who call it home.

  4. Annie Joy March 23, 2012 at 1:43 am #

    Thank you Wendy for your thoughts and prayers. I pray these verses from Ephesians often.

  5. Julie March 31, 2012 at 4:27 pm #

    This hits home for me in a big way. There are so many things I don't like about my church. Good perspective……

  6. Florida gator forum April 16, 2012 at 2:01 pm #

    Really a good post.I never usually read such long posts but yours keep me gripped from beginning to end.

  7. Anonymous December 29, 2012 at 1:38 pm #

    Thank you, Wendy, for this list of posts. I read No. 10 first, because … This post is the icing on the cake of revelation God has been working through me for several months. I am in ministry and on staff at a church and have been so saddened by the condition of His church – myself included, and worst of all sinners – that I have begged God to take me out of it. It has brought out the worst in me (which I think God intended 🙂 so He could do His work!) Instead He is leading me through the pain and disappointment, sanctifying me on the way. My constant prayer is that He would fill me with His love for others. Let me see them with His eyes.