The churches in this part of the world are so thick that if you throw a rock in any direction you are likely to hit one. And with all of these churches it is difficult for one little church to stand out. This makes, as you have no doubt witnessed, for some interesting and attention-grabbing church signage.
I was driving in southern Missouri a few years back when I noticed - not for the first time - one such sign. Beneath the name of the church it read: “An imperfect church for imperfect people.” No doubt this motto was conceived as an invitation for common people - sinners, that is, like me - to come and visit a church where they can be comfortable with other sinners. This church, we are to understand from the sign, is not some exclusive (and excluding) Country Club for the Holy. It is an inclusive gathering of sinners who can be comfortable with one another in the knowledge of their imperfections. “An imperfect church for imperfect people.”
It all sounds rather nice and non-threatening. There’s only one problem: what good is an imperfect church? If you just want to sit around and commiserate with other sinners about your sin and struggles why not go to a bar or a cafe or some other place with much less judgment (and much better refreshments)? Why go to a church?
Hidden behind this motto, then, is a big assumption about what the church is and, of course, what it is not. The church in this thinking is a fellowship of individuals, a support group. It is a human institution that exists to provide help and to give help. This is, in other words, a theology of the church understood, we might say, "from below”.
In the last several centuries it became popular in the west to approach Christ “from below”. This meant, when theologizing about Christ, beginning not with His divinity and the confession that He is the Son of God but with His humanity and seeking to understand Him primarily in terms of His human nature. Literally thousands of books and studies have followed in this vein focusing on every aspect of the humanity of Jesus, running the gamut from psychology to sociology to political theory to you name-it. People have tried to fit Christ into almost every human mold.
The upshot of all this “theology from below” has been, in many ways, catastrophic. Seeking a Christ that they could relate to, people ended up with a Jesus that was all-too-human but none-too-divine and, as a result, unable to save us. He has become a symbol of all that our age wants Him to be but not, ironically, what we really need.
I would suggest to you that something very similar has happened with the theology of the church, evidenced by the sign mentioned above. The church understood "from below" is a human society, a fellowships of sinners with whom you can sympathize and share your struggles. It is a place of support and friendship. It is not, however, the Body of Christ, the Living Temple, and City of God. And while we might benefit from a sympathetic ear and the encouragement of those, like us, who are sinners, - which we can, of course, still find in the Church - what we most need is to be united to Christ. We will not be saved by sympathy. We will be saved only by entering into communion with God in Christ. And this only happens in the Church. In fact, we might say that communion in Christ is precisely what the Church is.
And so, while we often say things like “the Church is a hospital for sinners”, which is certainly true in its own way, this is not the end of the matter. We need a perfect Church for the same reason that we need a perfect Christ, because the Church is the place where our human nature, and through it creation, is made a partaker of divine nature in Christ. The Church is the place where the Paschal Mystery is already manifest, the laboratory of the resurrection. The perfect Church is where imperfect people are being perfected in Christ.
With love in Christ,