A Perfect Church? Not In This Life

In a recent book, church growth guru George Barna seems to suggest the end or irrelevance of the local congregation.1 He speaks for a significant number of people who find their congregation unsatisfying or who cannot find a church at all. It is not hard to understand such ambivalence and frustration. The church is divided and broken. It is filled with sinners and hypocrites. R. R. Reno and others have said that we are living in the “ruins of the church.” 2  This is how it has always been and exactly as Jesus said it would be.

Welcome to life in the church. It is not perfect and, in this life, it will never be perfect, but it is nevertheless instituted by God. The ministry of the Gospel (and sacraments) and the exercise of discipline are the evidences that the church is Christ’s.

Church: Since the Beginning
The history of the Patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—and the history of Israel is the history of the institutional church. To be sure, Israel was a national church, and we are not. The national promises and conditions given to her have been fulfilled by our Lord Jesus.3 Still, the pattern is instructive. Israel was constituted as a “covenant assembly” (e.g., Deut 31:30). She had offices (prophet, priest, and king) and even membership records (See Gen 5, 11; Matt 1; 1 Tim 5:9–16).4

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. This was the early apostolic pattern. The early Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42; ESV). Such a congregational life, organized around Word and sacrament, would be impossible without some form of mutual accountability and organization.

Church: Instituted by God
In the 19th century, however, some influential scholars argued that the original church was an informal, Spirit-led association of believers without structure, offices, or institutions and that the notion of a structured, institutional church is unbiblical. This belief fits well with our American, democratic, egalitarian, and individualistic instincts but it is a serious misunderstanding of Scripture. In Matthew 16, Jesus queried his disciples, “‘…who do you say that I am?’” (v.16). Peter answered, You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (v.17). To this Jesus replied, in part, “I will build my church…I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (vv.18–19). The keys to which our Lord referred are symbols of authority given to officers who are to exercise that authority in a particular institution: the church. Christ has given to the church genuine, spiritual authority to make decisions, which, when they agree with Scripture, are binding on earth and in heaven. The church does not make persons believers or unbelievers. Rather the church’s authority is ministerial: it recognizes what is true and announces that truth with God-given authority. It is this very church to which Jesus gave authority to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments (Matt 28:18–20).

Jesus could not have been clearer about his intention. The noun for “church” used in Matthew 18 was drawn from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (e.g., Deut 4:10; 9:10). It means “the covenant assembly” and denotes a divinely constituted gathering of God’s people with officers, members, sacraments, and discipline.

Against this background we can understand why the Apostles followed the ancient pattern by gradually instituting three new covenant offices broadly corresponding to the Old Testament offices: prophets/ministers (1 Tim 4:6, 11–16; 6:11–12), priests/deacons (Acts 6:1–7; 1 Tim 3:8, 11–13) and elders (1 Tim 3:1–7; 1 Tim 5:17-20).5

It is clear that the New Covenant church was Spirit-led, but the Spirit works through the Word (Rom 10:14–18) and sacraments (1 Cor 10) to bring his elect to faith and to confirm to them the promises of the gospel (Heidelberg Catechism Q. 65).6 The pattern of the New Covenant church was established very early (Acts 2:42). The life of the early church was Spirit-led, but it was so in a structured, disciplined assembly with officers, sacraments, and discipline.

Not only did the Apostles obey Jesus’ instructions in regard to the local congregation, but in Acts 15 we even see an example of a regional gathering of delegates to make binding decisions (that they called a “decree”) about the nature of the gospel and about membership in the church (Acts 15). “Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question” (Acts 15:2). Here is the first synod or general assembly. At this synod there were missions reports, speeches, discussion over the meaning of various passages of Scripture, even heated theological argument (vv. 7–11), and finally, agreement.

The Marks of a True Church
It is with these passages in mind that the Reformed and Presbyterian churches confess belief in an institutional church. The Belgic Confession says in Article 27, “We believe and confess one single catholic or universal church—a holy congregation and gathering of true Christian believers, awaiting their entire salvation in Jesus Christ being washed by his blood, and sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit.”7 The Westminster Confession of Faith likewise teaches that there is a “catholic or universal Church” (25.1) and also “a catholic visible church” (25.3).8 Notice that the church is both universal and particular. One cannot belong to the catholic church without belonging to a particular congregation. Thus the Belgic Confession (Art. 28) agreed with the early church father Cyprian (200–258) in saying, “Outside the church there is no salvation.”

In Article 29, the Belgic Confession recognized that, in this life, every congregation will contain “hypocrites who are mixed among the good in the church and who nonetheless are not part of it, even though they are physically there….” Even though the church is mixed, it is possible to distinguish a true church from the “false church” and from “sects” (Art. 29). A true church “engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults.”

Church Discipline: A Necessity
Since the fall, the institutional church has always contained believers and unbelievers. Our Lord himself compared the church to a field with both weeds and wheat. According to Christ, the program for this age is to “[l]et both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest 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.’” (Matt 13:24–31; ESV).

The church is composed of wheat and weeds. We live in the time of sowing. In terms of the parable, the harvest time comes with the return of Christ, the judgment and end of all things. We need to adjust our view of the church to match that of Jesus. It is not that there can never be discipline. Cain was excommunicated because he showed himself to be in open rebellion to the Lord and an unbeliever (Jude 1:11). We are not, however, authorized to go rooting about the church (to stretch a metaphor) looking for “weeds” or to disregard the church because it is mixed.

In Matthew 18:15–20, Jesus prescribed the method of discipline for the church. If one member of the congregation sins against another, the offended should speak to the offender. If the erring brother is resistant, then he is to be approached by two or three witnesses (Deut 19:15). If the offender “refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church” (v.17). If he remains impenitent, he is to be excluded from the congregation. This is a potent act: “…whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (v.18). This is also a formal, judicial decision: “if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (vv.19–20). This passage not only teaches us the necessity of discipline, but everything taught here assumes the existence of an institutional church (cf. John 20:21–23).

Peter exercised the most severe church discipline upon a couple who lied to the Spirit (Acts 5:1–11). The Apostle Paul ordered the Corinthian congregation to excommunicate an impenitent member: “When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Cor 5:4–5; ESV).

Notice that Paul wrote to a congregation about discipline, not only as a punitive measure, but for the sake of the rebel’s own soul.

Furthermore, the Reformed confessions speak about church discipline with one voice. The Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 30 requires church discipline. Heidelberg Catechism question 83 describes church discipline as one of the keys of the kingdom. According to the Belgic ConfessionArt. 29, church discipline is a mark of the true church. In other words, though the church is unavoidably sinful, it must also be disciplined to be a church.

In this life, however, even the act of discipline is imperfect, and no disciplined church will be perfect. The Corinthian congregation is proof of this. Nevertheless, despite all their sins (e.g., gross immorality, factions), Paul continued to call them a “church” (1 Cor 1:2). The Scriptures and the Reformed confessions do not teach that discipline must be done perfectly, only that it must be done.

Conclusion
Some influential religious leaders think the church is irrelevant because it is not hip or does not generate a sufficiently intense religious experience. Others abandon it because it is sinful, but I suspect that the real problem that some have with the church is not just its sinfulness, but more fundamentally, its humanity. Too many Christians recoil at the notion of an earthy institution with flesh and blood members, with sacraments of bread, wine, and water. I hasten to remind those so troubled that we have a truly human (and truly divine) Savior (Romans 9:5) and a truly human mediator “…the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5).9

The church is human and, because of Adam, sinful, but when, on that account, we are tempted to think ill of Christ’s church, let us remember that Scripture quite remarkably calls that assembly of sinners “the church of God, which our sinless Christ obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).

Though the church is human, it is not a human invention. That is why Paul calls it “the church of God” (1 Cor 1:2; 10:32; 11:22). It is a divine institution. The church, whether as the assembly of those looking forward to the coming of the Messiah, with shadowy ministry of Word and sacrament (1 Cor 10:1-4), or as the assembly celebrating the accomplishment of salvation and the resurrection of the Messiah (Acts 2), has always existed. Christ has given to her the keys of the kingdom and, through the Apostles, gifted her with the Holy Spirit and special officers.

The bad news is that church has always been full of sinners and will remain so until our Lord returns. The good news is that our God-Man Savior, the Second Adam (1 Cor 15:45) obeyed the law in the place of his people, died for them, and was raised for their justification (Romans 4:25; 5:1–21). By his Word and Spirit he works graciously and powerfully to bring his people to faith through the foolishness of gospel preaching (1 Cor 1 and 2), to confirm them in that hope through gospel sacraments.10

He also uses sinful, frail men to exercise church discipline to correct his church, to protect her against wolves (Acts 20:29), and to demonstrate the righteousness of God in hope that those under discipline will turn from their sin and renew their profession of faith by amending their lives.

There are folk who cannot find a church. Perhaps they are not looking or perhaps they are looking for the wrong things. They should look for a congregation that has the marks of the church, but not for perfection, because they will not find it—not in this life anyway.

Suggested Reading:
James Bannerman, Church of Christ. 2 vols. (Edinburgh, 1848).

R. Scott Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008).

Edmund Clowney, The Church (Leicester, UK: Inter-Varsity Press, 1995).

D. G. Hart, Recovering Mother Kirk. The Case for Liturgy in the Reformed Tradition (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003).

Michael S. Horton, Where in the World is the Church?  (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing. Reprint, 2002).

Richard D. Phillips, Philip G. Ryken, and Mark E. Dever, The Church: One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2004).

Philip G. Ryken, City on A Hill. Reclaiming the Biblical Pattern for the Church in the 21st Century (Chicago: Moody Press, 2003).

Thomas Witherow, The Apostolic Church (Edinburgh: Free Presbyterian Publications. Reprint, 1983).

NOTES

1 George Barna, Revolution (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 2005).

2 R. R. Reno, The Ruins of the Church. Sustaining Faith in an Age of Diminished Christianity (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2002).

3 2 Cor 1:21; Romans 10:4; Gal 4:4–5; Col 2:17; Heidelberg Catechism Q. 19

4 See Edmund P. Clowney, The Church, ed. Gerald Bray, The Contours of Christian Theology (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1995).

5 See Derke P. Bergmsa, “Prophets, Priests, and Kings: Biblical Offices,” in John Armstrong, ed., The Compromised Church (Wheaton: Crossway, 1998).

6 The Heidelberg Catechism (1563) is one of three summaries of the faith adopted and used by the Reformed churches.

7 The Belgic Confession (1561) is the confession of faith of the Reformed churches and one of three summaries of the faith adopted and used by the Reformed churches.

8 The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) is the confession of the Presbyterian Churches.

9 See also Heb chapters 1–3.

10 Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 65.

©2006 Westminster Seminary California. All rights reserved. www.wscal.edu  First published in Evangelium, Vol.4, Issue 12 (March/April, 2006).” Revised, 2018.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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15 comments

  1. Some people find it hard to connect, or to just walk in the church door alone. And if they manage that then it takes them great courage to keep connections up and to keep going. I don’t think it is always that a person wants to find something wrong or that they are seeking perfection. Perhaps one could argue that not being able to connect is a form of seeking perfection, but if this is the case, the person is probably so down in the struggle that he/she is incapable of pulling out alone. Sometimes this is due to an occurrence that has changed a person’s life and they cannot seem to readjust. The thing is, that a Christian in the midst of this struggle may look the same as everyone else. But it is not always that the person does not think church is important. It is not always that the person does not know the Lord. And as you’ve pointed out, they really do not have a “good excuse”. It is sinful to not meet together. I guess my point is that when one is caught in that struggle, for whatever reason, it is tough to get out.

    • Stephanie,
      I can very well identify with the struggle you describe, as I have changed churches a time or two. The key for me is that Christ has instituted the church, and commanded that if we love Him, we must obey Him. It is not ultimately about me and my connections with the people there, it is about worshiping and pleasing the Lord who has saved me, because I love Him. Mysteriously, I have found that other Christians, when they see your sincere love for the Lord, will be attracted to you. It takes time and perseverance, it may seem awkward, and you may feel that people do not appreciate your efforts, but be assured that God looks at the heart and He appreciates all your efforts to obey Him. One of the characteristics of true Christians is that they love one another. That does not happen immediately, but it takes time and effort, and persistence, and you may have to go the extra mile, to love them, even if they are not so loving. It helps to remember that Christ loved me, and died for me even when I despised Him!

      Sadly I have seen new people come into church, and after a few weeks they leave complaining that if the people were true Christians, they would have been more loving and friendly. We should all make more of an effort to connect with new people, that is true, but I have to wonder why they came in the first place.

    • Stephanie,

      Walking into church is an act of faith in the Savior who redeemed me and the person next to me. He redeemed me to be in the communion of the saints. That communion, with all its sins, is the antidote for isolation and alienation. It is the only place where grace chiefly exists in communal form. As I enter that communion I am called to be gracious to my neighbor in the pew as he is called to be gracious to me because we are both recipients of the free favor of God merited for us by Jesus who loved us and gave himself for us.

  2. ‘We need to adjust our view of the church to match that of Jesus.’

    Since becoming a Christian I desire to be in His Family when we are meeting; I never want to be anywhere else. I find, because Christ is in me and His Spirit works to adjust my view of Church to match Jesus, I live in the dilemma of confronting my fallen flesh – seeking/holding on to selfish and familiar preferences, fearful of being vulnerable in relationship, skipping on the surface for comfort. I walk in and out of fellowship without being aware of other’s needs. And I reinforce this pattern because others are not aware of my needs. Now it seems this is our sinful condition in His Family; it grieves me. So I pray He forgives me and that I do not I isolate in my suffering or separate from the suffering of others. Reaching out and being vulnerable do not feel safe but these actions allow me to join in the sanctifying work of the Spirit. My sin gets uncovered and laid bare. Heb 4:12-13.

    I pray our Lord leads me to others who are willing to be open and vulnerable. It appears not everyone desires Sanctification. As I connect with Christians, I understand not only Christ’s Righteousness covering me but my sin and fallibility – fear, pride, selfishness, arrogance, impatience, preferences, neediness, lack of comfort, intentions, frustrations, discomfort, struggles, boundaries, failures – are uncovered. Being vulnerable in this exalted yet humbled state establishes trust in Christ. It appears He delights in my transparency before men and dependence on Him. The question I ask: Do I protect my sin in His Family, His Church, by pretending to be sinless? Or do I trust Him, His Promises, His Son’s Completed Work, and the surrender to the blessing of His Spirit’s Sanctification?

    • “Being vulnerable in this exalted yet humbled state establishes trust in Christ.”
      I have not seen church this way until now. I’ve let church be separate from the rest of my life. Thank you for sharing this.

  3. The problem in 2018 is where does one go in the U.S. to find an assembly which bears the marks of a true church as enumerated in the Belgic Confession? It is undoubtedly true that there are still assemblies that can be found which bear the marks of a true church but I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that there are relatively few that bear those marks. It is true that many church shoppers leave churches for frivolous reasons. But there are many areas where there are literally no churches within a reasonable driving distance which bear the marks of a true church. I don’t think it is a red herring for a Christian to ask what he should do if he lives in one of these areas?

  4. Angela and Dr. Clark,
    Thank you. I appreciate your responses. And I am looking forward to getting out of this trap I find myself in. I can look back and see how it happened and am convicted that regardless of my reasons, it has been disobedience. Thank you for your words. They admonish and encourage me.

  5. Dr. Clark and Angela,
    What occurs in the hearts and minds of believers as we study, digest, and see The Creeds, The Heidelberg Catechism, The Belgic Confession and the Cannons of Dort? Though these are not Scripture, the information seems to be conforming my understanding of Scripture.

  6. Dr. Clark and Angela,
    What occurs in the hearts and minds of believers as we study and ‘digest’ The Creeds, The Heidelberg Catechism, The Belgic Confession and the Cannons of Dort? Though these are not Scripture, the information seems to be expanding and conforming my understanding of Scripture.

  7. Catherine,
    I find it very interesting that you use the word, “digest.” I like to think of the creeds and confessions as a kind of digest of the Scriptures. They are Church saying, these are the essential truths of God’s Word. It is not just me going in a closet and trying to understand what the Word says by myself, but what the Church, through the centuries, guided by the teachers and pastors God has given to the Church, has determined to be sound doctrine. Eph. 4: 11-16

    • Angela, thank you for this view in Eph. 4:11-16. I was a Christian who went into my closet and studied. But now I am in a confessional Reformed Church. Though I continue to study, I am being taught sound doctrine. I hear the Heidelberg every Sunday and study the Lord’s Day reading the following Wednesday. Using Scripture proofs as we study the Creeds, Catechism, Confession, and Canons of Dort clarify God’s Plan for His Church. Though I’ve believed Jesus died for me, I held faulty assumptions and presuppositions about His Church. These are being uncovered by sound doctrine being taught by our Pastor and Elder. I am grateful God is Faithful.

  8. Catherine,
    I am delighted that you are finding your way through the work of faithful shepherds in your church, which is all provided through God’s gracious providence. Looking back on my long life, it is not unlike Pilgrim’s Progress, I made many wrong turns and encountered spiritual dangers, but through it all the Lord has been faithful, and I am still learning to trust Him more and more. He will not allow us to be tempted beyond what we can bear. But He will always provide a way out. 1 Cor. 10: 13
    Thank you for sharing. That is one of the blessings God provides through the church, that by sharing we may encourage one another.

    • Angela, thank you. I love the Tender Mercies of God in the midst of sin and burdens. I treasure our Lord’s Spirit as He instructs and guides us through our Pastors and Elders in His Plan and Will for His Body, His Church. I love that God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless in His Church, His Bride, distinguished by His Forgiveness and Provision. I love that no one is a ‘mere mortal’, especially me. And I especially appreciate His redirection through your perfect advice, changing the word ‘digest’ to a noun. Isn’t He Wonderful to shift our attention by refocusing our view of Him and His Work in us? Amazing Grace! With deepest Gratitude and Joy in Him, Catherine.

  9. Dispensationalism has also contributed mightily to a low understanding of the local church. Covenant Theology has been a breath of fresh air!

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