4 Ways Paul Encourages Us to Love the Church (Even When It’s Hard)

Beauty on the Inside

Around the corner from where I live, a house is for sale. In bold green letters, the lawn sign reads: “I’m Gorgeous Inside!”

The message is surprising. From the street, the house is thoroughly ordinary, even run-down. It’s a seventies-era raised ranch with dingy white vinyl siding and a location on a busy road. The bushes are too big, the windows are too small, and the backyard is non-existent.

But the sign encourages me to believe there is something more beautiful—and more valuable—about this seemingly ho-hum house than I can appreciate from the curb.

The local church is a little like that house. At first glance, “the house of God” (Heb. 10:21) is unremarkable: a regular gathering of ordinary people committed to a largely invisible mission. We are young and old, male and female, single and married, unemployed and overworked. None of us is much to look at. We sing slightly off-key, and we can’t always clearly articulate the faith we profess. Following worship, bad coffee and awkward moments are served at plastic tables in a damp basement.

But the church has more beauty—and more value—than we can see with physical eyes. Like the Old Testament tabernacle that was covered on the outside with ram’s skins and goat hair but ornamented inside with gold and silver, the ordinary-looking church is actually much more than it seems.

A Complicated Church Story

In the New Testament, many of the testimonies to the church’s worth and intrinsic loveliness come from the writings of the apostle Paul. This is surprising, too.

If you think about it, Paul had a very complicated church story. He was a religious kid, but rather than growing up into love for God’s people he worked against them (Phil. 3:5–6). He hated the church, celebrated the death of her first martyr, and used all his energies to strike down Christ’s beloved people wherever he could find them (Acts 7:58; Acts 8:1, 3; Acts 9:1–2). Then, on his way to persecute the church, Christ appeared to him, and the direction of his life forever changed. Overnight, the church’s enemy became the church’s friend (Acts 9:1–22).

We might expect Paul’s church story to be all sunshine and hymn-sings from that moment on. But, instead, new church-member Paul went on to experience many of the challenges of life in the local church. He was viewed with skepticism by church leaders (Acts 9:26). He suffered personal attacks from false-teachers and their disciples (2 Cor. 10:10). He was intentionally misunderstood by other Christians (2 Pet. 3:16). He had disagreements with other Christians (Acts 15:36–40). He was disappointed by other Christians (see 2 Cor. 11:22–29).

He sat alone in prison, longing for committed fellow-workers but realizing “they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 2:21). In what may be the saddest verse in all of the epistles, he recounts, “At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me” (2 Tim. 4:16). If anyone knew how disappointing the local church could be, it was the apostle Paul.

And yet, Paul obviously loved the church. Looking at Paul’s epistles, we can learn four ways to grow in our love for the church (even when it’s hard):

1. Speak Truth

The same Paul who experienced disappointment and betrayal in the church is the one who calls the church beloved at least a dozen times in his letters. He regularly refers to other Christians as brothers and sisters. He doesn’t hesitate to address them as saints. Again and again, Paul loudly affirmed the truth about God’s people.

We can learn from this. Too often, when we are having a hard time at church, our inclination is to speak poorly of our fellow church members. To criticize. To gossip. To distance ourselves from “those people.” Instead, Paul teaches us to “outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom. 12:10). Because God loves these people and valued them with the life of his Son, we ought to speak of them with honor and love.

As we do, we will encourage others and preach to our own souls. Yes, we tell ourselves, these are my people, and I love them.

2. Show Up

Due to his imprisonment, Paul couldn’t often gather with the churches, but it was always his great desire. At least seven times in his epistles Paul expresses his longing to be face-to-face with the churches he loved (Rom. 1:9–15; Rom. 15:23–24; 1 Cor. 16:7; Phil. 2:23–24; 1 Thess. 2:17; 3:10; 2 Tim. 1:4). And, with great poignancy, he repeatedly commands those who are privileged to be together to actually be together: nose to nose, smile to smile, greeting one another with a holy kiss (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thess. 5:26). No matter how often Paul wrote to the churches or prayed for them, he also wanted to be with them.

It may not be easy to show up at church week after week, but it is necessary. Not only does Scripture command it (Heb.10:25), the apostle Paul shows us that meeting together is a vital way to encourage our own hearts to love Christ’s church.

3. Invest

The apostle Paul loved the church with his words and his affection, and he also loved the church with his actions. On behalf of the churches, he worked tirelessly (1 Cor. 15:10), prayed night and day (1 Cor. 3:10), and was willing even to be “poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of [their] faith” (Phil. 2:17). He didn’t stand aloof. Instead, he willingly experienced “daily pressure” because of his “anxiety for all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:28).When we serve the church—sacrificially investing in its well-being in any way that we are able—we will find that, like Paul, our lives become knit to God’s people. As we deliberately love them with our actions, we will begin to love them with our hearts.

4. Give Thanks

One of the constant features of Paul’s epistles is thanksgiving for the churches. In nearly every letter, he gives thanks to God for the congregations to which he writes. He thanks God for their public profession of faith (Rom. 1:8), their gifts and graces (1 Cor. 1:4–7), their prayers (2 Cor. 1:11), their love for other Christians (Eph. 1:15–16; Col. 1:3–4), their partnership with him in the gospel (Phil. 1:3–5), their steadfastness (1 Thess. 1:2–3), and their growth in the faith (2 Thess. 1:3). We can imagine him looking for things to rejoice over and delighting in the chance to give public gratitude to God.

Here, too, we can learn from Paul. Do we use our times of private and family prayer to give thanks to God for the church? Do we think about the lives of church members and look for reasons to be grateful? Do we publicly express our thanksgiving? As we overflow in deliberate thanks, we will find we have a multitude of reasons to love the local church.

The truth about the church shaped Paul’s experience of the church. The truth should shape us, too, so that belonging to this ordinary gathering of unremarkable people becomes one of the highest joys and greatest privileges of our lives. In the unassuming assembly of our local churches, Christ manifests his glory.

Brothers and sisters, come delight in the church. I know it doesn’t look like much from the curb. And I freely admit that it is still being perfected. But the Lord himself tells us: it’s beautiful inside.

Content adapted from A Place to Belong by Megan Hill. This article first appeared at Crossway.org; used with permission. 

Photo of Megan Hill

Megan Hill

Megan Hill is a pastor’s wife living in Massachusetts and an editor for The Gospel Coalition. She is the author of three books:  A Place to Belong: Learning to Love the Local Church (Crossway, May 2020), Contentment: Seeing God’s Goodness (P&R, 2018) and Praying Together: The Priority and Privilege of Prayer: In Our Homes, Communities, and Churches (Crossway/TGC, 2016). Her writing has appeared in various publications including Christianity Today, The Washington Post, Today in the Word, Reformation 21, Focus on the Family, Desiring God, and Tabletalk. She belongs to West Springfield Covenant Community Church (PCA).

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