What spurred this thought was an email announcement from a Reformed book seller of the upcoming release of yet another “Jesus loves the church and if you love Jesus, you will love the church!” book. I don’t think it is necessary to name the book or the author. If you want details you can email me but it isn’t really that relevant to the point. What I really found interesting was the table of contents (see following):
Jesus Loved and Still Loves the Church
The New Testament was a Church Book
What is the Church? Church Universal and Church Visible
The Centrality of the Church in Redemptive History
What is the Purpose of the Church?
What are the Marks of a True Church?
Is Membership in a Church Scriptural?
Is Membership in a Church Essential?
Which Church Should You Join?
What are the Means of Grace in the Church?
What are the Privileges and Blessings of Church Membership?
What are the Responsibilities of Church Membership?
Why is Church Attendance Important?
Why can become a Church Member?
When is it Right to Leave a Church and How Should you do it?
What Opinion have Others in History had of the Church?
So by my count there are 16 chapters. Ten of them are explicitly referring to the “visible” church with 7 specifically dealing with church membership (plus one on the importance of good attendance). I don’t know how big the chapters are but just by the count above, 62.5% of the chapters deal with the “visible” church and 43% of the chapters in a book about why Jesus loves the church are dealing with church membership, ironic since neither Jesus nor any of the writers of the New Testament ever mentioned formal church membership in a local, “visible” church. At a glance, the implication here is that the visible (i.e. institutional) church is far more important than the church universal in the eyes of our Savior and that the key to the “visible” church is church membership and regular attendance. I know I am making some pretty big leaps here based on an email announcement with a book title and a table of contents but it isn’t like this is the first book of this genre (Loving Jesus=loving the local, visible church). DeYoung and Kluck’s Why We Love the Church was the first salvo in this push but certainly not the last. There seem to be more and more books and talks about the importance of the visible church and specifically church membership coming out. There is a new 9 Marks roundtable that just came out dealing with the connection between God’s love and church membership. So it clearly is on the radar of many people in the church at large.
All of that to bring me back to the question. Does Jesus love the visible church?
First, we have to ask what is meant by the “visible church”. The Westminster Confession describes it as:
II. The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. (WCF, Chapter XXV)
That is the fancy terminology. I think we can agree that the visible church is what we would traditionally think of when we think about church: a local organization, probably with a building and at least one pastor, with pews and programs. At a minimum it would have to be clearly and confessionally Christian in doctrine with sermons and sacraments.
Second, does Jesus love the “visible church”? No? Yes? In the same way or a different way than the so-called “invisible church”?
I think we make a couple of erroneous assumptions here. The first is an obvious one: we confuse the institution of the church as we see it with the church spoken of in the Scriptures. When someone says “church” or reads the English word "church" in the Bible, most people whether Christians or not envision a building with a steeple and a sign of some sort. We link in an inextricable manner the church with what we can see as an institution. The second is assuming that the traditional church is pleasing to Christ which I don't think is true. Most people agree with my first assertion, not as many would agree with the second. If God is not pleased with a local church, it is because they are not doctrinally conservative enough or don’t preach enough or the right way. In some places that has been taken to an extreme where being pleasing to God in a local church is based on singing just the Psalms or using just the King James translation.
To answer the question of whether Jesus loves the "visible" church, we need to ask the question: does Jesus love everyone? I think the prevailing culture would say yes but I would argue that the Scriptural evidence says no. Certainly within the church I would expect the answer to be no. We also must recognize that the "visible" church is at best a mixed bag of believers and unbelievers, in the words of the Westminster Confession: The purest Churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error. So in a gathering where unregenerate people are engaging in religious ritual, even if the name of Christ is invoked and the Scriptures are read, even if a lot of the people in attendance are born-again, is Jesus honored? Is God properly worshipped by the religious observance of unregenerate people? The testimony of Scripture says no. In Mark 7: 6-8 and Matthew 15: 7-9 for example, we see Jesus chastising the hypocrisy of the Pharisees by quoting Isaiah 29:13:
And the Lord said:
“Because this people draw near with their mouth
and honor me with their lips,
while their hearts are far from me,
and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men,
It appears to be the clear testimony of Scripture that religious observation without a regenerate heart is not pleasing to God. Granted, I recognize that in virtually every gathering of the church there are likely unregenerate people present. That doesn’t deal with the question at hand: does Jesus love what we think of as the “visible: church?
How does Jesus love the church in Scripture? In Ephesians 5 we get a glimpse:
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. (Eph 5: 25-27)
Did Jesus give His life for those who are going to spend eternity in Hell? Does Jesus love those who are not born again and are still under condemnation, those who are not His elect sheep and will never come to a saving faith in Him?
It seems to me that Jesus loves His Church, made up of all of His elect throughout the ages, and that His love is predicated on the redemption of those sheep through the propitiation of the cross. His love has nothing to do with whether you are in the “visible” church or not. Having said that, I would affirm that all of God’s elect after being born-again will invariably seek out the fellowship of other Christians but this idea of “Jesus loves the church and so should you” gets the order backwards. Jesus doesn’t love you because you are in the visible church. Because Jesus loves you, you will seek out the fellowship of the saints. So really, please, let’s stop with the inane arguments that insist that the visible church organization is the focus of Christ. That overemphasis is the source of all sorts of error and mischief. Enough is enough. We don’t need more books or roundtable discussions or blog posts that try to guilt people into church attendance or shame people into not critiquing the institutional church. Frankly it starting to look pretty self-serving as if preserving the organization is the most important issue in the church.
So the short answer is that Jesus loves His sheep in the “visible” church, not because they are in the “visible” church but because they are His sheep. Those who are in the “visible” church who are not His sheep are no different from the atheist sleeping in on Sunday.