I know of no congregation of the Lord’s church that can claim perfection. If churches are composed of people, they will have their problems. It is true that we are saved people (Acts 2:47), holy people (1 Pet. 2:9), and sanctified people (1 Cor. 6:11). But we are also weak people (Matt. 26:41) who are not above sin (1 John 1:8). But these weaknesses and sins do not necessarily mean that God has cast off the congregation wherein these weaknesses and sins exist. For proof of that we need look no farther than the church in the ancient city of Corinth.
At the time Paul wrote his first letter to the church there, they were a troubled group, struggling to jettison the influences of their past. Factions had formed in the church over preachers. There was an immoral relationship among them that they not only refused to deal with, but they were also proud of their tolerance of it. They were taking each other to small claims court. They were trying to navigate sticky marriage and divorce situations. There was dissension over what to do about eating food that had been offered to idols. Their worship assemblies had become chaotic and divisive. And if that were not enough, a sizeable number of Christians there were denying a fundamental tenet of the Christian religion – the bodily resurrection of the dead.
Despite all their flaws, Paul still identifies them this way: “…the church of God which is at Corinth…those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours” (1 Cor. 1:2). It is amazing that even with their manifold imperfections, they were still God’s church. They were still set apart in Christ. They were still saints just like all the other saints. They still called on the same Lord as the rest of the saints. What’s more, Paul was thankful for them (1:4) and confidently affirmed that “our Lord Jesus Christ…will also confirm you to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:7-8). While some of us may have withdrawn our fellowship from Corinth quickly, publicly, and shamelessly, neither God nor the apostle Paul were so hasty.
This does not mean, however, that they could ignore their problems and maintain that status indefinitely (cf. Rev. 2:5; 3:20). But it does shine a bright light on the longsuffering of God, and it reminds us that HE has the final say on the status of his churches. We can and should warn the faithful of the dangers of false doctrine and the teachers of it (Eph. 5:11; Rom. 16:17-18; Phil. 3:2). And Christians should be wise in deciding where they will work and worship, not needlessly putting themselves in harm’s way. But Jesus gets to decide when a congregation has so departed from the path of truth that they can no longer be called one of his churches (cf. Rev. 2:5).