Another sphere in which Christians must apply the fifth commandment, by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in union and communion with Christ is in the church. Since the fall, all humans are naturally suspicious of and rebellious toward authority. Americans particularly tend to be rebellious and that spirit appears in the life of the church as often as in any other sphere of human life. Indeed, because the church does not have the power to tax or to incarcerate, because Americans are free to walk away from a congregation with few earthly consequences, many American evangelicals (and others) have done just that: walked away from the church. Pollsters tell us that Americans are still very religious, i.e., they have religious feelings about God. Some still read their Bibles. Many Americans define themselves vaguely as “spiritual” but it is a commonplace that one may be “spiritual” or even Christian without having any formal relationship to the visible, institutional church. Indeed, critics of the visible church deride “churchianity” or revel in slogans about how they love Jesus but they hate his church. The church, of course, is an easy target. it is full of sinners. All believers profess faith in Christ but they all sin and to the degree sin is hypocrisy, then we are all hypocrites too. Each time a notable pastor or television evangelist is caught in immorality it adds another log to the fire of public indignation toward the visible church.
Nevertheless, despite all our natural resistance to authority and despite our suspicion of the church the fact is that our Lord Jesus, whom we profess to love and whose Word we profess to believe, instituted the very visible church against which we so easily rebel. There is not space here to trace out the doctrine of the church but the evidence from Scripture is clear and strong.
Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ (Matt 16:16–20).
When Peter confessed Jesus as the Christ he was the rock. When he denied him, he was the devil (Matt 16:23). To the apostles and the visible church Christ gave the keys of the kingdom. Just two chapters later our Lord explained in detail how he intended for those keys to be used.
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 a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matt 18:17–20).
Some entity is doing the binding and loosing. Some visible gathering of people is agreeing on earth. That entity, according to v. 17 is “the church.” Our Lord is speaking in terms borrowed from the Old Testament. The word for “church” (ἐκκλησίᾳ) is the very word the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures uses to translate the Hebrew word (Qahal) for “covenant assembly.” All this has been laid out elsewhere (see the link above). In other words, it does not refer to every believer, in all times and places or the church universal (or the holy catholic church). It was certainly not possible to “tell it” to every believer in the world in the first half of the 1st century AD. It is still not possible even with the internet. In other words, it is not possible to wipe out the visible church by substituting “church invisible” or “church universal” in this passage.
Further, the evidence in the New Testament for the reality and even centrality of the visible church to the Christian life is overwhelming. Everyone of Paul’s epistles was written to a visible assembly, a congregation, to be shared with other congregations. The Apostle Peter’s letters were written to congregations in Asia Minor. The Revelation mentions specific congregations. The book of Acts is, in part, the story of the founding of visible congregations and the appointment of officers (ministers, elders, and deacons).
It is against this background that we best interpret the exhortation by the writer to the Hebrews (most likely a pastor writing to a congregation) when he says:
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you (Heb 13:17; ESV).
In context, there is no indication that he is thinking or civil leadership. Following the flow of his argument and the burden of the sermon turned epistle we are led to conclude that he is speaking of authorities in the church. When he wrote of “keeping watch over your souls” he was certainly not thinking of Nero or his successors nor of some regional civil governor in the empire. He was thinking of pastors and elders, whom Christ has charged to shepherd the souls and lives of the Christ-confessing covenant community. This is why Paul wrote to the Thessalonian congregation, “If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed” (2 Thess 3:14; ESV). Paul exercised a real, divinely-given authority. Christ’s apostles delegated that authority. When Hebrews enjoins us to submit to authorities in the visible church that is a clear signal of this delegated authority.
Nevertheless, there are limits on ecclesiastical authority. This visible church is bound first of all to God’s word (Sola scriptura). The church is a servant of or minister of God’s Word. Therefore, it has no authority to command or act contrary to that Word. Further, in Reformed and Presbyterian churches, there are church orders or constitutions that limit the authority of the visible church and its officers. When, however, the church, in its officers, is acting and teaching according to the Word of God, within its ordained authority, believers have a duty before God to submit to them even when it is unpleasant.
To further complicate matters, not every assembly that claims to be a church is one. That is why, in Belgic Confession art. 29, we list three marks of the true church: the pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the use of church discipline. Where any of these is absent then, whatever an organization may claim for itself, it is not a part of the true church. In this way the claims to authority in congregations are further limited. No organization that does not bear the marks of the true church can ask submission by its members. When a congregation that bears the marks, however, exercises authority legitimately, it must be obeyed.
Still, because the church is populated and governed by sinners not every act by the visible church is necessarily legitimate. When church authorities act contrary to God’s Word as confessed by the churches, or when they act contrary to the church order then believers have a responsibility to seek the peace and purity of the church by taking the matter to the assemblies or courts of the church for resolution. Just as we must follow Matthew 18 with each other as individuals, so we should follow it with the church as an organization also. In that way the church is also our neighbor and our brother. We (especially Americans) must resist the temptation simply to walk away when we become frustrated with it. Perhaps we are right about our concerns and can love the church by helping to correct her? Perhaps we are wrong and need to be corrected ourselves? That is why we have a deliberative process whereby we may come to the truth of a matter.
The root of our struggle with submission in church, at work, and at home, is resentment. That’s why the catechism is so helpful. We are to bear with the infirmities of those who rule over us in the home, in civil government, at work, and even in the visible church. Those who rule over us are sinners. They are not perfect and we cannot expect them to be. In this sense we have to learn to see them as Christ’s servants. The more we look at them as Christ’s servants and the less we look at them, the easier it will be for us to submit to them.