What does it mean when we say that the church is “holy”? I encourage you to press through some of this (kind of thick) language from Thomas Oden, to get to the meat within. The basic idea is this: though the church does not willingly love, tolerate, or ignore sin within its membership, that does not mean that there is not any sin in the church–in the lives of those who are attending the different gatherings of people in the church, from Sunday mornings on down. If there were absolutely no sin in the church, it would disqualify any of us who sinned at all the day before from getting up and coming to gather, and it would bar anyone who’s life was not what it should be from entering at all (especially non-believers, who then couldn’t even come to hear God’s word).
But, if nothing else, the life of Jesus shows us a different path to holiness. Though he was the holiest man to ever live, if you know his life, you know that he was most certainly not avoiding sinful people. Quite the opposite. Oden observes:
The fullest disclosure of divine holiness is beheld on the cross. God does not evidence holiness by utterly separating from the history of sin, but by engaging and transforming it.
Isn’t this true? The holiness of Jesus was not to avoid sin by avoiding sinful people, but to reject and defeat sin by refusing it for himself while at the same time engaging sinful people to rescue them out of it.
The [church,] being “called out,” is required to be separate and distinct from whatever is alien to God, precisely while working to save it…
Indicators of holiness in the church are often imperfect and embryonic. Signs of an imperfectly emergent holiness may appear in one who is as yet still noticeably lacking in behavioral righteousness.
The church on behalf of its holiness does not say to this person: Please come back when you are fully holy and then you will be baptized and invited to the Lord’s table.
Rather, the church on behalf of its holiness must draw as near to this person as possible so as to bring God’s goodness to sinners, and sinners to God’s goodness at each step along the way. This is seen in Jesus’ own attitude toward notorious but penitent sinners, whom he held to be closer to the kingdom than those who feign righteousness.
The deeper irony is that the signs of sin that attach to the church are indirect evidences of its holiness. It could not be a holy church if it had clean hands, as if separated from its mission and task of saving sinners. The very purpose of the church is the transformation of sinners; hence the paradoxical proximity of sin to the church.
The distinctive mission of discipling is to bring sinners to the way of holiness. This requires that the church should love at close quarters the sinners it is calling to refract the redeemed life.
The church appearing to have no sin within its boundaries is likely to be a church that has forsaken its mission. Sine the Christian community remains salt, light, and leaven within the world, it cannot remove itself wholly from the world without removing itself from its arena of apostolic mission. It purifies and cleanses its life only by a constant rhythm of distance and closeness to the world, gathering for worship and scattering for vocation.
As in triage, those most desperately wounded are those first cared for. The church has repeatedly found in the most notorious sinners its most brilliant and winning advocates (from Mary Magdalene and Paul to Saint Francis and John Newton). The skid row missions have nurtured many saints, who would not have been blessed had the church abandoned the skid rows.
And, finally, this:
There are few sins in the world that are not also found among the baptized. No church has yet become purified from lust, nationalism, envy, pride, or racism, and the list could go on. The Bible does not characteristically try to [cover up] the sins of the people of God, either publicly or before God.
Rather, the church is precisely the place where believers are brought to the specific awareness of the depths of their own shortcomings in order to receive convicting and forgiving grace.
The temple is no place for the pretense of righteousness.
— from Classic Christianity, by Thomas Oden