THE APOSTLES (and all Christians since) faced both the ideal and the real. Christians in the first century were as human as those in the twentieth. We make a serious mistake if we suppose they had “arrived” at the divine goal set before us all. If anything, one gets the impression in reading the New Testament that they were more aware of this fact than we!
The thrill of Pentecost was scarcely off the church’s spine when a deceitful couple introduced lying and covetousness into the new community (Acts 5). And it appears that Ananias and Sapphira were hardly buried until a major problem regarding benevolence threatened to divide the believers along social lines (Acts 6). It was from Jerusalem, too, you remember, that over-zealous sectarians went out making proselytes for Moses instead of converts for Christ (Acts 15). Paul and Barnabas were the true missionaries — and had bruises to prove it — but they were considered “soft” by the troublemakers from Jerusalem.
With each problem, however, came God’s solution, and the divine leaven kept spreading (Acts 5:14; 7:7; 16:4, 5). God was building His church, stone by stone (see I Peter 2:5, 6; Ephesians 2:20-22). Kingdom preaching, like a dragnet, has always brought in the bad with the good (Matthew 13:47,48). Yet isn’t that the story of the whole Bible: God doing His work and accomplishing His purpose through His people — many times in spite of them! “For THINE is the kingdom and the power and the glory,” Jesus had said.
The Gentile churches fared little better. The Philippian church seems to have been one of the best, but even it had Christian sisters who didn’t get along (Philippians 4:2.) The Galatians thought Eke slaves instead of sons, and were so gullible regarding legalism that Paul called them “bewitched” (Galatians 3:1). We probably would have been in absolute despair over the squabble at Philippi, but Paul wrote an epistle of joy. In that context he exhorted the sisters to come together — and didn’t even take sides in their dispute. He was taken aback by the Galatians’ conduct, but not disillusioned — the traits for which he looked were products of the Spirit, not the flesh. Spiritual cultivation takes time. Paul knew the merit of patience in well-doing, and he charged the Galatians who were aware to persist in the same (6:9).
Then there was Corinth. Here was a congregation with infantile carnality, creeping-immorality, multiple-preacheritis and a terrible reputation for disorderliness in worship assemblies. Problems in this church were so numerous and so diverse that Paul’s corrective letter to the Corinthians has commonly been regarded as a kind of catalog of church sins and their remedies. We might not even have recognized Corinth as a “New Testament church,” and if we had we probably wouldn’t have wanted it spread through the brotherhood. Paul dealt with their sins — clearly and firmly — but he addressed them as the church of God and God’s holy ones (saints).
We catch a glimpse of God’s people in Asia Province a generation later, only to find five of seven congregations there with major problems or errors (Revelation 2, 3).
The Smyrneans and Philadelphians received Christ’s highest commendation, but probably not that of their fellow Christians in the rest of Asia. Neither of the two boasted physical strength and the Smyrneans were in deep poverty. The Lord also encouraged the faithful in each of the other five to be steadfast. (Revelation 2:7, 17, 24-28; 3: 4, 5,20-22).
Isn’t God telling us that saving men is His work? He calls them in the first place. He sanctifies and cleanses. He unites them in His Son. He will judge. He calls us to perfection — and woe be to the person who tries to explain that away. But He also provides a covering for our sins in the blood of His son, a Son who is able to “save to the uttermost them that come to God by Him” (Hebrews 7:25; 1 John 1:7-2:2). God loved us when we were “alien” sinners enough to give His Son to die in our place. If we are honest with ourselves we will confess that we still are sinners, and if we are honest with God we know that He still loves us anyway! (Read Romans 5:6-10, where Paul makes this very point.) On this basis we are to “perfect holiness in the fear of God” (II Corinthians 7:1).
When one finds fault with the church — first century or twentieth — he is not criticizing God’s ideal for the church. God knows the church is imperfect and always will be. It is composed of that sort of individuals. What “is” isn’t always the same as what “should be.” We win always be short of the goal for which we absolutely must keep striving. In this knowledge we “press onward.”
The treasure has always been in earthen vessels. The excellency of the power will always be of God — not of us.