My Jesus, I Love You; Your Bride I Despise!
Last week the Barna Group informed us that a whopping ten percent of America's population "love Jesus but not the church." Lack of "love" for the church, for Barna's purposes, is essentially measured by lack of attendance at religious services. Few of those self-identifying with this group would profess contempt for the church. Some, to be sure, do have an admitted bone to pick with the church, but most, it seems, simply can't be bothered with her. But on the principle that neglect is really a rather potent form of contempt, I think we might define these individuals collectively as professed Jesus-lovers but church-despisers.
The really remarkable thing about this segment of our population is that, at least according to Barna's editor-in-chief Roxanne Stone, they "still believe in Scripture." To be sure, the numbers reveal they rarely read Scripture. I'm not sure how convincing or compelling one's "belief" in Scripture can actually be labeled if the one in question never reads the Bible. Presumably the conviction that Scripture is, say, God-breathed and profitable for doctrine and praxis would inspire one (no pun intended) to pick it up occasionally. Still, we're told that these individuals "believe in Scripture," and yet feel no apparent compulsion to follow the rather obvious biblical injunctions to assemble and participate in those rituals that Jesus ordered his assembled followers to perform.
Forgive my bluntness, but claiming to love Jesus while wanting nothing to do with the church is just stupid. If the "Jesus" we're talking about is the God-man whose life, death, resurrection, and ascension is described and defined for us by the inspired writings of those he commissioned to disciple the nations, then the "church" we're talking about must be the entity described and defined for us by those same writings. The "church," according to those writings, is Christ's bride, whom he loves, whom he nourishes, whom he died for (see Eph. 5:25-32). As the hymnist puts it: "From Heaven he came and sought her, to be his holy bride. With his own blood he bought her, and for her life he died." Professing love for Christ but little for the church makes about as much sense as saying you like me and want to spend time with me, but really can't stand my wife and would prefer not to have her around. You can imagine the response you'd get if you invited me around for dinner, and then added, "but please leave Louise at home. We really want nothing to do with her. It's only you we want to get to know. It's only you we want to spend time with."
The things about couples is that, well, they come as couples. That's just as true of the archetypal husband and wife (Christ and the church) as it of ectypal husbands and wives (me and my wife, for instance). That doesn't mean that husbands and wives lose their own unique identities. Christ is not the church. The church is not Christ. But, simply put, "you can't have one with the other" (as someone once sang of love and marriage). The futility of trying to sever Christ from the church becomes, perhaps, even more apparent when one factors in other biblical descriptions of the relationship between these entities. The church is Christ's body (Eph. 5:23). How does one love a head but despise the body attached to that head? Trying floating that claim with regard to any other organism!
It's difficult to know how seriously to take the claim that one might love Jesus but despise his bride and body. Part of me wants to merely role my eyes rather than seriously engage such a sentiment, much as I prefer to counter liberal efforts to strip Christianity of its supernatural elements with a pronounced yawn rather than serious argument. But the prevalence of those who believe they can have Jesus without his bride/body suggests, perhaps, the need for some more intelligent response. Maybe a first step in such might be recognizing the part that evangelical Protestantism itself has played in cultivating the naïve assumption that Christ can be had without his bride/body. Are we, dare I say it, largely to blame for such stupidity, by virtue (for instance) of the dismally weak ecclesiology and sacramentology we have championed in the history of American evangelicalism? Or perhaps by virtue of the tolerance we have shown to parachurch organizations that too often subvert rather than support the church by presuming to play the part the church is divinely appointed to play in the lives of believers? Who needs Christ's bride around when you can have his less obnoxious distant cousin?