“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. – Ephesians 5:31-32
Can you stand the church? If not, then you probably don’t love her husband.
It is common for people to rationalize their lack of commitment to a local church by reasoning something that is unthinkable from a New Testament perspective: “I love Jesus, but I can’t stand the church.”
There are many ways that this basic logic is expressed. A person might say that he loves God but that he doesn’t want other people to get in the way of his personal walk. Not too long ago, a man told me that he is spiritually leading his family privately so that he does not need the “formalities” of Sunday worship and the “shallowness” of church relationships. And perhaps the most standard excuse for rejecting Christian fellowship is that the church is full of hypocrites.
Just the other day, I was talking with another local pastor over lunch about ministry when we were politely interrupted by one of the restaurant workers. She was kind, and we appreciated the freedom that she felt to express her thoughts, but she was also bitter: “I follow God. I’m born again. But I’m fed up with the church. They are all so hateful. They just need to accept people the way they are and stop judging people for being poor, uneducated, homosexual . . . I just can’t stand to be around the church.”
As pastors, our hearts went out to that woman. It was good for us to hear her share her thoughts. But in all her sincere frustration, she was making a double claim that cannot be reconciled from the Bible. Claim 1: “I love Jesus.” Claim 2: “I can’t stand the church.” Anytime a person expresses that combination, the person is waving a spiritual red flag concerning his or her relationship to Christ.
United with His Bride
Here is the question: Can you love a man with sincerity if you hate his beloved spouse?
Personally, if someone were to come to me and say something along these lines, “Glenn, I love you as a dear brother, but I can’t stand your wife . . .” – Stop! Conversation over! I’m through talking. Why? First, I don’t want to talk with someone who doesn’t like my wife. Second, there is no way I’m believing that someone has true affection for me if he hates my wife. I am my beloved’s, and she is mine. To love me is to love her, or else a person does not love me.
If this logic is not abundantly plain, it is because of a failure to understand the significance of the covenant bond of marriage.
Ephesians 5:31 says that a man and woman become “one flesh” when they are married. John Piper explains something of the significance of this phrase: “What these words point to is marriage as a sacred covenant rooted in covenant commitments that stand against every storm” (This Momentary Marriage, 24). In other words, upon marriage two people become united in a covenant bond that is deeper than anything else in life.
Then Ephesians 5:32 tells us explicitly that the union of marriage is intended by God to reveal the kind of union that Christ experiences with his church. It is a one flesh union, a one spirit union (1 Cor 6:16-17), a covenant bond stronger than anything else.
If a person understands this bond, how could he ever say that he loves Christ but not his church? Would a person ever begin a prayer like this: “Jesus, I love you, but I can’t stand your wife. . . .”? If not, then how could a person ever justify such feelings in the heart?
Commanding that which Must Be So
In John 13:34-35, Christ expresses this same truth by a command followed by an axiom. First, the command: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (v. 34). Second, the axiom: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (v. 35).
Christ says explicitly in John 13 what I have deduced from Ephesians 5: A person cannot claim to love Jesus if he does not love those whom Jesus loves. Christ has united himself to his people, so that each individual follower must love that union as well.
It is interesting that even though it is axiomatic that true disciples will love Christ’s people, Christ still commands for his disciples to do it. What can Christians learn from the fact that Christ commands that which is suppose to be inherently so?
Christ knows that it isn’t always going to be easy to connect our love for him with love for the church. Christ is perfect. The church is definitely not. Even though our hearts are deeply bound together in the unity of the Spirit, the temptations of the flesh are real. Bitterness, selfishness, and self-righteousness all want to take over. Therefore, Jesus’ followers will all be tempted to adopt the attitude of that restaurant worker I mentioned above. But they can’t, or rather, they mustn’t. Because real Christians don’t hate that which is intimately united with Jesus.
When true disciples hear Christ’s command, “Love one another,” they must hear the urgency of it. They must hear Christ saying, “If you don’t have this in your heart, then you are not truly mine.” But the beautiful thing is that true followers of Christ do have love for his bride in their hearts. The command to love one another is a musical hammer that strikes a heart string that actually exists in true disciples.
Fighting to Stand
To be clear, we should understand that a person might be truly born again and be in a place of real hurt that requires a process of healing. We also ought to recognize that many churches are terrible places of hypocrisy where people have been deeply wounded in lasting ways. Further, many “churches” are false churches with whom followers of Christ should feel no spiritual bond.
But Christians cannot use circumstances to rationalize separation from God’s people. Besides, the command to love one another, is most poignant when applied to people we thought we could not stand.
No, we must fight to stand the bride because she stands with the bridegroom. And the more we remember that union with Christ makes things beautiful, the less of a fight it will be.