It’s pretty en vogue these days to say you love Jesus but you don’t think too much of the church. It’s understandable. When Jesus walked the earth, he did some pretty amazing things. He also taught with a wisdom that was unique to what anyone had ever heard. Both in word and in deed, Jesus displayed the character of God. And despite the fact that the crowds of Jesus’ day ultimately crucified him, we, from a historically distant perspective, can recognize what an amazing leader he was and say we follow him but not the church.
The problem is, I think the distinction might be fallacious. I think there might not be such a distinction between Jesus and His church.
“But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priestand asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.””
(Acts 9:1-6 ESV)
When Paul has a vision, Jesus doesn’t say, Saul, why are you persecuting the church? Or why are you persecuting God’s people? Or, why are you persecuting the people who follow me? He says, “Why are you persecuting me?” There must be some connection between the Body of Christ, which is the church, and the risen Christ that is so intimate that any persecution against the church is experienced by Jesus as persecution against himself.
This is crazy, and it gives me pause next time I am about to start criticizing the shortcomings of the church. Why am I criticizing the church? In all its brokenness, the church is Jesus’ chosen instrument to proclaim the presence of his kingdom in the world. Perhaps the best way to understand the relationship is what Paul talks about in Eph. He says that Jesus is married to her. He has become one flesh with his bride, the church, in a way that causes him to experience persecution directed at the church as directed at him.
That means criticism should be done from within the church out of love for Jesus. I want the church to more accurately reflect the character of God by closing the gap between the words and deeds of the church and the words and deeds of the church. Criticism that moves the church in this direction out of love for Jesus feels better to me. It’s like a husband and a wife sitting down at the table to work on their marriage. It’s like going to a marriage counselor to work on the relationship. This is good and constructive work for us, within the church, to engage in.