Had I a nickel for every time someone has said “I’ve had it with the church” or “I’ve had it with organized religion” as they walked away from the visible church, I could retire the national debt. Walking away from the visible church is a very American thing to do but it is not a Christian thing to do. A person can no more be a Christian outside the visible church than a fish can survive outside of water. That idea seems to be strange to many American Christians but it is as old as the church itself. Anyone who professes the Christian faith, professes to follow Jesus. What if I told you that Jesus himself instituted the visible church, which so many Americans feel free to leave? Well, he did. He said:
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” (Matt 16:18; ESV, emphasis added).
The English noun church translates the Greek noun ekklesia (ἐκκλησία), which is the noun used in the Greek translations of the Old Testament for the Hebrew word for “covenant assembly” (Qahal). When the Israelites, i.e., the Old Testament church, gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai, they were the Qahal or the covenant assembly. They were a visible, organized body gathered for worship. The Old Testament church had a religious calendar (e.g., the weekly Sabbath, the feast days etc). They had officers (e.g., priests). They had rules. There were boundaries. In other words, Israelite religion was organized.
The substance of those ideas was carried over into the New Testament. For our purposes it does not matter what “you are Peter” means but it does matter that Jesus plainly promised to build a visible covenant assembly “on this rock.” Assuming our Lord spoke in Aramaic to Peter, Matthew translated his words into Greek for Holy Scripture, and the Bible is the Spirit-inspired (2 Tim 3:10, 16) infallible, and inerrant Word of God. It cannot be wrong and it is not wrong. The words of Scripture were given by God through prophets and apostles, who spoke as they were “carried along” by the Spirit (2 Pet 1:21). We may not call ourselves Christians and deny God’s holy Word.
Not only did Jesus promise to build an organized, visible assembly but he even gave to it the keys to the Kingdom. Keys open and close things. Even if you use only an electronic keypad, it is still a key-pad. You set the code when you leave to keep the wrong people out and you punch in the code when you come back home to let the right people in. So it is with the Kingdom of God. No one gets in or out without the keys and Christ has given the keys to the visible, organized, institutional church.
“But the church is full of hypocrites and sinners!” True as that may be you should take your complaint to Jesus. It was not a mistake that our Lord gave the keys to Peter as he confessed that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16). This is the same Peter, whom, not long after, Jesus would denounce as “Satan” (Matt 16:23). Jesus intentionally and knowingly gave the keys of the Kingdom to sinful, fallible people—beginning with Peter himself. If you want Jesus you must also have his visible, institutional church.
We may be quite certain that when Jesus said “church” in Matthew 16:18 he meant a visible, organized assembly since in Matthew 18 he tells us so:
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; ESV).
In this passage (Matt 18:15–20) our Lord himself instituted the basic process of church discipline. If someone sins against you, go to him and be reconciled. If he will not listen, then take another another witness or two (Matt 18;16; Deut 19:15). If he refuses to listen to the three of you, then you must “tell it to the church.” The only way that the two or three can “tell it to the church” is if “the church” is an organized, visible assembly. That Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 19:15 tells us that he understood the Old Testament church and the New Testament church to be essentially one church. There is one covenant of grace in various administrations in the history of redemption.
But, But, But
Yes, I am sure that people in the visible church have done bad things and that you have some right to be offended but do you apply the same standard to every other organization to which you belong? Do you leave your job when your boss is unfair or when a co-worker is rude? I doubt it. This is a fallen world and sinful people do sinful things. This is not to excuse sin in the church. Far from it. Our Lord gave us fairly detailed steps toward addressing sin in the church. In my experience, Americans are wont to walk away from the church before they have tried to apply Matthew 18. I suspect this is because they do not understand or believe Matthew 16. I suspect that most Americans think that religion and salvation are essentially private matters and that the visible church has nothing to do with it. Scripture begs to differ.
The church historically has not agreed that salvation and Christianity are essentially private matters. No one can believe for you but every believer must believe and practice his faith somehere, with other Christians. That is why the Apostles’ Creed speaks of the “communion of the saints.” We do not confess the “isolation from the saints.” The early church father Cyprian (d. AD 258) was a leading pastor in Carthage, North Africa (178 miles southwest of Italy). He pastored the church during a terrible persecution, where Christians were arrested by pagan civil authorities and forced to recant their faith in Jesus and to swear that Caesar is god upon pain of death. Some Christians did this. They were called “the lapsed” or “the fallen.” Other Christians were faithful unto death. They were called martyrs. When the lapsed sought to be re-admitted to the church, some were offended and called them hypocrites. Others wanted to break away from the visible church because they were offended. Cyprian’s response to those who would walk away from the organized, visible church was to say, in essence: “outside the church there is no salvation” (extra ecclesiam, nulla salus est).
When the Protestants sought to reform the Western church of its doctrinal and moral corruption, they did not abandon our Lord’s teaching in Matthew 16 and Matthew 18 nor did they abandon Cyprian’s dictum. The Protestants repeated it. E.g., in Belgic Confession (1561) they confessed: “and outside of [the church] there is no salvation” (et salus nulla sit extra eam). One may not walk away from the visible, institutional, organized church and call one’s self a Protestant. Such a person is a rebel. There is a difference between rebels and Protestants. The Protestants sought to reform the visible church, not to leave it. The Roman communion left the true church when she condemned the gospel at the Council of Trent (session 6, 1547). We continue preaching the gospel, administering the sacraments, and using the keys of the Kingdom as Christ commanded.
I understand that you are frustrated and quite possibly hurt. I also understand that there are many congregations in North America that claim to be churches but are not. This is not a new problem. When the Reformed Churches first confessed the Belgic Confession they faced the same problem. There were dozens, maybe hundreds of “sects” (Belgic Confession, art. 29) led by cult leaders (e.g., David Joris) and bizarre figures such as Thomas Müntzer and others who claimed to be Messiahs or to receive new revelations from the Lord and the like. At one point some of these types took over an entire city and proclaimed it the “New Jerusalem” and abused and even killed people. Sadly, there are abusive pastors and elders. This is why the Reformed Churches have assemblies to hear complaints and to rid the church of abusive wolves posing as pastors. If the abuse is serious enough we are committed to turning over such abusers to the civil authorities to be punished for criminal acts they may have committed.
I am not promising perfection in the church but I am saying that Jesus promised to be with this sometimes motley band of Christians. He said so. He promised that the “gates of hell” would not prevail against his organized, visible, covenant assembly (Matt 16:18) and that he would always be with her (Matt 28:20). The Apostle Paul even went so far as to say that Jesus shed his blood for “the church” (Acts 20:28). When he said it, he was talking to a group of elders, officers in the visible church. Jesus, the Holy One of Israel, God the Son incarnate, who was without sin (Heb 4:15), our Righteous and Holy Mediator and High Priest, deigns to be with his sinful, broken, fallible church. How is it again that you claim to be a Christian and yet cannot bear to find yourself in the visible church he established?
Perhaps there are profound sins and problems in your congregation. Perhaps they are so great and the body is so irreformable so that it lacks the “marks of the true church” (the pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the use of church discipline) so that your congregation is no longer a church. That is possible. In such a case you may have a duty to separate from it and join yourself to the true church, i.e., to a congregation where the marks of the true church are present (Belgic Confession art. 28, 29). There is nothing in the Scriptures or in the Christian tradition, however, that licenses you to walk away from the visible church entirely, to be a church of one. In that case your congregation is composed entirely of hypocrites. After all, if you have walked away from the church Jesus established and persist in calling yourself a Christian, what else are you but a hypocrite? You must leave that congregation immediately by repenting of your autonomy and joining yourself to Christ’s church or stop calling yourself a Christian. You cannot have it both ways. If you would have Jesus, you must have his church because that is where he promised to be working by the Holy Spirit to bring his people to new life and to be conforming them to himself. He has made no such promise to your church of self.
If you would rather have your autonomy (self authority) than Christ, then we know where we stand, don’t we? In such a case you need to repent because the wrath of God is upon everyone who is not covered by the righteousness of Jesus. You are in grave trouble. Recognize the danger! Flee to Christ and he will embrace you and if you have, his church welcomes you. If you have not yet, if you are honestly struggling, his church welcomes you too. The church is full of sinners and you will fit in just fine. We understand. We will talk. We will listen. Perhaps those struggles are Christ’s way of drawing you to himself? “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28).
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
- How To Subscribe To Heidelmedia
- How To Make the Coffer Clink: Use the Donate Button Below This Post
- Heidelblog Resources
- The HB Media Archive
- The Church: The Christ-Confessing Covenant Community
- Warning Signs About That State Of Evangelical Pop Culture: The Visible, Institutional Church Matters
- Why The Mission Needs The Marks
- On Disciplining Abusers And Protecting The Sheep
- Spiritual Abuse Is Real
- Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus Est
- Heidelberg 55: We Confess The Communion Of The Saints