“The church is divided and broken. It is filled with sinners and hypocrites. It is not perfect and, in this life, it will never be perfect, but it is nevertheless instituted by God. God has always entrusted his gospel, the ministry, and the sacraments to redeemed sinners, and he expects those who bear his name to be united to a particular congregation.” With those sentences, and a few others, Dr. R. Scott Clark begins his excellent article A Perfect Church? Not In This Life (Evangelium Vol. 4: Issue 2, MAR/APR 2006; a quarterly publication of Westminster Seminary California).
A Perfect Church! In this Life! That is what many desire … demand … expect … covet. A church where everyone always thinks only on “whatever is noble, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, excellent or praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8).” That would be ideal. Perfectly ideal. A church where everyone lives consistently with all of the implications of the Christian Gospel. A church where self-interest is always secondary to the interests of others (Philippians 2:4). A church where there is no conflict!
How can a person find such a church? As the title of Professor Clark’s article implies: Die.
Only in eternity does such a congregation flourish (see Revelation, chapters 21 and 22). We know now, however, based on God’s promises, that one day those who faithfully serve and persevere in the imperfect church will finally find the perfect church they long for. Dr. Clark writes, “Since the fall, the institutional church has always contained believers and unbelievers. Our Lord himself compares the church to a field with both weeds and wheat. According to Christ, the program for this age is to ‘let both grow together until the harvest, and at that time I will tell the reapers,’ ‘Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn’ (Matthew 13:24-31; ESV). The church is composed of wheat and weeds. We live in the time of sowing. We need to adjust our view of the church to match that of Jesus.”
Conflict in your church? People living for self? Defensiveness and self-justification at every turn? Welcome to the church, the perfect church! It is perfect because it is Christ’s. It is perfect because it reflects the reality of our humanity (very imperfect!), and it is perfect because it matches what the Lord has ordained it to be for this age. You are probably already a member there!
Some abandon and flee their church because it is sinful, but, as Dr. Clark notes, “I suspect the real problem that some have with the church is not just its sinfulness, but more fundamentally, its humanity.” Yes, the church is human but not of human origin. It is the church of God and a divine institution. The hard part for me, and I think probably most of us, is not confusing my definition of “divine” with that of our Lord’s.