Loving the Idea of the Church or Loving the Church?

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but this is the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation. Celebrations are going on all around the world, and rightly so. Though the cause for and the consequences of the Reformation are sad in many respects, there is much for which we can be thankful. It is sad that the Western Church fell into such moral and doctrinal error that such a radical surgery had to occur. But we are grateful that God had mercy on us by delivering us from the errors that corrupted the church. It is sad that the unintended consequence of the Reformation was the splintering of the church into denominations. But we are grateful that God is sanctifying his church through our differences and will one day bring the entire church back together in perfect unity in accordance with the prayer of our Savior.

Much has been done. There is still much to do. As Protestant churches are infused once again with this sense of our historical identity, it can be a temptation to get into a “reformation mode” that is characterized by a zeal for what the church ought to be, falling in love with the idea or ideal of the church, but not loving the church as she is.

There is nothing wrong with ideals. They are necessary to keep us pressing forward. Through the history of the world God himself has laid out the standards for which his people ought to strive. Through his direct commands as well as imaging his people in the Tabernacle, Temple, and the New Jerusalem (Rev 21–22), we are given the standards, the ideals, for which we are to strive.

But sometimes we fall in love with the idea of the church instead of loving the church itself; the church as she is and not just what she ought to be. We imagine this place of perfect peace and harmony, where everyone is doing what is right, and we are laughing and joyful all the time. We love that place. But that is not the church we are a part of. It is out there somewhere, we are sure, but it is not the church of which I am presently a part.

In our love for the ideal, we can lose sight of the fact that peace and harmony in a sinful world come through forgiveness of the sins of others and their forgiveness of my sins. Joy in the church comes through longsuffering with one another, bearing the pain and hurt of, with, and from others. We servants are not greater than our Lord. If he had to endure suffering for the joy that was set before him (Heb 12.1-2), how much more will we have to endure suffering in order to enter joy?

Loving the church involves loving both God’s ideal for the church and the church as she is right now in history. Loving God’s ideal for the church keeps us encouraging one another to press forward. Loving God’s church as she is right now keeps us remembering that this is a lifelong process. We must be patiently content with where we are but never satisfied.

If you find yourself always discontent with the church, restless, nothing is ever good enough, not satisfied with progress, always thinking that some other church situation must be better, it might be that you are more in love with the idea of the church rather than loving the church itself. Sure, there is always reformation that needs to take place in the church. Part of that reformation might just be learning contentment with and loving the people who sit with you in worship every Sunday.