August 4, 2020

The Church: Flawed and Finished (3)

pews3.jpgThis series looks at how imperfect and flawed congregations can possibly be the church of Jesus. The first two posts in the series are here and here.

When scripture speaks of the church in ideal terms, it is always from the viewpoint of God’s finished work of love and new creation that begins and ends with the church. Only with proper context can we speak of the present historical church as, in any way, ideal.

It is crucial to see how the church as an ideal reality is always spoken of from God’s point of view. it is not a claim we make, but a gift of God’s promise given to a very imperfect church. It would wrong, and even dangerous, for the historical church to assign to itself in the present the qualities of the finished church.

Several passages demonstrate this. Let’s look at one of the most appealing of ideal images; one constantly used by all Christians.

Ephesians 5:25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.

The church is the bride of Christ, but to use that term without the context of what God is doing presently and finally can be problematic, as the historical church contains elements that are being removed and thrown out as “spots” and “blemishes.” Whatever those elements are, in the present historical context, they are not what God is “finishing” and what Christ is presenting.

Jesus Christ is not “married to” all that is present in the historical church. Admitting this truth is crucial for speaking about the present relation of the church.

This is why the words of Jesus and the Apostle Paul to historical churches in Corinth and Asia Minor are so often words commanding repentance. The church is the bride, the saints, the body of Christ and so on, but the historical church is in process, and as Paul says, looking at the Old Testament church, all of Israel is not Israel. So all that is the historical church is not yet the ecclesia of God. We can speak of the church as “the church of God,” but we must do this with the context of passages like Matthew 13:24-30: Let them grow together (history)…until the harvest (the finished Church.)

One of the most interesting pictures of the ideal church comes in Revelation 7.

Revelation 7:1 After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, that no wind might blow on earth or sea or against any tree. 2 Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, 3 saying, Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads. 4 And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel:
5 12,000 from the tribe of Judah were sealed,
12,000 from the tribe of Reuben,
12,000 from the tribe of Gad,
6 12,000 from the tribe of Asher,
12,000 from the tribe of Naphtali,
12,000 from the tribe of Manasseh,
7 12,000 from the tribe of Simeon,
12,000 from the tribe of Levi,
12,000 from the tribe of Issachar,
8 12,000 from the tribe of Zebulun,
12,000 from the tribe of Joseph,
12,000 from the tribe of Benjamin were sealed.

Many dispensationalist interpretations completely miss the meaning of this passage. This is the historical church on earth, seen through the eyes of the one who knows, seals and owns his church and all of its members. The picture used is an idealized Israel, arrayed for battle. This is the “church militant,” that portion of the church still on earth fighting the good fight.

The idealization of the church can be seen in the idealized “tribes of Israel” motif. The list is not an actual list of real tribes. Note the absence of disobedient and idolatrous Dan and Ephraim. Notice the inclusion of a tribe of “Joseph,” one who was faithful during his sojourn in Egypt. Of course, note the symbolic numbers of 12 (God’s true people) and 1,000 (completeness.)

God knows those who are his. His church is on earth, named, numbered, sealed and called to battle. But the historical church, whether house church, traditional church, emerging church or large denomination, is not the same as this idealized picture. This is the church’s identity in the light of God’s promise to present his bride “finished” and purified. This is not the one, true church in the midst of all those that are less than true. Whenever the church is spoken of in scripture, the “true church” is a possession and promise of God. To be in a historical congregation is to be in church of God in process. God’s calling out, making and cleansing of his bride goes on throughout history.

So far we have seen that the historical church is always a flawed and imperfect gathering, reflected in the disciples in the Gospel, Israel in the Old Testament and the congregations addressed in the New Testament epistles. We have seen that God will present to himself a church without flaws, perfect and beautiful. We have seen that God sees that ideal church even while it lives in the battles and trials of history.

Next, we will look specifically at how the historical church can function as the church, both in its mission and in its fellowship, while being flawed and not yet “true” Israel.

Comments

  1. I’m really enjoying this series. It is as hard to imagine how the church can be found without spot, wrinkle, or blemish as it is to imagine that I can be found that way. Perhaps this cannot happen until we “see Christ as He is” so that we can be like Him. God is truly amazing, calling that which is not as if it is. I am stunned that God can love us as He does.

  2. Thanks, for this series, Michael. It’s insightful and also very helpful to me as I prepare to lead a new member class, where we will be discussing what a church (and THE church) truly is.

  3. Nicholas Anton says

    There are different types of people in this world. The church is made up of those who have placed their faith/trust in the finished work of Jesus Christ. Some are very gullible and find believing most anything rather easy, while others perpetually question and doubt. Some find disciplined conformity rather simple, while others continuously struggle with submission and against insurmountable temptation. Are some more savable or more saved than others? Are some made for heaven while others are made for hell? Five point Calvinism may say yes, but Jesus says NO! In both cases, whether I must be able to drum up a faith without question or doubt (Abraham doubted, Sara doubted, Moses doubted, Elijah doubted, Zechariah doubted, Mary questioned, Peter doubted, Thomas doubted), or, to be able to live a sin free life in order to be saved (Adam and Eve sinned, Noah sinned (possibly the first account in the Bible of homo sexual behavior), Abraham sinned, Jacob sinned, Moses sinned, David sinned (adultery and murder), ultimately, salvation would depend on self. For me to have enough confidence in my confidence, or enough confidence in my good works would leave me hopelessly lost, because in neither area can I muster up enough merit or cancel my demerit to make it to heaven. I am a depraved being with limited knowledge, with a depraved will, a depraved mind and even a depraved faith. The more I attempt to bolster my faith/works in any of these areas, the more I realize that I simply can not do it. All I can do is cry to a merciful God, in the name of Jesus, because I can do nothing to save myself. Even my faith is incomplete. I can not even adequately believe to be saved.

    Is there no hope? Must I perish eternally? To the doubting Thomas, Jesus said,
    John 20:27
    “…Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.”
    To the one who said, “I have kept all this from my youth”, Jesus says,
    Matthew 19:21
    “… If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.”
    The salvation message is interspersed with “believe”, “come”, and “follow”. Furthermore, are we saved because of our faith alone, because of our works, or because of God’s grace through the work of Jesus Christ His Son? Neither our faith nor our works without Christ’s death, resurrection, and promise will save anyone. All our faith (confidence in our belief systems) nor all our righteousness (our confidence in our good works according to a law) will get us above the water of eternal damnation. If we are drowning, whether we are six inches under or ten miles below water level, really makes no difference. Christ alone can save/deliver us.

    Ultimately, the church is made up of broken people who realize that they cannot save themselves.

  4. Nicholas:

    Hyper-Calvinism may say some are made for heaven while others are made for hell. Five-point Calvinism says that all deserve hell and that God, in the mystery of His sovereign grace has determined to save some. (I say this as someone who can only give unqualified assent to two points, am a bit weak on two others, and can’t figure out how one of them amounts to anything more than an axiomatic academic exercise. Of course, a lot of Calvinists would derisively label me a “no point Calvinist.” So be it.

    That quibble aside, I give your comment a hearty “amen.” I was fortunate to be able to attend my first-ever Ash Wednesday service this week (to be followed by my first-ever observation of Lent) where a couple dozen broken people confessed their utter sinfulness and helplessness before a holy but merciful God.

    Michael:

    I’ve never believed any church’s claim to be the only true church, but this concise post of yours really adds to my understanding of why no part of the historical church can claim to be that spotless bride of Christ.

    Thanks.

  5. As a eager contender in a new house church, I am seeking understanding of the nature of the church. I have difficulties believing those worldly, hierarchical structures and institutions usually called churches have any to do with ecclesia.

    But I will give it a second thought. May be the church on earth in all its incompleteness is just that: All kinds of humanly imperfect attempts to realize Gods will through fellowships, assemblies, denominations and organizations.

    But I will still seek Gods will in simple fellowships concentrating on the essentials as I see it: Preaching the gospel to the poor, including them in our fellowship, teaching them what He has told us, baptizing them.

  6. Are,

    I have found that I need both the large church and the small groups as well.

    The large for being able to find a place to worship in many places, to have a decent body of theology and stories to read, and to meditate on, and to find places where I can fit more easily.

    The small for people who know me more intimately, and care if I miss something. I’m willing to put up with certain amounts of discomfort for that, i.e. a charismatic prayer group when my personal tastes run toward Benedictine silence.