Jesus and the Church by Terry Johnson, Reformed Theology Articles at Ligonier, Tabletalk Magazine, July 1st, 2014.
How many times does Jesus mention the church? I’ve asked that question in a number of forums (Reformed University Fellowship, Sunday school, Drug Court Bible Study, the pulpit, and so on), and have received answers ranging from thirty-six to six. Surprise is the typical response when I reveal that Jesus mentions the church, the ekklēsia, only twice.
Initially, this seems to confirm the bias of those who say they admire Jesus but have little regard for the church. The church, they say, is man’s invention. Jesus said little about the church. He didn’t intend to found a church. We’ve built an ecclesiastical mountain out of an exegetical molehill, they insist. We follow Jesus, they claim, but have discarded the millstone that the church has become around His message.
What should we say about this? Simply, that Jesus’ words about the church must be weighed, not merely counted. Essentially, Jesus says two things:
Take them in order. What does Jesus promise to build? His church. Anything else? No. He promises to build no other earthly institution. He attaches the personal pronoun my to no other earthly entity. He sums up His entire mission as church building. This is His chief concern. What is Jesus doing, incarnation and post-incarnation? He is building His church.
Let’s move to the second reference. What does Jesus want us to tell to the church? He speaks of the problem of a sinning “brother” who refuses to heed admonition, who refuses to repent. His obstinacy must be revealed to the church, which must act to disassociate him: “Let him be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector” (Matt. 18:17).
Several things are implied by this second reference to the ekklēsia. It must be that the church that Jesus envisions has standards of belief and conduct, membership from which one may be excluded, a process of discipline, a form of government, meetings at which a matter may be told, and officers who facilitate the whole. Jesus speaks in these two passages of the keys of the kingdom of heaven and the power of binding and loosing (Matt. 16:19; 18:18). The church that Jesus envisions has concrete existence. It is an organization. It is an institution. Its members are committed to each other, to the triune God, and to the church itself as something greater than the sum of its parts.
The church that Jesus builds is not merely an ad hoc gathering of believers at a coffee shop to pray and share Scripture verses. Such meetings are self-selecting; the church is not. Participants choose those with whom they will meet in such meetings, typically according to common interests. However, the New Testament church looks nothing like an organization built along lines of affinity, unless we are talking about affinity for Christ. Many of the problems with which the Apostles and the epistles are dealing in the New Testament arise precisely because of the diversity of age, class, and ethnicity of the members of the church (see Acts 6:1-7; 15:1ff; Gal. 1-3; Titus 2; James 4). Informal gatherings also lack accountability. One may simply stop participating and walk out of the lives of those with whom one has been involved.
Because Jesus’ words imply membership, standards, and discipline, they suggest the mutual accountability and mutual responsibility of covenanted relationships. When leading evangelicals say, “Don’t go to church; be the church,” their language is misleading. The gathering of two or three in Jesus’ name is the same entity that excommunicates (Matt. 18:2, 17). That entity has a government. It has a form of discipline. It has membership. It has standards of belief and conduct. It has meetings in which it is constituted as the church. One can be included and excluded from it with eternal repercussions (certainly implied by the keys). Informal gatherings of Christians may be helpful. Interdenominational community Bible studies may be edifying. However, they are not the church. The intimate bonds created through group Bible studies and prayer are meant to be forged primarily in the context of the local church, where I can depend on you and you can depend on me, where I have covenanted to be there for you, and you for me.
Don’t count Jesus’ words regarding the church. Weigh them—like silver, like gold. We suffer today for lack of an ecclesiology. Without warning and without explanation, families often leave a congregation with which they have been associated for more than a decade. The members who are left behind are grief stricken. They have sacrificed for those families through crisis after crisis. Prayers were offered, visits made, meals cooked, funds given, and babysitting provided. Gone. Why? Because they, like so many others, see the church as a voluntary association like a health club rather than a commitment like marriage.
A serious hole exists in our Christian discipleship if we are not fully committed to building the church as Jesus envisioned it—where I am accountable to others and they are accountable to me; where I am responsible to others and they are responsible to me; where I count on them and they count on me.
Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”
(which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.
Matthew 1:18-25 (ESV)
From the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647):
Of Christ the Mediator
1. It pleased God, in his eternal purpose, to choose and ordain the Lord Jesus, his only begotten Son, to be the Mediator between God and man, the Prophet, Priest, and King, the Head and Savior of his church, the Heir of all things, and Judge of the world: unto whom he did from all eternity give a people, to be his seed, and to be by him in time redeemed, called, justified, sanctified, and glorified.
2. The Son of God, the second person in the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance and equal with the Father, did, when the fullness of time was come, take upon him man’s nature, with all the essential properties, and common infirmities thereof, yet without sin; being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the virgin Mary, of her substance. So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion. Which person is very God, and very man, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and man.
3. The Lord Jesus, in his human nature thus united to the divine, was sanctified, and anointed with the Holy Spirit, above measure, having in him all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge; in whom it pleased the Father that all fullness should dwell; to the end that, being holy, harmless, undefiled, and full of grace and truth, he might be thoroughly furnished to execute the office of a mediator, and surety. Which office he took not unto himself, but was thereunto called by his Father, who put all power and judgment into his hand, and gave him commandment to execute the same.
4. This office the Lord Jesus did most willingly undertake; which that he might discharge, he was made under the law, and did perfectly fulfill it; endured most grievous torments immediately in his soul, and most painful sufferings in his body; was crucified, and died, was buried, and remained under the power of death, yet saw no corruption. On the third day he arose from the dead, with the same body in which he suffered, with which also he ascended into heaven, and there sitteth at the right hand of his Father, making intercession, and shall return, to judge men and angels, at the end of the world.
5. The Lord Jesus, by his perfect obedience, and sacrifice of himself, which he, through the eternal Spirit, once offered up unto God, hath fully satisfied the justice of his Father; and purchased, not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for all those whom the Father hath given unto him.
6. Although the work of redemption was not actually wrought by Christ till after his incarnation, yet the virtue, efficacy, and benefits thereof were communicated unto the elect, in all ages successively from the beginning of the world, in and by those promises, types, and sacrifices, wherein he was revealed, and signified to be the seed of the woman which should bruise the serpent’s head; and the Lamb slain from the beginning of the world; being yesterday and today the same, and forever.
7. Christ, in the work of mediation, acts according to both natures, by each nature doing that which is proper to itself; yet, by reason of the unity of the person, that which is proper to one nature is sometimes in Scripture attributed to the person denominated by the other nature.
8. To all those for whom Christ hath purchased redemption, he doth certainly and effectually apply and communicate the same; making intercession for them, and revealing unto them, in and by the Word, the mysteries of salvation; effectually persuading them by his Spirit to believe and obey, and governing their hearts by his Word and Spirit; overcoming all their enemies by his almighty power and wisdom, in such manner, and ways, as are most consonant to his wonderful and unsearchable dispensation.