Church is an amazing thing—created by Jesus, yet made up of sinful humans. It’s easy to overlook the essence of Church, especially when things aren’t “working” like we want it to. So, let’s step back for a few minutes and consider what an Amazing thing this is.
The Good: Jesus Christ Builds the church
The Greek word for “church” only occurs in two places in the Gospels: Matthew 16 and Matthew 18. In Matthew 16, we read,
He asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others, Elijah; still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” (Matt. 16:13-14 CSB)
Certainly a worthy group of people for Jesus to be included. But Jesus presses them for their own thoughts about who he is:
“But you,” he asked them, “who do you say that I am?”
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Matt. 16:15-16 CSB)
Peter moves beyond the accolades of the crowds, to confess who Jesus really is, the Messiah [Christ], the Son of the living God. Jesus accepts Peter’s confession, while adding further to it.
Jesus responded, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father in heaven. (Matt. 16:17 CSB)
That is, for someone to realize who Jesus is means that only God could reveal it. On our own any evaluation of Jesus will fall short. We miss who Jesus really is, and we miss what that confession really is.
Jesus not only acknowledges Peter’s confession and shows him the basis for his confession, he extends it to be the basis of church.
And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock [your confession] I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. (Matt. 16:18 CSB)
That is amazing, the good.
The Bad: Church is made up of sinners
The reality of the church is that church consists of sinners, only sinners. It doesn’t take us long to be in a church to come to that realization: we are all sinners. We can mess things up in church.
Sinners do sinful things, and it may be easy to spot the sin and sinner. The spotlight helps us identify the sinner, or at least we think it does. If only we could get rid of “those sinners” then church would be acceptable.
Jesus builds the church, and he knows exactly who the people of the church are: sinners. So, he is not surprised by it. Amazingly Jesus still works in and through the church. Jesus does not advocate for the latest and greatest leadership practice, nor the latest conference. Rather because sin is a persistent problem with sinners, even in the church, Jesus gives the keys to the kingdom to the Church to deal with sin (Matt. 16:19).
Jesus does not leave the church to fend for itself. He builds the church and he cares for the church. Sin does not surprise Jesus. Rather, he anticipates that people in the church, sinners, will sin. Thus, in the other mention of “church” in the Gospels, Jesus provides the remedy for the church to continue to be the church.
[Jesus said:] 15 “If your brother sins [against you], go and rebuke him in private. If he listens to you, you have won your brother. 16 But if he won’t listen, take one or two others with you, so that by the testimony of two or three witnesses every fact may be established. If he doesn’t pay attention to them, tell the church. 17 If he doesn’t pay attention even to the church, let him be like a Gentile and a tax collector to you. 18 Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed in heaven. (Matt. 18:15-18 CSB)
Sadly this process of dealing with sin is often ignored in the church. The church either thinks the sin will go away, or it hopes that it won’t be noticed, “We don’t want to ruffle feathers.” Or even worse, “church rules” become the basis for getting rid of people, especially those who question church organization leadership. Jesus knows that sin can only be dealt with by confronting the sin and forgiving the sin.
By following these steps, the church can only do one of two things: bind the sin or loose (forgive) the sin. Note that in v. 18, in either case, the church declares what God has already declared: “whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed in heaven.”
In other words, this is not the church acting as an independent organization for its own good. Rather, the declaration regarding sin is something that God has already determined, and the church speaks that (which will have been already bound/loosed in heaven). The church is not arbitrary in the announcement, but follows the lead of the One who builds the church.
The Beautiful: The Church Lives in Unity
Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus, chapter 4:
1 Therefore I, the prisoner in the Lord, urge you to live worthy of the calling you have received, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
He emphasizes that the church living together is not marked by a laundry list of things to do. Rather the church exhibits the character of Christ: humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love. Elsewhere Paul describes these as “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23).
It’s is amazing when the church begins to live out that reality. Humility means the other person is more important than me. Gentleness means we treat those who have been wounded, abused, shaken by sin not with indifference or judgment, ridicule, “discipline.” Rather we treat them with the same gentleness Jesus demonstrated to people: the woman at the well (John 4), the one caught in adultery (John 8), even Peter who rightly confessed who Jesus is, and yet who also denied Jesus. Bearing with one another in love means walking with another, who struggles, who lives in fear, doubt, anger.
The life of the church is guided by the one who built it. Note in Eph. 4:3 the church “makes every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit.” The church does not establish unity, only the Spirit can do that. But the church does strive to maintain what the Spirit established. Note how this is the outcome of the church rightly dealing with sin.
In our eyes, we see the church: battered, torn, weak, divisive. From that perspective it is tempting to walk away from the church.
In Christ’s eyes, he sees the church: forgiven, restored, and his voice in the world.
Walking away from church is not the answer. Being the church, as Jesus creates and sees the church means that we stay in the church. Broken sinners, forgiven. Weak yet strong in love, bruised, but not abandoned. That’s how Jesus intended the church to be.