It is not difficult nowadays to find people who believe church is a mess. In fact, it has become rather unfashionable to honor the church for anything. Even church leaders have joined the fracas, making jokes and taking jabs at the church. The congregational response is nearly always laughter.
The church: what a joke.
The mess is not new, of course. Church has always been a mess.
What is new is our expectation that church ought not be a mess, or that the mess was something unexpected or out-of-the-ordinary.
Our ancestors never expected to find paradise when they went to church. They went to the church to “taste of the powers of the world to come.” They went to experience a “foretaste of glory divine.”
Our ancestors understood the inescapable reality of original sin, the verifiable existence of the “prince of darkness grim,” and the daily grind of walking through a “world with devils filled that threaten to undo us.”
We now have little patience with such doctrines or with those who preach them. We think of these phrases as cute, quaint and hopelessly irrelevant barnacles that cling to hymns we no longer sing and books we no longer read. In the absence of such doctrines, we expect the full realization of the Lord’s coming kingdom right now, without pain, without resistance, and without repentance.
I write these blogs in hope that there are still many who understand that the teachings of the Bible – doctrine, if you will – are vital to authentic Christian life. Without them, we cannot do else but continually reshape the church (and our faith) according to the beliefs of whatever secular philosophy pleases us – or pleases the crowd we hope to attract.
In the last few blogs, I have been asking a question: “what is the church anyway?”
I have admitted that there are a number of conflicting definitions. We call the definition of church an “ecclesiology.”
Even though it is new for Christians to dishonor the church as they are prone to do at present, we have disagreed for several centuries now about what church is supposed to look like.
Although this is as unpopular subject as one could possible imagine, deciding one’s ecclesiology is a very important part of a Christian’s spiritual life. For example, we all know that words like "Pentecostal," “Episcopal,” and "Baptist" are adjectives. Way back in the seventh grade, Mrs. Beeker told me back that “an adjective is a word that modifies a noun.” If we are not sure what a noun means, what can an adjective, which is a word we use to modify, qualify and specify that noun, do but cause more confusion?
Therefore, we must know what the word "church" means before we add a modifier to it.
That’s what the last few blogs have been trying to address: defining the word “Church.”
Most Christians agree that the universal (we won’t make them say catholic!) church is a spiritual organism. Only God knows exactly where it is. Only He is sure where it is not. Most Christians these days would also agree, even with some hesitation and reservation, that the universal Church contains believers scattered throughout all the denominations of Christendom. There are even followers of Christ outside of Christendom, for that matter. Most Christians would further agree that there are people scattered throughout every denomination (sometimes in leadership) who do not have divine life in them. Such people are not therefore, members of the Lord’s Universal Church. (Of course, the Lord told us that we cannot distinguish true believers from fake ones. God and the holy angels will separate them at the end of the age.)
So we can all agree that the Lord’s church is a spiritual entity. It consists of all those who believe in Christ and who seek to follow Him. Most of us believe that this includes even many heretics, people who do not believe rightly because they have been taught incorrectly or who in all sincerity have misunderstood the teachings of the Holy Scriptures and the Lord’s Church.
Most of us also believe that local congregations throughout the world (and through the centuries) are mystically united within, to the universal, or “catholic,” Church.
We will all agree that the Lord Jesus Christ founded the Church.
We agree that the Holy Spirit filled the church at Pentecost and that he has continued to guide it since the days of the apostles.
All believers of every era and in every place are, therefore, a part of God’s Church. Believers are, in the words of St. Paul, “seated in heavenly places with Christ.”
Since only God knows for sure who is or is not a part of the Church, much of the life and work of the church is invisible to us. God sees the Bride of Christ adorned as a bride for her husband. He sees the wheat. He sees the unfolding of the Kingdom of God.
We experience mess.
We see mixture; the collection of what Christ called “the tares and wheat”.
Down here on earth, we deal with a lot more than angels, saints and cherubim.
I once heard an old preacher say “to live with the saints up above, that will be wondrous glory. To live with the saints here below, that is a different story!” If you have been around church very much, you know what he was talking about!
While most of us have wonderful stories of Christ-like people who have brought joy and understanding into our lives, we also tell less inspiring stories about those who claim to follow Christ but make our lives difficult!
The saints up in Heaven are now beyond the reaches and effects of the fall.
Down here, we are not.
The church, as we experience it in the day to day, is a collection of tares and wheat, led by fallen men and women. It makes mistakes. It takes wrong turns. It often disappoints. Sometimes, parts of the church even goes into heresy, (teachings that deviate from the ‘faith once and for all delivered to the saints.”)
It takes something of a sanctified imagination to see the church as God sees it: as it will be and as it really is for those who love it.
So why is the church a mess?
Because Jesus Christ receives sinners, of whom I am chief.