Monday, October 25, 2010

The Christ-Centered Church, Part II

Let us review what was said in Part I: There are many so-called “Bible-based” churches which derive their form and function directly from Scripture. They begin with the Bible and from its pages springs forth their version of “church,” pieced together verse-by-verse. For these Christians, the Bible acts as the source and focal point of their ecclesiology (or “doctrine of the church”). We might call this a “Biblio-centric” (Bible-centered) view of church.

However, we know from Part I that it was Jesus (not a group of people with Bibles in-hand) who established the Church on earth. God did not send down a Bible and expect us to construct the Church from its pages. He sent us His Son, and it was Jesus who then gave us the Church. Jesus built His Church as a lasting institution. “…I will build my Church and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18) Such a Church should never need to be rebuilt in any age.

Christians who form new “Bible-churches” generally do so after first scanning the religious landscape and finding themselves in sharp disagreement with existing denominations and sects. They see the divisions within Christianity and they determine that there must be some source, some divinely established guide, which can solve these disagreements. There must be some final arbiter which can settle disputes and determine where the Truth lies.

Disagreement between individual Christians can certainly cause pain and division. Christians are all too often guilty of great sin against one another due to doctrinal disputes or jealous strife. There is no question that such division ought to be healed, but who should be the final judge between Christian factions? Where do we find the basis, the foundation of Truth for Christianity? What entity holds up the Truth for all to see?

The Protestant would answer: The Bible, of course! The Bible Alone forms the basis for Christian Truth! - And the Protestant would be wrong. The Bible itself does not even make this claim. Instead the Bible points to another source: “…the household of God, which is the Church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.”(1Timothy 3:15) According to Scripture, the Church forms the foundation of Truth and holds up the Truth, like a pillar in a strong building. This is the same Church that Jesus built to last for all ages, as a light to the world.

So according the Bible, the Church determines truth from error. And furthermore, this power extends over every Christian as a moral imperative; we are bound to the Church’s pronouncements even in matters as personal as sin:

"If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 18:15-18)

Jesus tells us that the Church has moral authority over every individual Christian. And God Himself recognizes this authority in the Church by “binding and loosening” in Heaven all that the Church declares “bound and loosed” on earth.

How does the Church arrive at this power?

Remember that Jesus breathed out the Spirit onto the Apostles on Pentecost. About the Spirit, Jesus had earlier proclaimed: “…when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth.” (John 16:13) And so, guided by the Spirit, the Church speaks the Truth to all generations of Christians throughout history. This is the Church that Jesus established – a Church with real authority guided by the Spirit.

So, contrary to the Biblio-centric theory, it is not up to individual Christians to look into the Bible and determine what the Church ought to believe or how the Church ought to act, rather it is up to the Spirit-filled Church to instruct each individual Christian on the path to Truth. The Church has the authority to settle disputes between Christians and we are morally bound by these decisions. The individual Christian must submit to the authority of the Church or he finds himself cut off like “a pagan or a tax collector.” It seems that the Biblio-centric model has ecclesiology exactly opposite from what Christ intended.

Then where do we go from here?

We know that the Church was established by Jesus as a Spirit-filled institution, indestructible (even by the powers of Hell); that the Church is a visible institution (a light to the world) that has never faded away, or apostatized, or been lost from the pages of history; we know that the Church has authority to determine Truth (and is in fact the very foundation of truth), and can settle disputes between Christians with authority; we are bound by the Church’s decisions and this authority is recognized in Heaven (in binding and loosening); if we fail to listen to the Church’s authority we are cut off as any sinner would be. If all of this is true then it becomes imperative that we find the true Church that Christ established and submit to her authority.

So, which church is the true Church? To which body do I owe my allegiance? There are many competing denominations and sects within Christianity, each claiming to be the true Church that Christ founded. How can we know which is in actual fact the very same Church granted authority over all believers? If we can discover this, then we have no alternative than to obey.

To settle this, we can look again to Jesus’ words concerning the Church’s power. Twice Jesus stated that His Church would have the power to “loose and bind.” One of these passages has been cited above in Matthew 18:18. The other occurs two chapters earlier in the same Gospel. To this passage we now turn, for in this verse we see, quite literally, the “key” to the Church’s authority:

"I say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:18-19)

These words were spoken by Jesus to Simon, whom Jesus gave the name Peter (which means “rock”). Peter was to be the “rock” on which Jesus would build His Church. And to Peter Jesus gave the “keys of the kingdom of heaven.” While the other Apostles were later given (in chapter 18, as we have seen) the same power to “loose and bind,” it was Peter alone who was given the “keys.”

But what are these “keys”?

In our day the meaning of the “keys” may be lost or obscured, but Scripture provides the answer. For the Jews of Jesus’ time the image of “keys” would immediately conjure up an image from the royal household of Israel in the Old Testament and the power that was given to the steward of the kingdom.  Isaiah 22:20-23 speaks of this authority:

“On that day I will summon my servant Eliakim, son of Hilkiah; I will clothe him with your robe, and gird him with your sash, and give over to him your authority. He shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah. I will place the key of the House of David on his shoulder; when he opens, no one shall shut, when he shuts, no one shall open. I will fix him like a peg in a sure spot, to be a place of honor for his family…”

The power of the keys represents the authority to “shut and open” (or “loose and bind”) given to the chief steward of the kingdom of Israel. The “steward” was second in command to the king, and in the king’s absence, the steward exercised decision-making authority until the king’s return. Jesus is King of kings, and Lord of lords. Peter was given power to exercise authority as chief steward over the Church until Jesus’ return in glory. It is this power given to Peter (together with similar power given to the other Apostles) which forms the basis of the Church’s authority.

Now we must ask, how does this authority continue until our present time? Where do we find the keys of the kingdom of heaven?

The Apostles were careful to maintain their offices of leadership within the Church. Whenever one of their numbers died, another was appointed to take his place. The Acts of the Apostles records this in the case of Judas, as Peter himself explains:

“…it is written in the book of Psalms, 'May his place be deserted; let there be no one to dwell in it,' and, 'May another take his place of leadership.’ Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us beginning from John's baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.” (Acts 1:20-22)

As the Church grew, more positions were added to the original Twelve, most notably Paul who preached among the Gentiles. And selected men were placed as heads of local churches – for instance Timothy was placed by Paul over a local congregation. These became known as bishops, and the Church continued this practice down through the centuries as Paul tells Timothy: “You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others.” (2Timothy 2:1-2)

The Apostles passed on their authority through the laying on of hands as Paul reminds Timothy: “…I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.” (2Timothy 6-7) In this way, the power of the Spirit to govern the Church has been handed down through the centuries in Christ’s Church.

So where is this power now?

Only one Church has maintained (through the laying on of hands, from bishop to bishop, down through the centuries) the teaching authority first granted to Peter and the Apostles. Only one Church can trace itself back to the Church of the First Century, through a steady succession of bishops to Jesus Himself. Only one church can truly claim to be established by Christ upon the “Rock” - upon Peter - to whom was given the keys of the kingdom.

The Catholic Church has been governed by the successors of Peter (the popes) for nearly 2000 years. The Catholic Church was granted the power to “loose and bind,” an authority granted by Jesus Himself. The successors to Peter have passed on the “keys to the kingdom” as the stewards of God’s people until the King returns. All Christians who wish to be truly Christ-centered in their obedience must turn to the authority which Christ Himself left us. And that authority the Catholic Church alone possesses.

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