After Paul left the church in Corinth to continue following God’s leading, he maintained a connection with the church. Some of the members also maintained contact with him. And since the early church was small and well connected, he heard news of the church from other believers as well. I imagine it created a real problem for him as he began to hear of the things that the church was doing. In an attempt to deal with the problems, Paul wrote three letters (which somehow got transmitted to us as two letters), send representatives and even planned to visit himself. The problems in the church were serious enough that Paul felt it necessary to put so much effort into dealing with the issues.
As we read through the letters, we see Paul opening himself to these people. He is at times angry, at times a loving parent, at times a teacher, and at times a concerned pastor. It is clear that he loves these people and is deeply concerned with them. What I find most interesting is the beginning of the two letters. After introducing himself as was the custom in letter writing in those days, Paul writes who the letters are being sent to. In I Corinthians 1.2, he writes, “To the church of God in Corinth..”. II Corinthians 1.1 includes these words, “To the church of God in Corinth….” A bit later in I Corinthians, he refers to the church members using a word that many Bible versions translate as “saints”. Throughout the letters, he makes frequent use of the word “saints” when referring to believers, including the members of the Corinthian church.
I think the message is clear–Paul is writing to people whom he considers to be believers and to a group which he considers a church. In spite of all the problems the church has, in spite of the open and serious sins they are committing, in spite of the divisions tearing the church apart, in spite of the terrible witness they are providing, Paul still sees this group of people as a church. He isn’t being naive–he clearly has good information about the church and its problems and isn’t pretending the problems aren’t there. Nor is he being sarcastic–he shows a great deal of love and respect for these people in his writings.
No, I think Paul is being completely honest and serious when he calls this group of people a church and saints. He looks beyond their obvious imperfections and sees the faith that it underneath everything. It may be shaky, it may be ignored at times, it definitely needs to be strengthened–but it is still faith and that faith makes them both saints and a church as far as Paul is concerned. And because these letters were chosen to form part of God’s written revelation to us without a divine footnote telling us that Paul was mistaken on this point, we are safe in assuming that God himself saw these people as saints and their gathering as a church.
So it seems that when we look at the question of when a church stops being a church, the Biblical answer is that a church can go pretty far astray before it stops being a church. The most fractious, bickering, quarreling group we can find today probably doesn’t come close to Corinth in their imperfection. The church whose imperfections are repeated in hushed tones whenever pastors gather is probably not going to pass Corinth in being a bad example of a church. The church that no pastor in his right mind wants to be called to still is a better example than Corinth.
But Corinth was still counted as a church and its members were still called saints. Pastors disappointed with their calling; believers dissatisfied with local expressions of the church; church hoppers looking for the perfect church–all need to pay close attention to the message of the Corinthian letters. We can be imperfect and still be a church. In fact, the reality is even stronger than that. We are the church and we are imperfect–those two basic realities need to be in the forefront of our thinking about the church.
We won’t find a perfect church–but we will likely not find one as imperfect as Corinth. Congregations exist somewhere between perfection and Corinth. Looking for a perfect congregation is a pointless exercise. A better choice is discovering what we do about the very real imperfection that affects every church–and that will be the topic of the next few blogs.
May the peace of God be with you.