Many American Christians seem to have a weak grasp of the theology of the church. Maybe it's an overreaction to the authoritarian, rigid hierarchy that Catholicism (and other denominations?) are seen to have; maybe it's simply a result of American individualism. For whatever reason, we often fail to realize how wonderful and how important the church is.
While attending the University of Tennessee, I was blessed to be a part of the Christian Student Fellowship there. I don't know how campus ministries are generally organized—I've heard of various combinations of outreach, Bible study, and social activities—but in the words of Sam Darden, the campus minister, the CSF was simply “a church made up of college students.” Sam was continually amazed that God would take a small (thirty to forty) group of college students, whose members changed constantly from year to year, who lacked money and regular schedules and (often) maturity, and form a church out of them.
Sam also talked about the gift of the church. Church isn't just something that we do because we're commanded, and it's not just a place where we can individually “fill up” on our spiritual needs for the weekend, and it's certainly not just a social gathering or a vehicle for entertainment. The Church is a gift: we get to be a part of the body of Christ; we get to share with others the joy of worshiping God; we get to form eternal friendships; we get to help other people (physically and spiritually) and be helped by other people.
This should affect how we view the church. Ephesians 5:25-27 (NLT) reminds us that Christ “loved the church. He gave up his life for her to make her holy and clean, washed by the cleansing of God's word. He did this to present her to himself as a glorious church without a spot or wrinkle or any other blemish. Instead, she will be holy and without fault.” If Christ values the Church this highly, then we should too.
This should affect how we view churchgoers. We are to “stop evaluating others from a human point of view” (2 Corinthians 5:16, NLT) - as earthly friends, or as rivals in the argument du jour, or simply as whoever's warming the pew next to us. C.S. Lewis elaborates on this idea:
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. (The Weight of Glory)
The church is serious business.
This makes it all the more serious when people harm the church, either by action or inaction. It's strange to think that we can by our human deeds harm the body of Christ, but the Bible contains too many exhortations about how both our actions and our inaction (James 4:17) affect others for us to not think that this is the case.
We harm the church with our divisions and our arguments (John 17:20-23, 1 Corinthians 1:10-17, 3:1-9).
We harm the church by failing to pray for it and for our brothers and sisters in it (1 Samuel 12:23).
We harm the church when we judge our brothers and sisters by our own standards (Romans 14). I recently read of a ministry leader who espoused a doctrinally shaky position. In discussions online, he's being challenged Scripturally on his position - which is good and healthy - but he's also being assaulted, insulted, and torn down for daring to hold such a position. This is being done without regard for the faithful service he continues to do and without any apparent awareness on the attackers' part that their own doctrine may be imperfect.
We harm the church when we tolerate continued immaturity (Hebrews 5:11-14). Everyone is at different stages of maturity, but wherever people are, growth—genuine discipleship—is required.
We may harm the church when we put ourselves forward as ministers, leaders, or champions of a cause without recognizing our own immaturity. 1 Timothy 3:1-13 describes the requirements for elders and deacons specifically, but the principle is clear: simply having the desire to serve is not enough, if qualifications of character and maturity are not present. I have seen and read of people who persist in trying to do something in spite of their own failings and do harm as a result. We need humility to recognize our own shortcomings.
We harm the church when we try to turn it into an association of our favored race or social class or into a vehicle for our pet ministry or social or political cause. Examples of racist or overly politicized churches are too common; thankfully, though, other churches are consciously cutting back the “stuff” that they do so that they can focus on what is truly ministry. (See, for example, here.)
We harm the church when we bash it. Criticizing and looking down on the church and Christians for their shortcomings is a common pastime, and I've indulged in it myself often enough. Realizing that Christ loves the church enough to die for it should stop me in my tracks: how can I disparage something that my Lord loves so much?
I harm the church when I keep to myself in my pew, singing and absorbing the sermon and doing nothing else, or when I only look for my handful of close friends, instead of coming out of my shell and reaching out to whoever I can to carry out the 59 “one another” commands of the New Testament.
Paul knew very well how serious the business of the church is:
I face daily the pressure of my concern for the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn? (2 Corinthians 11:28-29)
Do we recognize this too?
In discussing the divisions and arguments within the Corinthian church, Paul gives this warning to those who would harm the church:
Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in your midst? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy that person; for God's temple is sacred, and you together are that temple. (1 Corinthians 3:16-17)
Let us recognize how great a gift the church is and do all that we can, by prayer and deed, to build it up.