Seek Jesus, not the church?

In this post I'm taking a short break from the series on origins to address the topic of the church (ecclesiology). I hope you find it helpful.

The rock band Fleetwood Mac performed in concert recently on NBC's The Today Show. Some people in the audience held up a banner proclaiming, "Death ends in hell--Seek Jesus, not the church." I suppose their primary goal was to "scare the hell out of people" (a topic I address elsewhere in this blog). But the banner also expressed the viewpoint that the church is unnecessary---even an obstacle to knowing Jesus. But can we have communion with Christ apart from the church? Let's look to Scripture and the teaching of the early church for answers.

First, note this statement from Jesus: "I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18). Note how he refers to the church as his own ("my church") and takes personal responsibility for its construction ("I will build"). If we take Jesus' statement seriously, I think we must conclude that any real or imagined separation between Jesus and his church is not of his devising. To paraphrase Jesus' words concerning the union of a man and woman in marriage, "What God has joined together, let man not separate" (Matthew 19:6). Indeed, the union between Jesus and the church is so close that Paul refers to the church as Jesus' own bride (Ephesians 5:22-32) and body (Ephesians 5:30, Colossians 1:18). In short, from Jesus' perspective, by his design and through his continuing work in the Spirit, the two are inseparably united as one body of which Christ is head (Ephesians 5:23).

Picking up on these and other related Scriptures, Cyprian, who from 248 to 258 served as a bishop of the church in Carthage (present day Tunisia) in Africa, wrote this concerning the unity of Christ and his church:
He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother. If any one could escape who was outside the ark of Noah, then he also may escape who shall be outside of the Church. The Lord warns, saying, "He who is not with me is against me, and he who gathers not with me scatters" (Matthew 12:30). He who breaks the peace and the concord of Christ, does so in opposition to Christ; he who gathers elsewhere than in the Church, scatters the Church of Christ. The Lord says, "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30) and again it is written of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, "And these three are one" (1 John 5:7). And does any one believe that this unity which thus comes from the divine strength and coheres in celestial sacraments, can be divided in the Church, and can be separated by the parting asunder of opposing wills? He who does not hold this unity does not hold God's law, does not hold the faith of the Father and the Son, does not hold life and salvation (Cyprian's Treatise I, found in the Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 5).
Words like these are likely hard for many to hear in the context of our individualistic, autonomous Western worldview. Many would want to insist on a "just me and Jesus" mentality. But if we are faithful to Scripture and to the creeds adopted by the early church, I think we must conclude that Jesus' desire and plan is that people experience intimate communion (koinonia, meaning fellowship and sharing/participation)--both with him and with his body, the church. In fact, it is in, by and through the church that, on this side of glory, the fullness of union and communion with Jesus is experienced. This is so because Jesus as both Son of God and son of man, is in eternal union and communion with the Father and the Spirit (as established in the doctrine of the Trinity) and eternally united to all humanity (as established in the doctrine of the Incarnation). Those who, by faith, embrace Jesus, thus share with Jesus, by the Spirit, in this double communion. They do so by gaining entrance through the Spirit into the "body of Christ," the church. Members of the church (the body of believers who are disciples of Jesus) experience this double communion in ways that others do not.

The "communion of the saints" (as the ancients often called the church) is thus no small thing. The church is Christ's body and he is its head. Therefore, the church should be honored, protected and built up by those who trust in and follow Jesus. They do so by assembling regularly with other Christians for worship for sharing the sacraments, for caring for one another in love, and for participating together in what Jesus is doing in the power of the Spirit to fulfill the Father's mission to the world--a mission that reaches beyond the church to embrace all of humanity.

So important is the church that the Nicene Creed proclaims belief in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. This clause flows from the one that proceeds it concerning belief in the Holy Spirit. We believe in the existence and calling of the church because we believe in the Holy Spirit who is sent by the Father and the Son into the world to form the church and to equip and send it on mission. Let's look briefly at the Creed's four identifying characteristics ("marks") of the church:
  1. The church is one in that it is rooted in and thus expressive of the essential oneness of the triune God. The church is formed by Christ, through the Spirit to be a servant of the Father's mission and kingdom. 
  2. The church is holy because it is formed by the Holy Spirit and thus is to be revered and honored as holy because upon it is the imprint of the character of the Holy Trinity. The Church's holiness is thus not its own, but rather its sharing in the holiness of God.
  3. The church is catholic, meaning universal or all inclusive in that it embraces all dimensions of the people of God and their existence throughout space and time. According to T.F. Torrance, "The one church is intrinsically catholic because it is the one Body of Christ in whom the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily in whom all things visible and invisible are gathered up and reconciled to God, and because as the Body of such a Christ the Church is itself the fullness of him who fills all things" (The Trinitarian Faith).
  4. The church is apostolic. This mark refers to the original foundation of the Church laid by Christ upon the apostles and to "the existence and mission of the Church in its unswerving fidelity to that apostolic foundation" (Torrance in The Trinitarian Faith). This foundation includes the Gospel conveyed to us through the Apostle's writings (the  New Testament). However, this apostolic foundation is more than information on a page, for the Gospel points directly to the life-giving reality of Christ himself (his being) and to his mission in the world (his doing).
By God's will, design and superintending grace, there is no separation between Jesus and the church as it is defined in the Creed. Of course, that definition sets forth the ideal, and the church always falls short and thus is always in need of forgiveness and renewal. But recognizing the reality that the church, to one extent or another, is always flawed is no reason to sweep it aside in our hearts or in our practice. Instead, followers of Jesus are called to work together in the power of the Spirit to tear down the obstacles that keep the church from realizing and experiencing the actual, intrinsic union and communion that it has with Christ and with other believers.

As I viewed that banner while watching Fleetwood Mac perform, part of me resonated with its sentiment. I too, at times, experience some of the frustration that many people (believers and non-believers alike) have with the church. Sometimes the actions of the church do create obstacles that work against experiencing union and communion with Jesus and with his people. But by our Lord's design, the union and communion that we long for is found in fullness only within the fellowship (communion) of the church, not outside; not on our own. So let's not abandon the church. Instead, let's work together, in step with the Spirit, to build up the church in love. We do so for our own benefit, of course, but most importantly, we do so for the sake of the world.