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:
- “I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18).
- “Tell it to the church” (Matt. 18:17).
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.