It is popular for some today to try to take Jesus and reject the church, the body of Christ. This leaves them with a beheaded Jesus—Christ without His body. It is a handy way to escape being tarred by the brush that paints all Christians, but it is not the religion of Jesus Christ. I do, however understand the temptation. I’d like to do this myself if I could. But I have not been able to behead Jesus and remain a Christian. Here’s why:
1. I was not able to behead Christ and leave His body behind.
It would be nice if Christianity allowed me to take just Jesus without the church like ordering a hamburger without the mayo. That way I’d be able to have a pure religion of “just Jesus and me.” Then I’d escape getting smeared by association by all those half-wits in the church or get condemned as “one of them.” If I could take Jesus without the church I could go camping for my worship every weekend and sit on the edge of a canyon listening to my iPod. I’d “whisper a prayer in the morning” and consider that my primary duty to God. God would talk to me directly from the Bible and I’d always know exactly what He wanted of me. I would be able to ignore all the troublesome passages of Scripture and Jesus would focus on my favorite subject of worship: me! In fact, on Sundays I wouldn’t have to take a shower or get dressed up—I’d just go out on my back porch and read my Bible alone or listen to my favorite CDs. Maybe I’d go walk in the garden with Jesus some, or take him hiking with me. Jesus could become my regular “Tonto” and provide me companionship in my personal life. I could escape shallow Sunday school classes and avoid weird religious people doing their therapy in class. I wouldn’t have to be a volunteer on the teen ski trip, or to work with screaming babies. If I could take Jesus without the church I could have a much better religion—a religion that is bounded on the North, East South and west by… me! I could “have it my way.” I admit this idea appeals to me and had great appeal when I was younger. The trouble is—this religion wouldn’t be Christianity. I’d have a religion, but it would not be the religion of Jesus Christ. Jesus the Christ does not come with a detachable head. Christ comes attached to His body—the church.
2. I have learned to love the bride of Christ for one reason.
I didn’t always love the church. I wondered when I was young how Christ could choose the church as His bride. Did you ever see that handsome guy every girl on campus wanted show up at the alumni banquet with a real dog of a wife? You say under your breath, “how did she get him? That’s how I used to feel about Jesus and the church. Why would he select such a dog? Face it, the church is no hottie. I saw her warts, her limp, her scars and the open running sores on her face. “Seems like Jesus could do better.” Yet He chose the church to be His bride. He loved her enough to die for her. He died to make her holy, purifying her so that she will be “without spot or wrinkle” in eternity. She’s may appear drab and uncomely to me but to Jesus she’s a beauty. If anything proved the adage, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” it is this choice of His. Here’s what I’ve found through life. The older I’ve got the better I’m able to see the church like He does—as a thing of beauty. Maybe it is just a change that comes with aging. When I was a kid-preacher I wanted the church to be delectable sexy model of perfection in order to be worthy of Christ (and worthy of me too). But as I’ve gotten older I have come to see the church more like Christ must see her. I no longer compare the church to some air-brushed fantasy that doesn’t exist. Christ loves her “as is” and has tremendous hope for her. I suppose if you wrestled me to the ground I’d have to admit she is not very pretty—but I’ve decided she is a beauty for one reason—He thinks she’s beautiful.
3. The theoretical construct of “the invisible church” is of little use to me.
Now I know many will try to correct my view of the church to tell me that it is the “invisible church” that is the beauty—and the organized actual-peopled-building down the street has nothing to do with the real invisible church. I understand that construct assigning all the “real Christians” to some theoretical worldwide invisible church. But the notion has little practical use to me. Where is this invisible church of “real” Christians? Can I worship with them? Study the Bible with them? Go on a ski trip with their youth? Organize relief for hurricane victims with them? See? It may be a clever concept for categorizing thoughts but all I’ve got in the real world is a real assembly of real people who worship, pray, serve, study, grow, and reach out together—in the building down the street. Sure, there are probably some folk in this visible church who are not in the theoretical invisible one. So what? When next Sunday rolls around I can’t attend the invisible church so I’m left with the one Christ established and Paul extended 2000 years ago—the visible assembly of God’s people in a real place down the street from me.
4. I’ve come to believe “there is no salvation outside the church.”
I know this is an unpopular notion among Protestants and most of my readers are Protestants. Over the years I’ve come to believe that there is no salvation outside the church—the gathered assembly of believers. I don’t believe there is such a thing as a lone Christian who refuses to connect with other Christians. You probably disagree and I hope you are correct. When I think of all the men I’ve met who despise Christians, despise the church, and “would rather go to my bar than your church any day” I hope you are right-that they can make it without the church. I hope all the people with new-Age privatized do-it-yourself relationships with God will be saved in the end. I hope you’re right. (I even hope the universalists are right—that in the end everybody will be saved). But I don’t think either of these ideas is right. I have come to believe that one cannot be a son or daughter without becoming a brother and sister. For a while maybe… but not for long. The repressive Communist regimes were right: “Follow a Christian long enough and you will always find a group of Christians.”
5. I now think a minister should delay her or his ordination until they learn to love the church.
I used to like the idea of hurry-up ordinations—get your education done, grab a couple years of practical experience and get ordained then get on with your life. I no longer feel that way. Now I say, “Take your time, think it through.” Why? Because I want young women and men to learn to love the church before they marry the lifetime vocation of ministry. Does seeing Christ’s bride bring an involuntary gag to your throat? If so, wait a while to be ordained. If a ministerial candidate does not love the church—with all her warts and sores included—I think they should simply say “pass” and wait another year for ordination. Sure, you should keep working in the church. Sure, you should keep hanging around this bride of Christ. See if you fall for her. Even if you are like a son who comes to believe his mother is pretty only because his father says so. When you’ve come to love the church because Christ loves her—then you are ready to be ordained.
I have decided to submit to Christ’s tastes in bride-picking. If He wants the church as His bride I will accept her too. Jesus Christ, the head of the body is easy to love. The body of Christ is harder to love. But I have chosen to love here for one single reason—Christ loves her and considers her beautiful. Perhaps he sees possibilities in her I don’t see? Perhaps that’s how He sees me too?
So what do you think?
Reference: Salt & Light: Mt. 5:13-16 — Leaven: Mt. 13
© Keith Drury, 2005. You are free to transmit, duplicate or distribute this article for non-profit use without permission.
Keith Drury served The Wesleyan Church headquarters in Christian Education and Youth leadership for 24 years before becoming a professor of religion at Indiana Wesleyan University. He is the author of more than a dozen books of practical spirituality, including Holiness for Ordinary People, Common Ground and Ageless Faith. Keith Drury wrote the Tuesday Column for 17 years (1995-2012), and many articles can be found on his blog “Drury Writing.”
Keith Drury retired from full time teaching in 2012. Keith is married to Sharon and has two adult sons and several grandchildren. He is retired in Florida with Sharon and enjoys cycling.