Maybe you’ve tried a few different ones looking for it. Like a beautiful mythical creature, somewhere hides this unicorn church that always does everything right, believes everything right, and all the people are friendly, holy, and happy. Maybe you think you’ve found it. If you think you have, just wait; you simply haven't been there long enough — like more than five minutes.
Because the truth is, there is no perfect church. The church is a people. And as long as people sin, people make a mess of things — including the gathering together of the body of Christ. Some churches are better at loving and serving people. Some are better at putting together a well-ordered worship service. Some are better at singing or preaching or serving their community — but no church is perfect because people are not perfect.
The poster-child for messed-up churches is the church in Corinth. Reading though the Apostle Paul’s two letters to the Corinthians reveals that their church was riddled with division, sexual immorality, lawsuits against each other, idolatry, false teaching, and all kinds of sin.
And yet, in 1 Corinthians 1:2 Paul describes the church as “those sanctified in Christ Jesus.” Despite all their sin and every vile thing they were doing, Paul addressed them as a people made holy—set apart—in Christ. He affirmed that as the church, they were “called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus.” They were saints, too, along with the Galatians, the Colossians, and even the Philippians, Paul’s favorite church. The Corinthian church, with all its problems, was identified with all other believers in the Lord, and in no way was it seen as inferior or second-rate because of the many issues in the church. Paul rebuked them for many of the things they were doing, and he had strong words for them — but he also boasted about them (2 Cor 9:2) and wrote to them, “I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls” (2 Cor 12:15).
As far as the east is from the west, the Corinthians were from the perfect church — but they were saints. They were sanctified in Christ, and Paul loved them dearly. Today the Church (and every local church that comprises it) is no different. Division. Immorality. False teaching. Idolatry. No church is perfect. In fact, most churches are just plain messed up — and still, we should love it.
We don't love the sin. We don't love the heartache and the strife and the brokenness. But we love the church. Because the church is a people. We love the church because Jesus loves the church. He died for the church and one day he’ll return for the church. It’s a great mystery but the church is the body of Christ, so don't ever believe anyone if they tell you they love Jesus, but not the church. If you think that’s possible, try it out sometime. Tell someone close to you that you love them as a person, but you don't love their body. See what kind of response you get. Hint: it won’t be pretty.
And while often the church is not pretty either, still we’re encouraged to love our brothers and sisters through their mess because Jesus loves the church. He gave himself up for her (Eph 5:25). Paul loved the church, and if he could have great pride even in the church at Corinth (2 Cor 7:4), we can have pride in the Church as well, flawed and imperfect as it may be. So stop looking for a perfect church. Let’s look at a perfect Christ, roll up our sleeves, and love the imperfect church.
Why do we lament and stress about messiness in our churches? We know everyone sins—including ourselves. Why are we surprised by it?
The sin of the Corinthian church is well-documented. Considering all their sin, how can Paul speak so highly of them at times?
What comfort is there in reading of Paul’s affection for such a messed up church as the one in Corinth? What comfort is there in Paul’s calling them sanctified, and saints together with other believers?
What is one practical way to “love the church”? (Remember, church is a people.)
For further reflection, read 1 Corinthians 1:1-9.