How deeply is the church involved in sin? This question has been climbing up the agenda of theological discussion the last few years. The old confession, Credo sanctam ecclesiam, has tempted many to underestimate the power of sin on the holy Church. The Church has, undoubtedly, been idealized. But in our time this temptation is increasingly being seen for the seduction that it is.

The insight that the mystery of the Church is its growth toward holiness has been seen more clearly. The Church, as the congregation of the Lord, called out of darkness into his wonderful light, exists under a profound responsibility for holiness. It was written of Israel, “I have known you alone, out of all the families of the earth; therefore shall I punish you” (Amos 3:1). It is something like this with the Church. We have, for instance, the picture of the church in Laodicea, which claimed to be rich and lacking in nothing but which in fact had nothing (Rev. 3:17). There is a warning here for the Church of every age.

So it is doubtless a good thing that theologians these days are thinking hard about the Church and its holiness. Are we expressing a remote ideal when we confess the “communion of the saints”? Does the Church hand over to the world, in this confession, a standard by which the world can too easily judge the Church? Christian people are often hard put to know how to respond to the sharp critique that the world lays on the Church. Has traditional Roman Catholic theology, with its high view of the Church as the Body of Christ, avoided embarrassment by distinguishing between the Church and the members of the Church? With this distinction, sin can be admitted in the lives of the members while the Church is still ...

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