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Determining which, if any, is the "true" Christian church?

Using Jesus' statements and his
teaching about outcasts as a guide

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What did Jesus say?

Not much. Although the word "church" appears in the New Testament of the King James Version of the Bible 72 times, only two are found in statements attributed to Jesus. Both verses are in the gospel of Matthew:

Matthew 16:18: "...thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church..."

bulletThis passage has been considered a play on words by some Bible commentators. In Jesus' native tongue, Aramaic, the word for Peter is Kepha. The word for a stone or fragment of a rock is also kepha. In Greek, these words Petros and Petra. Some consider the verse to be a pun, a simple bit of humor, without any serious significance. An analogous statement today might be: "You are Rocky; and upon this rock I will build my church."
bulletThe Roman Catholic church interprets this passage literally. They teach that Peter later went to Rome, founded the Catholic church, and became its first pope. Some theologians believe that there is no historical evidence of this relocation. Peter was located in Jerusalem as part of the Jewish Christian movement, according to biblical sources.
bulletSome conservative Protestant commentators believe that the passage implies that Peter is to be considered a fragment of the rock - the rock itself being Jesus. 1 That is: the true Christian Church is to be built upon Jesus. Peter is to be considered as one contributor - one piece of the rock.
bulletMost liberal theologians do not regard the passage as being the authentic words of Jesus. They believe that the passage was generated in the mind of the author of Matthew circa 90 CE, some 6 decades after Jesus' execution, and the words attributed to Jesus. The author's motivation was to reinforce the legitimacy of the Christian church. According to theologian R.W. Funk: "All of this is Christian language and reflects conditions in the budding institution," 2 It would not have formed part of Jesus' ministry. The word translated here as "church" is ekklesia in Greek. At the time that the Gospel of Matthew was written, it meant a community of believers (something like a house church), not an organized church with clergy and a hierarchy. 3

Matt 18:15-17: "Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican."

bulletJesus is instructing his followers how to resolve intra-group conflicts, via a graduated series of responses. It starts with a meeting between the two persons who are directly affected; they attempt to resolve the problem. If necessary, it escalates to the level of a type of excommunication of the responsible individual from the Christian movement.
bulletMost conservative theologians regard the reference to church as pertaining to the local congregation. 1
bulletMost liberal theologians believe that "It seems certain that such advanced regulations did not come from Jesus but from the early church itself..." 4 Rather, the words were composed by the anonymous author of the gospel, and were not actually said by Jesus. According to R.W. Funk: "The regulations are relevant to a time when the Christian community had to develop procedures for dealing with deviant behavior;" 2 These thoughts would not have formed part of Jesus'' ministry; they would have arisen many decades later.

And so, we have the usual split among many conservative Protestants, liberal Protestants, and the Catholic church about Jesus' teachings. These derive from their very different beliefs about the nature of the Bible:

bulletRoman Catholics believe that Jesus selected Peter to organize the Catholic church, centered in Rome, and to be its first pope. Matthew 16:18 implies that Roman Catholicism is the true church.
bulletMany other conservative Protestantss believe that it was Jesus' intention to found a formal religious organization, a church much like today's Evangelical denominations.
bulletMany very liberal Christians believe that Jesus had no desire to form a church organization, but was trying to convert individual Jews to his belief system via his own example, and by teaching. Thus, there is no "true" Christian church today, in the sense that no denomination matches Jesus' intent.

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How did Jesus behave towards social outcasts?

Jesus' main religious opponents, the Pharisees, Scribes, continually criticized him for being in the company of publicans and sinners:

bulletMark 2:15-16: "...as Jesus sat at meat in his house, many publicans and sinners sat also together with Jesus and his disciples..."
bulletMatthew 9:10-11: "...many publicans and sinners came and sat down with him and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto his disciples, Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners?"
bulletMatthew 11:19 "...Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners..."
bulletLuke 5:30: "But their scribes and Pharisees murmured against his disciples, saying, Why do ye eat and drink with publicans and sinners?"
bulletLuke 7:34: "Behold a gluttonous man, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners!"
bulletLuke 15:1-2: "Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him. And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them."

The term publican is translated in most other versions of the New Testament as tax collectors - perhaps the most despised persons in the community. Some theologians believe that the sinners "would have included women of questionable reputation." 2 One Bible commentary remarks that the Pharisees and scribes observed "that Jesus formed relationships with people they considered to be social outcasts." 1 Such individuals were "considered ceremonially unclean by Jewish standards."

Many groups have been considered social outcasts in North American society during the past two centuries: Roman Catholics, Irish and other large groups of immigrants, Jews, African-Americans, etc. But by the end of the 20th century, all of these groups have become more or less fully integrated into society. Rejection of groups because of their race, nationality, religion, gender, etc. are no longer allowed in polite company in many areas of North America. The only main exceptions today are gays and lesbians. Homosexuals are still considered social outcasts by a large proportion of older North Americans. If Jesus returned to earth tomorrow, one might speculate that he might well be seen celebrating by eating and drinking with gays and lesbians.

Few present-day denominations follow Jesus' lead by welcoming gays and lesbians as full members. The principal one is the Metropolitan Community Church, which has a special ministry to homosexuals, bisexuals and transsexuals. Other inclusive faith groups are a number of liberal denominations: Unitarian Universalist Association, United Church of Christ, United Church of Canada, Unity Church, and some others.

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References:

  1. J.D.Douglas, Ed., "New Commentary on the Whole Bible, New Testament Volume" Tyndale House, (1990)
  2. R.W. Funk, et. al., "The five gospels: the search for the authentic words of Jesus," Macmillan, (1993)
  3. C.M. Laymon, Ed., "The Interpreter's one volume commentary on the Bible, Albingdon, (1991)
  4. Joseph McCabe, "A Rationalist Encyclopaedia: A book of reference on religion, philosophy, ethics and science," Gryphon Books (1971). Excerpts appear at: http://www.christianism.com/articles/18.html

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Home > Christianity > Christian faith groups > the true church > here

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Copyright © 1999 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 1999-JAN-13
Latest update: 2007-JUL-27
Author: B.A. Robinson

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