THE CHURCH IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
Do we need the Church? The Church has been in the news a lot in recent years, and often more for the sins of her members than for their good deeds. Many today question whether or not they need to bother with the Church at all. “Why can’t I just follow Jesus? The Church is filled with sinners and hypocrites. I don’t want anything to do with that.”
What does the New Testament say about the Church? What is the Church? Can I be a disciple of Jesus without being a part of the Church? Can the Church really be a part of my life with Christ when so many of her members have committed such horrible sins in the past and continue to do so today? What if I disagree with some of the Church’s teachings? These questions are not new. Christians over the centuries have asked them time and again. They did not always come to the same answers. Some left the Church to begin their own Christian traditions. Others remained in the Church, some wanting to make sure she never changed, and some trying to reform her, with varying degrees of success. The New Testament has a lot to say about the Church. It is important to understand what the Scriptures have to say about the Church and one’s relationship with the Church as a Christian.
During His years of ministry, Jesus gathered a group of men and women around Him. To these disciples, and especially to the Twelve who would be His apostles, He shared many of His teachings and His mission. He gave to Peter the keys of the kingdom of God (Matthew 16:18). After His death and Resurrection, Jesus gave the apostles the authority to forgive sins (John 20:21), and the mission of spreading His teachings to the whole world, to bring others to faith in Him as Savior (Matthew 28:19). At first, most of the early Christians were Jews. They prayed in the synagogue and continued to practice the faith of their ancestors, while worshipping Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah. Soon, however, they broke away from the synagogue over the question of whether or not Jesus really was the Messiah. They also began admitting Gentiles (non-Jews) into their community of faith.
As the number of believers grew and spread to different cities and towns, they organized themselves into fellowships, centered on the Eucharist, with an apostle as their leader. James was the overseer, or bishop, of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 15:13-21; 21:15-26; Galatians 2:9, 12). Peter was bishop of the Christians in Antioch first, and then in Rome. Christians would meet in their homes in the early years, then in public buildings when their numbers grew to more than houses could hold. The community of believers in each city came to be known as the church in that city (Acts 11:22; Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 1:1; Revelation 1:4, 11). All of these local churches were understood as being united as the universal Church, the community of faith all over the world (Matthew 16:18; 1 Corinthians 10:17; Ephesians 1:22-23; 3:10; Colossians 1:18). By the time Paul was writing his letters, the church was already organized around the three orders of bishop, priest and deacon (1 Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9; James 5:14-15). In the early second century, St. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch and martyr for Christ, wrote in his letter to the church in Smyrna, “You must all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ follows the Father, and the presbytery (priesthood) as you would the Apostles. Reverence the deacons as you would the command of God. … Wherever the bishop appears, let the people be there; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”
The New Testament includes many images of the Church. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks of the wise man who built his house on rock (Matthew 7:24-27). Just so, Jesus uses the image of the Church as a building erected on the foundation rock of Peter, promising that the gates of hell will not destroy it. “I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). In The Gospel According to John, Jesus speaks of the Church as a sheepfold and of Himself as the Shepherd (John 10:1-5). After His Resurrection, Jesus gives responsibility to feed and tend His sheep to Peter (John 21:15-17).
The Church figures prominently in The Acts of the Apostles, where those converted by the apostles’ preaching “devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers” (Acts 2:42). They held all their possessions in common, so none in need would go without (Acts 4:32). The Eucharist was at the heart of their worship (Acts 2:42; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26). When important decisions needed to be made, the apostles gathered in council, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to discern the will of God for the Church (Acts 15). When Saul was confronted by Jesus on the road to Damascus, Jesus made it clear that he identified Himself with His Church. He did not ask Saul, “Why are you persecuting them?” Rather, He asked him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? (Acts 9:4, emphasis added).
Paul has much to say about the Church in his letters. He, too, speaks of the Church as a building, “the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone” (Ephesians 2:19-20). Paul uses the beautiful image of the Church as the bride of Christ (Ephesians 5:21-33), even as Jesus refers to Himself as the Bridegroom (Matthew 25:1-13; Mark 2:19). This image of the Church has its roots in the Old Testament image of Israel as God’s beloved bride (Song of Songs; Jeremiah 2:2; Hosea).
The strongest image of the Church employed by Paul is that of the Church as the Body of Christ, the fullness of Christ, with Christ as its Head. “He [God] put all things beneath his [Christ’s] feet and gave him as head over the church, which is his body, the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way” (Ephesians 1:22-23). “He is the head of the body, the church” (Colossians 1:18). As Christians, then, we are members of Christ’s Body, and Christ is our Head. I cannot have a relationship with someone’s head without having a relationship with his body. I cannot have a relationship with Christ without having a relationship with His Church (Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12:12ff; Colossians 1:24). Finally, Paul describes the Church as the instrument by which “the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known” (Ephesians 3:10), and “the pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). The Church is the instrument of God’s revelation in Christ.
It is clear, both from history and from the New Testament, that the Church is essential to our relationship with Jesus Christ. Jesus Himself describes the Church as the house He will build on the rock of Peter. He identifies Himself with His believers, who are called His sheepfold, and whose Shepherd He is. He is the Bridegroom and the Church is His bride. The Church is His very Body, and we are “individually parts of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27). Finally, the Church is the instrument by which God’s revelation in Christ is made known, and baptism into the Church is how one becomes a disciple of Jesus (Matthew 28:19; Mark 16:16).
As for those in the Church who fail to live up to His teachings and fall into sin, that includes all of us! Thanks be to God for His gracious mercy, for the Advocate Who stands with us before the Father when we sin (1 John 2:1), and for the promise that “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13b). Yet, Jesus warned us that there would be weeds among the wheat (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43). Rather than uproot the weeds and so risk harming the wheat, better to allow them to grow together, and let Jesus and His angels do the sorting at the harvest. Until then, we remain faithful, knowing that Jesus is faithful (2 Timothy 2:13), and having confidence in the promise of St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. 107) that, “wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.