In Search of the "Pure Church"

[Fr. Ahab sets to the seas to find the illusive "pure church"]

I want to confess that I don't really get it. I don't get theological "conservatives", even though I am one. In the unfolding soap-opera of church politics we are in right now, there are many "conservatives" who believe in the same Jesus and who trust the same Bible that I do, who say things like "my conscience just won't let me bring anyone else into the Episcopal Church because it is so corrupt". They are (rightly) embarrassed by some of the crazy revisions that the National Church is trying to ram down everyone's throat. But they (wrongly) think that this is a reason to keep people out of this church body. They (rightly) want the Church to be holy and orthodox like our Lord, our Scriptures, and our Great Tradition implores us to be. Yet they (wrongly) think that there is some version of the Church- whether past or present- that is wholly holy and overwhelmingly orthodox.

On the basis of such unreflective assumptions about the nature of the "pure church" many have bought into the idea that they have to leave the Episcopal Church to be faithful to Christ. They have forgotten that the Church is inherently messy: a hospital to heal sinners. The 16th century Reformers, whom these separatists often appeal to, always stressed that Christians are "simul iustus et peccator" (simultaneously justified yet sinners).They also stressed that the Church is both a "communio sanctorum", yet also a "communio peccatorum" (a communion of saints and sinners). In short, life in the Church is messy. We constantly strive for the goal of Christlike perfection, only to fall into sin, and repent and return to the Lord. We're not "pure" either as individuals or as a community. Read our Baptismal Covenant or ask any of the saints of the Church, and they will tell you.

And, while we are on the topic, where is this "pure" Church that will not embarrass us, like the Episcopal Church is currently embarrassing us? Is it the supposed "pristine" Apostolic Church of the New Testament? Let's take a snapshot of this "pure" Church: They struggled with drunkenness (1Cor. 11), ethnic strife (Rom. 3.29), pride (Rev. 3.14-17), materialism (1Ti. 6), economic injustice (Jam. 2), sexual immorality (1Cor. 6), including people having sex with family members, and church members who apparently approved of it (1Cor. 5.1-2). They had problems with idolatry (Rev. 2.20), heresy (1Ti. 4.1-3), denying Christ's resurrection (1Co. 15.12), denying Christ's humanity (1Jo. 4.2-3), and new-age mystical pick-and-choose versions of Christianity (see 1-2 John). And to top it off, they had major leaders who showed favoritism and pandered to those in power (Gal. 2), who had public fights and break-ups (Acts 15.39), and who used Christ to make money (2Pe. 2.15; 1Ti. 6.5).

Now that is a pure church to be proud of! (Sarcasm intended)

Well, is the "pure" Church that will not shame us found in some specific era of the past? Is it the "glorious" Church of the pre-Nicene period (until 325 AD)? That Church was filled with more heresies than I can count: Docetism, Gnosticism, Adoptionism, Modalism, Montanism, and a few dozen other "isms" that we can barely pronounce. If you want to find out how messy the early Church was, take a crack at reading Eusebius' or Ireneaus' writings on the history and problems in the early Church. How about the Church of the Seven Ecumenical Councils (up to 787 AD)? For most of a century (ca. 300-400 AD) most of the Church and the Empire followed the teaching of Arius, a priest that taught that Jesus was not fully God, but rather a created being separate from the Creator. During the rest of this time period the Church faced persistent heresies and political strife, which are the reason the Ecumenical Councils were called in the first place!

And then we look at the Church of the middle ages, infected by corruption, nepotism, simony, immorality, and political power-plays. Can we be proud of the schism of the Eastern and Western Church in 1054? How about the Crusades? How about the Reformation that led to a century of warfare in Europe as Christians killed each other in the name of Christ and their church sects? How about the persecution of Protestants by Catholics and Catholics by Protestants? How about widespread Church support for slavery and women's oppression through history? How about the forced spread of western culture and business interests by Christian missionaries? How about thousands of different bickering denominations, many of which do not even recognize other Christians as spiritual brothers and sisters? How about the doctrinal degradation and revision brought about by the persistent splitting and re-splitting of denominations?

Is the Church of any era something to be proud of? Is there any sect that has been around more than a couple of generations that is really less messy than the Episcopal Church? Or, is every sect something that drives us to our knees in every generation to say "Lord have mercy! Christ have mercy! Lord have mercy!" Will more splitting and more schism make the problem any better, or make it worse? The Protestant experiment has reminded us of a number of things that need to be continually restored in the life of the Church, such as the centrality of Christ, grace, Scripture, and faith. But, as a whole, the Protestant experiment of reform by schism has failed miserably. Reform must happen from INSIDE the Church, not from OUTSIDE.

In fact, from the beginning of Scripture no one has practiced anything close to "pure" religion. Our first parents ate the fruit. Noah's first major act after the "cleansing" of the earth was to get drunk and naked. Abraham and Jacob were compulsive swindlers. Moses had serious "anger issues", and his brother was the first high priest to lead Israel back into idolatry with the Golden Calf. King David was a murderer and adulterer, and his son Solomon was a sex addict with more concubines than there are days in the year. And, their descendents were on the whole far worse than they were! The Temple itself was frequently corrupted by the worship of idols, the greed of money changers, and even temple prostitution. And the people of Israel apparently were so corrupt that they frequently were involved in severe economic injustice, sexual immorality, and even child sacrifice on occasion. Not much to be proud of there.

Yet, what was the reaction of the prophets, Jesus, and his Apostles? Did they leave Israel and try to start a new "pure" tribe that they would not feel "embarrassed" to be associated with? Nope. Jesus wept over unrepentant Israel. Paul wished that he would be "accursed apart from Christ" if that meant that his Jewish kinfolk could be saved (Rom. 9.3). When Jesus first sent out missionaries, he sent them to the very people who should have ALREADY believed he was the Messiah: the lost sheep of Israel. Both Jesus and Paul say the Gospel is for "the Jews first, and then the Gentiles".

From the beginning of the Jesus movement, the message has first been directed at the people who ought to know better. The Jesus movement did not start out as the Church. It started out as a renewal movement within the Jewish synagogue system. This follows every single Biblical prophet in their emphasis and ministry. Despite significant involvement with non-Jews (cf. Elijah and Elisha), and significant promises made about God's redeeming the whole world (cf. Isaiah 65), every prophet stayed within the Jewish religion. They never broke out, cleaved off, and started a new Judaism. God even offered Moses a chance to do away with the already apostate nation of grumbling-golden-cow-worshippers, and start anew with him (Exo. 32:9-14). Moses refused, God relented, prophets preached, Messiah was born, Apostles were sent, and we are now saved because of Moses' decision.

So, if this is the case, how did the Church ever separate from Judaism? The Apostles did not separate of their own choice, but stayed part of both the Temple and synagogue system as long as they could. They only broke with Judaism when they were physically compelled to by beatings, stonings, riots, and even murder. If I ever see "conservatives" physically tortured by "liberals" (or vice versa!) then I will finally say "now there is a good reason to leave the Church". Until then, at all costs, in every way we can, I think that we should actually follow the Biblical pattern of mission clearly laid out in the New Testament and try to reform the Church from INSIDE rather than yelling at her from OUTSIDE.

The Church may be an embarrassment, but she is the Family Christ has placed us in. In my own biological family, I have some weird relatives, and even some that can be downright mean. And as embarrassing as they are, I love them and I chose to bring my wife and my daughter into this family. And by God's grace, my family is coming to Christ one by one. We are messy, we are changing, and we are growing toward Christ by taking two steps forward and one step back all the time. We are like the Church: simul iustus et peccator. I want us to love the Family of God as much as we do our biological families.

So, you want to find a "pure" Church? Want to bring new converts into a Church you can be proud of? Well, it isn't "out there" on the other side of the fence where the grass is always greener. It is only when you go on the other side of the fence and see the lawn up close that you realize they have just as many weeds as your side of the fence did, only in different spots. You won't find the "pure" Church by fence hopping. You will only find the pure Church by BEING the pure Church, and staying in the church body that God has placed you in to be a force for renewal and reform from INSIDE the Church. Let's start a new reformation! Not one based on leaving and cleaving, but one based on staying and praying. Let's band together as orthodox believers and love others so deeply and so persistently and so loudly that they can't help but come to know, love, and follow the Risen Christ with us.


Mike Exum said...


Excellent thoughts here. I really appreciate them. This is why I remain in Churches of Christ; to leave is to perpetuate the problem.

I have one quibble, but only in fact for I think it really increases the strength of your point. The Jews at Qumran started a new Judaism. Sadly they are not mentioned in the Bible at all. Powerful evidence for your case. On the other hand, Jesus also started Israel over again on the Mountain of Matt 5-7 and Mark 3:13. However, this was a new covenant with old people.

In the end, I think these observations actually make your point, rather than damage it. I think you are right on.

I suppose I would like to see you post now on what this means for us since I am staying in CoC and other believers are staying in Episcopal Church. If we each stay with our broken denominations, how do we then dissolve the sinful distinctions that seperate us? Or if dissolving them is not an option, what is? Surely we are seeking some kind of purity even if it is not an unembarrassed kind.

I will advertize your post among my friends. I think you have said some really good stuff here.

Keep it up.

Anonymous said...


Great stuff man! Thanks for the comments… A few thoughts back:

1. Regarding what you say about whether or not the "New Covenant" or the Sermon on the Mount are re-starting Judaism. You probably would guess that I [very politely!] disagree with you on that. How to interpret this issue, however, gets into some fairly deep interpretive discussions over issues of continuity versus discontinuity between the Old and New Covenant.

On this issue, our respective Christian Traditions (CoC versus Anglicans) are very much on opposite sides of the spectrum. Anglicans usually say that the "New Covenant" is new because it is the total fulfillment of the Old Covenant, and hence there is an organic continuity between the two. Churches of Christ [as I understand them] usually say that the "New Covenant" is new because it is radically different and a total break with what came before.

Two issues of Church practice that illustrate this: Anglicans baptize infants of believers as a continuity and fulfillment of OT circumcision, and we tend to sing/chant/read Psalms at every service because the Jewish "prayer book" of Psalms is part of out prayer book too. In addition, we use a bunch of musical accompaniment, in the spirit of fulfilling what the Psalms specify when they say to use harps, lyres, etc.

CoC, as you well know, is fairly opposite on these issues. You baptize only mature believers as a radical break with Judaism (and with their old life as unbelievers). And while I know you use Psalms (who doesn't?) CoC doesn't tend to have this love affair with them that we have. And, of course, the traditional position of CoC is no instrumental music because Jesus and his Apostles did not mention them.

You see how this whole continuity / discontinuity hermeneutic affects things?

What I wrote in this article is based on an assumption of basic continuity between the Testaments. It would be an interesting discussion to talk about why we should favor continuity or discontinuity, and whether my continuationist assumptions are warranted. I guess Scripturally what I said in my article forms part of why I favor continuationism. Other reasons might include: Mat. 5 "I came not to abolish but fulfill the Law"; Paul's speech about grafting in Jewish and Gentile Olive branches into the save Vine and saying "all Israel shall be saved" in Rom. 9-11; The seemingly irreconcilable fact that throughout the New Testament it seems to speak of BOTH Israel as a separate people who God still has a purpose for, AND the Church as a New Israel that somehow replaces and/or fulfills Old Israel; Pauline assertions that Jews and Gentiles are one in Christ (cf. Gal. 3:26-29); and finally, the fact that Revelation pictures people of EVERY tribe and tongue worshipping together in a way that is overwhelmingly Jewish in its general outlines.

I'm not trying to convince you here, just to give a broad outline of how the argument goes. This is "grid" within which I put the passages you noted and get continuity. And yes, I think it is very telling that the Qumran sect was truly separatist, very large and important, and yet they don't even rate an explicit mention in the NT. To me, that sounds like God saying something by saying nothing…

2. About Church re-union in the future:

First of all, some tough issues (like the one above) will have to be understood and discussed with all humility by differing parts of the Body of Christ. And I think that as we discuss and understand one another- speaking truth in love- we will come to actually love one another.

Second, I think two communions (such as Anglicans and CoC- I am such a dreamer!) could choose to be in full communion with one another, and even share ministry and ministers, without negating the unique gifts that God has given each tradition. There is already a model for this type of practice in the Roman Catholic Church. They have churches of different "rites" and different monastic movements all part of the same Body. Each of these rites and movements worships differently. Catholic churches of the "Anglican Rite" worship as Anglicans, and churches of the "Eastern Rite" worship as Eastern Orthodox, and although charismatic Catholics are not a separate "Rite", they tend to gather in certain parishes and worship as charismatics in the Catholic Church.

I think such a pattern could form the outline for future Church unity, whereby we all are part of the same Church, but worshipping our own ways through our own unique traditions. This would require an INCREDIBLE amount of prayer, fasting, discussion, and hammering out differences.

The two basic tasks of hammering out differences, as I see it, is: (a) to develop an understanding of what are the negotiables and what are the non-negotiables in the Christian faith; and (b) develop an understanding of where the Church must have an "either-or" position on an issue, and where the Church can have a "both-and" position.

In summary, here is "Nate's handy-dandy five step plan to reunite the Church":

Step 1: STOP SPLITTING! Stay where you are at! Unless you are being physically persecuted, stay in your Christian Tradition and work from WITHIN it for renewal. We simply CANNOT reunite if we are too busy splitting all the time.

Step 2: Develop active friendships and prayer groups at a grass-roots level with Christians of other traditions. Without leaving your tradition, take some time on a monthly basis to go worship and pray with Christians of different traditions. Learn to recognize anyone who calls Jesus "Lord" as a fellow brother or sister in Christ, even if you disagree with them. [Note: I see this as at least 1-2 generations of process].

Step 3: Start actively co-operating together with other Christians in ministry where you can do so without violating the core commitments of your tradition. Social justice and social work ministries are the easiest to start with here. Next might be evangelistic events. A final stage might be shared worship experiences between local congregations. This could happen at the same time as step 2, after step 2 is well underway in a local community.

Step 4: Have more broad regional and international level theological conferences in which high level minsters and teachers in different traditions get together and hammer out issues of continuity-discontinuity, ether-or, both-and, necessary-negotiable in such a way that they make sense to average worshipping Christians. I guess CS Lewis' "Mere Christianity" is my model here. This would be another generation or more worth of discussion.

Step 5: Develop a Church organizational system that would allow Christians to be part of the same Church yet worship with different "Rites".

I know there are insurmountable obstacles found in each of these steps (esp. 4-5). But death is a fairly insurmountable obstacle and Jesus overcame it. But I believe that Christ can re-unite his Church before He comes back. I believe the process that will lead to this will last well after I am dead, and I am not sure my children will see its completion. But I believe it can happen.

I hope other folk will dream this dream with me.

Bret Wells said...


When we read the narratives of Israel's journey toward the Promised Land, I am struck by God's decision that all adults but Caleb and Joshua would perish in the desert before Israel would set foot across the river. They said, "If only we had died in Egypt, or in this desert! Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword?" So God said, "okay" and they died in the desert.

They were scared, they'd never known anything but generation after generation of slavery. True they'd seen miracles, they'd seen the pillar of cloud and fire, they'd seen the glowing face of Moses and water that strangely moved away for them to walk on dry land, food from heaven every day...but would those things make you less or more scared?

Get to the point, Bret.

I think that God's choice to allow these people to perish in the desert was a compassionate recognition that their slave-mentality programming was not going to allow them to become a free people who acted boldly in faith. Instead they were the buffer generation; they were the rebound girlfriend.

I am in agreement with your article Nate, and I smiled when I read your crazy wild-eyed dream of unity...mostly because this is a conversation that we've had over more than one plate of choriso chilaquiles and brazilian beef sandwiches...oh, cafe brazil how I miss you...

As I think about practical implications, I do not rule out the possibility of us seeing something like this happen on a large scale in our lifetime. But I think that more likely is our working to build small communities who have this type of vision of unity who will be the buffer generation.

Our "Church" only knows generation after generation of schism, split and division. The latest generations have grown quite accustomed to a pick-and-choose menu of options that can just as easily be satisfied down the street if you guys start gettting too pushy. I don't know that these generations as a whole can live as free people who act boldy in this type of faith.

This is of course the basis of the discussion about church planting versus church renewal (again, always with the either/or...geez! Viva Raging Moderates!)

Church renewal is difficult, painful, time consuming and all too often fruitless. As I look around at stagnant congregations and stagnant fellowships I'm beginning to wonder if we're not looking at modern day Israelites who'd just prefer to die in Egypt or the desert.

This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.