Jonathan Leeman on the nature and charter of the church

This section is helpful for thinking about the nature and mission of the local church (he doesn’t use the word “mission” but “charter” or “commission”).

The following is from Jonathan Leeman’s article critiquing the multi-site model of the “local church”:

What shall we say constitutes a particular church on earth? The answer which the Bible gives us, I think, is very simple and very basic: a particular church is constituted by a group of Christians gathering together bearing Christ’s own authority to exercise the power of the keys. Three things, then, are necessary for a church to be a church: you need Christians, a gathering that bears Christ’s authority, and the exercise of that authority in the keys.[2]

What Constitutes the Universal Church? The New Covenant

As I have already said, the gospel of the new covenant which Christ speaks about in the Last Supper is what constitutes the universal church—Christ’s heavenly and eschatological assembly. Through his life, death, and resurrection, Christ purchased an end-time assembly of people for God through the new covenant of his blood. This assembly is not yet fully gathered, but it has, in fact, already begun to assemble in heaven (Heb. 12:22-23; Eph. 2:4-6, Col. 3:1, 3). So the church universal is constituted, you might say, by what Christ talks about in Matthew 26.

People often talk about the first particular church on earth then showing up at Acts 2 at Pentecost, which is true. But it’s important to recognize that the foundation of the local church on earth was established much earlier, during Christ’s ministry. He did this in Matthew 16, 18, and then conclusively in chapter 28.

What Constitutes the Local Church? A Gathering with the Keys

In Matthew 16, Jesus hands Peter and the apostles the “keys of the kingdom” to bind and lose on earth what is bound and loosed in heaven. What is Peter to bind and loose on earth? Commentators and creeds differ on the answer. Some say doctrine. Some say people. For a variety of reasons, I think it’s the latter. But no matter how you answer the question, most writers seem to acknowledge that, one way or another, the end result is that Peter and the apostles would have the power to bind and loose people.[3] The goal here, after all, is to build Christ’s heavenly church, which they are to do on earth through this power for binding and loosing. Also, in Matthew 18, which D. A. Carson helpfully calls “an application” of the authority granted in Matthew 16, the church is told to treat an unrepentant individual as an outsider—to exclude him; and then Jesus again invokes the authority of the keys, seemingly as a foundation for the church’s authority to do so. Notice two things about this. First, the authority given to Peter and the apostles in Matthew 16 is handed to the local church in Matthew 18. Second, the local church in Matthew 18 employs that authority to exclude an individual. Insofar as “binding and loosing” are opposites, I take it as self-evident that the authority to exclude implies an authority to include or to unite (plus, if chapter 18 merely presents one application of the authority given in chapter 16, there’s no reason to limit the authority to that one example of application). This makes further sense of the context of Matthew 16, where Jesus gives the power of the keys to the apostles, again, for the purpose of establishing the church on earth.

What’s often characterized as the “Great Commission” is the culmination of the really great commission that Christ begins to hand the apostles in chapter 16.  In Matthew 16, Jesus seems to implicitly invoke his authority—based on Peter’s profession of him as the Christ and Son of the living God—when he hands Peter the keys of the kingdom. Then in Matthew 28, he explicitly affirms the fact that “all authority in heaven and earth has been given to me.” In Matthew 18, he promises to be present whenever two or three are gathered in his name. Then in Matthew 28, he again affirms that he will “be with” his disciples to the end of the age. God is present with his people!

This one who bears ultimate authority then authorizes them, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:19-20).

In his command to “make disciples,” Jesus is not just authorizing them just to share the gospel, he’s authorizing them to affirm credible professions of faith through baptism—to publicly declare, “This one belongs to Christ’s body.” The “Great Commission” is not just about evangelizing; it’s about church planting and church building.

Notice, also, that Christ promises to dwell with these two or three gathered in his name in a way that he doesn’t promise to the individual Christian. That’s not to say that Jesus doesn’t dwell with the individual Christian. It’s just that, in these passages, Jesus, like Yahweh in the Old Testament, is promising to specially dwell with his gathered people. Jesus dwells with his church.

What then is the relationship between the keys of Matthew 16 and 18 and the ordinances to which we’re introduced in Matthew 26 and 28? Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the symbols the church is to use in its binding and loosing. Once a church baptizes a believer into itself as a one-time event, as a sign of a person’s union with Christ, it can then serve the individual the Supper as an ongoing confirmation. Michael Horton provides a tidy definition of the power of the keys, I think, when he writes, “Through preaching, baptism, and admission (or refusal of admission) to the Communion, the keys of the kingdom are exercised.”[4] The church on earth has the power of the keys, then, to preach the gospel and to bind and loose people to that gospel, according to their credible professions of faith (an uncredible profession will result either in refusal of admission or church discipline).

An Institutional Charter

In these four chapters of Matthew, Christ effectively hands his people what I would call an institutional charter. What does the charter say? Drawing from Matthew 16, 18, 26, 28 and a couple other places in the New Testament, I would propose that it says,

I hereby grant my apostolic church, the one eschatological and heavenly gathering, the authority to act as the custodians and witnesses of my kingdom on earth. I authorize this royal and priestly body, wherever it’s manifest among two or three witnesses formally gathered in my name, to publicly affirm and identify themselves with me and with all individuals who credibly profess my name and follow me as Lord; to oversee the discipleship of these by teaching them everything that I have commanded; to exclude all false and disobedient professors; and to make more disciples, identifying these new believers with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit through baptism.

Jesus is king, and in these chapters he is granting the nobles a charter which authorizes them to build on his land.

One begins to see how extraordinarily foolish it is for so many evangelicals to presume that they retain this apostolic authority for themselves, which they do whenever they say that their Christian faith belongs to them and that they don’t need a church to affirm it. Would any reader of this article, right now, presume to recruit someone for a professional football team and offer him a contract? Or for a position in the British prime minister’s cabinet? Of course not. We know that we don’t have the authority. Who then has the authority to formally affirm and unite someone to the body of Christ? Christ does, certainly. Beyond that? These three passages in Matthew tell us that he gave this authority to the apostles, who were uniquely commissioned with the apostolic message to establish the foundation of the church. Once that foundation was established and the apostles died, did that authority then pass along to every individual on the planet to determine whether or not he or she should be baptized into the body of Christ? Hardly. That authority is then passed on to the church. Only the apostolic church has the authority to baptize and distribute the Lord’s Supper. Now, the church does not have the authority to deny baptizing one who offers a credible profession of faith (Acts 10:47). After all, the church’s authority is mediated, not ultimate. Still, the church alone has the power of the keys, and the church on earth is, quite simply, particular churches.

Missional and Communio authors understandably react against institutionalism in churches. Yet their critique of church as a place, an event, or a set of activities misses the distinction between a local church and a group of Christians gathered in the grocery store or a camp. They miss the fact that Christ established an earthly organization with this charter, and its members don’t have the authority to use the company credit card whenever and however they please. When can Christians use it? They can use it whenever they have formally gathered together in his name and the Spirit of Christ is present through Word and ordinance (cf. Acts 4:31, 6:2, 14:27; 15:30; 20:7). This is what both Jesus and Paul say.

If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, 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 I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matt. 18:17-20)

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matt. 28:19-20)

When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit [perhaps meaning, his spirit as an authority-conferring apostle] is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. (1 Cor. 5:4-5)

For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. (1 Cor. 11:18-19)

Notice, first, that these believers are gathering in the name and by the authority of Christ. In Matthew 18, they will use that authority to exclude an individual. The same is true in 1 Corinthians 5. Then in 1 Corinthians 11, they celebrate the Lord’s Supper because they bear that same authority. Indeed, to eat in an unworthy manner is to “profane the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor. 1:27), because they are doing what they are doing representing him and in his authority.

Second, Christians do comprise “a church” such that we are a church whether together or apart, just like a team is a team whether together or apart. This is a matter of identity, as we said earlier. But Paul can also use the term “church” a little more precisely and even institutionally, as he does in 1 Corinthians 11. He speaks of gathering “as a church” in a manner that we Christians are not “the church” or at least “a church,” apparently, when we are not gathered. In other words, this formal gathering has an existence and an authority that none of us has separately. It’s like he’s saying, “When you gather together as a team, play well.” He’s no longer speaking just in terms of identity; he’s speaking technically in terms of what constitutes a team, or a church. It’s the whole gathering which constitutes the church. You can’t be a church if you don’t gather and gather bearing his authority to exercise the power of the keys.

Not Just Congregationalists

It’s not only congregationalists who have historically seen the necessity of a gathering for a church to be a church. The nineteenth article of the Anglican 39 Articles reads, “The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.” Article 7 of the Lutheran Augsburg Confession similarly reads, “The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered.”

Portions of the argument being made here, in other words, are congregational. But the overall gist of what I’m saying is not. That’s why the multi-site and multi-service church both offer us something relatively unique in the history of the church. Yes, there may be odd circumstances here or there whereby a group of people decided to call multiple gatherings one church. But whether we’re talking early and medieval episcopalian structures, Reformation Lutheran, Anglican, and Presbyterian structures, and certainly free church structures all along the way, just about everyone has always referred to different gatherings as different churches, not different sites or services.


About pjtibayan

I love Jesus Christ and live to share life and share Jesus together with First Southern Baptist Church of Bellflower primarily to Southeast Los Angeles County.
This entry was posted in "Total Church" Model, church, ecclesiology. Bookmark the permalink.

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