The Ambiguity of the Church

In the first chapter of his book Basic Christian Leadership, John Stott describes the ambiguity of the church from 1 Corinthians 1.1-17. The Apostle Paul describes the Corinthian church both as a sanctified body of saints, not lacking in any gift, for whom he gives thanks, and as a divided, quarrelsome group that had lost sight of the true gospel and risked letting the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. Stott’s main point is that the church is both of these:

“So this is the ambiguity of the church.
– The church is sanctified yet still sinful and called to be holy.
– The church is enriched yet still defective, eagerly waiting for the return of Christ.
– The church is united (the one and only church of God) yet still unnecessarily divided and called to renounce personality cults.

“In these ways we are living in the painful tension between the already and the not yet. Only when Christ comes will the ideal become reality and all ambiguity cease” (p. 30).

John Stott (1921-2011)

The real punchline to this chapter, however, is how Stott applies those truths. First:

On the one hand, biblical Christians are not perfectionists who dream of developing a perfect church on earth…. To the perfectionists we say, “You are right to seek the purity of the church. The doctrinal and ethical purity of the church is a proper goal of Christian endeavor. But you are wrong to imagine you will attain it…”

But also:

On the other hand, biblical Christians are not defeatists who tolerate all manner of sin and error in the church…. To the defeatists we say, “You are right to acknowledge the reality of sin and error in the church, and not to close your eyes to it. But you are wrong to tolerate it…”

That is a difficult tension to live in, to put it mildly. But Stott is right that that is the reality of life in the church. May God help us to recognize a perfectionist or a defeatist and speak well to them, and may he give us wisdom to know how to live in this tension ourselves.


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