Sunday, August 31, 2014

What Jesus Meant By Church

There are only 2 mentions of the word "church" in the gospels. One was in the gospel a couple of weeks ago. Matthew 16:18 and "On this rock I will build my church." That is a passage that quite frequently plays a big role in protestants becoming Catholic. It played a role for me to. Yet the other mention of "church" in the gospels that we get this week was huge for me to. That is less common. Here is the passage from Matthew 18:15-20:
Jesus said to his disciples:“If your brother sins against you,go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.
If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.If he does not listen,take one or two others along with you,so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church.
If he refuses to listen even to the church,then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.Amen, 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, amen, I say to you,if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray,it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father.
For where two or three are gathered together in my name,there am I in the midst of them.”
Here the church is presented as the final court of appeal when Christians disagree. From a protestant point of view there are two troubling questions here. First, what church is Jesus taking about? Typically biblical references to "the church" are interpreted by protestants to refer to the invisible church. That is just the set of all saved people regardless of what church they belong to. We don't know who exactly is saved but God uses those regenerate souls to bring about His Kingdom. Yet how can someone take a controversy to an unknown set of persons and get an answer? That made no sense. 

If the person you had your disagreement with was part of the same denomination as you then you might be able to go to the visible church organization and get an answer. Yet that was not that likely. I was part of a lot of ecumenical groups and I knew my denomination was a pretty small subset of the body of Christ. Most Christian I encountered were not part of it. Yet Jesus just assumed we could take our dispute to the church and that would make sense. It felt like Jesus had a very different concept of church than I did.

The second question was, what if the church gets it wrong? Jesus did not seem to have that case covered. He should say, "If the church gets the wrong answer then start a new church." He does not say that. He assumes you will listen to the church. If the other guy does not listen then treat him like he is excommunicated. That is serious. Jesus expects His followers to listen to the church. He just assumes the church is going to get the right answer and it is simply a matter of obedience. The more I thought about it the more it sounded like the Catholic notion of infallibility. 

The obvious objection is that doctrinal questions are not really in view here. When Jesus says, "If your brother sins against you..." that makes it sound like a personal or political battle. Maybe a moral question. Probably not a matter of doctrine. Yet are matters of doctrine excluded from this? Not really. At the time my church was dealing with women's ordination. The sentimental argument was made a lot. I feel hurt because you oppose female pastors. . 

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