A guest post from Helen D. Morris
“Is the Church essentially a perfect or an imperfect entity?”
This is a question I like to ask the MA students that I teach. The answer seems obvious. We only have to glance into church history, around the Church today, or, for those of us who are part of the Church, into our own lives and hearts to see myriad examples of the Church’s imperfection.
The world outside the Church, understandably, calls this imperfection out. One recent example of such critique comes through the character of the priest in the critically-acclaimed series Fleabag. This priest, rather than leading the atheist main character, Fleabag, towards God, stands in the way of any attempt she might have made to reach out to him. Whether an intentional or subconscious depiction of the Church on the part of the writer, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the message conveyed is sobering. Rather than a group of people who inspire and encourage others to find life and hope in the good news of the grace poured out in Jesus, the Church, as portrayed in Fleabag at least, blocks the path towards God that others might take if only the Church weren’t in the way.
Many would testify that such a picture of the Church does not match their experience. Many lives have been turned around by meeting Christians who have demonstrated love, compassion, and goodness, encouraging others to know God for themselves. However, even if a picture like the one we see in Fleabag were only a tiny bit true, and most Christians would recognise that it’s sadly more than that, this would be a tragedy worthy of much grief and sombre self-assessment on the Church’s part. The Church is imperfect. Christians see this. The wider world sees this. God sees this.
So why ask the question? At this point in the lecture, after my students have voiced their own examples of the Church’s shortcomings, I bring in the work of Paul Minear and his Images of the Church in the New Testament. In the New Testament, there are descriptions of the Church in practice, in Acts and Paul’s letters, for example, where we see that imperfection in the Church is not new. There are also prescriptions given as to the character and behaviour that the Church should exhibit. However, the primary way that the Church is depicted, Minear argues, is through images, or metaphors. The Church is Christ’s body, the temple of the Holy Spirit, the people of God, the bride of Christ, the aroma of Christ, a family, salt, light, and a city on a hill, to name the most prominent metaphors used. Despite the variety, Minear contends, these images shed light on the one reality of the Church that they all point to. Different images emphasise different aspects of this one reality, but the reality itself is the same. It is the redeeming and reconciling activity of God the Father in the Son and through the Spirit in drawing people to himself. Moreover, this reconciliation of people to God is a foretaste and sign of the redemption of creation that God will accomplish on Christ’s return.
Therefore, Minear maintains, rather than the overly human-centred definitions and understandings of the Church that Christians today so easily adopt, in the New Testament, the Church’s identity and calling is firmly rooted, not in itself, but in the Triune God, whose being and acts are perfect. Not only is the Church founded on the works of a perfect God, but it is, itself, heading towards perfection. The bride of Christ image is particularly striking in this regard. Ephesians 5 looks forward to the time when Christ’s bride is without spot or blemish; Revelation 21 describes this future reality in glorious detail.
But that is then, and this is now — we might counter. Not so for Paul, who, like the other New Testament authors, sees a more complex relationship between the present and the future than binary opposition. For Paul, the future reality of the perfection of God’s kingdom has broken powerfully into the here and now through the coming of Christ. The Church, though awaiting final perfection, is now the body and bride of Christ and the temple of God’s Spirit.
The Church, then, is located in a tension between the perfect entity that it is in Christ, and will become on Christ’s return, and its current imperfection. The danger with any tension is that only one side is maintained. In this instance, imbalance leads to either an unhealthy triumphalism that fails to prepare and account for the current reality of sin, or an eeyorish pessimism that loses sight of the power of Christ’s work in and through the present lives of believers. The challenge is to hold both ends firmly. Paul does just this when, in Ephesians for example, he instructs his readers that the Church is Christ’s body and must grow up into the full stature of Christ, or that Christians are new creations and must put off their old selves, or that the Church is Christ’s fullness and then prays that the believers will be filled with the fullness of God.
Maintaining tensions can be challenging, but it also stabilises. The stabilising effect of tensions has prompted me to promote a new metaphor for the Church, based on Paul’s body of Christ texts: the image of the Church as a suspension bridge. Just as the tensions in the supporting cables uphold a suspension bridge, so, I argue in my book Flexible Church, maintaining the tensions conveyed through Scripture upholds the Church. The tension between the perfection and imperfection of the Church’s current calling and identity is one that I explore. I also examine dialectical tensions between: God’s transcendence and immanence; believers’ calling to be spiritual and religious; the Church’s existence as a network and an institution; the Church’s nature as inherited and innovative; and the Church’s relationship with the wider world as both inculturated and countercultural.
My hope is that the image of a suspension bridge encourages the contemporary church to maintain the flexibility and stability needed to faithfully communicate and demonstrate the good news of Jesus in a range of different contexts. My aim is to provide a diagnostic tool by which churches can evaluate their strengths and weaknesses and identify imbalances that may have arisen. My prayer is that those of us involved in Church would keep seeking God’s wisdom, infilling and strength to be people who inspire others to know Jesus too, and never a barrier that blocks their path.
Rev Dr Helen D. Morris is a BA Course Leader and Lecturer in Applied Theology at Moorlands College, Christchurch, UK.