When I was a child, there was a popular game show on television called “To Tell the Truth.” In the game, three contestants would claim to be the same person — Bill Smith, for example. Four celebrities would question the contestants in an attempt to determine who was telling the truth. Finally the host would ask the big question, “Will the real Bill Smith please stand up?” I do not remember how the game was actually won or lost, but I do think about the host’s final question sometimes when I think about the church.
We confess in the Nicene Creed that we believe in “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” So where is it? Where is this church? If you ask three Christians that question, it is not unlikely that you will receive four answers. There is a great deal of confusion regarding the nature of the church. Is the church an institution? Is it purely a spiritual entity? Is it some combination of the two? These and a host of other questions arise whenever we consider the church.
And what about our common Christian creed? When we confess that we believe in “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church,” are we referring to an ideal, or are we referring to something that actually exists in some sense right here and right now? What does it mean to make this confession in the face of homosexual bishops, pedophile pastors, widespread rejection and/or ignorance of essential biblical doctrines, and worship services that feature the talents of juggling clowns on unicycles? Is this the church? If not, will the real church please stand up?
If we were to look only at the surface, we could become tempted to hopelessness and despair. Thankfully, however, God reveals in Scripture the true meaning of our common confession — the true nature of the church. And despite the present imperfections that we see all around us and to which we contribute regularly, there is coming a day when God will tell the real church to please stand up. At that time the sheep will be separated from the goats, the wolves will be removed from the midst of the flock, and all pretense will fail. At that time we, the church, will be presented to our Lord Jesus Christ as a Bride without spot, wrinkle, or blemish. And we will cast our crowns at his feet, fall down coram Deo before the throne and declare: “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”
This is the real church.