Redemption, Part II: The Church
Series: Authority Redeemed
Having redeemed authority and made us like Himself, Jesus restores His people to their proper position of authority by giving authority to His church.
Matthew (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary), D.A. Carson
Understanding the Congregation’s Authority, Jonathan Leeman
Well we have finally hit the point in this series of sermons where we’re starting to talk directly about church authority. Last week we saw that Jesus redeems authority, first by His own work for us, but then by His work in us, in making us like Himself. He restores those who receive Him by faith to a position of authority over sin; we don’t have to obey it any longer. And He restores us to a position of authority over stuff: we can now use stuff to worship and serve Him, instead of worshiping and serving stuff. We also saw last week that those who are in Christ form a new community that has the mind of Christ, which today we’ll see is called the church. It should come as no surprise to us, then, that that new community of people who have been restored to their proper authority would also be given authority. Today we’re going to see from these three passages in the Gospel of Matthew that Jesus has given His church authority: The authority of the keys, to work and keep the temple, and to be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.
The authority of the keys
The first passage at which we looked is the first passage in the New Testament in which the word “church” appears. It’s also one of only two times in the Bible that Jesus Himself uses the word; the second is the next passage we’ll look at. It begins with the story of Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God. The Christ is the word for anointed one, the Son of God that God promised would come not only to save His people, but to rule the nations. In other words, what Peter is saying here on behalf of all the apostles, is, “You are King.” Having acknowledged Jesus’ authority, it is safe for Peter to be given authority. Jesus says, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” Peter was given authority from Jesus to lead His church on earth.
But before we dive into the nature of that authority, what does Jesus mean by this word “church”? The word church translates the Greek word ekklesia, a word that literally refers to a gathering and is even used in the New Testament to refer to more ordinary types of gatherings. So a simple way to read Jesus’ promise in verse 18 is that on Peter as confessor of the Christ, Jesus will build His gathering. But it’s not just any gathering; it’s not even Peter’s gathering; it’s His gathering. It’s the people gathered in His name, those who join in Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. So in Acts, after Peter preaches the gospel, we read that there were added that day 3000 souls. They became part of the gathering which Peter led. But then as the history of the church develops in the book of Acts, we see others going out and proclaiming the gospel as well, and the church which Peter led to which the 3000 were added comes to be known as the church in Jerusalem. That is, it’s the church that gathers in Jerusalem. But then we also reach of a church in Antioch, a church in Corinth, the churches of Galatia, and so on. Peter never went to some of those, and yet they are still called churches in Scripture. So in Ephesians 2 we read that the church was built not only on the foundation of Peter, but on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone. Yet these churches are all also, in some way, part of the same church built on Peter. Jesus doesn’t say, “I will build my churches.” He says, “I will build my church.”
The word church, then, has two basic meanings that are related to one another. The capital-C Church is the gathering of all those who in sincerity confess Jesus to be the Christ. That gathering is now in heaven and is made up of people from all throughout time and space. It is, then, a gathering that is presently invisible to us. Thus, in theology we call this the invisible church. But, Peter was a real human with a real, visible, body, as are we, so there are also visible churches: in Jerusalem, in Antioch, in Corinth, in Galatia, at 1801 Spring Garden St this morning, and so on. A visible church, also known as a particular church, or a local church, is a visible gathering of those who visibly profess Jesus to be the Christ in a particular time and place. Each particular church is a visible outcropping of the heavenly church. In that sense, we could say every true church is part of a multi-site church built on the foundation of Peter and the apostles, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone, and headquartered in heaven, where His office is currently located. When Jesus says He will build His church, then, He means He will add people to this invisible gathering who will then gather on earth in visible gatherings called churches.
Now that we know what a church is and even have a better sense of Peter’s role in it, we can return to the topic of church authority. Look at verse 19: “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.” Here Peter at least is given the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Keys lock and unlock doors, so that when we see Peter being given the keys of the kingdom of heaven, he is being given authority to open and close the doors of the kingdom of heaven. How is he to do that? The rest of the verse tells us that it is through binding and loosing.
In the Jewish context, this was the action of Jewish priests and teachers to say what was not permitted (binding) and what was permitted (loosing). In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees did this: They told people what they must do to enter the kingdom, and what they must not do if they are to enter it. Then they would declare who was in the kingdom by receiving them into the synagogue, their gathering, or putting them out of it. So what’s happening here? Jesus is saying, “I’m starting another gathering, headquartered in heaven, and the true Israel, the true people of God, will now be marked by it, since I am the true Christ. And I give you, Peter, the authority to teach what is required to enter into it, what is forbidden in it, and to receive people into it or remove them from it on that basis.” So He attaches the promise: Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
That sounds like a lot of authority, doesn’t it? Not only our culture, but even many professing Christians today resist this idea. It’s common for professing Christians today to think something like this, “Hey, I’ve believed in Jesus, and the Bible says whoever believes in Jesus will be saved. I don’t need some church to tell me I’m ok; I know my truth and I know I’m a child of God.” There is an important truth in this way of thinking: It’s true that the moment you believe in Jesus, you have eternal life, and no church can give or take that away from you. The day you believe, you become a member of the invisible church. But there are still these things called visible churches, to whom God has given the keys of the kingdom of heaven. He hasn’t given them to you as an individual. You can become a citizen of the kingdom by believing in Jesus, but you don’t have the authority to declare yourself a citizen on earth. That’s the church’s job, and we work for Jesus, not for you. Our job is not simply to affirm whatever you believe and think God wants you to do; our job is to tell you what Jesus says you should believe and what He says God wants you to do, and then to open or close the doors of the church to you based on your response.
Now maybe you say, “Ok, clearly Peter has this authority. But why are you claiming churches now have it? It seems like Jesus gave Peter authority, not the church.” For that, let’s turn to our next passage in Matthew 18. There we will see that Jesus gave the church this authority of the keys to work and keep the temple.
To work and keep the temple
I’ll explain the temple part of that in a moment, but for now in Matthew 18 just notice who Jesus authorizes. He’s addressing all His disciples again, and in verse 15 He says, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.” So who has the authority to tell a brother their fault, to declare what is right and wrong and then to judge whether someone has done right or wrong? Any disciple. Jesus then says If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. So every disciple has the authority to make a kind of provisional judgment in order to confront, but that must then be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses if it is to go further. Then if the brother still doesn’t listen, you’re to tell the church, verse 17 says. Then if he refuses to listen even to the church, he is to be to you as a Gentile and tax collector. In a Jewish context, a “Gentile and tax collector” was an outsider, so the idea here is that if he refuses to listen even to the church, you are to remove him from the membership of the church. The final authority to remove from the church, the final court of appeal, is not any old disciple, or even Peter, but the church. Then look at verse 18: 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. It’s the same promise from Matthew 16, but here it is made to the church. The “you”s of verse 18 are now plural: “Whatever yous bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever yous loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” So we see that when Jesus gave the keys of the kingdom of heaven to Peter, He did not intend them to be Peter’s exclusive possession, but rather to belong to the church that would be built on him. It’s when two or three gather in His name, as verse 20 puts it, that His authority is present with them.
An individual can be a Christian by faith, but it’s only when two or three gather in Jesus’ name that you have a gathering, a church. When two or three come together to join Peter’s profession of Jesus as the Christ and to exercise the keys of the kingdom, there you have a particular church. Jesus has given this authority to any two or three of His disciples. He’s said if you gather in His name, He will be there among you. So we see in Acts that as the gospel is proclaimed and people come to faith in Christ, they come together and start doing these sorts of things, and are thus called churches.
And those churches are also then called temples. Recall from the earlier parts of the Bible we looked at that in Genesis 2 man was given a job: To work and keep the ground of the garden of Eden, the place of God’s dwelling, the first temple. That language of working and keeping was then applied to the priests who worked in the temple building in Israel. They were to work in there with the sacrifices and the lampstands and the incense and keep, that is guard, it, from anything unclean. Now we read of a gathering of two or three in which the Lord is present. We read of a church called a temple, and what are all disciples in it to do? They are to work, not on some building, but on one another, in this case correcting one another when we sin so that we can come to repentance. And then we are to keep it, removing from it any who demonstrate an unwillingness to repent, and so keeping it clean in the truest and most glorious sense of the word: Cleansed from sin. So another way of thinking about what the church is is the church is a new humanity which has been recommissioned by Jesus to work and keep the temple and has thus been given the authority of the keys of the kingdom of heaven in order to do so. That means we are to declare the terms of entry into the kingdom and accept and remove people from our church based on their response to it. Practically, then, what will that look like for us going forward? That’s what this whole sermon series has been driving toward. What will it look like for us to become a particular church?
In some ways, it won’t look much different. We already gather regularly in Jesus’ name. We already profess Jesus to be the Christ together. We already proclaim the terms of entry into His kingdom by proclaiming the gospel. We already affirm people as citizens of the kingdom by receiving them into membership and remove that affirmation through church discipline. In that sense, we truly are already a church. What we are doing in the coming months then is really two things: We’re trying to bring what we are legally into greater alignment with what we are essentially, and we’re trying to reform the way we use the keys of the kingdom to align more closely with what we see in Scripture.
So the first part of that involves things like becoming a separate legal entity and adopting a church constitution that legally clarifies how we are governed. But the second part means the way we function as a legal entity and the things in that church constitution will be different than what they are now. Michael and I, as elders of Citylight Center City, want to lead us to become what’s called an “elder-led congregational” church. I’ll talk about the “elder-led” part next week; for now I’ll talk about the congregational part. Congregational means, first, that we would have no binding authority on earth above our local church. Right now that is not the case. Right now we have elders at the other Citylight congregations, a District Superintendent of the C&MA, and the C&MA district and national council with binding authority over us. If we wanted to remove a member from our congregation, to use the example given in Matthew 18, the elders at the other Citylight congregations must approve it, and then the District Superintendent of the C&MA has to approve it. They have that authority in our bylaws currently, but the Bible does not give them that authority. Here in Matthew 18 we see the church is the final court of appeal in matters of discipline, not the District Superintendent, nor even the elders. And the word church has two uses in the Bible: The invisible, universal church, which cannot be “told” anything because it is not gathered on earth, and the visible, particular church. So the latter must be the meaning here, not some individual outside of it, or even some group within it. Therefore, we should not join any denomination that would force us to have that kind of authority over us, which means not joining the C&MA.
So that’s one piece of congregationalism: No binding authority outside of the local church. The other piece is within the local church, the final authority for something like removing a member lies with the whole congregation, not some group within it, like the elders. This too would be a change for us. Currently though we do tell the church about discipline cases, the elders and the District Superintendent make the final decision. And Michael and I want to apologize to you all for this. We do feel, after a closer study of Scripture, that in exercising church discipline in that way, we have exercised an authority that is not properly ours. It was more from a lack of careful thought than from any malicious intent, but it was still out of conformity with Scripture, and therefore sin. Please forgive us. We’d now like to lead us to a structure in which the final decision for receiving and removing members would fall to a vote of the entire congregation, hence the term “congregationalism.” You members of our church already know about this direction we want to lead us toward, and in the coming weeks you will be presented with a Church Constitution and revised Church Covenant that spell out what this will look like. I won’t get into all that now, but what I do want to say now is this: When you have the opportunity, vote to implement this. Let’s become an elder-led congregational church so that every member of our church has the authority Jesus has given them to exercise the keys of the kingdom of heaven with their church. Does it sound scary to you to have that kind of authority, that kind of responsibility? It is a weighty authority no doubt to speak in Jesus’ name. But we will have one another, and more importantly, we have Jesus’ promise: Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them. And if you aren’t yet a member of our church, join us! Call Jesus the Christ and join this gathering of those who do the same. We have the authority, and therefore the responsibility, to work and keep the temple. And finally, we the authority to be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.
To be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it
So in Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus again speaks of authority, and says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” He was king when Peter professed Him as such, but now risen from the dead, He’s wearing the crown. Recall again Genesis 1, where God told the first humans He made to be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over all the earth as His image. We failed in that commission. We’ve abused the authority God has given us or abdicated it. Therefore, God gave us up to the dominion of sin and death. But now Jesus has come as a new human, a new Adam, without sin. Now Jesus has come as the true temple, the one in whom the fullness of God dwells, and He has kept Himself entirely clean. But then on the cross our sins were placed on Him, and He obeyed God even in that, going under the dominion of sin and death on our behalf, bearing our judgment. So because He obeyed, He rose from the dead and the dominion for which humanity was destined has now been given to Him. All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Him.
So what, then, with that authority, does He authorize all of His disciples to do? To 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 Jesus commands. And once again, as in Matthew 18, Jesus promises that He will be with us always in this, even to the end of the age. A few things important for us to notice in our study of authority: First, all authority in heaven and on earth still belongs to Jesus. When Jesus gives us the keys of the kingdom of heaven, He does not thereby surrender His own authority. In the Book of Revelation, He’s described as the one holding the keys, and the one who when He opens a door, none can shut it, and when He closes a door, none can open it. So we see here that when Jesus authorizes His disciples to teach, He authorizes them to specifically teach “all that I have commanded you.” We have not been authorized to simply teach whatever we want.
So maybe earlier when I was talking about the church’s authority, it started to get a bit scary. You mean the church can actually remove people from the kingdom of heaven? It’s Jesus Himself who said, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. The Roman Catholic church has interpreted those verses to teach just that: First, that when the church excommunicates someone, it doesn’t just excommunicate them, it consigns them to hell. We do not believe the church has that authority. Only Jesus does. The church’s authority is to teach what He commands, to declare those things. So for example, we have the authority to say, “You must believe that Jesus is the Christ to enter the kingdom of heaven” because that’s what Jesus taught. And we have the authority to say, “Unless you forsake murder, idolatry, adultery, and lying, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven,” because that’s what Jesus taught. We have the authority to receive someone into membership for confessing Jesus as the Christ, and to withhold membership from someone who will not forsake murder, idolatry, adultery, lying, etc. If that’s how we are binding and loosing, we can trust that whatever we bind and loose on earth will also be bound in heaven. But if we start saying, “You must fast during Lent” or “you must forsake personal property” to enter the kingdom of heaven, you don’t now lose your spot in heaven if you disobey, because Jesus didn’t command those things.
The way the Protestant reformers put this, then, is that the church has a ministerial authority, not a magisterial authority, and a declarative authority, not a coercive authority. Nonetheless, it is a real authority. Ok, next thing to notice: This authority is made visible through the visible sign of baptism. You can’t baptize yourself. So when the church baptizes someone, it declares them to be a citizen of the kingdom. It is the rite of entry. And then, finally, notice this means the church not only has the authority and responsibility to work and keep what is already part of it. We have the authority and responsibility to expand. Since all authority in heaven and on earth belongs to Jesus, we have authority from Him to go and proclaim His authority to all the peoples of the earth, calling them to submit to it. This is the way we are fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it. Of course, that still includes having kids; there is nobody to make disciples of if nobody is born. But that’s something involving all humans; it’s not just Christians who have kids. But it is just Christians, citizens of Jesus’ kingdom, who have the authority to speak in Jesus’ name, and to baptize those who show themselves to be citizens of that kingdom. The image of God spreads every time a child is born, but the image of God is renewed in a human when they hear the gospel, are baptized, and are taught to observe all Jesus commands. The earth is subdued to His authority in this way. He does not authorize us to use the sword, to coerce people into this. He authorizes us to use the Sword of the Spirit, the Word of God, to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom, to bear witness to it through deeds of love and mercy, to call people to submit to Him as their king, and to baptize those who do.
In my experience as a Christian, church member, and pastor, we tend to gravitate to one of these two emphases of our authority. Some of us are good at maintaining the community boundaries: We’re good at clarifying precisely what is to be believed and what is to be done by citizens of the kingdom, and removing those who do not abide by the laws of the kingdom. And that’s important; Matthew 18 is there for a reason and is no less spiritual or godly than Matthew 28. Even Matthew 28 includes teaching them to observe all that I have commanded. But we tend to struggle with going out and reaching those who aren’t yet citizens of the kingdom. That’s more my disposition if I’m honest, and those of you who know me I’m sure aren’t surprised by that. On the flipside, however, there are those who are always on the look out for people who aren’t yet part of the church. They’re quick to talk to their neighbors about the gospel, invite them in, and welcome those who are new, even though they know they aren’t yet living under the authority of our king. And that’s really valuable: Without that, we will not make disciples of all nations. But such people tend to resist precise definitions of doctrine, standards of conduct, and community boundaries; that’s a problem. But here’s when the church really sings, when the church is really faithful in its mission: When both types of people gather together in the same church and say to one another, “I need you. Your disposition is valuable. Let’s work together to do everything Jesus has authorized us to do.”
And so, whichever disposition you find in yourself, let’s work together to do everything Jesus has authorized us to do. All authority in heaven and on earth belongs to Him, and He’s given His church a ministerial authority, but a real authority nonetheless. Let’s do our part as instruments in His hands to bring everything in heaven and on earth into subjection to His loving authority. Let’s build up one another, warn one another when we stray, and remove one another if we refuse to live under Jesus’ authority. Then let’s go out and proclaim the gospel of the kingdom so that more would come in. And Jesus will be with us to the end of the age.