Have you ever noticed that every generation speaks fondly of their youth and the culture of that youth and somehow finds a way to work into the conversation, ‘Those were the good ole’ days”? Christians are no different, we often reminisce about the church of yesteryear, romanticizing how it was so much better than it is today. Christians tend to make a utopia of the church of the past and long for the utopian church of the future, but rarely are content with the church today. Whether it is the church of 40 years ago, 400 years ago or 2000 years ago, we sigh with deep longing wishing that church could be like it was when it was “pure.” You know, before all this world, culture and generation messed everything up with their baggy pants and baseball caps turned backwards. I often chuckle at the individuals who long for the church of the 50s and 60s when the women wore dresses, the men wore suits and long-haired hippies just stayed out of the church. I chuckle because I think that they have forgotten that the church was still full of sinners in the 1960s regardless of the length of their hair. But then I wonder, do I or my young generation do the same thing with the church of 2000 years ago? Do we not look at the early church, the apostolic church, the church of the first century and long for the days when we can get back to the purity and perfection of that first assembly? Are we not projecting a utopian ideal upon the early church? And if we are, is this any different than the discontentment of those who long for the church of the 1950’s. Oh, but my longing is much more Biblical, more pure, is it? Am I not idolizing a culture or historical time and by default suggesting that God has not been strengthening or building his church with success for the last 2000 years. Constant looking back and longing for the good ole’ days is idolatrous and foolish. We are made to serve God today in the church today, with all her failures and successes today.
Was the early church so pure and perfect anyways? Let’s think for a moment. Was it not the apostolic church that within years (maybe months) of their miraculous and fantastic establishment and growth led by those gifted as no others (apostles) evidence signs of deep prejudice? And not just any prejudice, but that prejudice characterized by neglecting to love and care for old widows who only were guilty of being of a different ethnic background. Was not this early church the scene of a fight between leadership because one of the most influential gifted leaders, and experienced churchman was hypocritically refusing to eat with some people in the church because of perceived prejudice and cowardice? Did not this early “pure” church have saints lying to one another, to the Holy Spirit and to the leadership in order to appear to be godly, hospitable, and generous? What about the local assembly at Corinth, we don’t even need to speak further on that one. A congregation, called saints and truly God’s church in the first few verses who complemented themselves on their acceptance of those with deviant sexual lifestyles, proud, worldly, doctrinally messed up, and refusing to listen to the leaders appointed by God. How about the church at Ephesus that Timothy was sent to? This young man who only wanted to serve the God, who loved him, is sent to a church where he must rebuke the elders publicly living in sin, set in order all the things gone wrong, correct the worship failings, and in the process need to drink wine for his sickness that is associated with this task. Here is a young pastor who is physically and noticeably ill because of what he must do in this “early church.” But their fellowship was so sweet, they had all things common and took care of one another beautifully? Did they, what about the church at Philippi? Eudious and Synteche, who are at each other’s throats. What about the continual rebukes and commands to love one another. Why do you think that there is so much said about loving one another, caring for one another, and encouraging one another? It is probably not because they were doing it, but because they were failing. There is so much more that we could examine, the doctrinal errors so radical that today, we would probably label those churches as un-salvageable; the fighting, the failures, and so much more. But then we come to the end of the first century, the last book of the Bible written and we have seven churches in Asia, the earliest churches in the spread of Christianity, just read the first few chapters of Revelation. We don’t get a utopian picture of the early church.
What is my point, am I just crankily taking digs at the church? I hope that no one would misunderstand what I am writing. I love the church, It is the most beautiful expression of God’s work on this earth. But we must be careful that we don’t project our idolatrous utopian ideals back on the early church and long for the days when everything was right in the church. The reason that there were problems in the early church and problems today in the church is because both were made up of people, and people have problems and are problems. A former professor of mine once said, “The best church is a large one with no people in it.” The church is the place where God takes justified sinners and orchestrates a life-long process of sanctifying them so that he might present his church as a pure bride before the Father. That presentation before the Father does not take place in this world, but in the world to come. People are the same 2000 years ago as they are today. The styles change, languages change, cultures change, but people who have a sinful flesh and earthly minds are still around and will be until Christ returns.
I am not suggesting that we excuse sin and problems within the church, nor am I suggesting that it is not helpful to look back at the structure and pattern of the church in the New Testament and pattern our churches after that. But if you, dear Christian are supposing that there exists somewhere either on this planet or in history, a church that will have achieved this goal of sanctification and fulfill all your dreams of what a utopian church is, then you will be wandering the earth for a long time. Often those dissatisfied with the church have expectations that can only be met with glorified people and since they are not yet glorified, then their presence ruins the whole thing. Does this mean that it doesn’t matter what a church does or doesn’t do, what the people are like, what the leadership does? Absolutely not! The Scripture does outline what the church ought to do and look like. But the best way to help a church accomplish this is not to criticize or hop from assembly to assembly looking for that utopian church, but rather to serve with your gifts and abilities, pray for the church, and submit yourself to the authorities God has ordained for that church.
In searching for a good church, I highly suggest that everyone reads Mark Dever’s book The Nine Marks of A Healthy Church; It is richly Biblical. And even after reading that book, don’t just wander looking for a church that meets those criteria. No church will perfectly do all things right. But get involved and serve God with contentment knowing that telling the Lord that you just couldn’t find a good church will not avail much at the judgment seat of Christ. When our mind is on earthly, temporal goodness; when we look for all our wants, needs, and longings to be satisfied in earthly relationships and organizations; then we are evidencing a mind not set on the eternal heavenlies. We must long for Christ, for only in Him can we have peace, satisfaction, and contentment.