It is a commonplace among conservative evangelicals to bemoan the state of the church at large—and certainly there is much to criticize: failures of evangelism and discipleship, enthusiasm for compromise (except on unimportant issues), doctrinal error, lack of commitment, lack of faith, lack of love. With so many easy targets, it is easy to dwell on the problems and failings, allowing them to consume our focus and feed that grimly enthusiastic resignation that is always waiting for news of trouble so it can shuffle out to declare, “But of course.”
While introspection and self-critique are certainly important within the body of Christ, it’s easy for our concerns to become morbid and counterproductive. We have a tendency to act as if folly, selfishness, and lukewarmness have only just now erupted within the church, placing us at a unique disadvantage never before faced by our spiritual ancestors. Surely the purer church of past generations did not have to deal with dishonest and selfish members (Acts 5:1-11), holier-than-thou attitudes (Acts 11:2-3), legalism (Acts 15:1), personality conflicts (Acts 15:36-39), petty quarreling and disunity (I Cor 1:11-12, 6:1-8), spiritual immaturity (I Cor 3:1-4), acceptance of blatant immorality (I Cor 5:1), dishonor of the Lord’s table (I Cor 11:17-22), misuse of spiritual gifts (I Cor 14:21-23), false teachers (II Cor 11:13, II Pet 2), backsliding and heresy (Gal 1:6-9), hypocrisy by church leaders (Gal 2:11-14), betrayal by fellow believers (II Tim 4:14-16), disproportionate respect for worldly wealth (James 2:1-4), or faith without fruit (James 2:14-20). And all that during the period when believers were actually taught by the apostles themselves!
But, of course, once the early church matured we were able to move on to a higher plane of holiness during the next millennium, where we could discuss questions like whether Jesus was really God, whether he was really human, whether the path to holiness lies in renunciation of all connection with the world, whether we should torture folks over theological disagreements, and whether salvation can be purchased through works or good, hard cash. But fortunately the common folk, at least, were known for their theological maturity and wisdom, since hearing the Scriptures read in a language no one actually understands is well-regarded as an effective means of growth and sanctification.
Finally, of course, the Reformers genuinely did usher in a period of greater spiritual zeal and growth… along with bitter internecine backbiting and conflict, plus some of the most murderous wars central Europe had ever seen. After about a hundred years, as much of the new Protestant church grew increasingly dead and corrupt, the Pilgrims and Puritans departed to the New World to establish a new, more God-centered life for themselves. And, within a generation or two, they had developed a “vigorous popular culture exhibiting the following characteristics: high mobility of adolescents and young adults, a popular culture centered on alehouses rather than church and relative freedom from parental control,” according to Else Hambleton in Daughters of Eve: Pregnant Brides and Unwed Mothers in Seventeenth Century Essex County, Massachusetts. We remember the First and Second Great Awakenings but forget what it was that the early American church required awakening from.
My point in all of this is not that we should throw up our hands and declare the fight a lost cause. A thousand times no! Quite the contrary. The fight is a won cause; a cause that has been won by the grace of God during every year of every century through which the fallen, foolish, feeble creatures that make up the church have stumbled. We serve the God who declares, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness” (II Cor 12:9). Surely when God set about recruiting “the poor and crippled and blind and lame” from “the streets and lanes of the city… the highways and along the hedges,” he anticipated that the results might be a motley crew? Are we really surprised that the membership of an organization that is only open to sinners consists largely of sinners?
Of course, we ought never be content with the present state of the church, any more than we can ever be content with the present state of our own sanctification; certainly God is never content with either. Heaven forbid that we rest comfortably, as individuals or as a body, anywhere short of the mark set by Jesus’ command, “Be ye perfect.” The Corinthians needed Paul’s vigorous rebuke, as did the Galatians, as did Peter. The danger lies not in seeing the failings of the church, but in failing to see anything else.
What we’re looking at, what we’re focusing on, matters a great deal. Speaking of his own process of sanctification, Paul declared, “one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:13-14). As individual Christians, we are not to focus on what we were or were not. We are not to focus on what other people are or are not. We are only to focus on God: our goal, our pearl of great price, the author and finisher of our salvation.
Similarly, it is hard to see the value in squinting back over our shoulder to compare the state of our fellow believers today with those who came before. “Looking behind, we press on toward the goal of our idealized image of what the church was, in better days.” Because surely the lame man is best served by worrying whether he can hobble as fast as his fellow cripples, rather than casting himself at the feet of the One who can heal and crying, “Son of David, have mercy on me.”
Should we learn from the past? Certainly. Should we appreciate our history? Absolutely. But we must carefully avoid the self-pitying illusion that our generation is somehow uniquely handicapped with a worldly church, prone to theological error and lukewarm conviction. Doubtless the church has been stronger at times; doubtless also, weaker. But ultimately, that’s a “God’s-eye view” question which is not our concern.
For the church, as for the individual, there are really only two facts that matter: what we are right now, and what God is. It doesn’t matter where we came from or what lies behind, good or bad; all that matters is fixing our eyes on him and being transformed by him, pressing onward toward the goal. Folly and weakness and sin will challenge us as we walk together toward that goal, just as they have challenged Christians of every age, and ultimately our only hope of overcoming is to fix our gaze on our Savior; just as it was for Christians of every age.