Article originally published in the Standard Bearer on August 1, 2003 (vol.79, no.20).
God loves His church. She is precious to Him as the bride and body of Jesus Christ. So great is His love for her that He sent His Son to die for her. The church is His. He delights in her. Jehovah "loveth the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob" (Ps. 87:2).
Since God loves His church, so ought we. The church is beloved of God and precious to Him. That's what she should be to us.
To love God's church means, first of all, that we love the church as the universal body of Christ. That, after all, is what the church is—the great company of the elect. She is the body of those God eternally chose from every tribe and nation under heaven, and that He now gathers by His Word and Spirit in every age of world history. That church is to be the object of our love.
This involves loving the individual members of the universal body of Christ. Our love should not be limited just to the saints that live where we live, that have the same skin color as we have, and that speak the same language as we speak. The child of God who loves the church knows God has His people in all nations under heaven. He loves the people of God regardless of their physical, earthly differences. In this way he loves the church as the universal bride and body of Jesus Christ.
But we are to love the church also as a church institute. The reason for this is that the church asthe universal body of Christ comes to manifestation in this world as the gathering of believers and their seed in the institute. Wherever there is such a gathering, that congregation of God's people is a manifestation of the body of Christ in a particular place.
Not all church institutes, however, are that. Not just any gathering of people that calls itself a church is a church. The church as the universal body of Christ comes to manifestation only where a church, by the grace of God, maintains the three marks that distinguish her as a true church of Christ. That is, a church is a church only when the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached, the pure administration of the sacraments is maintained, and Christian discipline is properly exercised. Only such a church is loved of God, and is to be loved by us.
As we consider our calling to love the church, we focus especially upon love for the church institute. This involves loving the church of which you are a member—loving the local congregation, and loving the denomination as a whole. If, by the grace of God, a congregation or denomination is faithful to His truth and maintains the three marks of the true church, you are to love her. If God has given you a place in such a congregation and denomination, that church is to be the object of your love.
Our tendency is to take the instituted church where we are members for granted. We do so because the church has always been there. We have been members of her all our lives. We have never been prevented, because of persecution, from attending both worship services each Sunday. We have always been able to hear faithful preaching of the gospel. We have always had the opportunity to be a part of the communion of the saints, not only on Sundays, but also at Bible studies during the week. The church and all that is connected to her has always been readily available for us to participate in and to enjoy. As a result, we often fail to appreciate and love her.
This becomes evident when we have a casual attitude toward the church and our membership in her. We are not very interested in the preaching. We do not have a concern for the church's welfare. We are involved as little as possible in church life. We do not have the time to help out and encourage our fellow saints. The church does not have a prominent place in our lives. Worship on Sundays is rather routine and mundane.
Sometimes God must take something away from us before we truly appreciate it. We know this from experience. Sometimes it happens with a family member—a spouse, a parent, a child. We take that loved one for granted until something serious happens to him or her, or until God takes that person from us. Then we wish we had loved that individual more than we did.
May it never be necessary for God to do that with regard to the church. Let us be sure we sincerely love her.
What should motivate us to love the church are the positive things about her—her strengths.
It is certainly true that the church also has many weaknesses and sins. The church of Christ in this world is far from perfect, for believers have only a small beginning of the new obedience. On account of this, it is often difficult to love the church of which one is a member. We first of all see weaknesses in ourselves. By God's grace we acknowledge and strive to overcome these weaknesses, but nevertheless they are there. We also see weaknesses in other members. We notice members whose walk and conduct is very troubling and brings shame to the church and to the name of Christ. As a result we want very little to do with them, or with the church because of them. Their behavior makes it very difficult for us to love the church.
At other times we see general weaknesses in a congregation or in the churches as a whole. We sense a lack of interest in doctrinal distinctiveness. Or we notice a tendency toward legalism. Or we find little interest in mission work. Or we see some pushing for changes in the way we worship. We then become discouraged and disappointed with the church and find it difficult to love her. That is especially so when those weaknesses and sins seem to threaten the church's very existence, and apparently very few notice or care.
If the only thing one sees and notices are the church's flaws and weaknesses, it is not only difficult but almost impossible to love the church as we ought. For that reason, the Scriptures tell us we are to notice the strengths of the church and to love her because of them. This does not mean that we ignore her weaknesses. We may never do that. We may not shut an eye to errors in doctrine and ungodliness in life. These things must be noticed and must be dealt with. And in fact, as we hope to see in a future article, that in itself is an important way in which we manifest our love for the church. But as regards being motivated to love the church, we are to stop and take note of her strengths.
This is pointed out in Psalm 48:12, 13a where we read, "Walk about Zion, and go round about her: tell the towers thereof. Mark ye well her bulwarks, consider her palaces." This is an admonition to the people of God to take a look at the strengths of the church of which they are members.
The Old Testament believer was to do that. He was told, as it were, to go outside the city of Jerusalem and to take the time to notice many things about that city. He was to walk around her and look at her from every angle. He was to notice her towers, her bulwarks, and her palaces. He might not merely take a superficial glance at the city of God, but he was to make a thorough and careful observation and study. He must see what it was that made Zion such a magnificent city, a city that was beautiful and glorious, a city that was strong and safe.
That's what the New Testament believer is to do. Jerusalem and her temple represent the church of Christ. We are to take the time to notice her strengths and beauties. We are told, as it were, to put aside for a moment the church's weaknesses, and to focus on what she is positively. We are to notice the things about the church that make her spiritually strong. Noticing those things, we will be motivated and enabled properly to love her.
How do we do that? When the church is made up of sinful members and has many weaknesses, how do we see her as beautiful and strong? We do that by looking at the church from the viewpoint of what God has made her to be.
The church does not have strengths because of men. The faithful church of Christ is not faithful because of herself. She is beautiful and strong because God is in her midst and blesses her.
Psalm 48 makes that clear. The church is the city of the great King (v. 2). She is strong and safe because God is her refuge (v. 3) who protects and defends her from her enemies (vv. 4-7). God establishes her for ever (v. 8). He is the God of His church for ever and ever, guiding her even unto the end of time (v. 14).
Noticing what God has done and continues to do for His church, we will love her. Remember, God loves her. She is precious to Him and loved by Him. May we love her too.
Rev. Daniel Kleyn (Wife: Sharon)
Ordained: Sept. 1998
Pastorates: Edgerton, MN - 1998; First, Holland, MI - 2005; Missionary to the Philippines - 2009-2023; Doon PRC, Oct. 2023
Address601 N. 1st St.
State or ProvinceIowa