In lamenting the sorry state of the church in modern times, many Christians tend to idealize the church. There is this enormous temptation for conservative Christians when they survey the state of the contemporary church to put before people an idealized, utterly unrealistic vision of the church.
It is very easy to tick off a long list of problems in the churches of our time - doctrinal, moral, organization, theological, relational, whatever. It is almost just as easy to put forward a perfectionistic vision of what the church ought to be and be doing.
Consequently many people run here and there looking for the ideal church. If it's theology you want, you will never be satisfied with any of the actual churches available to you. If it's mission and mercy ministries, then you will always be severely disappointed. Maybe it's friendship and genuine, deep, real fellowship (small groups or accountability groups). But alas, what local body of believers really practices the ideal. Whatever the ecclesiasteical utopia you have idealistically constructed in your mind, you are going to be severely disappointed with the church as she actually exists in time and space, and in your neighborhood. There really is no greener grass; it's all pretty brown and weedy.
Many people, therefore, are deeply alienated from and are frustrated by the church. They bounce from one church to another or from one leader to another in search of the elusive ideal community.
When he had occasion, in his commentaries and sermons, to say something about Noah and the ark, John Calvin observed that it would have been stupefying for "Noah and his household to live for ten months in a fetid heap of animal droppings, in which humans could hardly breath." Noah and his family were shut up in the claustrophobic ark living "in filth that would suffocate the strongest man in half an hour. So the ark became a kind of grave for the living Noah.”
Given that the ark is a prophetic image of the church in the world. I have often recalled Calvin's comments and been comforted and reoriented about life in the church. It's realistic, not idealistic. It's brutally honest. The church often feels and smells like the ark must have. And yet, outside of the ark? The flood. The wrath of God. Death.
Traditionally, the architecture of the church has embodied this vision. Because it looks like the inside of a boat, the area of the church where we worship is referred to as the "nave", from whence we get our word "navy."
At any rate, I spent the week in Dallas at the 36th General Assembly of the PCA with 840 ministers and 291 ruling elders. Inside the ark, if you will.
And it would be quite natural for me to comeback and report on the stench. We could run down a list of all the disappointing aspects of the assembly, our denomination, and our fellow leaders. Some pastors will do just that.
Or, conversely, I could simply hold my nose and make a cheerful, upbeat report on how great our denomination is, how excited I am about our ministries, pretending there are no foul odors in our wonderful, beloved PCA. Many pastors will make such reports. Indeed, a few years ago one commissioner to the GA, as we debated about a new sanctioned denominational logo, suggested that an appropriate one might be that of a cleaning lady sweeping the dirt under the rug.
But both of these approaches would be wrong. And, surprisingly, both of these extremes are the result of thinking about the church is such idealistic terms that one must either keep the reality from people to make them think that the church is much better than she really is or be constantly complaining that the church fails so miserably that we need to form a new denomination so we can be pure.
Instead, the ancient wisdom of the Spirit contained in one of the church's oldest creeds ought to recaptured. "I belive in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church." I believe. Whatever I see, whatever I smell, I believe, I trust that the church is one, is holy, is catholic and apostolic. This church, my church, my regional and local church (PCA). Not some romantized church of the past or some imaginary church of the future. No. The only church there is. The one we belong to, the one that is assembled every Sunday and in countless places around the world in Jesus' name.
The creed does not say that the church is perfect. There is no hint of ecclesiastical utopianism here. It doesn't make us claim that the church is infallible. We do not confess that we will be best friends with everyone sitting next to us. Or that we will experience open and dangerously honest intimacy with every other member of the church. We are not told that the church will fix all our problems. Or that the ministry of the church will be able to solve all our troubles or heal all our maladies. Moreover, we are not promised that everyone's sanctification will progress with the same speed and upward improvement.
Rather, we believe, we trust in what God has told us about his church in his Word: that she is one, holy, catholic and apostolic.
Bottom line: we must believe that our particular branch of the church, the Presbyterian church in America, is a member of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. We believe. We trust. Faith, not sight.
Of course, we should strive to manifest the oneness, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity of our particular church. But that's on on-going project. It will never end short of the new heavens and earth.
The ancient saying is true: one cannot have God for his Father unless he has the church for his mother. The church, like Noah’s ark, may stink on the inside, but it sure beats drowning in the wrath of God on the outside.
Lord, I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church. Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.