The Bible: Not Just a Love Letter. The Church: Not Just a Hospital.
There are two phrases present in the church today that I really get annoyed by. Admittedly, they are for incredibly picky reasons, but that doesn’t stop me from getting annoyed. Honestly, they probably wouldn’t aggravate me so much if people didn’t often try to build doctrine on them. The two phrases are these:
- The Bible is God’s love letter to mankind
- The Church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.
You’re probably thinking right now, “How could you not like those two sayings? They are so meaningful and revolutionary!” If you haven’t heard either of them, then you will think I’m being way over sensitive, but I’ve heard them both too many times in the last month to continue withholding my opinion.
You also might think I’m being too harsh when you finish reading this paper. Let me be clear up front: I don’t see anything doctrinally incorrect about either of these phrases, BUT their long term effect has had a negative impact on the culture of the church that I think everyone should be aware of, which is why I’m writing this post.
I’m sure when these two phrases came about they were reactions against some common problem in the church. The first might have been in response to a lackadaisical attitude toward bible study, or a general disrespect for the importance of God’s word, so equating it to a love letter made it more relatable to the romantic-at-hearts who needed motivation to read it. I think the second came about as a response to the conservative rise in the church when a wave of church leaders came along and said, “We’re just going to focus on teaching really good theology to people and not worry about evangelizing, we’ll let other people do that.” It was a reaction to what’s sometimes called as the “fortress church mentality.” I’m not denying that there were times and places when these two phrases were needed in the church. On the contrary, I think they were probably very helpful and necessary, but I feel they have gone too far.
I’m going to give my rant on each phrase individually, starting with the “love letter” quote. Just doing some superficial research, I can’t find the original source of this quote, but I believe it came from Billy Graham. I am a Billy Graham fan, and, as I said, I think it was probably a useful phrase when he made it up; the problem comes when we try to build a doctrine off of it.
I think that the resulting doctrine that bugs me is the phrase, “God is nothing but love.” I don’t deny that God is love. It says so in 1 John 4:8. But, there is a movement that is trying to bring exclusivity to this descriptor to say that God is Love, the whole Love and nothing but the Love. God IS Love, but he’s also a lot of other things too.
God has a huge list of names in the bible. Off the top of my head, Elohim, Adonai, YHWH, and YHWH Rapha, YHWH Jireh, YHWH Nissi, and many more.(These are just the ones I could remember without looking them up.) And those are just names for God the Father. I’m not even going to get into the names for God the Son or God the Holy Spirit. Each one of these names reveals or tells us something about God’s character. In English, these names mean things like Creator, Lord, Almighty, Father, Daddy, Supreme Creator, Sovereign, Just, Deliverer, — and yes — Love.
Each of these names tells us something else about God, that cannot be ignored. Each of these names reveals another color, another layer, another shade, another nuance, another insight into the character of God.
Putting the Bible into the box of “a love letter” is tantamount to stripping God of all his other names.
The Bible is so much more than a love letter. It’s a book of history. It’s a book of philosophy. It’s a book of law. It’s a book of poetry. It’s a book of short stories. It’s a book of instructions. It’s a book of arguments.
It’s a thriller. It’s a horror. It’s a romance. It’s a narrative. It’s a mystery. It’s a classic. It’s an action-adventure.
It’s a multicultural, psychological, how-to and who’s who. It’s got math, science, history and nutrition bound up in its pages, and it’s stood the test of time for accuracy.
Somewhere in the bible there exists every single genre, style, voice, and presence known in the written word. From fictional stories with a moral and message (like the parables) to dry accounts of census data (like in Numbers), the Bible runs the full gambit. And inside every genre can be found a hint, a foreshadowing, a piece of the puzzle, that is the story of Jesus Christ, a man whose life and death is chronicled four times within its pages.
The story of Jesus Christ is a story of love, of this there is no doubt, but it’s such a great story that it doesn’t confine itself to being told only in the form of a letter. It’s a story that transcends all written literature, and it ultimately reveals the glory of God to those who read it in an earnest search for truth.
So cut it out with this “The Bible is God’s love letter to mankind,” nonsense. The Bible is the Bible and there’s no other way to accurately describe it in one sentence than to use that simple five-letter word, B-I-B-L-E.
Don’t let the Bible become nothing but a love letter in your mind. Remember that the Bible is more than a love letter, and don’t let that description be the only one you ever use.
Now on to the hospital quote.
“The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints,” is a quote most widely attributed to Pauline Phillips, or her stage name, Abigail Van Buren. It also gets quoted by Timothy Keller a lot (another favorite of mine). But, this is a quote that, quite frankly, grinds my gears.
It’s loosely based on a statement from Jesus. The Jesus quote I‘m referring to can be found in Luke 5, Mark 2, and Matthew 9.
The scenario: the scribes are complaining that Jesus is eating with tax collectors. Jesus replies, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
The hospital quote is based off of the first part of this verse. “Those who are well don’t need a doctor.” This is true. If it weren’t, Jesus wouldn’t have said it. The problem is they leave out the second part where Jesus says he has come to call the sinners TO REPENTANCE. In post crucifixion terms, he’s saying, “I have called sinners to become Christians so that they may be justified, and thus, declared to be sinners no more.”
The problem with the quote about the church being a hospital is this: Jesus wasn’t talking about the church. Jesus was talking about bringing people to the point of salvation, and bringing people to the point of salvation is not the only function of the Church.
Let me define the purposes of the local church as best I can using scriptural support:
The church has 3 functions.
One: Glorify God (Ephesians 3:21).
Two: Edify the saints (Ephesians 4:11-16)
Three: Go out and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18-20)
You might be saying right now, “See! That hospital quote fits into function number three of the church! Making the church a hospital for sinners is fulfilling the great commission.” But I want you to look closely at the wording of function number three. It says to “go out.” It does not say to “bring in.” Therein lies my issue.
In my view the church is neither a hospital for sinners, nor a museum for saints.
If you want to keep the medical metaphor, I’ll give you my fix.
The church is actually a medical school where we train up doctors to go out in the world and operate on people. You see you can’t bring a bunch of dying people to a medical school and teach them to operate on themselves. They’re gonna sit there in the classroom and stay sick. They might know exactly what to do, but they physically can’t do it to themselves.
If we had this mentality, then we Christians would be forced to perform the great commission the way it’s supposed to be performed, by going out and operating on sick people. Once those people have been saved from death then they can go to medical school and learn how to operate on people too.
When Jesus said, “The healthy have no need of a doctor,” the church wasn’t invented yet! Jesus was talking about the message of salvation… a tiny part of the entire gospel.
Another problem that this quotation has made in the church is that people look at evangelism as “getting people to come to church.” In effect, it has turned the church into a place where we only preach the method of salvation and rarely ever dig deeper into the word, because we don’t want it to go over the heads of the non-Christians there.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t preach salvation inside the doors of the church, but you definitely shouldn’t ONLY preach salvation inside the doors of the church.
As it is with the hospital metaphor, we have reduced Christianity to salvation alone. Being a Christian means more than just being saved. It means you have been saved and you’re in the process of being sanctified. You’re being molded into the form of Jesus.
If the Church is a hospital for sinners, what’s the point of coming back to the hospital every week
There are two possible and problematic answers to this question.
One, I keep coming back to the hospital every week because I keep getting sick and keep needing to be saved. If that’s the case, you have a crummy hospital and should maybe look for a more permanent or long-term solution to your illness. ie. Find something that heals you, so you can progress in your health, instead of have a weekly regression.
Two, there is no reason to come back every week. I won’t bother.
You see the problem?
If we were to think of the church as a medical school, then the reason to come back every week is to learn more and more about human beings, how they are saved from the illness of sin that plagues them, and how we can fight that illness with each others help. We can learn about effective forms of medicine that stave off those illnesses from coming back, and most importantly we can learn new techniques for living a healthier, sickness-free life. You see what I’m getting at? In essence, we can be sanctified.
If the Church is a hospital for sinners, where do the doctors and nurses come from? How did anyone ever go from being a patient, to being a medical minister? Did they have to go to seminary in order to get to the point of teaching others? Because, the author of Hebrews has something to say about that. (5:12-14)
If the Church is a hospital for sinners, what is the medicine? Is it the knowledge of salvation? Is it that tiny little piece of the Gospel message of Jesus Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection that just deals with keeping your from dying? If so, we’re not giving the full dose, cause Jesus didn’t teach just about how to be saved, but how to live as a saved one.
If the Church is a hospital for sinners, what is the morgue? Is that the place we shove the lost people who came in, learned to speak Christianese but never actually got better so we just made them up, stuffed them with spices and now they are walking talking Christian puppets?
If the Church is a hospital for sinners, what is the massive medical bill that comes after your stay? Is that your list of works you have to do to truly hold onto your cure for your sickness?
If the Church is a hospital for sinners, what is your health insurance? Is it the extra thing you’re gonna bring along and add to the doctors instructions to make sure you’re really better? Is it the bit of Buddhism that pretty much lines up with what a Christian should be so you can get ahead a little bit and have a smaller deductible. Is it the “and” in “Christianity and…” (see C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters or Mere Christianity for the “Christianity and” idea.)
If you don’t like the medical school metaphor and are looking for another one to replace the hospital for sinners metaphor, here you go. (I actually like this one better.)
The Church isn’t a hospital for sinners, or a museum for saints, it’s a gym (for repentant sinners) to work out weekly and get strong, so that they can go and use those muscles in the real world to lift cars off of people, build bridges for people, and to generally use for the benefit of other people, and, if necessary, to carry people who are dying to get some buff muscles of their own to the gym to work out and do the same.
The church is a gym where you might get instructed on how to work out, but mostly you get the opportunity to build some spiritual muscles and do it in community with your fellow repentant sinners. This is the best metaphor I have yet encountered to try and explain what the church is.
I feel it necessary to address the second part of the original hospital quote. “The church is not a museum for saints.” I am one hundred percent behind this part of the quote. Too many churches turn into a “fortress” or a “holy huddle” where strong, well-intentioned Christians never bring anyone new into their circle. This is a danger very common to strong Christians because they get a feeling of exclusivity to the gospel message that they, admittedly, know very well.
You do have to know your Bible. It’s good to know your Bible. But knowing what it says, and doing what it says are two very different things. I heard it said recently that, “to know and not to do is not to know.”
You are to go out and spread the good news. If you know your Bible well, then this shouldn’t be a surprise to you. So, if you look around your church and realize that a new face hasn’t darkened its doors in 2 years, there is a serious problem. If that’s the case, then you are not fulfilling the great commission. The one big thing Jesus told his disciples to do right before he ascended, you’re not doing. So work out. Get your spiritual muscles up to Shwarzeneggian proportions, then go out, and use them to inspire others to do the same.