Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Beauty of the Church

The church is the bride of Christ.

The book of Revelation talks about this phenomena the most. Revelation 19:7, Revelation 21:2, Revelation 21:9 and Revelation 22:7 all allude to this beautiful allegory of the love between Christ and His church.

Besides Revelation, there is a wonderful and mysterious passage in Ephesians:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church— for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:25-32)

I could go on and on about what this means for relationships between men and women on earth. The main point is this: God created the husband-wife relationship to be a picture of His love for His people.

We honor God when we reflect the love of Christ and the church within our marriages. This is why God says that the man should be the loving head of the relationship, and that the woman should respectfully submit to her husband's authority. Many people do not agree with this position, and that, sadly, is probably mostly because they do not seek to understand what it means to fully glorify God with their lives. They still have their own selves on the throne of their lives, and they are mostly concerned with striving to grasp all of their rights and privileges. Their priority concern is not whether they gloriously reflect the Lord who made them. All of us struggle with the tension of being tempted to live a self-centered life rather than a God-centered life, and none of us have it down perfectly. The difference is that some of us attempt to get it right; for all the times we fall on our faces in the mud, we have a God-ordained desire in our hearts to put the Lord in the position He deserves in our lives. Others work to justify their natural selfish desires, especially the desire to be the boss of themselves. They allow nobody, not even the Almighty Creator of the Universe, to tell them that they might be mistaken in their judgment.

This is not exactly what this post is supposed to be about, so far. But it is groundwork that we must understand before we go forward. If you do not agree with me at this point, you might as well stop reading, because what I will go on to say is built on what I have said. I am not going to spend any more time trying to convince with logical arguments. Either you believe the Bible and accept what it says, or you don't.

The point is that we here on earth are to reflect spiritual truths about God in the way we live our lives. Recently I heard a woman say, "Be the moon. Reflect the Son." I love the moon. I think it is unutterably beautiful, and lately it has even been full. One year on my birthday, December 22, the winter solstice (and it really was smack on the winter solstice that year), there was a full moon. I remember we were in the midst of practicing for a church Christmas pageant, and we had to do a lot of driving around after dark (it's always dark that time of year, even when it isn't very late). Usually I hate winter, hate the winter solstice and hate the dark. But that year there was this huge, brilliantly bright full moon shining in the black night sky, and it was so incredibly beautiful that I felt moved to tears each time I went out to the car, and as I drove up and down Route 31 watching it. It was the best birthday present ever, and it came from my heavenly Father.

God wants the church to reflect His glory and beauty and magnificence just the way that winter solstice full moon was reflecting the far away sun that night.

The moon has no light source of its own. If not for the sun, we wouldn't see the moon at all. I think this is significant in regard to the beauty of the church.

The church does not need to drum up its own beauty. The only beauty regimen the church should follow is that of being Christ-saturated.

When churches put on cloaks of worldliness in order to appeal to the world, I think they little realize the incredible damage they do, both to themselves and to the people of the world whom they think they are trying to help.

The church should be beautiful. It should be appealing. But the appeal of the church should come from its holiness (1 Peter 1:15-16).

I think of Victor Hugo's view of the church in Les Miserables. I do not even think Hugo was necessarily a believer, but at the beginning of his novel, he describes Jean Val Jean--a newly released ex-convict with no hope. He can't so much as purchase a meal in a lodge. Nobody will have anything to do with him. Hugo shows how Jean Val Jean will be forced to turn back to crime in order to survive and eat, because there is no grace for him anywhere. And then, somehow (I don't remember quite exactly how), Jean Val Jean meets up with a priest. Does he find the priest's house? Or does the priest find him? I am not sure. But the priest takes him in, and the description of the priest's home is beautiful. It is clean and quiet. There are white tablecloths, white curtains, white sheets that glow in the night. At the priest's house, Jean Val Jean receives food and a bed to sleep in. The priest leaves everything in the house unlocked.

In the middle of the night, Jean Val Jean gets up, steals the priest's silverware and runs away. Police go after him, hunt him down and drag him back to face the priest. They throw him down before the priest and rip open his bag, which exposes the silver he has stolen. Guilt, shame and despair overcome Jean Val Jean. And then the priest says to the police, "But of course, my good men, these were my gifts to him." And then he smiles at Jean Val Jean, walks over to his fireplace mantel, and takes down the two silver candlesticks still standing there. "But how is it you forgot these, my friend?" he asks Jean Val Jean. (And of course it is this gift, both the material worth of the silver and--even more so--the grace and goodwill of the priest, that enables Jean Val Jean to make a new start and to become a good person.)

This is what the beauty of the church should be like, not a wild and desperate attempt to emulate the exciting sights and sounds of the world, but a peaceful beauty that originates in grace and is completely unlike anything in the world. It is God's holiness, the way He is set apart and different, that will attract the ones who need Him.

My husband and I heard someone say (and I wish I could remember who, so I could credit the person) -- "What you attract them with is what you will attract them to."

If churches put on a show and try to be hip, cool, "relevant" (don't get me started on relevance), and designed to make people of the world feel comfortable in their worldly ways and tastes, I fear that these churches are utterly failing to reflect the beauty of Christ. In failing to reflect Christ, they cannot possibly draw people to Christ. They may be drawing people into a club, yes, or an organization that sometimes even does some nice outreach projects in the community, but not to Christ.

If the church is the bride of Christ, then I think it can safely take advice from the Bible about what the beauty of a wife should be like. 1 Peter 3:2 says, "Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. Instead it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God's sight."

The beauty of the church should come from the gentle and quiet spirit of Christ in her, not from braided hair and gold jewelry and expensive clothes. The church should not put on distracting outward adornment that obfuscates the beauty of Christ within her. The church should trust in the beauty of Christ and have faith that in reflecting the beauty of Christ she will draw the lost to Him.

We are not called, as the church, to be God's public relations committee. He doesn't need one of those. He does not need us to change His image, or massage it to make it palatable to the masses. It is astonishing that we could be so arrogant as to assume so.

If we do not understand that there is nothing more exciting than knowing and learning about our God, who created the universe, planned our redemption, implemented the greatest rescue operation of all time through the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and who delivers on all His promises through the powerful and mysterious work of His Holy Spirit in us, if we do not see that there is nothing more precious than His revelation to us of Himself through His holy Word, if we do not come to Him because HE is wonderful and worthy and beyond all we could ask or imagine...

If we think we need ear-splitting rock concerts, fog machines, cotton candy and bounce houses, if we think free food and fun and speakers who tell crass jokes in t-shirts with skulls and crossbones on them are a better draw than the gospel story, if we have so little confidence that people will be attracted to Christ that we actually tell our teens to invite their friends to church without using the word "church" or (especially) alluding to the name of Jesus...

Well, if that is what the church is turning into, then I think its beauty is fading. Fast. It is Christ in us that is our hope of glory (Colossians 1:27). There is no other hope of glory. There is no other true beauty.


Hope T. said...

"...a peaceful beauty that originates in grace and is completely unlike anything in the world."
I love this and at one time, I thought I could find that in the church. But I didn't.
Now I know that I have to find such grace in myself before I look for it in others. I keep forgetting that and searching elsewhere. Thank you for the reminder.

Ruth said...

Yes, Hope, it's somewhat perplexing that God gives us a thirst for something and then wants us to BECOME it rather than find it outside of ourselves.

I am reading "Crazy Love" by Francis Chan right now. I love it. I would love it even more if the front cover didn't say, "Over 1,000,000 copies sold." But what can you do?

It is astonishing to me how many people can be attracted enough to a viewpoint to go out and buy a book, but after reading it, they still remain virtually unchanged in their inner beings.

Ahem. God doesn't want me to judge. He wants me to love Him and seek Him and allow Him to make me a person full of love and grace.

So maybe I shouldn't have written that post, and yet, I think it is maybe OK--along the path of longing and painfully (and painfully slowly) becoming--to point out ideals that could be beneficial for others besides myself.