Rev. denHartog is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Randolph, Wisconsin.

Many professing Christians today would not count love for the church as one of the distinctive marks of true godliness. Many such professing Christians are not even members of the church. Others who have their names on the membership roles of some church seldom if ever have much to do with the church. They have little concern with what the church is doing. They attend the worship services of the church only irregularly, if at all. Yet they imagine themselves to be devout and serious Christians. Still others, though they attend church quite regularly, really care very little for her. They reveal very little love for the church. Many of the above described people will seek to justify their lack of love and concern for the church. They severely criticize the church. The church is full of hypocrites. The church is a dead institution. She does not minister to the needs of man. She is not relevant to our modern society. She does not address herself to the pressing social problems of our age and busy herself with seeking to solve them. Many of these critics satisfy themselves by belonging to what is vaguely called the body of Christ. They say there is no need for a formal institution called the church and for formal membership in her. All Christians are members of the body of Christ. That is sufficient. Maybe we can gather together in small groups for Bible study and fellowship. More than that we do not need, All this reasoning however is defective. It does not square with the clear teaching of the Word of God.

The truth of the holy catholic church is clearly taught in the Scriptures. It is true that the church is more than merely a human and earthly institution. She is greater than the local church found in a city and on a street. She is in her spiritual essence the glorious and beautiful body of Christ. Yet the truth .of the church as a living spiritual organism may not be separated from the truth of the church as a divine institution. God Himself willed that the church be gathered and established in the world and be governed by definite office-bearers in a local institution. Our Lord sent out His apostles and their helpers to establish institute churches in every city. The New Testament simply assumes that every Christian is a member of the church as institute. Many of the letters of the apostles were written to local institute churches. According to the purpose of God, His church is gathered and preserved throughout the world in the institute church. The Heidelberg Catechism has one of its most beautiful articles expounding the doctrine of the church. It speaks of the meaning of one of the articles of Apostles’ Creed, the confession of the church of all ages.

What believest thou concerning the holy catholic church of Christ? That the Son of God from the beginning to the end of the world, gathers, defends and preserves to Himself by His Spirit and Word, out of the whole human race, a church chosen to everlasting life, agreeing in true faith; and that I am and forever shall remain, a living member thereof. 

Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 21

The Belgic Confession, in article 28, states concerning the church “that no person of whatsoever state or condition he be, ought to withdraw himself, to live in separate state from it; but all men are duty bound to join and unite themselves with it.” This is clearly the teaching of God’s Word. God’s Word knows nothing of a Christian who lives independent from the church. The godly men and women of the Bible all loved the church of God.

We are to love the church because the church is God’s. God has chosen her from before the foundations of the world. He Himself has set His love upon her. He has determined her everlasting salvation and glory. His purpose of salvation is greater and more glorious than merely that of saving a number of individuals who live here and there in the world and who are unrelated and independent one from another. His glorious purpose of salvation is to redeem a church unto Himself for His glory and to save His people as members of that church. We are to love the church because she is the bride of Christ. He gave His life to redeem her. He gathers and defends and preserves her. He counts her precious in His sight. He delights to dwell in her midst. He has given His blessed Word of salvation to her and made her to be the pillar and ground of the truth. Words would fail to describe the glory and blessedness of the church of Jesus Christ. It is a sad day when so few of God’s people know of the glory and blessedness of the church and so many have little love and regard for her.

It is proper to say that the church has existed from the beginning of the world. The church was already present in the old dispensation. Her form then was different from what it is today. She was identified with the nation of Israel. She was limited by the types and shadows of those days. Her glory was not yet fully manifest at that time. She went by the names Jerusalem, city of God, temple of God, Mt. Zion. David, the man after God’s own heart, loved the church as few men ever have. How often in the Psalms he speaks of love for the church. It is evident that fervent love for the church was one of the predominant characteristics of the inspired Psalm writers. Think of such Psalms as 48, 84, 87, 122, 132, and many more. We could quote at length from these Psalms to show how they speak of love for the church. Christians of the New Testament age may and ought to sing those Psalms, with the understanding that the Psalms speak of the church as she is also in the new dispensation.

Love for the church does not of course mean love for any local manifestation of the church. It does not mean love for any and all institutions that in the world call themselves church. There are “churches” that are false and that are not worthy of the name church. Apostate churches are not to be loved at all. God’s people in those churches are by God’s Word called to come out of them and be separate from them. The false church that preaches false doctrine and tolerates all manner of ungodliness in her midst is an abomination in God’s sight. We must not be deceived by her apparent glory, her stately buildings and cathedrals, her large numbers, and her great boastings. All of that means nothing. We must love the true church of God known by the threefold marks of the pure preaching of the Word, the proper administration of the sacraments of the Lord, and the faithful exercise of Christian discipline. Love for that true church of God moved the great Reformers of the Protestant Reformation to separate from the apostate church of Rome in order to form the church anew. That was possible exactly because the church of Jesus Christ is not bound up with one institution in the world. Christians today who love the church must be spiritual followers of the Reformers. If they find that the church to which they belong has turned from the Lord and is preaching false doctrine or tolerating evil practices in her midst clearly contrary to the Word of God, they must separate themselves from such churches and join the true church where the threefold marks are found. And if that church cannot after diligent searching be found, they must join together with brethren of like precious faith and form the church anew. Such action may involve large sacrifices and may involve leaving the church of our ancestors. It may involve leaving a large and prestigious church to join a small and despised one. This is love for the church.

Love for the church means that we love her for the truth that she stands for and preaches. It means that we love her for the great task she is called to perform in the world, the glorious work of the Lord Jesus Christ, the preaching of the gospel and the extension of His kingdom in the earth. We love the church when we join her and are actively involved in her life and work. It means that we take great interest in her work, support her, pray for her, and make financial sacrifices to help maintain her and promote the task which the Lord has given to her. Love for her means that we seek her unity in the faith and doctrine of the Lord and promote her peace and prosperity. In order to maintain that church in the midst of this wicked and sinful world the saints of God must contend together for the faith. They must strive for the truth of the gospel in her midst. When men tolerate all sorts of false doctrine and evil practices in the church this must not be taken to be evidence of love for the church. Such toleration will only bring about the destruction of the church and bring the displeasure and wrath of God upon her. Love for the church means that the saints of God stand steadfastly together to maintain the truth even if that means that the ungodly in the church are offended and leave the church. True love for the church requires this.

Love for the church means that we have a high regard for the office-bearers that God Himself has ordained in the church to preserve and keep her and to care for the souls of the members of the church.

Love for the church certainly means that the Christian is faithful in attendance of the worship services held by the church. God calls His people to come together on the Lord’s Day. He is pleased by His Word and Spirit to dwell in the midst of His saints gathered in the church. He is praised and exalted by the worship of His saints. The true Christian is not and may not be satisfied with only private and family worship, as important as these are in themselves. He feels constrained to gather with fellow saints to sing the praises of God and hear the Word of God, to confess His name, and to bring offerings before Him. Those who find it sufficient to attend church only once on the Lord’s Day are lacking both in proper understanding of the purpose of the Lord’s Day and in love for the church.

Love for the church implies being actively involved in the whole of her life and ministry. God has given gifts to every one of His saints. Those gifts must be used in the midst of the communion of the saints and for the benefit and edification of the whole church. God’s people must be zealous to use their gifts to the praise and glory of God in the midst of the church. To do this God’s people have to be willing to make large sacrifices. They must not make themselves so busy with their secular occupation that they can find no time to be involved in the life and work of the church during the week. This is a sin against love for the church and will inevitably make God’s people carnal and worldly-minded. We do well to examine our own lives constantly to consider whether we are walking in love for the church of Jesus Christ.