Jesus only made three references to ‘the church’. All of them are recorded in Matthew. He said nothing about how we should organise our churches or church services.
However, in John 17, Jesus does explain his vision for his followers and it is beautiful. He also said some other things that help us understand how we are to live as members of his church.
Jesus talks about the church
On two of the three occasions on which Jesus talks about the church he is talking to Peter:
“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)
Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times”. (Matthew 18:21-22)
On the third occasion Jesus is speaking to the disciples and gives some very clear instructions about how we are to behave if we have a problem with someone else in the church.
“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:15-17)
This is simple and it works. Jesus knows that when a human being feels that they have a problem with someone else, their first reaction is often to look for sympathy and support from others – so they talk to other people who they hope will see things the way they do. This is how conflict starts in a church. This is how factions form. Jesus said that if you have a problem with someone, the very first thing you should do is to talk to that person, and that person alone. If you can’t get a reasonable outcome then take one or two others along and talk to that person again. This is treating your fellow church member with respect and love. This is treating others the way that you would like to be treated yourself.
I’m not sure what the reference to the “Gentile and a tax collector” means. Jesus’ general guidelines for how to treat Gentiles and sinners is to forgive them, accept them and treat them with respect.
So, Jesus speaks about “the church” on only three occasions and in two of these he focuses on how members of the church should treat each other:
- We should forgive each other; and
- If we have a problem with another member, we should talk to them before talking to anyone else.
It is worth noting that all of Jesus’ commands are either about loving God or about loving others. He doesn’t tell us how to organise ourselves but he does tell us, very clearly, how we are to behave towards each other. If we focus on this then it is possible that the organisation and structures will take care of themselves.
Jesus’ vision for his church
Jesus’ vision for his church is set out in his prayer, just before his arrest, in John 17.
“I ask not only on behalf of these (that’s the disciples), but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word (that’s us), that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:20-23)
Jesus prays that we will be one. In other places he teaches us to be a radically different sort of community. He teaches us to love our enemies and do good to those who persecute us. He teaches us to love our neighbors the same way that we love ourselves. He says that our love for each other is to be so evident that outsiders will know that we are his disciples. He teaches us to be humble. He teaches us not to judge each other. Overall, he teaches us to live our lives in ways that are clearly very different to the ways promoted by our current western culture.
Let’s pray the same prayer as Jesus. Let’s pray that we will be one with each other and with God. Let’s pray that we will play our part in bringing on this oneness. And let’s live it. Let’s love each other, encourage each other, pray for each other and focus on the things we have in common – not the things that divide us.