Paul wrote 1 Corinthians to a group of people whom he had led to faith in Christ. He calls them "the ones having been sanctified in Christ Jesus." The Church--holy? How can this be? It seems like plenty of people have been hurt by the Church, hurt by Christians. It has been said that the Church is the only group that shoots their own wounded people. I can certainly understand that perspective. So how can the Church be called, in any real or meaningful sense, holy?
Obviously, the Church is not holy in the sense of already being perfect. To be holy actually means "to be set apart," in this case, to be set apart for God's purposes. The Church in this world is capable of grievous sin. One does not have to live very long, or read very far in 1 Corinthians, to see this. Paul was not writing to perfect people. He was writing to a group of people who had divisions among themselves, who were undisciplined, people bringing law-suits against one another, persons who were living lives of sexual immorality, and people who were prideful. Yet, Paul calls these same people holy because, in spite of their sin, the Lord had chosen them and set them apart for his purpose. The Church is not holy in and of herself; she is holy only because she has a holy Lord, Jesus Christ, who has called her and set her apart.
What is that purpose for which the Lord has called and set apart his Church? In 1 Peter 2:9 we read Peter's words to the Church:
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.The purpose of the Church is exactly what Peter has described here. C. S. Lewis sums up that purpose this way:
The Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time. God became Man for no other purpose. It is even doubtful, you know, whether the whole universe was created for any other purpose. (Mere Christianity)Obviously, Jesus has not yet fully achieved his purpose in the Church. The good news is: he will accomplish it. In Matthew 16:18 Jesus says, "I will build my church and the gates of hell will not overcome it."
The Church was persecuted perhaps more in her early life than at any other time. Yet, she survived. Tertullian, one of the early church fathers, directed these words towards the persecutors of the Church:
Proceed in your career of cruelty, but do not suppose that you will thus accomplish your purpose of extinguishing the hated sect. We are like the grass which grows the more luxuriantly the more often it is mowed.Perhaps these are words we especially need to remember at this time when it seems that persecution of Christians is once again on the rise.