Monthly Archives: April 2006

Who is the Church? #2

After doing my post on “who is the church” I came across: this article from Keith Drury. I remember reading it but didn’t realize how much it had influenced my thinking. It is one of those deals where I started off saying, “Keith Drury wrote….” then in a month or two said, “I read somewhere” to, after a year or so, “I’ve been thinking.” So, to give credit where credit is due, I thought I had better post the link here!

Who is the Church?

The concluding words of the book of Matthew contain what is called the “Great Commission:” “Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.'” So who was it that Jesus was speaking to here?  The easy answer is that he was speaking to the 11 disciples.  The issue is, was he speaking to them as 11 individuals, commissioning each of them individually to make disciples, baptize, and teach or was he speaking to them as a group, the Church?
A few pages over we see how the new Church operated.  Paul has been up north in Antioch and has brought many Gentiles to faith in Jesus.  The result is a genuine crisis in the Church.  To this point the great majority of those being “made disciples” has been from the Jewish community.  These new believers, in addition to believing in Jesus, also faithfully follow the Jewish religion as well.  What is to be done with these new, non-Jewish Christians?  To complicate matters, some of the Jewish Christians are operating independently and have already declared that these new Gentile believers have to be circumcised, according the Jewish tradition.
Paul recognizes the authority of the Church and asks for ruling.  The “apostles and elders” don’t say, “well we each received the Great Commission, so just do what you think is right.”  Instead, they believe that they do have authority to say what is and what is not required of those who are being “made disciples.”  They meet, discuss, and pray.  Then they come to a decision.  That report begins with these words, recorded in Acts 15:28: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements.” They reject circumcision as a requirement, but do specify some things, like prohibiting the eating of blood, that (and this is very interesting) Jesus never prohibited.  In other words, the Jerusalem Church leaders:
1. Believed Jesus had given them authority as “the Church” to rule in matters concerning “making disciples”
2. Sought the leadership of the Holy Spirit, but did what “seemed good” to them, again believing they had the authority to do so
3. Felt free to add requirements that they felt were important to the unity of the church
It is clear that they saw authority granted in the Great Commission to be to them as a group, as the Church, and not to each one as an individual.
Sorry to say, this creates some problems even as it solves others.
The biggest problem is that the authority of the Church can be abused.  In fact, it has happened repeatedly.  History has more than its share of Church failure, of things done with the approval of the Church that were clearly outside the purposes of God in the world.  The result of such failure fueled the division of the Church, creating branches of Christianity.  It is seen in smaller ways when pastors and other leaders abuse authority given to them by the Church.
The result of that division even causes us to ask, “and who is the Church, anyway?”  If the Church has authority over “making disciples” and baptism and teaching it is pretty important to identify who the Church is.  If there was one unified Church the answer would be pretty easy.  Instead, we have more denominations and associations and schools of theology than we can count.  So where do we turn for that Great Commission authority?
Some turn to themselves.  “I just let God tell me.”  As such, they become their own little popes, and move Christianity toward religious anarchy.  That was exactly the problem with those first Jewish Christians who decided circumcision should be required — they were a law unto themselves, and, we note their independent decision was not the one adopted by the Church.  Others create an independent local church authority structure and let it be the Church in their lives.  It is better than nothing, but sure doesn’t mirror the situation in Acts when Paul travels hundreds of miles to get a ruling from a “higher authority.”
The rest of us belong to denominations.  Even as we acknowledge the brotherhood of the Church as spanning across all the lines of division, we accept that the Church for us is our denomination.  So, as we decide, for instance who will have authority to administer the sacraments, we look to the denomination to say, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” and we follow that guidance.
In summary, the Great Commission, both the authority and responsibility, was given, not to 11 people who happened to hear Jesus give it.  Instead, it was given to them as the Church.  A look at how things happened in Acts 15 makes it abundantly clear that they believed they were not commissioned independently of one another, but as a group, as the Church.  There have been failures which have resulted in division within the Church.  Still, we can find authority beyond our individual lives and even beyond the local church.  While this is not the ideal arraignment, when the denomination functions as the Church we find greater stability and more sound spiritual guidance than when individuals or even local churches function as the Church.