I am not naïve; the church can be a pretty ugly bride. I’m not talking about a lack of physical beauty but a deeper kind of ugliness that comes from the inside. The kind that makes someone ugly no matter how good looking they are. I have served with three pastors who have resigned after their “inappropriate relationship” surfaced. I’ve been hired but never paid by one of America’s wealthiest churches. I’ve seen “worship leaders” use the church stage as a platform for their own celebrity and pastors who let them because they can draw a crowd. I’ve read about churches and entire denominations that have traveled the wrong way down the path of biblical orthodoxy for the sake of a popular message and I have been grieved. I’ve seen volunteers who abuse, deacons with explosive anger, and unwelcoming ushers who were more concerned my coffee could stain the sanctuary carpet than the fact I was a new visitor. I am a fourth-generation pastor who has served on the staff of numerous churches so I’ve seen more of her behind-the-scenes and without make-up dark side than I’d like to admit. And that’s just the leaders. I recently read a news story about a man who shot and killed a fellow churchgoer during a fight over a saved seat.
Our preferences, doctrines, and sins divide us each Sunday just as they did when Paul was out church planting. The church is often closer to an unpleasant woman who gossips and sleeps around than the royal priesthood and holy nation that 1 Peter tells us about. These are widespread issues that church hopping will never fix. There will always be a pull towards money, sex, and power in pulpits and pews as long as people fill them. I see it in our leaders, congregants, and in my own heart.
So what are we going to do? Should we just pack it all up, cut our losses, and become lone ranger followers who export our discipleship to podcasts? Should we just blame God for His unruly children and walk away from the whole deal? Yeah, we could. We probably each have enough stories of our own to justify it. But walking away now would be like hitting the parking lot in the bottom of the ninth inning right before your team’s historic comeback. You’d be filled with more regret than the jock in every Hollywood storyline who overlooked plane Jane before she transformed into a supermodel.
You see these local churches are little brides of Christ that Jesus purchased with His own blood while they were still ugly. He found her as a backstabbing seductress discarded on the side of the road and made her the most beloved of the King. Now He is working His beautification process on her. As Ephesians tells us, “Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless.” Matthew Henry’s commentary says, “Christ gave himself for the church, that he might sanctify it in this world, and glorify it in the next.”
The incredible thing about that verse in Ephesians is love comes before beauty. Jesus does not love the church because she is beautiful. It is His love that makes her beautiful. And even more, it is not a skin deep physical beauty but an inner holiness that purifies every stain hidden deep in her marrow.
If you can look passed a few dark blemishes and imperfections, you will see her transformation is already taking place. Local churches around our world are being newly awoken to adoption, orphan-care, and every form of social justice. You will see a greater emphasis on communal discipleship, relational evangelism, and reaching the unreached. Mega-churches are ditching the “come and see the spectacle” approach and getting into the streets of their communities through church planting. You will find thousands and thousands of faithful pastors, leaders, and volunteers who have been plowing the harvest field for decades without recognition. The scandals and bad experiences get all the press but they don’t tell the whole story. Underneath them is an ocean of beautiful attributes and a flawless bride in the making. Although we are clearly called to be a part of the solution these qualities are not a result of a few good men making a difference. They are the result of God Himself sanctifying His bride.
So let us not be fooled, who the church is now is not who she will always be. Every sin and every scandal that surfaces should not be fuel for our departure but a sign that we are being washed and cleansed by Jesus who gave His life for us. Let us not give up on the church now and miss out on who God is sanctifying her to be. She is the bride of Jesus and He Himself is making her beautiful. Just like each of us, the local church is currently a faint expression of her future heavenly reality. One day soon, a great multitude of fallen pastors, unhappy lay leaders, hypocrite Christians, and the Pharisee in each of us will join our spotless, wrinkleless, holy, and blameless voices together in Christ and sing the words of Revelation 19 at the top of our lungs,
For our Lord God Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and be glad
and give Him glory!
For the wedding of the Lamb has come,
and His bride has made herself ready.
Fine linen, bright and clean,
was given her to wear.”