Hey! If you’re looking for the perfect church, I’ve got news for you: It doesn’t exist. That really is a liberating thought. Think what it would be for you and me to have to live in a perfect community, knowing that we were there under false pretenses, and that the church would no longer be perfect with us in it. No, the good news is that the church is a community of real sinners, of imperfect men and women, whose initial confession of faith as they come to faith in Jesus Christ is that we are sinners (which term needs unpacking also).

Any thoughtful person Christian person will respond: “Of course. What else?” And yet there seems to be that continual exodus of folk from so many Christian communities because of their disappointment at the imperfections. One has only to read the New Testament documents to realize that every community addressed was seeking to cope with some shortcoming. In my mind, the most helpful (classic?) work on the communion of God’s people is Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. In it he verbally chastises those who refuse to acknowledge that it is a community of real sinners, and who are seeking an illusion of some other kind of a community of perfect people.

The church is that community of men and women who have been called out of darkness and into the Light by Jesus Christ. It is the community of God’s already-but-not-yet New Creation. It is the company of those so called, who are in process, … and they come from all over the map of hurting, guilty, insecure, fractured, often-pathological, persons. For all that is beautiful in the family of God’s New Creation people, i.e., its wonderful people, its mutual ministries, its worship, its encouragements, its generation of faith and hope and love in our lives together, … for all of that, there is also, sadly, always a lot of ‘crap’, that remnant of our broken-ness, our pre-Christian behavior, our power-struggles, our over-sized (or under-sized) egos, and the often-lack-of-capacity to acknowledge such, and to cast off the works of darkness

When I was dealing with an extremely destructive person, who was not only on my case, but was disturbing the whole community, I was reminded that even the apostle Paul had such an encounter in one Alexander the coppersmith, “who did me great harm.” There is an old tried-and-true rule of the thumb, that one must first go through the illusion, then through the dis-illusion, in order to get to the reality. The disillusion is that one encounters, periodically inside the church community, all those human flaws of sexual misconduct, greed, quests for power and prominence, pettiness, loveless-ness, and other unexpected expressions. We are also told that have an adversary, the devil, who loves to provoke just such disillusioning behavior.

Even so, the church is that community of God’s New Creation which is in process, and indwelt by the holy spirit. It is a community in which “he who would be great among you, must be servant of all.” It is that community, if I can quote Henri Nouwen, where we are to “seek littleness”

All that said: we need one another, more desperately than we know, in this pilgrimage, and in our quest to be faithful disciples. So, some of the gifts of the holy spirit are: longsuffering, patience, gentleness, love, goodness, and self-control—all requirements of God’s in-process New Creation people, God’s already-but-not-yet New Humanity.

Yes, and by-the-way, I do heartily recommend Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, if you want to pursue a fruitful study of the Christian community. It’s worth the effort.


About rthenderson

Sixty years a pastor-teacher within the Presbyterian Church. Author of several books, the latest of which are a trilogy on missional ecclesiology: ENCHANTED COMMUNITY: JOURNEY INTO THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH, then, REFOUNDING THE CHURCH FROM THE UNDERSIDE, then THE CHURCH AND THE RELENTLESS DARKNESS. Previous to this trilogy was A DOOR OF HOPE: SPIRITUAL CONFLICT IN PASTORAL MINISTRY, and SUBVERSIVE JESUS, RADICAL FAITH. I am a native of West Palm Beach, Florida, a graduate of Davidson College, then of Columbia and Westminster Theological Seminaries.
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