Are you on a quest to find The Ideal Church?
Perhaps you know the one I mean. It is the church where no errors of doctrine or practice ever occur. In the Ideal Church, grace, obedience and legalism are always clearly understood and distinguished. The pastor never gives a boring, irrelevant or inaccurate sermon; and the congregation only sings the songs that you like and think are worshipful. In the Ideal Church, all members love one another all the time. No one ever sins or gives offense. There are no disagreements about how the church should be run, or how money should be spent.
Is this Ideal Church what you are looking for? If so, I’ve got bad news for you: you won’t find it. Why not? Because it doesn’t exist!
To create a perfect church, you need perfect people, and all Jesus’ churches are made up of imperfect people. Since the Real Church is made up of flawed people, it is inevitably a flawed body. The mixture of good and bad, success and failure cannot be escaped by changing denominations or congregations.
Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn points out that the separation between good and evil does not fall conveniently between groups of people, or between those in our church and those outside it. It runs through the middle of every human heart.
Many years ago, I went through the most traumatic two years of my life when I was confronted with the flawed nature of our church. It happened when I first grasped what it meant to be saved by the grace of Christ. While it was the most wonderful discovery of my life, it was also the most traumatic. It was a shock to realize how far our church had fallen short of the gospel of grace. I realized that the gospel we—I—had preached had been a confused mixture of legalism and grace that had burdened people instead of freeing them from their burdens.
I thought: Surely I have to leave, and find a church that is free from legalism, free from error, free from these kinds of flaws. I prayed for guidance, and began to read everything I could find on grace.
Two books helped me decide what to do. One was written by a Lutheran, the other by another Protestant pastor. The Lutheran, a seminary professor, described how his own church, though founded on the principle of salvation by grace through faith apart from works, in practice emphasized performance at the expense of grace. The illustrations of legalism he gave, from his experience in congregations and in college, were startlingly similar to attitudes and practices in our own church and its college.
The second writer pointed out that humanity’s most persistent heresy is legalism, a person’s determination to justify himself before God by works or performance. This problem was not limited to our church! There was nowhere for me to go to where the battle for the gospel would not have to be fought. It has to be fought in every human heart. It will never be finally won until the Lord returns.
Our churches are as much in need of grace as we, their members are. When Jesus looks at us, he sees our flaws, our sins, our errors and omissions; and his grace is sufficient to cover these things. As much as we need him to forgive us, our churches need us to forgive them. Can we learn to extend grace toward our churches as Jesus Christ extends it to us? We know we are to forgive one another as he forgives us. Can we learn to forgive our churches as he forgives them?
Our quest is not to find the Ideal Church; it is to help improve the Real Church. Jesus wants us to commit ourselves to the Real Church, his church, in one of its real, flawed denominations or congregations. He will give us strength to persevere in the quest to improve it.
Flawed as it is, that church is the form Jesus has chosen to take in this world. If you have been looking for the Ideal Church, give up your futile quest. Commit yourself instead to the Real Church and to the daily work of improving it.