For all of our discussion of “church”, it seems strange that our Lord only used the term twice — Matt. 16:15-19 and 18:12-20. I want to look more closely at what He was talking about, and contrast it with what we too often mean. In that way we may understand the third step of God’s process for dealing with conflict. [See The Path to Reconciliation, and The Who, What and How of Matt. 18:16]
To begin with, the Greek word used was eklesia. It means “called out”. To broaden this, we might think of “called out from something, by someone, for some purpose.” Christ calls us out from the things of the world which would otherwise control us, for the purpose of going back into that same world as His servants and emissaries.
When King James, a Scott, got the scholars together to translate the Latin Bible into English, Christians in Scotland went to a building on Sunday, which building was, in Scottish, called a kirka. They substituted this for ekklesia (the Latin variant). From this, of course, we get “church”.
So much for linguistic history. Let’s look at the two places where Christ used the word.
The first deals with how a person under influence of the Holy Spirit, when they declare Jesus to be “Christ, the Son of the Living God”, they become a part of the “called out ones”. In this sense, “church” must be seen as the universal body of those in whom the Holy Spirit dwells. It is this which Paul calls the “body with many parts”, each needed for proper interrelationship, for growth of the whole. And it has no doctrine or name. I do not get to determiner who is or is not a part of this organism; that decision has been made by God.
We immediately see a distinction between what we have been taught and what Jesus meant: “And the gates of hell shall not prevail against the called out people.” “Gates” are protective mechanisms which hold things safe within from marauders. Today, we often think of how Satan cannot attack us while we are inside the Church, because our gate shall prevail against him. But that is not what Christ meant. Christ meant that the Saints had the power to storm and break down the gates of hell on earth and set free the captives therein who would respond to the message of grace, peace, and salvation.
I hope you agree that this is quite a difference in meaning!
The second use of “church” is found in a passage which deals with the issue of sin in a believer — Matt. 18:17:
“And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a gentile and an unbeliever.”
What is this thing called “the church” to which “it” is to be told, and who is to do the telling? Is it the same thing as the “church” in Matt. 16:18, or is it something else? And which of our modern entities may be considered a “church” within the meaning of 18:17?
As a minister of reconciliation, it is important to know to whom to address a matter of sin in the life of a believer. Lawyers see this as a “jurisdiction” question: which Court has jurisdiction to hear and determine the matters at issue. Under the law, action by a Court without jurisdiction is a void action.
These questions also have importance on the question of Appellate Jurisdiction: to whom may a party who feels wronged by a “Church” appeal his case, other than to God in the day of final judgment? [This assumes that there is to be a method of appeal from actions of a “church” on earth — possibly an invalid assumption.]
Allow me to begin with a list of possible “churches”.
Obviously, there is the Church Universal of Matt. 16.
Just as obviously, there is the local congregation, found most frequently
in brick and mortar structures on particular street corners at particular times of
Once we admit this second option, then we must add all the
hierarchical/denominational/conference networks which local assemblies form.
And we may add Christian corporate ministries (particularly those with
employees, multiple members, fund raising, etc).
What about Bible study groups — formal like Bible Study Fellowship, or
as informal as people from many walks of life and many faiths gathering together
in someone’s home to study?
What about the Christian media, Christian authors, traveling itinerants,
etc. — where do they fit into the picture, if at all?
Now, at the risk of being simplistic, it seems to me that the answer to the question of what is the church lies in the purpose of the process set forth in Matt. 18:15-20, and the fact that verses 19 and 20 define church for the purpose of the passage.
What is the purpose? As mentioned earlier, it is to recover and restore straying sheep; it is not to condemn, punish, and destroy as so often happens in our secular legal system of conflict resolution.
A consequence of a punitive-based conflict resolution system is that when we are in confronted with our actions, we immediately deny what we have done — regardless of how trivial our error may have been in relation to the acts of others. Then we begin to justify and rationalize. Eventually, we find a place to put a blame.
But God wants a different consequence. He wants confession, forgiveness, community involvement, bearing of burdens, and people reconciled to Himself and to one another: “Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become accountable before God.”
God’s way, in love but firmly in truth, confronts offenders with the acts they have done which do not match His plumb-line, and the harms which have resulted. It calls us to admit our faults and seek to make them right. It offers restoration to the repentant.
Now we can shift back to Matt. 18:15-20. One way to look at the Bible is as the story of God’s offer to man of reconciliation. The theme is repeated in Matt. 18, verses 12-14, immediately before the passage which involves the church.
This is a message of reconciliation and restoration. It is the “what for” of the “therefor” of verse 15. It elevates the rest of the passage from discipline (punishment) to confrontation with truth, in love, extending forgiveness, offering to bear burdens, and all done sacrificially. It requires the action of the individual, the small group, and the larger community.
Now I can suggest how we should view “church” in Matt. 18:17. Our first view must be in the context of the prior two verses. Thus whatever “church” means, it means something in an order of events, operating for a particular purpose. It is not the first place that we go when we see a brother in sin — it is the last. The first is directly to the brother.
The second place we go is to the Universal Body of Christ. We look for one or two whom the one we are confronting may, hopefully, “listen to”.
This confrontation having failed, we now turn to “the church” — which should not be something approximating the unmerciful, all-powerful, sword-wielding, blindfolded State. It is not a place of discipline (call that “punishment”), but a community of those who know the one who is straying and are prepared to confront in love, offer assistance in renewal, test for repentance and kill a fatted calf when the prodigal returns.
Thus it is my belief that each and every way in which two or more of the Body of Christ get together constitutes, for purpose of this passage, “a church” to which “it” may be told. Which one, or ones, should be approached and told is a question for the witnesses of Matt. 18:16 to determine, rather than for the aggrieved party.
In the same way, it is the witnesses who do the telling, for the aggrieved party is to be releasing the matter to God to deal with rather than continue to seek “victory”. Certainly the aggrieved party may be present at the “telling”, but they would not have to be there.
And what do the witnesses say to this “church”? Maybe nothing more than: “We have been witnesses between Bill and Sam relative to a conflict. In the process, we have witnessed to Bill about some matters of his life which he needs to deal with. He is not listening to us. We are prepared to make our witness to Bill in your presence; maybe he will listen to you.”
(I prefer this approach, but I accept the theological proposition that the leaders may ask for a direct recitation of what was witnessed to Bill, and that the witnesses may do so even though Bill is not present.)
The leaders may reach out to Bill, or they may inform others of the congregation of the need to reach out to Bill. This process may even lead to an announcement to the entire congregation, to all churches in town, and to all Christians in the world. How widely this notification may go is for the leadership of the Holy Spirit — and there is no need for haste, only confrontation in love.
Or the witnesses may “tell” to Sam’s church that Sam is suffering a wrong and being defrauded and has burdens which the Body needs to consider bearing.
It is, at the point of telling it to “a” church, that we will discover if that gathering is a part of “the” church. If “a church” selected responds as a part of “The Church Universal”, it is a “true church”. It does not demand its way. It does not set itself outside and above the rest of the church universal. It does not exclude outsiders from participating in the restoration process. It actively seeks outsiders whose gifts are needed in this particular sub-part of the Body, and welcomes them into the process. It “receives” the witnesses and acts upon the witness which they bring.
A “true church” also answers the issue of appellate procedure, because it will always participate in a Biblical process upon the received testimony of witnesses. A “true church”, in short, defers in love to a sense of its part within The Church Universal.
Now, it is very common for Christian organizations (para-church ministries, etc) to say, “We are not a church”. But for the purpose of Mat. 18, they are.
And what of the Christian author, E-Mail junkie, etc? It means that they must also follow Matt. 18:15, 16, and 17 before “telling it to the universal church” through publication at large. The Christian media is to be a reporter of the existence of conflict between believers rather than reporter of facts of the conflict. They ought not refer to “an informed source” and then give us facts, for that is mere gossip. They should instead call the members of The Universal Church to, in turn, call the parties to “the local church” for conflict resolution according to God’s ways rather than man’s ways (I Cor. 6:1-8).
If God is a unity of Three Who Are One, Who calls husbands and wives to be “of one flesh”, and Who calls His people to be so one that the world will be drawn to Him, then this description of what is “church” fits — it calls us to greater unity.
Are we willing to set aside our theological differences, at least in the matter of conflict, and display unity? That is the question.
Well, the witnesses have told my church that I am not listening, and my church has reached out towards me. I have run away, and they have disfellowshiped me. Still I stray. What next? For that, see [Treat Him as an Unbeliever]