The Church as Beautiful

A Review of Dustin Benge's "The Loveliest Place"

To show the doctrinal basis for the church isn’t difficult. To suggest the church has accomplished good seems fairly straightforward.

But to say the church is beautiful?

Believing that seems increasingly harder.

Whether it’s a church split, a leadership failure, or the church failing to stand up and live out the gospel, it seems something ugly is always happening. Sometimes it happens to churches we know. Sometimes to churches we admire. Sometimes these things happen to us.

But to say the church is beautiful? Believing that seems increasingly harder.

The Loveliest Place?

Dustin Benge really has a challenge on his hands when he writes a book about the church called The Loveliest Place. Not the lukewarm place. Not the sometimes-good-sometimes-ill place. The loveliest place.

The title is a play on Spurgeon’s description of the church as the “Dearest Place on Earth.” Benge changes this to “loveliest” to communicate what Spurgeon is getting at:

Nothing in this world is dearer to God’s heart than his church; therefore, being his, let us also belong to it, that by our prayers, our gifts, and our labours, we may support and strengthen it.

The Loveliest Place: The Beauty and Glory of the Church

The Loveliest Place: The Beauty and Glory of the Church

Crossway. 208.

Dear. Precious. Lovely. The Bible describes the church in extraordinary ways, even using beautiful poetry and metaphors. How does this compare to how Christians today describe the church? Unfortunately, many believers focus more on its mission, structure, or specific programs than on its inherent beauty.

In The Loveliest Place, Dustin Benge urges Christians to see the holy assembly of God’s redeemed people in all its eternal beauty.

Crossway. 208.

Benge’s aim therefore isn’t to show the “how” of church. The Loveliest Place shows the “who” and “why”. Who is the church in God’s eyes? And why does God love his church like this?

Benge’s intention is important to keep in mind. This isn’t a book on how to administer your local church to love and serve its people. Nor is it a defence or systematic theology of the church. It reads more like a theological devotional. Showing us God’s heart for the church, it rebukes, corrects, and exhorts us to see the church the same way.

Benge’s intention is important to keep in mind …showing us God’s heart for the church, it rebukes, corrects, and exhorts us to see the church the same way.

A Personal Highlight

Beginning with God as Trinity, The Loveliest Place progresses to examining the gospel, church leaderships, and then to local Christians in the church. As we advance through its pages, we wade deeper into the depths of how God sees each part of the church and why it should also be dear to us.

Benge’s two chapters on shepherding and feeding the flock were personal standouts. For example,

Men often enter pastoral ministry because of their ardent love for Christ, the chief shepherd, but quickly discover that their love isn’t as robust for his sheep, who are often stubborn animals. (103)

I’d say that stubbornness also applies to pastors just as much. We often diminish pastoring below the role God desires it to be. Benge’s chapters were challenging and insightful and made me want to intentionally grow in my love for the church, not just Jesus.

Using the Puritans

Like all the books in the Union series, there are plenty of Reformed and Puritan quotes along the way. This is a great feature of these books because the Puritans combine biblical depth with real affection and love for God’s words. Such combinations seem rare in our sometimes rigorous intellectual and sometimes overly emotional age.

Although I love the puritan quotes and their deep reflection, it does come with some interesting exegetical points. For example, did I struggle to read the constant reference to Song of Songs as allegory for Christ and the church in the first chapter? Absolutely. Do I think I should read it that way? Probably not.

Acknowledging the Ugly

I also would have loved a chapter on the seeming contradiction between the church’s beauty and her current ugly streaks and hypocrisy. Benge acknowledges this difficulty in the introduction but doesn’t explore it any further. A book on how “lovely” the church is really should have addressed this.

Perhaps there could have been a chapter on the final judgment—Jesus the Judge who assesses his church, separates the goats from the sheep, and welcomes his people to the marriage supper of the lamb. Such a chapter could have addressed the former issue and added a yearning in us at the same time for the church to be fully purified and holy.

Beholding the Beauty

Overall, the book really was a delight to read, leading to repentance and worship. It reminded me of a conversation I had the other day with an older pastor. He had just moved on from pastoral ministry to mentoring new pastors. Despite his pastoral bumps, bruises, and wounds, he said, “I still love God’s church, and that’s why I’m here.” It seemed to me he had captured something of God’s heart for the imperfect, work in progress, but dear and lovely church.

I wish my heart was more like that. And whilst Benge’s work hasn’t achieved for me a conviction forged by a lifetime in ministry, it has given me a clear and challenging reflection on why the church is so dear to God.

And I find myself saying the church is beautiful after all.

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