Over the last few decades, criticisms of the church have become commonplace. Scores of books and blogs unpack the failings of the church. There’s truth in many of these criticisms and concerns. The church gains nothing by burying its head in the sand. Our hope is in the power of Christ available to us as we honestly face our weaknesses and failings, and then seek to repent and change (in a spirit of openness, transparency, lament, and hope). We need to respond to criticisms proactively and courageously. And we need prophetic voices that call us to repentance, faithfulness, holiness, prayer, mission, change, and the gospel. But sometimes constructive criticism (which is aimed at renewal and change), gets replaced by destructive and self-serving denigration.
In Colossians 1:3 to 2:5, Paul shows us another way.
Paul is willing to address the weaknesses and failings of the church. He does this in many of his writings. He does it fearlessly and with great passion and tears. He’s never afraid to address sin and abuse and compromise. But in these verses, Paul also shows us his labor, strivings, and love for the church. He offers us a window into the eight ways we can love the church.
What are the eight postures of those who love the church?
1. Offer thanksgiving and prayers for the church (1:3–14)
Paul is aware of the failings of the Colossians. He goes on to address the “hollow and deceptive philosophy” that threatens their faith and witness and life together.
But Paul gives thanks for their faith in Jesus Christ and for the love they have for all God’s people. He recognizes the fruit of their lives, their understanding of grace, and their love in the Spirit. God is doing something among them, and this is worth giving thanks for.
But thanksgiving isn’t enough on its own. Paul goes on to pray for them. He prays that God would fill them with the knowledge of his will and that the Spirit would give them all the wisdom and understanding they need. He prays that they would live lives worthy of Christ, bearing fruit through gracious and good works, and growing in the knowledge of God. These are passionate and heartfelt prayers. Paul longs for the wellbeing and maturity and witness of the Colossian church. He prays that they would be strengthened with power, and know endurance and patience through God’s might and presence. He prays that they would know joy and holiness, as they witness together to God’s kingdom of light and redemption and forgiveness.
Those who love the church are aware of its failings. And they challenge its errors and sins. But, importantly, they also offer passionate and heartfelt thanksgiving and prayers for the church.
2. Frame your love for the church (1:15–23)
Paul frames his love for the church within his love for the Son of God and his gospel. Paul doesn’t love the church more than he loves God. And Paul doesn’t love the church apart from his adoration of Christ. Paul loves the church because it is the glorious bride of Christ that witnesses to Jesus and his gospel.
We must frame our love for the church within our worship of the supreme Son of God and our commitment to the gospel.
Notice that Paul’s strivings and sufferings and praise for the Colossian church arise out of his adoration of Jesus. Before describing his labor for the church, Paul bursts into rapturous worship. The Son of God is supreme. He is the image of the invisible God and the firstborn over all creation. He created all things, holds all things together, and rules over all powers and authorities. Everything for made through him and for him. He is the head of the church, the supreme Lord over all creation, and the one who reconciles all things on heaven and earth to God. Through his blood, the Son of God offers peace and reconciliation and healing and holiness. This gospel of repentance and hope has been proclaimed to all creation, and Paul is the servant of Jesus Christ and his gospel.
Those who love the church locate that love within their love for Jesus and his gospel.
3. Challenge the church (1:21–23)
The church is often in danger from external and internal threats. External forces put pressure on the church in a host of ways. These include persecution and marginalization and the invitation to compromise. Internal dynamics can also pose threats to the life and witness of the church, including conflicts, divisions, immorality, heresy, exclusion, self-centeredness, and more.
After reminding the Colossian church of the good things happening among them, and of the supremacy of Christ, Paul challenges them to be faithful. He knows they are in danger. Heresies and divisions and immoralities are always a threat. They must embrace the truth, pursue forgiveness and reconciliation, and live holy and upright lives.
Paul challenges the church to remain in the faith, established and firm. Don’t move from the hope held out in the gospel. You have been reconciled to God and brought together as one body, and made holy. Don’t give that up for anything.
Those who love the church challenge the church when it is in danger. And they call the church to fuller witness, faithfulness, community, discipleship, holiness, and passion. They challenge the church to pursue fresh mission, deeper discipleship, richer community, healthier practices, passionate prayer, and much more.
4. Suffer for the church (1:24)
The persecution of Christians is a global phenomenon. Many Christians suffer oppression and discrimination and eight martyrdom.
Paul himself talks about his sufferings for Christ and the gospel. These included beatings, shipwrecks, robberies, imprisonments, heresies, toils, sleeplessness, hunger, conflicts, and worries. Eventually, Paul was martyred, possibly by beheading.
But notice that Paul doesn’t just choose to suffer for Christ and the gospel. He also chooses to suffer for the church. He says, “Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.”
How many of us are willing to suffer this way for the church? What would we be willing to give up for the wellbeing of the church, and to suffer for the sake of Christ’s body?
Those who love the church are willing—along with Jesus and Paul and the martyrs—to suffer for the church.
5. Serve the church (1:25–29)
Paul serves Christ and his gospel, and he also serves the church. Paul says that he has become the servant of the church “by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness.” In a world where leaders are told to be charismatic, dominant, and forceful, Jesus and Paul challenge us to service.
This means moving from leadership to servantship.
Servantship is about following our Lord Jesus Christ, the servant Lord, and his mission—it is a life of discipleship to him, patterned after his self-emptying, humility, sacrifice, love, values, and mission. Servantship is humbly valuing others more than yourself, and looking out for the interests and wellbeing of others. Servantship is the cultivation of the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had: making yourself nothing, being a servant, humbling yourself, and submitting yourself to the will and purposes of the triune God. Since servantship is the imitation of Christ, it involves an unreserved participation in the missio Dei—the Trinitarian mission of God.
Servantship recognizes, in word, thought, and deed, that “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:26–28).
Paul serves the church by helping them grow into maturity and into “the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” He serves them through teaching, proclamation, and admonition, striving “to present everyone fully mature in Christ. To this, I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me.”
Those who love the church choose to commit to serving the church. In the power of the Spirit, and using all the gifts God has given them, they seek to build up the church. They imitate the servant spirit of Jesus Christ.
6. Strenuously contend for the church (1:28 to 2:3)
Do I really wrestle for the wellbeing and faithfulness and witness of the church? Do I strenuously contend “with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me” to “present everyone fully mature in Christ”?
I strenuously contend for other things. My family’s financial wellbeing. My children’s education. My career progression. My political ideology. My identity and point of view. My image on social media. And a host of other things! But do I strenuously contend for the wellbeing and maturity and witness and faithfulness of the church?
Why does Paul “strenuously contend” for the church? What is his goal? He wants to see the church grow up into full maturity in Christ. And he strives, “That they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely Christ.”
Those who love the church strenuously contend for the church.
7. Guard the church (2:4–5)
Paul is aware of a “philosophy and empty deceit” that threatens the Colossian church. Notice his passion to guard the church? He does this being defending the truth of the gospel, by calling for unity, by helping them grow into maturity, by describing Christian wisdom and understanding, and by extolling the supremacy of Christ.
And he tells them he is standing with them. “Although I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit.”
Those who love the church guard it against heresy and division and compromise. As they guard the truth of the gospel and the truth of the supremacy of Christ, they guard the church and its faithfulness and future.
8. Delight in the church (2:5)
Finally, Paul delights in the church. I began by describing the troubles of the church, and the calls to reform and renew the church. Constructive criticism calls the church to repentance and change and revitalization.
So, we recognize the weaknesses of the church and its past and present failings. We know that churches can be disappointing, broken, boring, and fractured places. But we also delight in the church. Paul goes on to describe how the people of God are filled with all spiritual fullness in Christ (2:6–15). Paul delights in how disciplined the church is. He delights in how firm their faith in Christ is. And he delights in the way they express spiritual fullness in Christ.
Those who love the church delight in the church and in what Jesus has done (and is doing) in his church.
These are the eight postures of those who love the church. Paul models them admirably. It’s time to embrace them individually and as entire churches.