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A recent discussion in one of my seminars reminded me of a very important distinction. There is a difference between the the church that ought to be and the one that is.

No human institution is quite like the church. While there are all kinds of clubs, societies, groups, agencies, and even families to which people can belong, the church claims a unique status. It is more than any of these things. The church is not a human invention. It is the craftsmanship of God himself, made of living stones. The church is the home of the Christian in this present age. It is a foretaste of the coming kingdom, an outpost of the “not yet” in the “already.” It is universal in scope and local in expression.

And yet, much of the time it looks no different than those other organizations. It so often falls short of its high calling. Sin dwells in the camp. Division springs up between members of this holy family. Local churches everywhere deal with the very human problems of temptation, vice, and bitterness. This is the difference between the church that ought to be and the one that is.

A Biblical Portrait of the Church

The Bible gives us a clear picture of the church that ought to be. Peter tells us that the church, made of living stones, is “being built into a spiritual house for a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices” (1 Peter 2:5). Paul reminds us, “God’s multi-faceted wisdom may now be made known through the church to the rulers and authorities in the heavens” (Ephesians 3:10). On the stage of history, it is the church that unravels the mysteries of God’s plan for the ages before the heavens and earth and their inhabitants. Luke tells us of this group’s unique life together.

“Now all the believers were together and held all things in common. They sold their possessions and property and distributed the proceeds to all, as anyone had a need. Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple complex, and broke bread from house to house. They ate their food with a joyful and humble attitude, praising God and having favor with all the people. And every day the Lord added to them those who were being saved” (Acts 2:44-47).

But just a few chapters later, this seemingly perfect assembly of righteous and humble people are in bitter dispute over neglected widows in their midst (Acts 6). The Bible is also clear about the church that actually is. Just scan Paul’s letters, and you get the gist. The Corinthians were neck-deep in immorality. The Galatians were in dispute over the nature of the gospel itself. By the time we get to John’s revelation, we see some harsh indictments by Christ himself against a number of churches. The biblical testimony is clear: the church ought to be different than it is.

And one day it will be. We are a pilgrim people on our way to a new abode. The church will one day dwell in a land where there is no need for a sun, because the radiance of Christ himself will bring light to the land. In that day, the church that is will be the church as it ought to be. But until then, we find ourselves in the messy middle. On this side of eternity, the church will not achieve the “ought”, but in God’s grace he sanctifies his church. Christ is still working on his church, and the Spirit molds our congregations into His image. In the meantime, how should we respond to the church that is?

Bearing with One Another

If we do not understand the difference between the “ought” and the “is,” then we are easily frustrated when our church does not match our ideal understanding of the church. We see this happen with church members all the time, and our consumerist culture does not help either. Church members get hurt, offended, or just feel neglected, and soon they are looking for a new church. The grass appears greener on the other side, and they hop from local church to local church, moving every time the church that is does not appear to be the church as it ought to be. Or worse, they fall out of church altogether, having held it to an unattainable standard on this side of perfection.

Instead, we need to have patience with the church that is. After all, that exhortation by Paul to bear with one another in love (Ephesians 4:2) is there for a reason. If church folk were always easy to get along with, then Paul would not have needed to remind us. Fact is, the church will fail you. It fails all of us at times, precisely because it is not yet how it will one day be. Our responsibility is not to stand back and grade the church, waiting to watch her fail, but to step in and serve her, doing our best to move her toward the “ought.”

Moving from “Is” to “Ought”

This distinction between the church that is and the one that ought to be is especially important for leadership. Pastors and lay leadership alike must understand this difference. After all, the leadership of a local church has been entrusted by God and that congregation to steer them from the “is” to the “ought.” That is, in many ways, what being a leader is all about, moving a group from where they are to where they need to be.

This is a particular problem among young pastors, especially the ones coming out of seminary or Bible school. For the last three or four years, these folk have been studying the church as it ought to be. When they finally land at their first church, they meet the church that is. A rude awakening ensues. Unfortunately, too many young leaders are being equipped to lead the church that ought to be and not the one that actually is. Sometimes that results in ultimatums and large structural changes too rapidly, and division follows. Other times it results in pastor burn-out, and soon these folk are leaving the ministry altogether.

But Paul’s words in Ephesians are for church leaders as well. We must learn to bear with one another. Good church leadership is moving from the “ought” to the “is.” In order to do this, pastors must have a clear view of how things are. They need not be surprised when they find the church does not live up to its scriptural ideal. After all, neither did the churches in Scripture. Shepherding requires getting to know the sheep. It requires understanding where the church is now, so that it can be guided to a healthier place. This takes time and it takes vision. Fortunately, the Bible provides us with a vision of healthy church. After all, it speaks about the church as it ought to be. Shepherding a church well means helping them see where they are, where they should be, and directing them to a path that will take them there.

Progress is possible. Christ is sanctifying his church through the Spirit. Local churches can be healthy, and in the meantime we must remember we are on a journey to the place where all will finally be as it ought to be.