Recently I came upon a book of advice for pastors. It’s interesting and enjoyable but I was troubled by the author’s attitude toward what he saw as the typical church. He had an adversarial attitude, and it didn’t square with the apostle Paul’s description. Paul saw the church as the bride of Christ, “without any sort of stain or wrinkle on her clothes . . . holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:27, CEB).
Paul was a pretty tough-minded fellow, but he was also wonderfully idealistic. Some feel that Paul’s picture would have been more realistic if he had looked at the church not in spotless wedding garb but on one of those occasions when the baby is crying, the soup burning and the doorbell ringing.
I’ve known the church at such times. I remember a day when an earnest but strong-willed woman telephoned prior to a committee meeting to advise me that if we followed another committee member’s choice for paint color in the nursery, she and her family would leave the church, and of course by inference take their substantial pledge with them. Eventually it all worked out, but at that moment the church didn’t have that wedding gown look.
Fortunately, I realized early in my pastoral life that neither was I always a beautiful sight as the Lord’s representative at the altar — the Best Man, so to speak, holding the ring for the groom until the union is complete. I was more sympathetic with the off-days of the bride when I pondered my own shortcomings in the divine equation.
I also learned to look more optimistically at the church as bride-in-process. Paul was good at this. He could see the sin and divisions at Corinth, the apostasy in Galatia, the doctrinal confusion in Thessalonica, and internal strife in Philippi, yet see the church as the Bride of Christ, “without any sort of stain or wrinkle.” He knew that the church was in process, just as he was. And more than that, that the ultimate beauty of the church was not her own doing, but the miracle of redemption. It’s certainly not our achieving that makes us a spotless people. We’re products of grace, individually and as a church.
So I like Paul’s “stainless and unwrinkled“ picture. Much of the time one has to be hopelessly sentimental or consumed by faith to imagine it happening. But I remind myself that this is not only Paul’s vision of the church, it’s God’s vision — and if God has such an expectation, you and I surely shouldn’t give up. It seems to me that we’re working with a pretty sure guarantee. I vote for the guarantee rather than those days of unholy pessimism. I like God’s church.
Originally published in Asbury Theological Seminary’s Alumni E-link. View the archives of this periodic resource for alumni.