This one goes out to the doctrine guys. The guys with ecclesiological opinions. The pastors and elders who think the Bible addresses the practices and structures of the church.

Wait a second, I’m talking about myself, and maybe you. I thank God for you, and I rejoice to consider myself a co-participant with you in working for Christ’s kingdom.

Yet there’s a temptation I have noticed that you and I are susceptible to: we can love our vision of what a church should be more than we love the people who compose it. We can be like the unmarried man who loves the idea of a wife, but who marries a real woman and finds it harder to love her than the idea of her. Or like the mother who loves her dream of the perfect daughter more than the daughter herself.

This is an implicit danger for all of us who have learned much from God-given books and conferences and ministries about “healthy churches.” We start loving the idea of a healthy church more than the church God has placed us in.

I remember overhearing a church elder complain about a family who let their unbaptized children receive the Lord’s Supper when the plate of communion crackers was passed down their pew. What struck me was the elder’s tone. It was frustrated and slightly contemptuous, as in, “How could they?! The fools!” But these people were untaught sheep. Of course they don’t know better. And God had given them this elder not to complain about them, but to love them toward a better understanding. At that moment, it felt like this elder loved his vision of the biblical church more than he loved those individuals.

How easy it is to respond like this elder.

What I Am Not Saying

I am not saying that we should love people and forget all about biblical health, as if the two things are separable. No, that would be to pit God’s love and God’s Word against one another. To love someone is to desire his or her good, and only God defines “the good.” To love your church means, in part, to want it to grow toward everything that God defines as good. It’s to want your church to grow in a biblical direction.

More simply, if you love your children, you want them to be healthy.

So what do I mean by saying we should love the church more than its health?

Back to the Gospel

When Christ died for the church, he made it his own. He identified it with himself. He put his name on it. That’s why persecuting the church is persecuting Christ (Acts 9:5), and why sinning against an individual Christian is sinning against Christ (1 Cor. 8:12; cf. 6:15). Individually and corporately, we represent him.

Think about what that means. It means that Christ has put his name on immature Christians, and Christians who speak too much at members’ meetings, and Christians who wrongly give their unbaptized children communion, and Christians who love shallow praise songs. Christ has identified himself with Christians whose theology is underdeveloped and imperfect. Christ points to the Christians who wrongly oppose biblical leadership structures and the practice of church discipline and says, “They represent me. Sin against them and you sin against me!”

How wide, long, high, and deep Christ’s love is! It covers a multitude of sins and embraces the sinner. Actually, it doesn’t just embrace the sinner. It places the whole weight of Christ’s own identity and glory on the sinner—“my name will rest on them, and my glory will be theirs.”

We should always come back to the gospel, shouldn’t we?

Give Yourself, Pastor, Not of Yourself

One theologian helped me understand an important aspect of gospel love by distinguishing between giving of yourself and giving yourself. When I give of myself to you, I give you something that I possess like my wisdom, my joy, my goods, or my strengths generally. Of course, I don’t really risk losing anything in the process, because I gain praise for such giving. Indeed, I can give all that I have, even my body to the flames, and have not love. When I give myself, however, I don’t just give something that I have, I give my whole self. I identify my self with your self. I start giving attention to your very name and reputation because I view them as united to my own. Any glory that I might have becomes yours, and all the glory that you have is the glory that I most enjoy. It’s mine, too!

This is how we should love one another within a church, because this is how Christ has loved us. We don’t just embrace one another; we rest the weight of our identities upon one another. We share one another’s glories and sorrows. “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:26). We consider one another better than ourselves, in the same manner that Christ has done with us (Phil. 2:1–11). Indeed, we have taken on the same family name, so we are now brothers and sisters (Matt. 12:50; Eph. 2:19; etc.). If you insult my brother, you insult me. If you defraud my sister, you defraud me. Nothing is business in the church. It’s all personal, because the gospel is personal. He died for you, Christian. He died for me. So that we might represent and look like him. (Yes, he remains the final focus of our love for one another, just as his love for us was given so that we might love the Father—the final focus of his love.) If all Christians should love like this, we who are pastors and elders most certainly should.

To say that we should love the church more than its health means this: we should love people because they belong to Jesus, not because they have kept the law of a healthy church, even though that law may be good and biblical. It means we should love them because of what Christ has done and declared, not because of what they do.

If you love your children, you want them to be healthy. But if you love your children, you love them whether they are healthy or not.

Certainly you can rejoice when a brother or sister grows in theological understanding. You rejoice in the greater unity of truth you now share (see 2 John 1). But your gospel love—your “Christ died for us while we were yet sinners” love—should extend no less to the brother who is theologically, ecclesiologically, even morally immature, because such love is based on Christ’s perfection and truth, not the brother’s.

Pastor, if your church is filled with weak believers, you should still identify yourself with them as if they were strong. Maybe you feel more “like minded” with the mature brother who shares your theology. Fine. But if that theologically minded brother asks you to share his contempt for a less theological or mature brother, say to him, “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (Luke 15:31–32).

Elder, love your flock like sons and daughters. Get into the bleachers of their lives and root for them on the days they make their free throws and on the days they trip running down the court. Own their laughter and their fears as if they belonged to you. Abide with their folly. Don’t feel threatened when they speak disdainfully toward you. Return the curse with a blessing. Remember that extricating sin from the heart is a slow process, and they can’t always help themselves. Be patient like the One who has been patient with you.

Or to use a different biblical metaphor, your love for your church should be a “for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health” sort of love, even if it’s not a “till death do us part” sort of love. Shouldn’t it? Shouldn’t you be committed to your church like you’re committed to your own body, because that’s how Christ loved you and me?

This Is How Paul Loved

This is how Paul loved the churches. He gave himself, not just of himself. He told the Philippians that they were his “joy and crown” (Phil. 4:1). He told the Thessalonians the same thing (1 Thess. 2:19–20).

Pastor, do you regard the recalcitrant and theologically naïve Christians in your church as your joy and crown? Do you identify yourself with them that much? Paul refers to the churches as his “boast” (2 Cor. 1:14; cf. 2 Thess. 1:4). Do you?

Paul told the Corinthians that they were his “children” and that he was their “father through the gospel” (1 Cor. 4:14–15). He felt the same way about the Galatians and Timothy and Titus (Gal. 4:19; 1 Tim. 1:2; Titus 1:4).

Elder, have you united your name and reputation to your church like a father does with his son?

How often do we hear words of love and longing from Paul! He opens wide his heart and yearns for the churches to do the same (2 Cor. 6:12–13). He longs to see them and be with them (Rom. 1:11; Phil. 4:1; 1 Thess. 3:6; 2 Tim. 1:4). He “longs for them with the affection of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:8). And he knows that his own distress is for the churches’ comfort and salvation, and his comfort is for their comfort (2 Cor. 1:6). Paul didn’t give of himself to the churches, holding just a little back for himself, like Ananias and Sapphira did. He gave himself.

And Paul didn’t love just the mature Christians this way. Read his letters, and you’ll quickly remember how unhealthy many of these churches were!

May God’s Spirit increase our love so that we can imitate Paul, as Paul imitates Christ.


Editors’ note: This article originally appeared at 9Marks.