I have been thinking about the church lately. Not so much “THE CHURCH” but churches–local congregations made up of real people who express their faith by coming together to worship God, do his will, share potlucks, get angry with each other, play politics, do tremendous works of grace and drive each other up the wall. You know–the kind of church all of us belong to.
In my ministry, I have spent time with congregations of many denominations all across Canada and in several other countries. Over the years, I have met many people, both pastors and lay people, who are looking for a perfect church. Their search often involves going to a church and spending enough time to get a sense of the church and once they see signs of imperfection, moving on to another one only to repeat the pattern.
If they would listen to me, I could save them a lot of time and effort. Their search for a perfect church is going to be a long and frustrating one because there will be no perfect church until Christ returns and brings all believers to him. On that day, the church will become perfect because we who make up the church will be transformed and made into the perfect beings God meant us to be.
But until that day, we live with a basic reality: imperfect Christians produce imperfect churches. As believers, we are called to be working at removing the imperfection from our lives and from our relationships which has the result of producing better believers and better churches but the reality remains–we are imperfect believers and as we gather together in churches, we add together not only our attempts at perfection but also our imperfections. Given that reality, the search for a perfect church is seriously wasted effort.
One of the questions I have been thinking about comes out of this imperfection. If enough imperfection is present, does the a church stop being part of “THE CHURCH”? Another way of putting it is “When does a church become so bad that it is no longer a church?” I am sure that anyone reading this blog can think of some congregation somewhere which might be the one that has crossed the line from being a church to not being a church–and if you can’t think of one, I have a few that I can suggest.
However, I am not in charge of deciding which congregations are actual churches and which are wolves in sheep’s clothing. That particular decision is part of God’s responsibility and the evidence we have suggests that he has a far different standard than we might use when it comes to churches.
To see this, we just need to spend some time in the New Testament letters. Most of the letters were written to local congregations that had something that needed to be corrected. Some had errors of doctrine; some had errors of practise and some had a combination of both. But the hands down winner of the bad church category has to be the congregation in Corinth.
If ever there was a congregation that would qualify for having its church status removed, it was Corinth. If there was a way to get things wrong, this congregation found it. They messed up doctrinally; they trivialized the worship of God; they made church politics into an art; they blessed any and all kinds of immorality; they made the name of God into a joke in their city–whatever they could do to make the church imperfect, they found it and did it.
And the irony of the whole situation is that this church was founded by the Apostle Paul, who spent a year and a half working there, one of his longer stays at a church he founded. Paul was the theologian of the early church, a person whose writings make up a significant part of the New Testament and are the basis of much of the church’s understanding of itself. But somehow, even with that powerful beginning, the church in Corinth managed to find numerous ways to get off track.
And so, for the next few posts to this blog, I want to look at the church in Corinth as I continue my thinking about the church at its worst. I have found that when I look at the dark side of churches, it is much better to look at Corinth than it is to look at contemporary examples–it is much safer to point fingers at Corinth than at churches I know and that know me.
May the peace of God be with you.