I first noticed Loving the Church by John Crotts a few years ago when Carrie reviewed it. It struck a chord with me because I have seen a general trend in recent years of people leaving the church, primarily because of all its problems or imperfections or its lack of meeting their needs. When I commented to Carrie that I would probably get the book, she offered to send me her copy. And I am ashamed to say it has been sitting in my bedroom neglected all this time, mainly because I tend to gravitate toward fiction rather than nonfiction, even though this is a topic important to me. But the TBR challenge provided a good opportunity to get to some of those books I hadn’t yet, and I knew this was one I wanted to include.
Crotts begins the book with a fictional group of people coming together at a coffee shop. None are rebellious or malcontents, but all except one are not attending what we would call a conventional church for various reasons: one is involved in a fulfilling ministry, one attends a house church because it keeps his family from being split up into different groups, one has been deeply wounded by the way the church responded to her when she found she was pregnant while unmarried, one has sacrificed some depth of preaching for a high tech church with a lot of singles that he can identify with and where he can possibly find a wife. As this group discusses church, they decide to continue to meet together to study what the Bible says about the church.
They turn up here and there throughout the rest of the book, but the majority of the book is a straightforward discussion of exactly what the Bible says about the church and why believers should attend.
After a brief chapter on the trend away from church over the last few years, Crotts shares from the Bible why the church is valuable. A few of the concepts he discusses are that Jesus loved the church and gave His life for it: “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27), and that the church is the “pillar and ground of the truth” (I Timothy 3:15) and described as the bride of Christ. ( Search for the word “church” in a Bible search engine to discover many more. I don’t remember if he includes this one, but one of the most intriguing to me is that “now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God,” Ephesians 3:9-11. Somehow through the church God displays His wisdom to those principalities and powers.) It’s abundantly clear that the church is important to Christ.
Crotts then goes on to define the church and discusses the difference between what we call the universal church (all believers everywhere) and the individual local church. Some say that the verses about the church refer to the church universal, but the epistles were written to specific local assemblies which were called churches. “A local assembly…is not just some tiny part of the universal church, like the pinkie toenail in the universal body of Christ. It is better understood as a local expression of the body of Christ – complete in itself” (pp. 44-45).
Crotts also discusses the description and function of the church from the Bible, the headship of Christ, the purpose of elders and deacons, the giftedness each member provides to minister to the others in the assembly.
Of the several quotes I marked, here are a couple that stood out to me:
The goal of mutual ministry within the church is maturity in Jesus. This is described as “the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (Ephesians 4:13). The combination of unity and the knowledge of Christ shows that Paul is not maximizing superficial togetherness by minimizing doctrinal content. Voices calling Christians to forget about doctrinal differences and just love Jesus do not represent Christian maturity….Community-wide gatherings or projects that merge churches that don’t believe in the Bible, Jesus, or salvation with churches that do, are a hollow shell of what the Lord intends when he commands us to be in unity around the truth. No matter how sincere the motives of people organizing such events, in the end, the truth becomes watered down instead of strengthened, and unfortunately, weak doctrine turns out weak Christians. In Colossians 1:28, Paul describes the goal of his ministry: “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (p. 56)
Don’t you need shepherds to guide you? Jesus thinks you need them! It is terrible pride to assume that you don’t need what Jesus designed for his glory and your family’s good (p. 95).
What I find most refreshing about this book is that it is a discussion and exposition from the Bible, not just opinions or quotes from what this or that author says. It’s very readable but very thorough. I also appreciate that in general he didn’t go further than the Bible. I think he said some place, but I forgot to mark where, that every church in every time and culture will not look exactly the same because the Bible does grant a certain amount of latitude in exactly how to “do church.” Missionaries through the centuries have had to learn that their goal isn’t to replicate a church exactly like the one back home, but they’re to keep to Biblical principles and incorporate them into the culture in which they minister.
The last couple of pages of this book lists negative consequences of neglecting church, among them, “thwarting Jesus’ plan, unconsciously saying that your plan for your Christian life and family is superior to His,…rejecting a chief means He has given for your spiritual growth,…boycotting the place He designed for your service,…missing great opportunities for spiritual influence from like-minded believers,…teaching your children to disobey Jesus by your example” (pp. 129-130).
One thing I wish the author would have included was a brief history of the church. He didn’t really answer the question about house churches except to say that they don’t include the authority structure of elders and deacons that the Bible calls for. I’ve often wondered exactly how the early church in Acts met. Acts 2:41 says 3,000 were added to the church in one day, but Romans 16:5 and Colossians 4:15 refer to churches that meet in someone’s house. They didn’t have mega-churches or large places to meet in that day and obviously some did meet in houses. I don’t know if perhaps the individual house churches were connected to each other or exactly how it worked. I know some who have felt that house churches are more Scriptural, but personally I think that’s where the latitude of Scripture comes in: in Acts the church was a new enterprise and they were under persecution. A 21st century church in a country with religious freedom is going to look a little different. But I would say that making individual churches into little empires is going beyond from the Bible’s intentions.
Some will quibble about the author’s definition of pastors and elders, but I think that can be set aside for the larger purposes of the book (I think that is an area Christians can disagree on and still be friends). I may have disagreed with a minor point here and there, but nothing that I thought important enough to make note of. The only note that jarred me a little was his continual emphasis on Christians helping each other toward Christlikeness by helping them see their sins and blind spots. While that’s true, and overemphasis on that point can lead to nit-picking and fault-finding. That’s an area I admit to having a hard time finding the balance in. I tend to avoid confrontation, but when I feel most stirred up towards it, it is usually due to personal irritation and offense rather than a concern about the other person’s maturity in Christ. Sometimes we see things not so that we can jump in to do the Holy Spirit’s job, but rather to pray for the person involved. It takes a great deal of care, delicacy, and being closely in tune with and filled with the Holy Spirit to confront someone. I think the author would say that as well, and he is not advocating that we all become spiritual policemen. He does emphasize that “love must mark a Christian’s motives and manner in ministering God’s Word to other believers” (p. 58).
I want to close with a brief comment about leaving church because of its faults and failures. The church has always been full of faults and failures because it is full of sinners. Many of the epistles are written to churches about how to correct their problems (which is an admission that they have them!), and in Revelation 2 and 3, Jesus commends and condemns certain aspects of seven churches. One of the things we’re supposed to do in church is help each other towards more Christlikeness, and all the Bible “one anothers” are to be exercised in the context of church (in everyday life, too, but they were given specifically in letters to churches). One of them is “Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye” (Colossians 3:13). There wouldn’t be a need for forbearance and forgiveness unless we failed each other or irritated each other. But because we do, we’re to “Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering…And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness” (Colossians 3: 12,14). There may be times to leave a specific church if it falls away from the truth of the Bible, and in Revelation Jesus said some churches were in danger of their candlestick removed, but the Bible doesn’t portray completely leaving the church as an option.
I don’t know anything about John Crotts other than what I have read in this book, but I heartily recommend it.
For more on this topic, see also previous posts here on Why Go to Church? and The Community of Believers as well as Lisa’s 7 reasons why I still go to church. Incidentally, at the time of this writing Loving the Church is available in a Kindle format for $1.99.
(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)