Many Christian churches describe themselves as “Bible-based.” That is to say, their structure, their organization, their method of worship, etc. are all drawn directly from biblical passages that have been woven together to form their own idea of “church.” So-called “Bible Christians” claim that this verse-by-verse method is the most accurate way to re-construct the First Century Church; they are simply worshipping as Christians of the New Testament worshipped. The pages of the Bible (so they say) describe Christianity as it was in the first decades after Jesus’ death, and there is no need to look anywhere else when trying to live out the Christian faith. It is the old Protestant motto – “The Bible Alone” – carried to its logical conclusion.
Of course, there is no end to the types of Christian churches this method yields. No two Bible-based churches look the same. They function differently; their doctrines are different; their interpretations of Scripture contradict one another; their understanding of salvation, the sacraments, the afterlife, heaven and hell, the end times…all of these and much more are often radically opposed to one another. Biblio-centric (Bible-centered) Christianity offers a plethora of competing churches with no sure way to distinguish which one is practicing real, authentic Christianity.
Now, obviously it is commendable when Christians desire to imitate the early Church. It is wise to seek our roots in ancient Christianity, to be grounded in the historic foundations of our faith. And it is certainly correct to use Scripture as a guide to govern doctrine and maintain sound teaching. But is the Bible truly the starting point for the formation of the Christian Church? Did God give us first the Bible and from the Bible springs forth the Church? Is this the true order of things?
Is the Church Biblio-centric?
I would propose instead that the Church ought to be Christo-centric – centered on Christ. God gave us Jesus Christ and from Christ springs forth the Church. Those who call for a “Bible-based” Christianity should instead be seeking a “Christ-based” Church. This does not mean that the Bible must be rejected. Far from it! The Bible is the primary source for Jesus’ own words about the Church as recorded in the Gospels, and an excellent record of how those words were applied in the early Church. The Bible plays a vital role in any search for Christian Truth. The Bible is, after all, the very Word of God. It is His revelation to mankind.
But as “the Word of God made flesh,” Jesus is the truest, most direct revelation of God to humanity. It is in Jesus that we must search for the Church, since it is through Jesus that God searches for us. We must not seek a Bible-based Church; rather to find the true Church of Christ we must find the Church that has its origins in Jesus Himself.
If we listen to the words of Christ, we can see that the Church had its start directly from Christ: “…I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18) He did not say: “I will give you a Bible and from that Bible you will construct my church.” The Bible does not precede the Church. Jesus precedes the Church and it is through Him that we become children of God.
Since we know from Scripture that Jesus built the Church nearly two thousand years ago, why would Bible-Christians today feel the need to re-build the Church from the pages of the Bible? If Jesus built it, then where did it go?
Many Bible-Christians would argue that the original Church apostatized, fell into serious error, collapsed into doctrinal ruin. According to this belief, at some point in its long history, the Church that Jesus originally established failed and must now be reconstructed. Others believe that the Church slowly faded away, disappeared from the pages of history, or dwindled into obscurity. Some believe that the Church’s failure was a part of God’s plan; that the Church was meant to be hidden or gone for all these centuries only to resurface in our own age. Whichever theory they espouse, Bible-Christians believe that it is up to them to restore the Church so that she can fulfill her intended purpose.
But this idea of the Church’s failure and re-establishment does not agree with Jesus’ own words. Recall the earlier passage we cited from Matthew concerning Christ’s Church: “the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.” If not even Hell itself can topple the Church, then how could she have fallen into apostasy? And furthermore, look at the broader context of this passage: “[U]pon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.” The Church that was built by Jesus to withstand the powers of Hell was built to last. Like the wise man from the parable (Matthew 7:24-27), Jesus built His Church on the “rock,” not on “sand” like the foolish man. Bible-Christians who claim that the Church failed are, in effect, calling Jesus a fool!
What about the claim that the Church slipped into obscurity; that the Church vanished for a time from the pages of history only to resurface in our own time? This also does not agree with the words of Jesus. He said to his disciples: “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.” (Matthew 5:14-15) Jesus did not light the lamp of the Church only for it to be hidden from view. He did not place a “bowl” over the Church and keep it out of sight. The Church was built as a visible symbol of Jesus’ presence in the world. Bible-Christians have a low estimation of Jesus’ power to sustain His Church.
Even if Bible-Christians were correct that the Church did fail and it must be re-established with Scripture as our sole guide, the Bible contains no blueprint for the structure and function of the Church. There is no point-by-point manual in the pages of Scripture that tell us how to “do church.” This is because the Church does not arise from the pages of Scripture, rather the Church sprang forth from the lips of Jesus as He breathed life into her at Pentecost: “‘…as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.’ And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” (John 20:21-22)
From that moment the Church has bore witness to Him throughout history. This Church, which Jesus established, is a Spirit-filled Body centered on the Resurrected Christ. We cannot build anew what Christ Himself has already built. This Spirit-filled Church cannot be discarded when we perceive some abuse or human neglect (real or imagined), and then re-established or re-constructed by every passing generation. And yet new “churches” continually spring up in every corner of the globe, as though the Church is a “thing” to be assembled like a jigsaw puzzle from pieces scattered throughout Scripture.
Thus far, however, we have shown that the Church, when rightly understood, is NOT derived from the Bible in this way. There should be no need to “reverse engineer” a Church from the Scripture when Jesus has already given us a Church which He promised would be a visible light to the world and that would resist being destroyed even by “the gates of Hell.” Christians who seek a “Bible-based” Church ought instead to seek the “Christ-centered” Church, the one Church that can trace itself back to the Lord.
[To be continued in Part II ]