The author, Gilbert W. Stafford, in his book, Theology for Disciples, gives reference to idealistic and realistic views of the New Testament Church. The question is how can these ideas help bring renewal to the contemporary Church? When these ideas are coupled together, they can be useful for the contemporary church today because they can help better define her goals and to see her areas of need.
Stafford first states that the Gospels are placed at the beginning of the New Testament to signify the priority that the early church placed on discipleship as the basic category for understanding the nature of the church. The church as Stafford points out was called many names, such as the people of God. He explains how these ideas were to be enacted within the body of believers.
His first definition of the church as the body of Christ placed the accent on the church as the ongoing means by which the risen, ascended, reigning, and coming Lord makes himself known in history between his first and second advent (160). In other words, the church is to have a role in the mission of presenting Christ’s redemptive power to the unsaved.
His second definition is that the church is a place where the reconciled come together. Those that are both reconciled with God and with each other. It is the place where God’s presence is on earth. The third definition of the church is as the people of God, with the accent on its vocation.
Therefore, the idealistic view of the church is it is a fellowship of those who trust in Christ. It is the people of the new covenant linked to those of the Old Testament. They are a group of believers devoting to growing in Christ. It is a body of divine grace for the edification of believers and for blessing all. It is an expression of God’s mission to the world. It is also the community of believers waiting for Christ’s return.
This idealistic view however when placed alongside the realistic picture of the church, it does not always live up to the idealistic idea. The New Testament church had struggles, corruption and deficiencies within its structure as it attempted to grow and spread the gospel.
While fellowship was important some fell short and problems arose such as those that wanted believers to obey the laws (such as circumcision). There were some devoted to growing in Christ, but there was also a problem for example of sexual sins that Paul had to address that was taking place within the church. The church was to be an organism of divine grace for the edification of believers, but there was a time the church was a stumbling block to believers (for example the debate of eating meat used within idol worship ceremonies). There were problems with gifts and confusion about usage of tongues. The church should have been an expression of God’s mission to the world, but the Asian churches were lacking in missionary zeal.
One of the greatest examples the New Testament church can be to the contemporary church is it was not perfect but it was in the process of growing into what God was calling the church to be. Even in her state of lack, God still added to the church daily. Stafford explains that the view of the idealistic is that the church is pure, spotless, blameless, holy and concerned only with the salvation of people and the glory of God. On the other hand the realist sees the church as too human, harsh, intolerant full of every kind of failing.
Instead, the church today needs to take a blend of both to help the church become what it should be. The church is the body of Christ, but it is in the process of growing and therefore has many shortcomings. The church can however still find comfort in knowing that as she is becoming, God is still adding to the church as he sees fit. It calls for the church today to view itself as a body of believers in need of divine guidance, directing and renewing to continue to grow into what God is calling her to be. The church needs to hear again, and again her purpose, her mission and her calling so that she can continue to be corrected when she goes astray from her mission so that with a loving hand the reality of what is taking place is being joined with the idea of what she can become.