A Perfect Church? Not in This Life


R. Scott Clark, D. Phil., Associate Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology, Westminster Seminary in California
©2007 Westminster Seminary California All rights reserved. 1

In a recent book, church growth guru George Barna seems to suggest the end or irrelevance of the local congregation. 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.” 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. 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).

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).

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). 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.” 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). 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 Confession Art. 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.

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).

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.

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.


  1. First published in Evangelium, Vol. 3, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2005).
Related Articles:
  • No Related Articles