In the book A Vision for the Church: Studies in Early Christian Ecclesiology
(ed. Markus Bockmuehl and Michael B. Thompson, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1997), the authors of the various essays attempt to describe the "vision" of the church described in different parts of Scripture as well as the apostolic fathers. Andrew Chester is assigned the task to describing Paul's vision for the church in his chapter called "The Pauline Communities". He begins his chapter like this:
Paul's vision for the communities that he wrote to can be summed up quite succinctly. He sees them as being a new creation in Christ, filled with the Spirit, possessing gifts of the Spirit and overflowing with the fruit of the Spirit, controlled above all by love; they are communities that should be pure and holy, mutually supportive and interdependent, completely united, transcending the oppositions and tensions between different groups within the community, and with every kind of barrier that would divide them in normal society broken down. (105)
I think this is one of the best descriptions of the church that I have ever read. I know what some are thinking though: "This definition is too idealistic. Even the communities that Paul wrote to were not like this description." And, you would be absolutely correct. No church will ever live up to this description. As Chester continues:
This brief summary may seem over-idealized; it may indeed seem somewhat grandiose and abstract, especially in the light of the occasional letter that Paul wrote to quite different communities, often on very specific and mundane issues... It is also to be said that theory and practice in any case often fail to coincide, and the way that a particular community lives can be very far removed from Paul's vision of what it should be. Paul himself is made painfully aware of this. Indeed, it is probably true to say that we have a semblance of Paul's vision for his communities, to a large extent, because of the problems that have arisen in a number of those communities and that Paul feels the need to counter. That is, Paul finds himself faced with what he considers false practice, or even a complete negation of his ideal of the Christian community, and hence has to urge those in these communities that he has founded to become what they know they should be, and not remain as they are. (105)
Chester makes a very important point in the beginning of his essay. First, from reading Paul's letters, it does seem that Paul has an "ideal" for the church, and I believe that Chester's description above succinctly captures Paul's vision. Next, Paul recognizes that people do not live according to this ideal. Therefore, he often writes in order to correct specific areas where communities are failing to live according to this "ideal". For the most part, we have to try to understand Paul's ideal by reading his correctives, although there are many positive statements about the church in Paul's letters as well.
There is a danger is calling Chester's definition "idealistic". Once we call something "idealistic", it generally ceases to be our goal. Our vision is adjusted toward something that is "doable" or practical. But, in Scripture, Paul did not lower his goal because communities were not living up to the "ideal". Instead, he continued to keep the "ideal" as his goal and, at the same time, continue to exhort the communities toward that vision.
As we compare our communities with Chester's description of Paul's vision, we should ask ourselves whether we are living as new creations in Christ, filled with the Spirit, exercising the gifts of the Spirit, producing the fruit of the Spirit, and controlled by love above all other things. We should seek to determine if our communities are pure and holy, and if we are supportive of and interdependent upon others. We should find out if oppositions and tensions are transcended and if normal social barriers are broken down.
If what if we fall short in one of these areas? That's the wrong question. We will fall short. No community is perfect. The question is: what do we do when we recognize that we are falling short in one of these areas? Then we seek to move toward the "vision", by allowing the Spirit to make us into a more mature community in Christ. What do we do if we do not see any failures in our community? We humble ourselves, repent, and acknowledge that pride is blinding us to who we really are. Every community needs to mature in some way. And, once a community has matured in that way, that community still needs to mature, perhaps in another aspect of their community life. Maturity will continue until we are made perfect in Christ on the last day.
There is a "vision" for the church in the New Testament. Perhaps it seems ideal. Perhaps it seems unrealistic. Perhaps its seems unmanageable. Perhaps it seems out of reach. These are all true, because we cannot do this on our own power and by our own methods. But, God can mature us through his Spirit into a community that is more like his Son. As a community, we can become more like the ideal - more Christ-like than we are now.
(Content also available at The Assembling of the Church: Paul's Vision for the Church