It has become all too common for men and women to attack the church for all of the ways in which they believe that the church has failed. Almost every day professing believers rant online about the failures of “the evangelical church,” “the Reformed church,” “the Western church,” etc. While recognizing that all of these categories are somewhat artificially manufactured, they are, nevertheless, all subject to a good measure of just criticism. What has recently struck me, however, as something deeply problematic is the way in which those who are most vocal in their criticisms are silent with regard to commendations of these subsets of the universal church. The visible church–in whatever shapes or forms it may take–is the bride of Christ. We must resist the urge to speak critically of her without giving her the requisite love and care that Jesus wants us to give those for whom he has shed his precious blood.
The Psalmist–speaking by the Spirit of Christ–declared, “As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight” (Psalm 16:3). We don’t get to pick and choose which believers we are to love and which ones we are not to love. Jesus exemplified the cry of the Psalmist by perseveringly loving–even to the death of the cross–his oftentimes argumentative, brash and foolish disciples. There was, in all of his instruction to them, a balance of commendation and criticism. We also find this to be so with regard to the way in which Jesus commended and criticized his churches in his letters in Revelation 2-3.
The Apostle Paul also modeled for us what it looks like to love the bride of Christ by the way in which he addressed matters of deep importance in the life of the church. The Apostle always reminded believers of what they were, even while correcting the sin that was so pervasive in their lives. He did so most of all in his letters to the church in Corinth. Dr. John Skilton, the late professor of New Testament at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, used to tell his students, “If you want to really learn the theology of the New Testament, translate 1 and 2 Corinthians from the Greek.” Dr. Skilton went on to say, “The rationale for this is simple. We are met with nearly every challenge that we will face in pastoral ministry in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians.” In 1 and 2 Corinthians, Paul reminds the members of this sin-laden church–who are in desperate need of correction and instruction–that they were “sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (1 Cor. 1:2); “bought with a price” (1 Cor 6:20; 7:23), “betrothed to one husband…as a pure virgin to Christ” (2 Cor. 11:2) and “washed, sanctified, justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God,” (1 Cor. 6:11). These are just a few the ways Paul spoke to and about the bride of Jesus. In fact, it was because she was the bride of Christ that he poured himself out to the degree to which he did so for her good. When writing to Timothy, Paul explained, “I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory” (1 Tim. 2:10).
The church (in every form in which it is manifested on earth) is certainly subject to criticism and correction; but, those things must always be done out of love and a desire to treat her for what she is in truth–the very bride of Christ. To speak of the church with disrespect, harshness, malice and judgmentalism is to speak of Christ’s bride in those ways. We need to examine how we are speaking to and about the bride of Jesus. After all, “from heaven he came and sought her, to be his holy bride; with his own blood he bought her and for her life he died.”