The orthodox Christian theology of Hadley Robinson

The Church as a Hospital for Sinners

by Hadley Robinson

I have often heard this description of the Church over the years.  Analogies are important because how we may view the Church in concise terms has an effect on what is taught and expected there.
For example, if we believe the Church to be more like a hospital with Christians as patients, how could we ever turn any away?  If the Church is a training camp for soldiers, on the other hand, then the chronically disobedient, the lazy, or rebellious have no place there.  (Nonetheless, it should be more complex than adhering to some mere analogy, as here.)  Specifically, as this web site emphasizes, the Church must return to the Scriptures for guidance under the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit.  She must not rely on tradition or the smooth talk of the many charismatic teachers who have made the Church a business.
In favor of the hospital analogy, consider this Scripture:
Is there no balm in Gilead?  Is there no physician there?  Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people?  – Jer. 8:22
The lament of Jeremiah is that there seems to be no cure for sin – how can its effects and penalty be taken away?  The response to his question is that it is now taken care of by the suffering Messiah, Jesus Christ, who took away the sin of all the elect who ever lived or will live in a day (Zech. 3:9).  This single act of Christ, the Physician is what the Church proclaims.  "He heals the sin sick soul..." as the hymn goes.  As a result of the proclamation of the Gospel, healing from sin occurs in the visible church.
Another verse that comes to mind is this one:
Jesus answered them, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." – Luke 5:31-32
In a sense, Jesus is the doctor who heals the sick (sinners) but, it is must be noted, that they are repentant sinners (Mk. 1:15).

The analogy of the Church being a sheep ranch is a more common analogy in Scripture.  Sheep need help and guidance from their loving shepherd who also protects them from the wolves.  A good shepherd also isolates the diseased sheep so that the illness does not spread throughout the flock.  The good and true shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, so great is his love for them.  The shepherd picks up the sheep too weak to walk.  He shows them where the best grazing is that will ensure their best health.  If one sheep gets lost, he will spend great effort to find it, leaving the others behind.  The sheep have a purpose:  To provide wool and food to the shepherd – a dominant purpose.  Sheep that are sickly and unable to produce wool are culled.  It is the strong sheep that the shepherd wishes to help over the long haul. 
We could stretch this analogy out further but it would begin to clash with another prominent analogy given in Scripture:  The Church as a military training camp.  There are other analogies in Scripture such as the Church being a fruit orchard, a wheat farm, an olive grove, and a vineyard.   The last analogy is one of the strongest in terms of its repeated use from one end of the Bible to the other.  The major differences between the hospital analogy and the others is that the others all presume a healthy soldier, sheep, olive, grape, kernel of wheat, etc. whereas the former is exclusively about the sick.  Has it ever been asked in respect to the hospital analogy, "What happens when the doctors finally cure a patient?  Where does he go now?  Or, does he just stay with the sick?"  The analogy begs this question.
Why the hospital analogy is weak compared to the sheep ranch or military camp analogy:

1. If the church is a hospital for sinners, what would we think if patients kept returning to the hospital with a disease of their own making, refusing to heed the advice of the doctors concerning treatment, and infecting others?  Or, tragically, what if the doctors were so self-seeking that they purposely misdiagnosed or ignored the patients' diseases in hopes of keeping the sick in the hospital longer and so guarantee their position and income?

The picture of the Church properly being a gathering of weak and sickly people who never get well has no Biblical analogy.  In fact, Hebrews rebukes the Church for such:
In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God's word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!  Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness.  But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. - Hebrews 5:12-14
If the Church's primary ministry is to the casual and relatively indifferent Christian, what effect does this have on those who are zealous for Christ and His Kingdom?  What would the martyrs like Stephen, Perpetua, and Alban think of these kinds of passive Christians who, like the ones alluded to in Hebrews 5 above, stubbornly refuse to grow up and, Sunday after Sunday, just want to receive and not give (and I am not speaking of giving money)?

If there is a good analogy of a sick church, it is that she is an infant in a nursery.  The Apostle describes:
I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly.  – 1Cor 3:2-3
2.  It is important to remember that the leaders that Christ has appointed in the church are ministers, not doctors.  Only Jesus Christ can convert and heal the sin-sick soul.  We ministers might be like nurses – obeying the doctor's orders. Consequently, the sheep ranch analogy appears to be a better description in this regard.

3.  A better analogy may be to suggest that the church is a military training camp for soldiers.  Contrary to the sheep analogy, we are not actually sheep but men so the training camp analogy is better.  Yes, there is an infirmary but it is not right along on the front lines with the healthy soldiers (c.f. 1Cor. 5).  Good commanders are aware of the morale of their troops (1Cor. 5:6).  Soldiers who chronically wound themselves are not only in the wrong business but may wound or kill others.  They must be removed from their units.  The cowardly and disobedient are chastised (Rev. 21:8).  The chronically ill or wounded are removed from the fighting force until fully healed.  As soldiers in Christ, we put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light (Rom. 13:12).

4.  The hospital analogy suggests that there are hypochondriacs who do not want to be healed and would rather enjoy all the care and attention the hospital provides.  Patients undergoing treatment for fatal diseases are unable to be of much use to anyone, including themselves.  The analogy of the Church often being a nursery for infants is better here.  The question arises:  What should we do with infants that grow up but still want to be infants?  We do not keep them in the nursery with healthy infants but put them in an asylum for the mentally unwell.

Is the church a gathering of patients or of soldiers?  Which should it be?

5.  The hospital analogy is not made in Scripture but the analogy of the church being a company of soldiers is.  Consider Israel in the Old Testament and such passages as 1Cor. 9:7; Php. 2:25; 2Tim. 2:3-4; Phm. 2;  Rom. 7:23; 13:12; Eph. 6:11ff.; Luk. 14:31-33; 2Cor. 10:3-5; 1Thess. 5:8; 1Pet. 2:11.
This is also not to mention the numerous passages in Revelation concerning what the believer in Christ is involved in.  It is not a plague we face.  It is a deadly conflict – a war against Christ and His people where His fighters battle spiritual powers and dominions with spiritual armor.  We need to be trained as good soldiers, fit for battle and ready to obey orders.

Nonetheless, Jesus uses the sheep ranch analogy more than any other.  Rather than a good soldier, I am a dumb sheep that often wanders off.  Thankfully, the Shepherd and His under-shepherds tend His flock.