What makes the church, the church? What makes the kingdom of God, God’s kingdom? Just about every letter in the New Testament was written to help solve some problem or problems in the church. Yet the general rule is that even the churches with huge doctrinal problems are still called the church of God. There may not be a church you could find in this day with more problems than the church in Corinth when Paul addressed his letter, we know as I Corinthians to them.Yet he addresses them as “The church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.” (I Corinthians 1:2) Was Paul or the Holy Spirit who guided him not aware of all the problems in the church when he wrote those words? Certainly they were, that was the point of writing the letter to correct such problems.
They were divided with quarreling and fussing going on to the degree that people were saying, “I’m a follower of Paul” or “I’m a follower of Apollos” or “I’m a follower of Cephas.” He pleaded with them to stop the division and to realize Christ was the only one to follow. He paid the price for them on the cross and they were baptized into the name of Christ. But he didn’t tell them that they weren’t really the Lord’s church because of these problems. He accused them of immaturity, putting their own interest above those of the Lord and the church when they took brothers to court before unbelievers, of immorality of horrible sorts, that a man was in a sexual relationship with his step mother, of having numerous marriage problems and foolish ideas about marriage. He challenged their thinking about what was right in relation to participation in the idols temple and non-religious activities there. He reprimanded them because they had abused their worship and were treating those who had little to nothing with contempt even in the partaking of the communion. They had become arrogant because of the different spiritual gifts among them, especially the ability to speak in tongues. Their times of worship often seemed more like a talent show with everyone wanting to do their own thing than trying to worship and please God. They had a significant number of members who denied the resurrection from the dead, without realizing they were undercutting the very resurrection of Jesus on which our faith stands. But with all these problems, they were still the church of God in Corinth, called to be saints, sanctified in Christ along with all those in every place who called on the name of the Lord.
Now, please understand something, Paul nor the Holy Spirit was in any way condoning their errors, their foolish decisions, their ungodly arrogant attitudes or the abuse of worship. They certainly weren’t condoning the immorality or the messed up views of marriage. Yet they never said to them that all these errors made them lose their identity as the Lord’s church.
Read Revelation chapters 2 and 3. There are seven letters from Jesus to the seven churches of Asia that he had pictured in chapter one as the lamp stands with Christ walking among them. In each letter it is addressed to the angel of the church in that place and in almost all of them the majority of the letter is telling them of all the things wrong. In only one case did Jesus threaten to remove their candlestick or lamp stand that would have been the removal of their identity as a church of the Lord. That case was with the church at Ephesus. Listen to what he said to that church at the beginning of the letter. “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary.” Wouldn’t you like to have all those things written by Jesus to the church where you worship? I can tell you for certain I would like to have that statement made about the church where I preach. But the letter didn’t stop there. “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come and remove your lamp stand from its place, unless you repent.” (Revelation 2:2-5) They had the teachings right. They had the form in place for the church. Yet Jesus warned them that if they didn’t turn things around he would remove their identity as one of his churches.
What was the problem with Ephesus? Their love had grown cold. Their passion for Jesus and His grace, love and power had waned. Without such love both for the Lord and for each other as the Lord’s people you can’t be the church of Jesus Christ. Tie that with the fact that by far the most devastating letter of these seven was the last one to the church at Laodicea. They thought everything was going great for them. They said of themselves, “I are rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.” Yet the Lord’s assessment of them was, “You are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked.” What was wrong with them? They were full of themselves but had locked Jesus outside their hearts. They were lukewarm and neither cold or hot. Jesus told them he wanted to vomit them out of his mouth because of their lack of passion. Notice please, he didn’t challenge their teaching. It was the lack of heat, of passion, of fire for him that was missing and they had to be zealous and repent to get things right with the Lord. He didn’t give up on them. He said, “Those I love I rebuke and chasten.” He pictured himself standing at the door and knocking for them to open the door and let him back in as the center of the church’s life.
As we question what is a heaven or hell issue, it is imperative that we have the same set of values that Jesus demonstrated. Often the religious leaders who taught the right things according to the law were the very ones Jesus condemned as hypocrites. He even said to the apostles “Follow what they say but don’t do as they do.” It is terribly easy to get caught up in the form of the church and miss entirely the function that is equally or more important. If we ever find ourselves willing to accept the ones Jesus rejects or rejecting the ones he accepts we are in a bad place and had better make some changes quickly.