Since we just celebrated the day when the Church came into being, Pentecost, I thought it would be a good time to ask the question, “What is the Church?” Well, many well meaning Christians believe that Jesus’ church is made up of an invisible union of all who genuinely trust in Christ. They believe that the Church that Jesus speaks about protecting in Scripture (Matt 16:18-19) is an invisible, “spiritual” Church. Jesus’ Church is not one particular visible institution. In other words, they might have members in a local church, but the church is still not thought of in a physical reality. But what does Scripture have to say about this reality? The Church has a body and a soul, just like Jesus Christ. If Jesus is the head, then the Church is his body.
So, did Jesus Christ begin an authoritative, teaching, visible Church? Catholics believe that he did and that the Catholic Church is that Church. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells Peter that he will be put in charge of His Church on earth and that He will protect the Church for all times. “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (Matt. 16:18-19).” In that statement, Peter became the first person to hold the office of ‘episcopate’ or ‘head of Jesus’ Church on earth’ until He comes again. The Catholic Church has had continued Apostolic succession from St. Peter to our present ‘Pope ‘Francis.’
Jesus is the head of the Catholic Church, just as a king is the head of a particular country: “He is head of the body, the church…” (1 Col 1:18). Jesus gave Peter the keys of the kingdom, so Catholics look to St. Peter, not as “king” of the Church, but as a “prime minister” who was chosen by Christ to be above the other ministers (the other eleven Apostles) and to represent Him physically in His absence.
Jesus uses the word “church” only two times. The first being in Matthew, chapter 16 which I just spoke of. And the second time is when Jesus says; “If your brother sins [against you], go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell the ‘church.’ If he refuses to listen even to the ‘church,’ then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector (Matt. 18:15-17).” Now, how can someone go and tell the “church,” if it is invisible? Jesus is telling us to take our brother to his “physical” Church on earth and to tell his grievance. There has always been a Church to settle disputes from the beginning, as in the “Council of Jerusalem” in Acts 15. Also, St. Paul clearly outlines and describes the hierarchical structure of the Church, from Bishops to Deacons (1 Tim. 3:1-13).
Jesus says that the Church that He established is called to be “…A city set on a mountain [that] cannot be hidden” (Matt. 5:14). With this statement, it doesn’t sound like Jesus’ Church is some invisible “spiritual” collection of all true believers from every Christian denomination throughout the world.
There also was a certain Jew named “Saul” (St. Paul) that we read about in the Acts of the Apostles, who was on a mission to persecute any members of the Christian Church that he could find when, suddenly, he was knocked to the ground by the risen Jesus who said to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me” ( Acts 9:4)? We clearly see here that Jesus is identifying himself with a distinct visible body of believers.
The word “church” (Greek: ekklesia) appears over one hundred times throughout the New Testament and not once does it refer to an invisible international grouping of all true believers (Patrick Madrid, Surprised by Truth, pp. 120-121). Well, until next time, God bless.