“There is no perfect Church.”
This is a recurring theme that often gets asserted when a person converts. And this is natural, I think, especially when the perception is that the person converted because of the presupposed intrinsic advantage of the ecclesial communion joined over the one left behind. Therefore, saying “there is no perfect Church” is a kind way for those who stayed to say to those who left: “the grass is not always greener.”
But is it correct, at a theological level, to assert that there is no perfect Church? I suppose it depends upon how one defines “perfection” and “Church.”
“Perfection” is nearly always understood in terms of moral flawlessness. Therefore, if sin exists, perfection is deemed impossible. Nevertheless, perfection has also classically referred to, not only moral flawlessness, but also fullness, completeness, essentially lacking nothing. Furthermore, the idea of “Church” is nearly always understood in terms of the faithful who inhabit it. I am reminded of the 1970s Methodist song (that also appeared outside of the Methodist Church [e.g. in a 1990s Lutheran hymnal]) that runs thusly:
The church is not a building,
the church is not a steeple,
the church is not a resting place;
the church is a people!
I am the church! You are the church!
We are the church together!
All who follow Jesus, all around the world,
yes, we’re the church together!
Consequently, if the Church is made up of sinful individuals, then the Church must, necessarily, be imperfect, or so the thinking goes.
However, St. Paul spoke of the Church this way: “Christ is the head of the church. He is the saviour of his body” (Eph 5:23). This was the same St. Paul who, while formerly Saul, was persecuting the Church. Yet, as he came to discover, he was, in essence, persecuting Christ Himself: “And falling on the ground, he heard a voice saying to him: ‘Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?’ … ‘I am Jesus whom thou persecutest’” (Acts 9:4–5). Very simply, Christ and His Church were and are indistinguishable, for the Church was and is “his body, the fullness (πλήρωμα—pleroma) of him who is filled all in all” (Eph 1:23). While the faithful may enter into the Church, they are not the constitutive element.
Therefore, if Christ and His Church are indistinguishable, then the Church is as Christ is: “holy, and without blemish” (Eph 5:27). She is, in short, perfect, for she is the presence of the fullness of Christ’s body in time and space for the salvation of the world. What this indicates, of course, is that those who claim that there is no perfect Church likely understand “Church” in terms of individuals, and not in terms of Christ who unites individuals into a common life together, made common sacramentally, and expressed through a common liturgical existence, one that finds its summation in union with the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. For, as Clement of Alexandria has noted, “the Church breathes with one breath,” precisely because, as Tertullian has said, “unus christianus, nullus christianus.” Simply, no one can be a Christian by one’s self; no one can be Church by one’s self; and no one, regardless of their ability, can negate the perfection of the Church through their own sin.
Nevertheless, when this sort of anthropocentric understanding of Church is adopted, it leaves folks with no other choice but to settle for that ecclesial expression that is least imperfect. And you can spot this sort of perspective when you hear it said: “A person must choose the set of denominational problems he or she wants.” And when this is the reality, there is no reason for a person to leave a particular denomination, for all are imperfect, and the result is simply a trading of one set of imperfections for another. Hence the recurring cry: There is no perfect Church!
But if the Church is Christ, as St. Paul seems to demonstrate, then the same Christological presuppositions and confessions that have historically governed the Christologies of all creedal Christians ought also to govern their ecclesiologies as well. And while Chalcedon left much room within the Christological field-of-play, one thing that is certain is that, for the Fathers of the council (and the faithful who piously embraced it), Christ was and is both divine and human. Therefore, the Church, in imitation of Him who constitutes her, is both divine and human as well. She is divine in her fullness (her πλήρωμα —pleroma), as she is the temporal presence of the eternal kingdom of heaven. Yet, she is human in so far as human beings, both living and departed (some of whom are still haunted by sin), inhabit her. However, unlike Christ our Lord, the Church’s human nature is not entirely free from the struggle of sin. Nevertheless, the sinfulness of the humanity of the Church, because that sinfulness is not inherent to her nature, is not powerful enough to destroy the essential fullness, the very perfection, of the Church. In fact, to claim that the sin of individuals can somehow cause the imperfection of the Church is a uniquely Donatistic mistake, no different than asserting that an evil priest can cause the imperfection or invalidation of the Eucharist. And so the Church suffers because of sin, yes, both from within and from without, just as Christ Himself suffered, but the reality of the eternal kingdom is present and active in all of its fullness within the rhythm of the Church’s holy liturgy wherein heaven and earth meet and the divine kisses the human.
To that end, does it not seem odd that, in so many aspects of life, a person will not settle for anything less than perfection or fullness, but when it comes to the Church, most are quite willing to acquiesce, rejecting the thought that there might be something better, stronger, fuller, more perfect available to them and for them?
Indeed, it is easy to cry, “There is no perfect Church” when you believe your own ecclesial communion to be flawed at an ontological level. But for those who have found the Church, the fullness of the Church as Christ established it and blessed it, it is not hard to see that the aforementioned cry is evidence of what is quickly becoming one of the great modern heresies and, sadly, often a result of an inherent inferiority complex. Yes, there is a perfect Church. And well there should be. For, at the end of the day, it is a matter of life or death, both for Him who constitutes it and for us whose salvation is found therein.