Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, a classic little book on the community of Jesus Christ, speaks a word of caution to those who fall in love more with the idea of Christian community than with the community they are actually a part of.
“Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial.”
Bonhoeffer’s warning describes a Christian who is zealous for the church to be everything God has called it to be and fulfill its idealistic vision. This believer is earnest, with good intentions, but he or she brings to the church demands that stem from an “idolized community.”
In other words, the ideal has become an idol, and whenever this happens, we fashion a church of our own making. “Whoever is mindful to build the church is surely well on the way to destroying it,” he warns, “for he will build a temple to idols without wishing or knowing it.”
Kingdom “Now” and “Not Yet”
I thought about that famous quote from Bonhoeffer’s work when I was reading Scot McKnight’s Kingdom Conspiracy, a book that emphasizes the overlap between kingdom of God and the church. Though I don’t go along with all of Scot’s line of argumentation (see my review here), I believe his reminder of the church as both “now” and “not yet” to be essential in helping us understand the right level of expectations we are to bring to our Christian communities of faith.
We believe the kingdom of God is here now and simultaneously not yet here fully. We call it the “now” and “not yet” or the “already” and “not yet.” Jesus has inaugurated His kingdom, but we pray for the ushering in of the kingdom in its totality at the consummation of all things. So, on the one hand, we have a real taste of God’s power at work in our world today, and on the other hand, we are waiting for the kingdom to come in its fullness.
Church “Now” and “Not Yet”
Scot applies the same insight to the church:
“What is said of the kingdom in the New Testament is also said of the church in the same New Testament: both have a now and a not yet. In their ‘now’ condition they are the same; in their ‘not yet’ condition they will be same” (94).
Why does it matter to see the church as both “now” and “not yet?” Because many evangelicals are quick to judge and condemn the church by holding it up to the standard of the kingdom’s “not yet.” We take the church “now” and compare it to the kingdom’s “not yet” and then use the kingdom as a sword that judges and condemns our own Christian communities – the vanguard of the kingdom we pray God will bring!
Instead of using the kingdom to judge the church, we should see the kingdom’s reality mirrored in God’s people. We shouldn’t be surprised that the local churches we belong to are communities where we see vibrant manifestations of God’s power and perplexing messiness at the same time.
In the church we see spiritual vitality and malaise, passion and apathy, victories and setbacks. Just as the kingdom in this world is a present reality of power but not yet fully here in all its glory, the church is God’s redeemed, sanctified, and empowered people who are not yet perfected. Note the paradox. We are diamonds in the rough, saints who sin, future kings and priests who bungle our tasks.
The “Now” and “Not Yet” of the Early Church
The early church was no exception. There were Christians suing each other, churches wobbling on the foundational doctrines of the faith, churches showing favoritism to the rich, teachers who were twisting Scripture to justify sexual immorality, and divisions around larger than life personalities. And yet through all this turmoil, the Spirit grew the church in size in power, expanding through its missionary reach to the rest of the world.
The power of Jesus was on display in churches far from perfection. If such was the case a generation after Jesus, why would we expect the church to be different two thousand years later?
The “Now” and “Not Yet” of the Believer
You understand instinctively the “now” and “not yet” to be true in your own life. You are indwelled by the Holy Spirit now, transformed in the heart now, a new person in Christ now, who is set apart for God’s purposes and promised the joys of God’s new creation now. But you are not yet sinless, you are not yet holy as you long to be, you are not yet free from the presence of sin and its temptations that drag you back to the slavery you once knew.
It may disturb you to think that there is so much “not yet” in your life “now.” But just as you have faith in God’s promises to one day finish the work He has begun in you, just as you confess the reality of your justification and your being clothed in the righteousness of your Savior, you continue on – not allowing your internal frustrations to lead you to despair, but instead to stir up in you more longing and hope for the day you will be – as the old hymn puts it - “saved to sin no more.”
Be Patient with the Church
The same patience and plodding consistency you demonstrate with yourself in your own faltering walk with Jesus is what we should show to our faltering churches – places where we are sometimes saddened by recurring issues of sin and unfaithfulness, places where self-righteousness takes root, where we find divisions and quarrels, immorality and immaturity.
This is the reality of the “not yet” still in the “now.” But don’t let it keep you from church. Instead, let the problems of the church lead you to commit to her all the more. After all, the Groom will soon return, and the wedding day is ahead.