“let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Hebrews 10: 22-25
As a student of theology--which arguably we all are--I am hard pressed to find any word with more definitions or connotations than church. This word combines history, politics, culture, theology, ethics, and emotion. It is a combination of categories which proves the importance of the role of the church in the lives of believers and non-believers alike, and the ability to define what church means. Both inform each other. The word church (ekklesia) first appears in Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 16:18). In this passage, Peter makes a confession that Jesus is the Son of God. In reply, Jesus says “I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:18-19 NASB). The actual translation history of ekklesia in this passage is complicated, but essentially, translators used the Greek word ekklesia, defined as a faithful people called out together and translated to English as church, to stand for the Aramaic word Jesus used in this dialogue. At its earliest definition, church means just that--a body of faithful believers called together for a purpose, the very body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12;27, Colossians 1:18).
This particular passage is of utmost importance for the history of the Christian Church because this is traditionally interpreted as Jesus’ passing of authority to Peter to be the temporal leader of the body of faithful believers. Now, one may reasonably ask the question: if I have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and have received the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, why should I need to go to church or submit to any human authority in my faith? This is a healthy question, but there is scriptural precedent for human authority and ecclesial organization in the body of believers. When Jesus ascended, He left the apostles with a command to teach, baptize, and make disciples of all nations, and with the promise of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:16-20, Acts 1:1-9). What Jesus did not leave was a 10,000 page legal codex on exact orthopraxy; He left His teachings, His relationships, and the Spirit. The Holy Spirit indeed came to the apostles on the day of Pentecost ushering in a new era in history and forcing subsequent believers to rely on the Holy Spirit, the Word of God, and community with each other to define what it means to be a follower of Christ (Acts 2:1-13).
It is important to note that though “you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9-10), having a secure salvation through Christ does not mean that a person no longer struggles with sin and hears God’s will perfectly at all times. It does mean, however, that the struggle against sin in one’s life is guided by the Holy Spirit and will ultimately lead to victory and a deeper relationship with Christ as one learns dependence on His loving grace, and trusting obedience. This can be said of believers today just as it can be said of the 12 apostles and all early christians. It is very important to keep this in mind when reviewing past mistakes the church and its leaders have committed.
The first generation church experienced plenty of problems as people from all walks of life, races, genders, orientations, and social classes, were called out together in pursuit of God. Though it is true that the “the Word of the Lord does not return void” (Isaiah 55:11) and that it is “alive and active” (Heb. 4:12), anyone who has ever been to a loosely organized Bible study has probably experienced what can happen when such a group is gathered and begins to interpret scripture. Though this may very well be a Spirit-filled group and there may be undoubted devotion to God and a sincere desire to learn from His Word, without some level of training or accountability it is too easy to craft some well-intentioned but inaccurate or even contrary interpretations of scripture. Now imagine such a Bible study in which participants have never read the Bible, nor will ever have a copy to read for their own, nor have had any cultural background to the Jewish Scriptures (Old Testament). For the first Christians who were without the 2,000 years of tradition and theological scholarship on which much of modern faith is informed, the early church required leadership by those who knew Christ personally and had learned under His tutelage. These first leaders were the 12 apostles. (Paul is included as an apostle of this category and offers his own reasons in I Corinthians).
The book of Acts outlines the process by which the gospel of Jesus spread by the Holy Spirit through the teaching of these apostles and their disciples starting in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Aside from Revelation, the Gospels, and Acts, the remaining books of the New Testament are letters written by these apostles to other church bodies around the Roman Empire answering questions of practice and doctrine proposed by church members of local congregations. The fact that such correspondence exists is precedent for a level of human agency and authority in the church. Within these letters are instructions for determining who should be leaders of the church indicating both that there be a position of leadership over each body, and that these leaders meet certain qualifications (I Timothy 3:1-7; I Peter 5:1-4; Titus 1:5-9; James 3:1). This is further confirmed by the letters I & II Timothy and Titus which are letters specifically to pastors. Just what the role of these leaders is poses another valid question. Leadership described in Acts reveals a role both in practically organizing and serving the congregation’s physical needs (Acts 6:1-7 is just one example) as well as defending and determining the correctness of doctrine. The Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 is an example of church leadership working at its best to determine orthodoxy by relying on evidence of the Holy Spirit. The Pastoral Epistles also reveal that leaders be able to teach right doctrine, carry out church discipline, and live in example of godliness (see the Book of Titus).
Until 1054 AD when the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church split, Christians were technically undivided by denomination and were led by local leaders who were beneath the authority of regional leaders and so on. Shifting culture, waves of persecution, and continuing academic scholarship necessitated an organized structure to be able to define and defend from within and outside the church what Christianity was for the purpose of spreading an accurate Gospel, and create systems to provide Christian services and charity throughout the Roman Empire. Today, many (though certainly not all) of Western Prodestant Christians are unfamiliar with the doctrines Eastern Orthodoxy, or even the importance and role of the Roman Catholic Church and tradition in our own faith which, for good or ill, has largely been informed through the lens of American Individualism and Enlightenment Era philosophical perspective on the Protestant Reformation.
In looking at the vast diversity in Christian practice today, I can only appreciate the fact that Christianity is still definable--a providential miracle and evidence of the working of the Holy Spirit in all believers. It is also clear that the local church is an indispensable component of the Christian faith and the need to participate in a community of believers is biblical. Personal relationship with Jesus is indispensable, but personal relationship with Jesus is healthiest in relationship with other believers, and community with other believers functions most effectively under godly leadership. Christianity is not a faith of total isolation but of community and it is through the entire body loving one another that each learns the love of Christ through experience (Hebrews 10:25; Ephesians 5:1-2). Faith is active, and so too is church. It is in gathering together which we challenge each other to study and seek after the Word of God beyond our own presuppositions of what we think the Word should be (Galatians 3:1-29). Without such challenge, it is too easy to become stagnate in our own preferences rather than focusing on God’s. Church is learning, church is serving, church is worship, church is accountability (Matthew 18:15-17; I Corinthians 5:1-12), church is praying (Ephesians 6:18), and finally, church is submitting to authority while also holding that same authority to the standards prescribed in scripture (Titus 1:5-9; 2:7-8).
Ultimately, we need Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, head of the church, and her bridegroom (Hebrews 12:2, Colossians 1:8, Revelation 19:7-9). Church participation will never be a substitute for a relationship with Christ nor will it lead to salvation, but participation in Christ has a place for church. For more thoughts on ecclesiology I recommend, Exploring Ecclesiology, by Paul Louis Metzger and Brad Harper, as well as Christianity Through the Ages, by Earle E. Cairns.
By Haley Winkelman