The bride of Christ is the most perfect of women imaginable. She is flawless, for He has made her so. This is the Gospel. She is lovely because she is loved, and precious because He has treasured her above life itself. In the “now and the not yet” of her life in Christ lies an unmistakable sense of betrothal, yet the Scriptures are clear – Christ and His bride are one. There is already inseparable union. We must resist thinking of the church as Jesus’ fiance. She is Jesus’ wife! This remains the defining truth, even if it has not yet been made manifest in all of its fullness.
How this truth applies to the local church is the question, for it is in the local church that she is to be seen in her frail humanity. Here we are constantly reminded of the giant chasm between status and state, position and condition.
And so it is that in the local church an enormous amount of effort goes into closing the gap between who she is and how she appears. This is legitimate endeavor, for the Scriptures unequivocally encourage discipleship towards maturity. How it is done is the issue. Some leaders have been known to take a whip to the girl. Others impose rigorous training regimes, and only the fittest of the believers survive. I’ve even known leaders to take scalpel in hand, literally amputating parts of the body that they regarded as grotesque or as under-achievers (“Please go. You don’t fit in with us. This is not the church for you”). Mercifully, many more are mercifully more inclined towards carrot than stick.
My thesis, though, is that neither stick nor carrot are useful. The transforming power of the Gospel lies in change of identity rather than change of behavior. Appropriate behavior flows from identity rather than away from the stick or towards the carrot. Instructing, correcting, challenging, and even rebuking on occasion may well be necessary, but this should never be done in ways that contradict her essential nature. The church is not in essence sub-standard; she has been made perfect.
Of course local churches should put their best foot forward. One can be equally real when well groomed as with mussed hair and bad breath. But the truth is that the church only has one sustainable source of beauty, and that’s Jesus. She becomes authentically attractive when He is the attraction. My conviction remains that ministry to the local church is not to improve her, but to bless her, persuading her of all that her Bridegroom has already done.