A Church and Churches: Independence
What is the relationship between your local church and every other church in the world?
In the companion piece to this article, I consider how different churches should integrate together. Here we want to ask what makes each independent.
We can answer that by asking what makes our relationship with fellow church members different from our relationship with Christians who belong to different churches. The biblical call to love, pray for, give to, imitate, perhaps even instruct and rebuke other Christians is hardly restricted to the members of our own church. So what makes the relationship different?
DISCIPLINE AND WHO HOLDS THE KEYS
The short-cut answer is to say that your fellow church members can participate in your excommunication in a way that other Christians cannot. An unresolved offense must be taken to the church (Matt. 18:15-17). The independence of the local church, we might therefore surmise, has something to do with the fact that the local church is where church discipline happens.
But there is a bigger picture here pertaining to who holds the keys of the kingdom, and it’s worth taking the longer route to catch all the scenery.
The theological champions at the Westminster Assembly spent several days debating who in the post-apostolic age holds the keys that Jesus originally gave to Peter (Matt. 16:19), since they understood that the keys represent, at the very least, the power of excommunication. And the power of excommunication is the highest authority in a church, just as the power of the sword is the highest authority in a nation. All power in a nation derives from the authority to end a life, and, in the same way, all power in the church derives from the authority to remove someone from membership, including the authority to receive members, pick pastors, or adopt a statement of faith. Whoever has the power of excommunication has the power to do those other things, or at least to decide who does.
The majority of Presbyterians at the Assembly argued that presbyteries hold the keys. The few Congregationalists present—the “dissenting brethren”—argued that the keys are held by the whole congregation together with the elders. (Thanks to Hunter Powell for the history lesson.)
Staring down at Matthew 18:15-20, I would argue with the dissenters that Jesus places the keys squarely in the hands of the local church—wherever two or three are formally gathered in his name. In Jesus’ narrative of discipline, the ekklesia—the assembly—provides the last court of appeal when a person’s profession does not match his or her life.
Later in the New Testament, we learn that elders should be set apart for teaching and oversight, which suggests they ordinarily lead the church in using those keys. I would even say the church needs the elders to responsibly wield the keys. But finally the keys belong to the entire congregation. No text in the New Testament explicitly links the oversight of the elders with the keys of the kingdom in the manner that Matthew 18 so clearly links the keys with the whole assembly. Elder authority is real, but it is a different kind of authority than congregational authority.
Whether or not you are convinced every member jointly holds the keys together, or just the elders of a church do, what should be clear is that no outside body, whether a presbytery or bishop, intervenes in Matthew 18. The local church alone holds the keys.
The independence of the local church, in short, rests squarely on the fact that it is the local church who holds the keys of the kingdom.
THE KEYS AND THE THINGS OF HEAVEN
So what exactly are these keys of the kingdom for binding and loosing? I have argued elsewhere that the keys represent the authority to build the church on earth on Jesus’ behalf by declaring what and who belong to the kingdom of heaven—what is a right confession of the gospel, and who is a right confessor. Certainly, preaching is highly related to the exercise of the keys, and could even be said to form an implicit part of their exercise. But, strictly speaking, I would argue that the exercise of the keys is the pronouncing of a judgment. It is a legal or judicial binding or loosing. It is a church’s decision about what constitutes a right confession and who is a true confessor.
In other words, the keys are put into practice whenever
- a church decides upon a confession of faith that will bind all church members,
- a church admits a member,
- a church excludes a member.
The holder of the keys—the church—is being called upon to assess a person’s life and profession of faith and then to make a heavenly sanctioned and public pronouncement affirming or denying the person’s citizenship in the kingdom and inclusion in the church.
The supreme example of this is Jesus’ interchange with Peter: Jesus asked who they thought he was, Peter made a confession, and then Jesus affirmed both the confession and Peter (“flesh and blood did not reveal this to you…you are Peter, and on this rock…”). The same kind of conversation transpires in Matthew 18, only in reverse. Jesus’ envisions a situation in which a church gradually determined that the what of a gospel confession does not match the who of a gospel confessor.
What all this means is, each local church is independent from every other church on earth because Christ has given each assembly the authority to declare before the nations the what and the who of the things of heaven.
The local church is not a building. It is not the place where you go once a week to get your spiritual jolt. It’s where heaven comes to earth, and the truths of heaven are spoken, and things of heaven get handled, and the people of heaven find life and fellowship. Our churches are embassies of heaven’s rule scattered across the nations of the earth now.
What does all this mean practically?
A CHURCH AFFIRMS WHO REPRESENTS CHRIST
An embassy is a useful metaphor for a local church because an embassy does not make someone a citizen, it affirms someone as a citizen. It stamps the passport when it expires.
An embassy, moreover, makes the rule of one nation visible inside of another nation. You can see the building, the flag, the passports, the ambassadorial staff, the soldiers with guns standing at the embassy gates. Plus, the authority of an embassy is, in a sense, independent within a host nation.
In the same way, the independent authority of the local church makes the rule of Christ’s kingdom visible on planet earth as it exercises the keys, which it does through baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The ordinances are what make the receiving and dismissing of members by the authority of the keys visible. Call them Christian passports.
To baptize someone is to identify them by name with the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit. To give someone the Lord’s Supper is to affirm their membership in the body of our Lord.
Practical implication 1: The ordinances should be practiced in the context of the gathered assembly. If the gathered assembly holds the keys, and if the keys are exercised through the ordinances, then the ordinances should be practiced in the context of the assembly. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are not private mystical experiences in which we shut our eyes and feel Jesus’ special presence. They are corporate and public proclamations of identification and belonging. Together we declare that God’s name is upon us (Matt. 28:19); together we declare our union with Christ’s death and resurrection (Rom. 6:1-2); together we declare his death and our membership in his body (1 Cor. 11:18-19, 27-33). The ordinances are not for Christian families, youth camps, or even small groups. They are assembly activities.
Practical implication 2: Baptism is ordinarily into membership. With the exception of settings in which a local church does not yet exist (e.g. the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8), it is irresponsible (and unbiblical) to baptize an individual—thereby affirming his profession of faith before the nations—and then leave him unaccounted for within a local body. Who will ensure that he remains faithful to his profession? How will this baptismally-affirmed professor be excommunicated if he is not within a church?
Practical implication 3: Christians should belong to local churches. Christians do not have the authority to declare themselves Jesus’ representatives. The church has this authority, which it ordinarily exercises by dispensing the Lord’s Supper to its members. (Which is not to say that church cannot provide the Lord’s Supper to visiting members of other churches for the sake of acknowledging the wider body of Christ.) Plus, maintaining the credibility of one’s profession of faith requires a believer to remain under the oversight of a church.
Practical implication 4: Churches should examine those whom they receive as members, and maintain oversight for the sake of meaningful discipline. “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asked of Peter. In churches today, too, the elders should interview all prospective candidates for membership. Plus, a church should work hard to make sure it can give an account for the spiritual welfare of every member.
Practical implication 5: Discipleship works best in the framework of accountability, which means discipleship works best in the context of the local assembly. We grow as believers through formative and corrective church discipline—teaching and correction.
A CHURCH AFFIRMS A RIGHT CONFESSION
The independence of the local church is also found in the fact that King Jesus has authorized each local assembly to affirm the faith that believers should confess.
Other bodies in church history have written confessions or creeds that are then used to bind churches and what members believe—from the apostolically unique council in Jerusalem in Acts to the council of Nicaea to the Westminster Assembly. But biblically, the legitimate body in a post-apostolic age for exercising the keys in this confession-prescribing fashion is the local church.
Practical implication 6: Churches gather around right preaching of the Word. It is as the church sits under the preaching of the Word and gospel that they learn to exercise the keys responsibly—assessing both the who and the what of the gospel.
Practical implication 7: Churches should establish a clear statement of faith. The very thing which unites a church to all other churches—its confession of gospel faith—also makes each church independent. Since the gathered assembly has been given the keys, every member of the gathered assembly is responsible to affirm a single statement of faith, a responsibility that fits comfortably with the priesthood of all believers. In fact, it’s this act of corporately affirming a statement of faith (through the ordinances) whereby a group of Christians constitute themselves as a local church.
On the flip side, the fact that a statement of faith in the gospel is what unites a church to every other Christian church suggests that it is wise to employ historical creeds or confessions in its official statement of faith. We must independently affirm a statement, but it should be a statement that is (or at least could be) broadly shared by Christians throughout the ages.
Practical implication 8: Churches should choose their pastors. In Galatians 1, Paul rebukes the “churches of Galatia” for abandoning the gospel. He does not address the elders or pastors, he addresses the congregations themselves. They are finally responsible for ensuring that right doctrine is preached, which, by implication, suggests that the assembly should have final say in affirming who the teachers of the Word are.
A CHURCH ADMINISTERS THE GREAT COMMISSION
Finally, the independence of the local church is found in the fact that King Jesus has commissioned each local assembly to fulfill the great commission and to equip its saints for this task. Of course this does not mean that a church does this apart from cooperating with other churches, but the local church is the primary location where the work of the Great Commission gets done, and which has the independent authority to administer this work through the ordinances.
Practical implication 9: Church membership should be treated as an office. It is a job. It is not a casual connection with a voluntary society like a country club, where you come for the benefits so long as the dues are not too high. It is citizenship, and citizenship is an office of governance. Once a church has affirmed an individual as a Jesus Representative and a member, that member becomes responsible for overseeing other confessors of the faith.
Picture a person’s passport getting stamped at an embassy desk, and then walking around to the other side the desk in order to take part in the work of the embassy. In other words, part of fulfilling the Great Commission for an individual Christian is to take responsibility for other church members, that the keys might be exercised responsibly.
Yes, you, Christian, are jointly responsible for every other church member in the room on Sunday morning, and whether or not they continue to walk in the faith. So get to know them! It is as we accept this formal responsibility for the who and the what of other disciples that we ourselves grow as disciples and help others to grow.
In short, responsibility and authority belong together, just like a custodian with the responsibility of cleaning a building must possess the authority of the building keys in order to open all the doors. Christ gives every Christian the responsibility to make disciples in Matthew 28. Wonderfully, he had already given every Christian the joint authority to fulfill this responsibility by giving the whole assembly the keys back in chapters 16 and 18.
Practical implication 10: A church’s basic work is to equip the saints to do the work of this office. It is true that conferences and books and Christian friends can be wonderfully used to equip Christians for the work of ministry. But the local church and its officers will be uniquely called to account for such work (Eph. 4:11-12; Heb. 13:17).
Churches should work together to fulfill the great commission because they call upon the same Lord and share a common gospel confession. This is the argument of the companion article.
At the same time, the fact that Christ has placed the keys of the kingdom into the hands of the whole assembly means that every church has an independent authority to exercise the authority of Christ in the what of gospel confessions and the who of making disciples.
(Click here for “A Church and Churches: Integration.”)