In recent days I have been reflecting a lot on the Church, and by the Church (as opposed to a church) I mean the company of those (regardless whether the one recognizes the other) ranging from fervent Catholic to extreme Fundamentalist, who love the Lord Jesus Christ and are resolved to follow Him, come what may.
I recognize for some, including real Christians, church (the visible manifestation typically associated with a particular denomination, organization or building) can be cause for distress, and due to its unhelpful actions they may longer regularly attend meetings having been hurt or feeling disillusioned, or simply because the weight of the world or the circumstances of life lead to loss of faith and hope. Yet there is truth in the illustration given in my youth that we as individual embers only burn bright if in a fire among other embers.
As I come to reflect on “church”, the ekklesia, assembly of believers, called out by God, i.e. that which Jesus said he will build and the gates of Hell won’t prevail against it (albeit interpreted differently by Protestants and Catholics), I recognize there are many Bible texts that I can cite when it comes to its importance and significance. But for the purpose of this article I have chosen to focus on one, which in truth is most profoundly challenging in coming to terms with, yet is worth coming to terms with because the Church matters so much.
I write this on a day when several mature Christian friends are demonstrating against proroguing Parliament, when if it were me demonstrating it might be for something opposite. I write in the light of a number of high-profile Christians in recent days having gone apostate, renounced the faith or have fallen visibly from grace. I write knowing the prayer Jesus prayed (ref. John 17) that his followers be one so that the world will know, seems a long way from being answered. I write in the light of false teaching being embraced and even celebrated in the church and where the sheep suffer because the under-shepherds don’t do as they ought. I write in the light of severe persecution being directed toward real Christians in all corners of the world and the telltale signs that the “free” West may soon follow. I write having taken note of the foibles and failings of fellow Christians, including myself, and wonder why God continues to have patience, but the wonderful thing, he does.
As I complete my book on the Song of Solomon and start on my next one, on the prophets of the Bible, I am increasingly of the view that God’s purpose for humankind has been to seek out a people of his own that will reflect and proclaim His glory to entities seen and unseen. It begins in Genesis 11 when God calls Abraham, the Father of the Jewish nation and continues to the end, in Revelation 21, with the focus on the Church, with phrases like “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband” (v2) and “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” (v9) The switch in emphasis from Israel to the Church is an interesting one as well as giving rise to controversy (I am NOT a replacement theologian and believe in Israel) but suffice to say as far as this reflection goes, the Church is God’s idea / instrument to reach out to the lost / needy.
In searching out for a quote I often use, I came across a helpful article titled with that same quote: “In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity”. Easier said than done, not helped by our tendency to NOT do what God wants us or take umbrage at “Christians” who think / act differently from ourselves. But it is worth going back to the word of Jesus, to do with Him building His church, and I’m pretty sure that He was not thinking Roman Catholic, Fundamentalist or anything in-between, and He was thinking not only of the Bride that he is betrothed to and will be united with when He returns to planet Earth, but also of the Body in which true believers have unique bodily functions, with Him at the head and of the Building (Temple) which He inhabits.
All weighty truths, leading me away from despair thinking the church has blown it (after all Jesus did appoint Peter to lead it after he denied Him), to hope that the John 17 prayer will be answered and the prospect of the marriage supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:7,8) will be a reality accompanied by the cry: “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.” We are not there yet of course and while there is much water still to pass, we are reminded “many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown” (Song of Songs 8:8). The words of the hymn at our wedding seem ever pertinent: “Though with a scornful wonder men see her sore oppressed, by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed, yet saints their watch are keeping, their cry goes up, “How long?” And soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song”, suggesting that ahead of the Church is darkness and suffering followed by light and glory.
Going back to the question posed in the title: “the Church – a cause for despair or a reason for hope?”, while it true there is much currently that is not what humanly speaking we would want or indeed what ought to be, both in the way the Church / church appears or acts and what might yet happen as the Church comes under increasing attack (from both within and without). But God is not to be mocked and He will vindicate those who hold firm in good faith, whatever point they might lie on the ecclesiological spectrum, and the words of St Paul preached (Ephesians 3:8-12) “Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ; And to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ: To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God, According to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord: In whom we have boldness and access with confidence by the faith of him” apply / resonate as much now as they did in Paul’s day.