The Seeds of “Church” that Jesus Planted

September 13, 2011

The PCUSA, and particularly the evangelical wing of the church, is pondering the meaning of its existence and its future. Though I am certainly not the first to raise questions designed to get us back to our roots, it is timely to ask what Jesus had in mind, if anything, for a church, the Church, or his followers as a group. To that end, I have compiled a list of Scriptures relevant to such an inquiry and welcome your input if you think I have forgotten something.

For simplicity, the terms “believers” and “Christians” refer to individuals who have trusted Jesus Christ as their Savior and committed themselves to follow and obey him as Lord. I am not addressing here the question of what makes a believer a Christian any more specifically than this basic definition, for now. My focus is on what characterizes those folks when they get together, when they identify as a “group.”

The conversation will continue later this week to consider the apostle Paul’s take on the Church. But as a first and necessary step, we need to ask what Jesus indicates were his expectations for those who followed him.  The following characteristics appear, from the gospel record, to be important aspects of life together as followers of Jesus. They fall into three major categories:

The Church is characterized, first of all, by certain activities and states of being that bind it to its Source:

• Worship from the heart, in spirit and truth (John 4:23-24)
• Agreement in prayer, inviting God’s presence into need (Matthew 18:19-20)
• Union with Christ (John 17:24-26)
• The Eucharist in remembrance of Jesus (Matthew 26:26, parallels)

Other characteristics point to relationship with each other in Christian fellowship:

• Servanthood, washing one another’s feet (John 13:12-17)
• Love for one another (John 13:34-35)
• Accountability and discipline (Matthew 18:15-17)
• Oneness with each other, as Christ is one with the Father (John 17:20-23)
• “Feeding” his “sheep” or spiritual nurture (John 21:15-17)

• Spiritual authority to “bind and loose” (Matthew 16:16-19, 18:18), recognizing this one also overlaps into the next category.

A third category describes church identity as it relates to the world:

• Proclamation (Luke 9:60) and demonstration (Luke 10:1-20) of the Kingdom of God
• Protection by the power of Jesus’ name from the evil one (John 17:11-19)
• Residence in “the world” with other-worldly power (John 17:13-18)
• Sanctified by “the truth” which is God’s Word (John 17:17)
• Making new disciples by baptizing and teaching (Matthew 28:19-20)

Some of these concepts and phrases are very familiar to Presbyterians, because they are imbedded in our historic documents of faith and polity. It bears repeating, however, that cultural pressures have caused some of these characteristics to be challenged, reinterpreted, or marginalized. Union with Christ is a powerful phrase, and its reality is based not on a human declaration but on the gracious and truth-telling embrace of Jesus himself. Our union with Christ is strained by disobedience and ignorance of his Word when we push back from Jesus’ embrace. Jesus asked, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46). So just because we say “Jesus is Lord” does not mean we have submitted to him as Lord; that happens when we, um, actually submit to him in our belief and actions, when we become “doers of the Word” (James 1:22).

In the one-another-ness of Christian fellowship, love for one another does not cancel out accountability and discipline. There are loving and restorative ways to hold the saints accountable for their actions and beliefs. Presbyterians believe this and have built it into their system of governance. Oneness is achieved when we are all able to agree with Christ about what is good and excellent and true. Yes, oneness does entail agreement, which has been elusive in our brand of Christian fellowship.

Thirdly, the church exists to demonstrate the ways of God to the world and to represent God’s will. The world, under the leadership of the evil one, is in one sense a dangerous place for those whose first allegiance goes to God. For this reason, Christians find protection in the Name of Jesus—not, by the way, in documents or human scheming—and draw upon heavenly power to operate in this environment in health and confidence. Our spiritual authority in the world is authentic only to the degree that we speak and act consistent with Scriptures, our only rule in faith and practice. We are sanctified by the truth of God’s word, and his Spirit helps us to live by it as one means of protection from the temptations and traps the world throws at us.

These are our “church” roots, from the seeds Christ himself planted. They are not only Presbyterian roots but also Catholic roots, and Wesleyan roots, and Pentecostal roots.

Tomorrow: Is there a human institution that is the one, true, and pure Church?

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