Last Sunday, we were reminded from the Bible about how much we need the precious mystery that is God’s church. Yet there is a way of overreacting to the Bible’s teaching on the church to the point of becoming too emotionally and spiritually needy toward people in the church. Like Peter who went from wrongfully refusing to have his feet washed to wrongfully asking for his whole body to be washed (Jn 13:8-10), so Christians can easily move from undervaluing the church to overvaluing the church. Both stances are spiritually harmful.
The Church Is a Gift, Not Gain
When we went through the book of Ecclesiastes together last year, one of the truths we encountered repeatedly is that, though God has given us many good gifts in life, none of them should be treated in themselves as ultimate profit or gain. One of these gifts to be treasured but not overvalued is the gift of people or companionship.
In Ecclesiastes 4, Solomon powerfully teaches that life is better when lived together with companions. Solomon says that it’s better never to be born than to suffer oppression without comforters (Eccl 4:1-3), and those who settle for selfish slothfulness or lonely labor don’t really enjoy life (Eccl 4:4-8). Rather, there is comfort, power, and protection in facing life’s troubles with companions (Eccl 4:9-12). Indeed, the wisdom that comes from good companions can even turn a poor lad into a king, while refusing to seek or heed advice can cost even an old king his throne (Eccl 4:14-16). Such wise observations about life find ready application in the church: there is much comfort, power, wisdom, and blessing to be found by going through life together with God’s specially redeemed people.
Yet there is a limit on the benefit that people, even the people of the church, can provide in a fundamentally vaporous world. “A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart,” yet that cord is still not invincible (Eccl 4:12); people come and go in life, and your friends won’t be able to stay around forever (Eccl 4:16); and even wise persons can fail in wisdom—either due to their own weakness or simply due to factors beyond their control (Eccl 7:7). The church truly is God’s place of blessing, yet the church is not and will not be perfect until Christ comes to collect her (1 Thess 4:17). Those, therefore, who look for ultimate happiness, security, or fulfillment in the people of the church will be thoroughly disappointed.
Christ, Not the Church, Is Our Life
But life was never about the church itself, rather the church was simply designed as a means to grow in, serve, and experience more what life really is about: God. As has often been said, we must not fixate on the gift but on the Giver, who is greater than any of his gifts. Real happiness, security, and fulfillment come only by knowing God in Jesus Christ (Jer 9:23-24; Jn 17:3; Phil 3:8; Col 3:4).
Consequently, when the greatest treasure has already been secured, we can be content with whatever circumstances of life in which we find ourselves (Phil 4:13), including in the church. To say it another way: if our life is ultimately found in Christ and not in the church itself, then we can enjoy and give thanks for all the good we do find in his church without complaining or despairing about the good we don’t find.
Paul’s Contentment amid Church Disappointment
The apostle Paul provides a good example of this kind of contentment in Christ even when the people of the church seriously fail. Near the end of 2 Timothy, Paul relates some sad circumstances related to his imprisonment, an imprisonment that Paul was convinced would end in martyrdom. In 2 Timothy 4:16-18, Paul writes,
At my first defense no one supported me, but all deserted me; may it not be counted against them. But the Lord stood with me and strengthened me, so that through me the proclamation might be fully accomplished, and that all the Gentiles might hear; and I was rescued out of the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed, and will bring me safely to His heavenly kingdom; to Him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
Paul begins here by noting a pretty serious disappointment: when he was put on trial for his life, no one came to help or defend him. Rather, “all deserted” him. Who might Paul have expected to support him? Certainly not unbelievers but believers, since the believers that Paul ministered to would have had ample reason to want to see Paul delivered. In fact, as one who had sacrificed himself so much on their behalf, Paul might reasonably have expected some in Christ’s church to do good to the one who did so much good to them. But it turns out that no one stood up for Paul, probably due to fear for their own lives. So, now, Paul was facing a death sentence.
But what was Paul’s attitude toward this painful failure to love from his brothers in the church? Bitterness? Self-pity? Revenge? No, rather Paul prays that God would not count their sin against them. You see, Paul was able to respond to the failure of his brothers graciously because he knew, just as he writes in these verses, that even if all his brethren abandoned him, the Lord himself would not abandon him (compare Jesus, Mt 26:31-32; Lk 22:31-32). Paul reports that the Lord indeed strengthened Paul to accomplish faithful gospel proclamation in the midst of the trial and imprisonment. Paul also states his confidence that, no matter what people in the church did or did not do, Christ ultimately would rescue Paul and see Paul brought safely into Christ’s eternal kingdom.
All this, of course, does not mean that Paul was unmoved by cowardice or ministry failure. Actually, the letter of 2 Timothy is an exhortation from Paul to his young protégé so that Timothy would not do as the others did but instead boldly suffer with Paul for Christ’s sake (2 Tim 1:8; 2:3). So it’s not as if sinful failures among the brethren do not need to be addressed (cf. Mt 18:15-20). The point, though, is that our spiritual strength and contentment should not ultimately depend on our imperfect brethren but on our perfect God and Savior.
The church is truly a gift from God, one to which God even commands us to devote ourselves for our own good. Yet we are not to make more of this gift than is proper. Though the church is an important means of serving and enjoying Christ, the church is not a replacement for Christ. Only when Christ has proper and chief place in our affections can we then worshipfully enjoy the lesser gift he has given us in the church.
Questions to Consider:
1. Why is it important to have realistic expectations about the church?
2. What is the best way to minister to those who come into God’s church with extra emotional and spiritual neediness?
3. Do you rejoice in and thank God for your local church despite its imperfections?