The church is described as a beautiful bride (Rev 21:9-11), holy and sanctified, washed with water (Eph 5:26). She is pure, clothed in fine linen that is bright and clean, which are her deeds (Rev 19:8). “that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she should be holy and blameless (Eph 5:27 NASB). If we are not in the church, we have no hope of being acceptable to God; how beautiful the church must be to Christ as she is set apart from the filth of the world! The great preparation a bride will go to just to impress her groom with her beauty, yet there are none more perfect and beautiful than the church, the beautiful bride of Christ. But how do we make sense of this when we see the ugly side of the church? When she who is so beautiful appalls us with disgust!?
The majority of the world has seen this ugly side of the beautiful bride; from the disagreements because some ignore the word, the hatred and poor attitudes, the sin she indulges in and tolerates, to the adultery of her leaders, very few would call her beautiful. While the denominations are what the majority have seen, we would be fools to say that the church belonging to Christ is free from these same afflictions. A good friend of mine and brother in Christ often tells me, “Hollywood and politics have nothing on the drama and backstabbing in the church.” The more I learn and experience, the closer I come to believing his slightly exaggerated quote.
So what do we do? Is God wrong with His description of the church? We know that God cannot be wrong. Scripture shows that even while these statements of the church and her perfection were being written by inspiration, that there was also an ugly side at that time. The church at Corinth indulged in error, the churches of Galatia sought to return to Judaism, Paul and John warned of brothers like Hymenaeus, Alexander and Diotrephes. Christ Himself speaks to the seven churches of Asia, of which only two He called acceptable without further repentance, and many other ugly attributes can be found. The scriptures do not turn a blind eye to this ugly error, they warn and call for change; nor do I call us to ignore this ugly side of the bride today, that isn’t a solution. We must change, we must repent (Rev 2:5), we must cleanse (1 Cor 5:13), and we must warn our brethren (2 Tim 4:15).
So again, how do we reconcile these two extreme sides of the church present in both the first century and present today? How can we have a positive attitude about the church when that which is supposed to build us up and encourage us, so often tears us down emotionally? First we have to realize that not everyone in the church is part of it. The church in most assemblies has those present who have never obeyed the plan of salvation. To the visitor of the church this especially is not apparent, who is a part and who is just a regular attendee. Even with those who have been immersed into Christ, many of them have not been faithful in attendance as they should. There has to be some understanding and patience with those who are still learning, there also has to be some prayer and correction for those not being faithful as God desires. We cannot allow the error of some to cause us to mislabel the true portion of the church.
Christians who have been faithful in attendance and to the works of the church, even for these individuals, not all are part of God’s body. As Christ spoke through the writings of John to the church at Sardis, He told the congregation they were dead spiritually, yet He said for those there who have not soiled themselves in sin, that they are worthy (Rev 3:2,4). Here is a congregation where the majority was lost, but a few were not. Should it cause us today to give up if the congregation we are near has a few who might be lost, some who are not acting correctly, yet they wear the name of Christ and His church? Yes, such a situation is nothing to just brush aside, the church should be striving to correct or even disfelowship those individuals to bring them to repentance, but also no such situation should cause us to ever give up on the Lord’s church. Even if the majority of the congregation is lacking in deeds such as Sardis, we should seek the best congregation we can, but we never give up completely on the Lord’s church, we never forsake the assembly of the saints!
Finally, even though we know we must be faithful to the church, it still doesn’t change the discouragement an erring brother or sister can cause as we see them ravage the church, when they try to tear us down, or when they try to oppose the very things we are working for. A simple solution I have found is to focus not on the ones opposing what is right, but to focus on the ones in the church who are faithful and true. There seems to always be someone in the church we look up to or are encouraged by no matter how bad things might be. Focus on their faithfulness, their works, their love of the truth and the word. Realize that your faithfulness might be the very thing helping hold them up also. By so doing, we are seeing the same beauty in the church that Christ sees. Error will always be a threat we must combat in the church, but the beauty of the bride is her righteous deeds done by those few that love the truth. When we see this we can see the true beauty of the church, the true purity and holiness of the church, the bride that has been washed in water with the word.
The church is made up of people, it at times will fail us and let us down in ways that words cannot even describe; but there is something there. There is something in that bride that is far too valuable to walk away from, for she is the most valuable and beautiful treasure to God, so also should she always be to us.
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking fine pearls, and upon finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had, and bought it. Matthew 13:45-46