When Will the Church Be Pure?

Sometimes godly wisdom involves not only identifying correct goals, but also understanding what God has affirmed about when those goals will be fulfilled. For example, the purity of the Church is undeniably a good goal; but when should we expect the Church to be pure?

Two preliminaries: (1) My discussion here will raise more issues than it will answer, and what answers I do suggest will not be as firmly proven from Scripture as what they should be in an essay or book context. (2) The way I am going to frame my question will involve big words. But fear not! I will immediately provide definitions.

Here, then, is my thesis: While liberal Anabaptists tend to have an over-realized eschatology regarding their ecology, conservative Anabaptists tend to have an over-realized eschatology regarding their ecclesiology.

Working definitions:

  • eschatology: Our beliefs about all things “end-time,” that is, our beliefs about the ultimate results of Christ’s saving work
  • over-realized: Something that happens too fully too soon (opposite of under-realized, which is something that happens too partially and too slowly)
  • over-realized eschatology: A belief that we should expect to see various results of Christ’s saving work now that have not been promised until after Christ’s return (example: expecting to never experience physical pain)
  • ecology: study of living things and their environments
  • ecclesiology: study of the Church

Let me continue by briefly explaining the first half of my broad-brush thesis. (This first half is really a set-up for the second half.) I am suggesting that those Anabaptists commonly identified as being liberal (MCUSA, etc.) are prone to having expectations about the physical world that go beyond what the Bible gives us reason to hope for. We see this, I think, both in some strains of pacifism and also in some versions of environmental advocacy. The early Anabaptists were right to see Christ’s first coming as inaugurating the age when swords would be beat into plowshares. But if I understand Revelation correctly, we can expect warfare to continue–despite our valid and important efforts to the contrary–until the final judgment. And only then will the natural environment reach its perfect state, the lion lying down with the lamb and the tree of life yielding fruit for the healing of the nations.

Once, after I preached a sermon urging people to fix their hopes on the new heaven and new earth that God will unveil at Christ’s return (see here), one of my wife’s aunts said something like this: “I like to think of the new earth as something we are trying to build here right now.” I hasten to recognize that there is such a thing as an under-realized ecology, and that some conservative Anabaptists are most certainly guilty of it. But when our hopes for the present begin to eclipse our hopes for the fullness of God’s kingdom in the consummation of the age to come, something is seriously amiss.

So what about conservative Anabaptists and ecclesiology? Here I am suggesting that we sometimes act as if we expect that a fully pure Church (or at least church, i.e., congregation) is attainable right here and now, if only we find the right methods and draw the right lines. But does this hope match the biblical picture? Yes, Christ’s goal is to “present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:27). But when will this perfection of holiness be achieved?

Back to Revelation: I find it interesting that “the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they bore” were, sometime after their death, “each given a white robe” (Rev. 6:9, 11). In the context of Revelation, the robe represents glory and holiness; later we read of the Bride of the Lamb that “‘it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure’–for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints” (Rev. 19:8).

Doesn’t it seem that if anyone achieves truly holiness prior to death, it would be martyrs? Indeed, the righteousness described in chapter 19 (and perhaps in Rev. 7:14 and definitely in Rev. 22:14) probably is experienced before the saints died. And right-now holiness is important; there is most certainly such a thing as an under-realized holiness leading to an under-realized ecclesiology! But the fullness of our holiness, chapter 6 seems to suggest, will not be experienced until we are in the very presence of God. And this conclusion seems undeniable based on 1 John 1:8: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”

An over-realized ecclesiology can be expressed in many ways. There are those who multiply behavioral rules in an attempt to precisely codify holy living. There are also those who refuse to commit to any church because none is perfect enough. I’m sure you could add to this paragraph.

I find Paul’s example instructive. He readily identified with many different churches throughout his lifetime, counting believers in each as his brothers and sisters. He even identified with the miserably imperfect Corinthian church: “in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (1 Cor. 12:13, emphasis added).  I also find it interesting that he rarely “pulled the excommunication card,” saving it for either those who distorted the core of the gospel (Gal. 5:4) or those who engaged in gross immorality of the kind that damaged the Church’s reputation before unbelievers (1 Cor. 5:1-2, 11). He never pursued present purity in the Church so rigorously that he excluded all who were caught in any transgression (Gal. 6:1-2) or those who disagreed with him (wrongly!) on details of holy behavior (Rom. 14:1-14). He told the church at Ephesus that growth in maturity was a long, challenging process (Eph. 4:11-16). And he told the Ephesian elders that he expected their Church to continue to battle impurity in the future (Acts 20:29-30). Immaturity is not good, and false teachers certainly must be defeated; but both are “normal” until Christ returns.

So, how much holiness should we expect to see in our churches today? Here’s a brief answer, from Paul: While we “through the Spirit, by faith… eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness,” we should expect to see “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:5-6, emphasis added).

What do you think? Is my thesis basically accurate? What do you think it looks like for a church to have a truly biblical goal of purity? Share your insights below–we’re all still learning!

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2 thoughts on “When Will the Church Be Pure?”

  1. Dwight, I hope to use this post as a supplement to some primary source readings on eschatology. I’m currently teaching an Anabaptist History course to 11th and 12th graders, and find this to be a good way to tie the esoteric topic of eschatology to today. Thank you.

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