I’ve been pondering the word “church” today and considering the various ways it is used. Here are a few examples: a church building; a denomination; a personal adjective, as in “church lady;” the entire body of Christian believers; an assembly of believers; an event, as in the expression, “Let’s have church.” The word “church” is used a bit like the word “love.” So many meanings derived from one single word. When Jesus said, “I will build my church” what did he mean?
People generally think Jesus meant that he would create a body of Christian believers. That is true. The Church is a body of believers. This is where many folks stop, however. Ask them to point to the Church that Jesus built and things begin to get murky. They may respond that the Church built by Jesus can’t be pointed to because it is invisible. Since only God can see the heart, only God knows who is saved and who is lost. Therefore, it would be presumptuous to point to any person or any group and say, “There is the Church.” Or, they may respond that all of the Christian denominations are the Church. They simply disagree on non-essential issues. They all believe in Jesus, so, they are all the Church that Christ founded.
I used to hold to an opinion that combined the two views. I decided that no one knows who is lost or saved, and every church was a mixture of saved and lost people (the wheat and the tares). There is some truth to that, but if someone were to ask me to point to the Church that Jesus Christ built I would essentially have to say, “Take your pick.” Eventually, I ran into some problems with my perspective.
First of all, if the Church is completely invisible, how can anyone find it? How can an invisible Church be a light for the world? The “invisible Church” idea sounds more like a Church “hidden under a bushel.” It is true that only God knows the heart, but it is also true that Jesus started a visible organization and placed men in specific offices within that organization. The apostles were left in charge of the organization, and they passed their offices on to their successors (i.e. the bishops). What Jesus started was an organized religion.
Furthermore, Jesus said he would always be with the Church and that the gates of Hell would not prevail against it. The Church would remain an organized religion with Jesus at the head and the successors of the apostles in charge until the end of time. Modern day Christendom with its thousands of denominations and conflicting doctrines does not fit the model of what Jesus said he would build. Jesus prayed for his believers, “That they all would be one as you and I, Father, are one.” (John 17:21) Can Jesus and the Father have conflicting doctrines? No. The Church was to be a visible, organized religion with a hierarchy of leadership and unity of doctrine.
Another problem I ran into was the take-it-to-the-Church concept. Believers are told that if there is a conflict that can’t be worked out in private, “…take it to the Church.” If the offending party won’t listen even to the Church, then they are to be treated as a heathen (Matt 18:17). This simply cannot operate in the modern, multi-denomination world we have today. One can find YouTube videos galore of different denominations debating various essential topics of Christian doctrine. For instance, when a Church of Christ believer says that baptism is necessary for salvation, and a non-denominational believer disagrees, how can they resolve their dispute? Which “church” do they take it to? All they can do is debate each other endlessly. They have no final authority to call the shots. They are both appealing to the Bible as the final authority, yet the Bible is telling them to take their dispute to the Church, something they cannot do. In other words, the Bible points to the Church as the final authority and the “pillar of truth.” (1Tim 3:15) But, which church?
Jesus built a Church that is a visible body of believers, has offices with a hierarchy of apostolic successors and functions as the final authority in disputes between believers. There’s really only one Church that fits that model consistently since the time of Christ. That’s one of the main reasons I went back to Catholicism. Submission to the Church built by Christ is submission to Christ. The two are inseparable. The final authority for faith and morals is no longer my personal opinion or even my pastor’s opinion. The authority rests squarely where Christ placed it 2000 years ago, even before there was a Bible. Like it or not, the authority rests within the Catholic Church. This is not arrogance. It doesn’t mean all the people in the Church are perfect. Far from it. If not for the Holy Spirit, the Church would have imploded centuries ago. It’s still here because it’s Christ’s Church. He started it and he holds it together even when we try to tear it apart.