Even a brief search of the local Christian bookstore shelves reveals an epidemic of disregard, even downright disdain, for the church among leading theologians. In particular, they despise the local, visible church. Some go so far as to claim that the organized church, far from offering positive help, actually poses a threat to healthy Christian living. Some argue that if we could eliminate organized religion altogether, winning our neighbors to Christ would be simpler.
Of course, these arguments fly in the face of our theological commitments.
The Westminster Confession of Faith says, “The visible church … is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” (25.2). In other words, the local, visible, organized church is absolutely necessary for the advance of the gospel. Far from disdaining the visible church, the Westminster divines loved and cherished her.
The Scriptures call Christians to love the church—not only the invisible church, but also the visible church. Here we will focus on three particular biblical reasons why this is so.
God’s Love for the Church
First, Christians should love the church because God loves the church:
Glorious things of thee are spoken,
Zion, city of our God;
He whose word cannot be broken
formed thee for his own abode:
On the Rock of Ages founded, what
can shake thy sure repose?
With salvation’s walls surrounded, thou
may’st smile at all thy foes.
In this hymn, John Newton builds on the opening verses of Psalm 87: “On the holy mount stands the city he founded; the Lord loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwelling places of Jacob. Glorious things of you are spoken, O city of God” (vv. 1–3). Who speaks glorious things about this city? God does. Our songs simply repeat the glorious things that the Lord teaches us about his people, the church.
Psalm 87 and Newton’s hymn harmonize on one theme. The Lord loves his city so much that he knows her, gives birth to her, establishes her, and satisfies her. The psalm ends with the citizens of Zion proclaiming together, “All my springs are in you.” God loves his church so much that he meets her every need, bringing lasting satisfaction to all the citizens of his kingdom.
To serve God means many things, but it certainly means to love the things that God loves. The Lord loves his church; therefore, we should love his church.
Christ’s Love for the Church
Second, Christians should love the church because Christ paid a great price for her. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians includes clear teaching about the church. While the doctrine of this epistle applies to the universal, invisible church, the apostle also writes to and about the congregation in Ephesus. What Paul writes also applies to a local, visible, organized church.
Clearly, Christ loves his church deeply. Paul ends the first section of his letter by describing his prayer for the congregation in Ephesus: “that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (3:17–19). He prays that the Christians in Ephesus would comprehend how much Christ loves them.
In chapter 5, Paul holds up Christ as an example to husbands and describes specifically the love of Christ for his church: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Jesus loved the church so much that he willingly died for her, so that she might be clean, holy, and beautiful (vv. 25–27). The intimacy of a healthy marriage involves learning about your spouse, finding out what he or she loves, and participating in his or her interests.
Many husbands and wives have acquired a passion for sports, music, or literature simply because they have embraced the interests of their spouse. You cherish your spouse by embracing his or her passions. Christ has claimed every Christian as his bride by paying the price of his blood.
As our cherished bridegroom, he calls us to love what he loves. The Lord Jesus loves his church passionately and paid an infinite price for her; therefore, we should love his bride, the church.
Our Love For Our Neighbors
Third, Christians should love the church because we love our neighbors. Remember what the Confession of Faith teaches, that outside of the church there is “no ordinary possibility of salvation” (25.2). The next section explains why salvation comes primarily through the church. Christ gave to his church “the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God”—instruments by which the Lord gathers and perfects the saints. The Lord makes those tools effective as the church uses them in the world. He promises to save and gather the elect through the work of the church (25.3; see also Eph. 4:11–13).
If we believe that a sinful and dying world needs more than anything to know Christ as Savior, if we believe that the primary means by which the Lord communicates this message are the Word, the sacraments, and prayer, and if we believe that the Lord especially gives these means to the visible church to use in the world, then we should love the church. Our unbelieving neighbors, friends, and family members need to hear the message that the church possesses. To summarize Paul’s instruction in Romans 10:14–17, how shall they hear and believe unless preachers are sent? It’s the church that sends preachers.
To love our neighbors means to bring them the only message that delivers them from the wrath and curse of God that they deserve for their sins, and that message rests in the church. If we love our neighbors, we should love the church.
Our Vision for the Church
The Scriptures clearly teach that we should love the church, and we should pass on that passion to our children. Children very often learn to love the same things their parents love. My father and I watched sports together, we played sports together, and my parents attended all my sporting events. His love for sports was communicated to me, and I now pass on that same passion to my children.
Similarly, my parents and I listened to music together, we played and sang music together, and my parents attended all my concerts. Their love for music was communicated to me, and I now pass on that same passion to my children.
But my parents possessed one passion that far outshone their passion for sports or music. They loved the church. We made time for church, we attended church and sat together, and they supported my efforts to take my place in the church. Their love for the church was communicated to me, and, by the grace of God, I now pass on that same passion to my children.
One of my prayers for the Orthodox Presbyterian Church is that we would grow in our love for the local, visible, organized church. I pray that we would catch the vision laid out in Scripture: because God loves the church, because Christ paid a great price for the church, and because we love our neighbors, we will love, cherish, and serve the church of Jesus Christ. By the grace of God, we will pass that vision on to our children by making time for church and valuing the work of the church.
As we love the church and cultivate a big vision for what Christ might accomplish through his church, we will have a passion for missions. Planting churches only makes sense if we recognize God’s passion for his church and his plan to build his kingdom through the planting of local, visible congregations. May the Lord give us a passion for his church that produces a grand vision for planting new churches to the glory of God.