A spotless bride — the holiness of the church (2)
On this subject (see also March ET) as on so much else, there is a real and deep harmony between Scripture’s two testaments. Sketched out, that harmony looks like this.
In the Old Testament, the book of Exodus gives us the account of how God formed the tribes of Jacob into the nation of Israel as his own covenant people. God did this because of his covenant with Abraham.
Having delivered the Israelites from bondage in Egypt, he ‘bore [them] on eagles’ wings and brought [them] to [himself]’ (19:4). At Mount Sinai, he called them to be his own treasured possession and set before them his law, telling them that if they would indeed obey his voice and keep his covenant, then he would make them ‘a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’ (19:6).
These Israelites possessed ‘the very words of God’ (Romans 3:2), as well as all of the signs and seals of his favour. They were meant to be a kind of special kingdom among all the peoples and nations of the world — a theocracy or a church-state (indeed, the only church-state ever appointed by God), serving him in cultic and civic affairs.
During the Exodus, Israel was ‘holy to the Lord’ (Jeremiah 2:3), although this calling soon became more honoured in the breach than in the observance. Indeed, on the very mountain where God’s covenant with his people was sealed, they proved treacherous and disloyal by worshipping a golden calf (Exodus 24:32).
Yet God remained faithful to his pledge. Although he justly chastised generations of his people, by subjugating them to alien powers and even by expelling them from his land, he graciously preserved a faithful remnant.
And so, Stephen reminds the Sanhedrin that God’s angel was present with ‘the congregation’ — that is, the church (ekklēsia) — ‘in the wilderness’, in spite of its waywardness (Acts 7:38), and the apostle Paul places covenantal privilege and disobedience together in 1 Corinthians 10:1-12 (cf. Romans 9:1-8).
God’s unique relationship to Israel explains her continued survival in the Old Testament, as is no less true with the church of the new covenant. If Israel had had no place in God’s purpose, then she would have been like Sodom and Gomorrah (Isaiah 1:9). But God’s Messiah was to come from his old covenant people.
Much of the New Testament is made up of letters to churches in a given locality or region. It is therefore striking that Peter, John and Paul — the three major writing apostles — spoke to particular local congregations about the larger catholic church, of which they were members or parts.
In the Apocalypse, John not only addresses each of the seven churches in Asia Minor with a message peculiar to its need, but also (and using Old Testament imagery) with a message about the security and triumph of ‘the holy city, new Jerusalem’ (21:2) that they all needed.
Similarly, Peter, in addressing Christians gathered in congregations in ‘Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia’ (1 Peter 1:1), uses the very words of Exodus 19 to remind them of their identity in Christ.
He describes them as ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession’ (1 Peter 2:9), adding some words from the prophet Hosea that speak of the extension of God’s mercy to the Gentiles (1 Peter 2:10; Hosea 1-2; Romans 9:24-26).
Though many of Peter’s addressees were not Jews, they all were part of the Israel of God because there is now but ‘one body’ in Christ (Ephesians 2:11-22).
Paul also did not hesitate to apply descriptions of the whole church to particular congregations, addressing individual congregations as ‘the church’, and thus using the very same term that he uses for the company of the elect, the whole covenant people of God (for example, 1 Corinthians 1:2; 12:28).
He also does this with those striking metaphors, by which he describes the church in its most exalted character; namely, as ‘the body of Christ’ (Ephesians 1:23; 4:14; 1 Corinthians 12:12-27) and ‘the temple of God’ (2 Corinthians 6:16-18; 1 Corinthians 3:16-17).
So we must keep this larger reality of the church in mind whenever we are dealing with particular churches, whether single or several, and neither allow ‘our own parish or patch’ to set illegitimate boundaries for our concern or activity.
Nor should we conduct ourselves within those particular churches in ways that do not consider the impact of our decisions or actions on that larger whole.
Just as God determined to redeem a people to be his own and bring them to glory, so he appointed certain means by which that purpose should be accomplished. He says to any unholy church, ‘Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump’ (1 Corinthians 5:7).
Based on the death, resurrection, and enthronement of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit is commissioned ‘to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad’ (John 11:52). This is accomplished through the preaching of the gospel, and as people are given the grace to repent and believe.
The book of Acts is full of accounts of churches coming into being in various parts of the Roman empire, and we have letters sent to many of those churches in the remainder of the New Testament.
‘The church of God that is in Corinth’ (1 Corinthians 1:2) was one of these churches and Acts 18:1-18 contains the account of its early days. It was made up of those who had professed faith in Christ, repenting and responding to the call to holiness (1 Corinthians 6:11).
Yet, as a result of reports he received from others and the questions that the Corinthians themselves put to him, Paul indicates that it was a church that was — to put it mildly — among the ‘less pure’.
Plagued by the blatantly immoral (chap. 5), openly uncharitable (chap. 6), idolatrous (chaps. 8-10), sacrilegious (chap. 11), divisive and disorderly (chaps. 12-14) and seriously heretical (chap. 15), it was a church full of persons who seemed unworthy to be called ‘saints’.
All that Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians is, therefore, to be understood as a strenuous attempt to deal with that church’s impurities, while not forgetting its greater holiness as part of the church. In the case of incest that he addresses in chapter 5, the apostle urges that the offender be excommunicated.
He presses this because the Corinthians are shamefully unconcerned and consequently slow to address the matter. Yet the purpose for which Christ died is being contradicted in practice; the church’s survival is being jeopardised; and God’s chastisement is being incurred. And each of these things can also be said about all of the other grievous failures of this particular church.
This teaches us that sometimes we must act in order both to stop the rot and to purge specific churches, so that they might become again lumps of dough without the leaven of blatant sin; that is, churches worthy of their name.
Of course, it is important to review church history on this score (as on all others) in order to glean both positive and negative lessons.
Yet our interest in the past must never be used to evade the current call of sacred duty. We are responsible for seeing that the church of today — the church to which we belong in its local and denominational manifestations — exhibits as much holiness as possible.
Just as no one can bask in the halcyon days of the past without sinning (did those days ever exist to the degree we imagine?), so we cannot concentrate on the invisible church’s holiness while ignoring or underestimating obvious impurities in visible congregations or denominations.
The fact that the church is holy does not imply that each congregation and denomination is so. Much less does it mean that the sins of an individual congregation or a whole denomination are of little account.
Colonies of heaven
Indeed, the fact that they are sins of local and particular manifestations of the church makes them more, and not less, serious. They outrage and bring just censure upon her from the world, and expose her to the just chastisement of God.
They grieve his Holy Spirit and obstruct the spread of the gospel. The triune God is altogether and always holy, and sin in any church is always reprehensible in his sight.
So, in thinking about the holiness of the church, we must focus our attention on its local and visible manifestations in the light of its catholic and invisible reality.
We must focus on the present in the light of the eternal; the ‘already’ in the light of the ‘not yet’. The visible and the invisible are not separate realities; they are in some sense one and the same.
Because this is so, we can attest to the larger, heavenly reality by calling attention to its smaller, earthly parts. In short, we must seek to make our local congregations true colonies of the heavenly Jerusalem.
Hywel R. Jones
This article first appeared in