There’s Church with a capital C, and church with a small c.
There’s what’s known as the invisible church, and there’s the visible church. The distinction gives rise to a well-known bit of verse. Here’s one version:
To dwell above with saints we love–
Oh, wouldn’t that be glory!
But to dwell below with saints we know–
Well…that’s another story.
Put differently: when it comes to the visible church, what you see is what you get. Even if you don’t always like what you see.
The invisible church is that entire body of believers which spans centuries and continents. Its full glory has yet to be revealed. But what we see of it comes through local gatherings of broken, fallible people — complicated and contentious congregations like yours and mine.
That’s not a divine oops or a flaw in the plan. It’s by God’s design, even if we wouldn’t have done it that way ourselves.
Think about the significance of this simple fact, and how it plays out in the pages of the New Testament. Jesus’ twelve closest companions could be stubborn, proud, boastful, and thick-headed. The apostle Paul could be sharp-tongued and sarcastic. He publicly chewed Peter out for his hurtful and spineless flip-flopping in Antioch (Gal 2:11-14). And he split with Barnabas over the question of whether to take young John Mark on a mission trip.
Mark was Barnabas’ cousin had been their assistant before, but had for some reason deserted them. Barnabas, being the encourager he was, wanted to give Mark another chance. Paul, being strong-willed, put his foot down and refused. These two men were friends, fellow missionaries who had been through the fire together. The end of their story? “Their argument became so intense that they went their separate ways” (Acts 15:39, CEB). They didn’t work it out. Barnabas took Mark and went one direction; Paul went the other direction with Silas.
In other words, they had a big ugly fight, stopped speaking to each other, and went off to do mission work.
Successful mission work, I might add.
(Side note, for those who want the happy ending. Colossians 4:10 suggests that Paul and Mark were reconciled later, so one assumes that he and Barnabas were too.)
These were the leaders of the early church. All of these men could be considered heroes of the faith who did great things for God in Jesus’ name. They preached sermons through which thousands were saved. But they could be terrible listeners. They could be impatient, even rude.
And that’s saying nothing about the congregations they pastored. Think Corinth. Think the churches of Galatia. It’s not pretty.
In ancient times, stories of a culture’s heroes tended to highlight or even exaggerate the good stuff, and airbrush out the bad (so maybe we’re not just talking about ancient times?). For that reason, the brutally honest way in which the Bible portrays the followers of Jesus is noteworthy. These are real people with real faults and weaknesses, and sometimes they behave badly.
But they are still bearers of the good news. They’re still dwelling places of the Holy Spirit. And God works in and through them.
So, here’s the question: how do our expectations of fellow believers line up with the stark, messy reality of the church we see in the Bible itself?
Maybe we need to adjust our expectations. More on that Sunday, in the final post of this series.