Some Musings on the Imperfect Church
by Fred G. Zaspel
We all know that God’s work in us is a process to be completed only in heaven and then finally in the resurrection. And we all know that until then we will struggle with sins and faults and weaknesses. But what we seem to forget is that what is true of us is true of others — others in the church. Yet sometimes — inexplicably — we are surprised to find things in our fellow church members that are less than perfect. Duh!
Here’s what brought me to write about this. There is a church in another area whose name shall remain unmentioned in order to protect the guilty. The pastor spoke with me recently about another one of those pastoral discouragements that seem to come so often. Two families in the church were a bit upset that another family in the church was too prominent — that family is not terribly committed to the church or its fellowship, but the parents and the children seem to get more than their share of recognition. And that has begun to rub these other two families, and now they must let the pastor know about it.
Ugh. There is so much to say about this little incident that I don’t know where to begin. First, I felt for the pastor. It is not a large church, and he is woefully underpaid. He has given his whole heart and soul and life to these people for many years, and he loves them deeply and serves them out of love for them and for Christ. By any standard he has labored sacrificially for them. And I am sure these complainers cannot know — for they have never been there themselves — how much their complaining has discouraged their pastor. No, ideally it should not discourage him, but he is human too. And like a cold, wet blanket thrown on a fire they have quenched his spirit. He loves them, he gives himself to them, the church seems to have a wonderful fellowship overall, and this is what they have to say — "they get too much attention." I know this is over-reaction, but at the moment it makes a pastor wonder if he has accomplished anything at all. His whole life is that fellowship, and this is the level of maturity we have reached?
Do the complaining families have a legitimate gripe? Perhaps so. It is discouraging to the faithful when others in the church show declining interest in the fellowship. But I really want to ask — Does it really matter that this other family is for whatever reason more prominent than it deserves? And then I wonder how the complainers would want God to deal with and think of them as they want for these other families. What if God were to require a certain level of faithfulness for you to realize and sense his fellowship? Would you ever experience his fellowship at all? And isn’t there in all this a glaring lack of grace? Have we forgotten the principles our Lord has taught us in his parable of the unforgiving servant?
More to my point, what should be our attitude toward an imperfect church? It seems to me that we had better get used to getting along with imperfect people, because at this point in history that’s what the church is — imperfect. On earth, at least, it consists of sinners only. Imperfect to say the least, but we have been lifted out of the mire of sin and raised to new life with Christ in the heavenlies — and in fact it shows. It may well be evident that God’s work in us is not complete, but it is also evident that God’s good work in us has begun. We are not what we ought to be or what we will be, but neither are we what we used to be. Progressively God has been at work in us rubbing off the rough edges and shaping us to look like his Son. And with all this come evident virtues and strengths such that leave us inexplicable to the world around us. And if this is so, it seems to me that we should be a bit more charitable in our judging of one another.
You see, you have faults too, and I doubt that you would think it fair for me to judge you only by your faults. You would want me in Christian charity to take in consideration your strengths and your virtues as well as your faults, and understand that although God’s work in you is not complete it is nonetheless evident. And then, to be fair, I should take an honest look at my own faults. And — well, you get my point: our judging is too soon harsh, and in behaving like that we belie the faith we profess.
What should be our attitude toward an imperfect church? Love it! Love it as God’s prized possession, as the people for whom Christ has died. Love it as God loves it. And despite all its blemishes, love it for — and be very impressed with — the progress in grace that is evident in it.
Finally, let us remember to pray for this imperfect church, asking God to bring us together from this level of glory on to the next and then the next. And let us give ourselves as members of the body to ministering to the other members of the body, as instruments in God’s hands to the sanctifying of his church. It is easy to stand back and criticize. It is Christlike to pray for the church and to do our part to see God’s purposes for it realized.
O yes, one more thing: let us rejoice in amazed wonder that God has so favored the likes of us to make us a part of this imperfect church.