Jesus only mentioned the word “church” three times in all four gospels (Mt. 16:18, 18:17). When somebody makes an emphatic point of this fact, they’re usually an inch away from concluding that “church” is therefore unimportant. I’ve been around long enough to know there’s frequently more to this reasoning than logic. Emotional dynamics are at work.
Consider how easy it is to grow tired of the institutional church, tired of the headaches associated with dealing with people. We’re fatigued by demands, needs, requests for time and money, judgment, and blatant hypocrisy. You can also factor in the shenanigans of control-freak leaders, and yet another drama on service teams or committees, and you’ve got something about as fun as bed bugs.
Church leaders are also apt to feel the drain of gossipy folks, the endlessly non-committed who have plenty of opinions about how church should be, small groups that are lynch mobs in disguise, and of course, leadership burnout.
While we’re at it, don’t forget banal church culture: bazaars, spaghetti dinners, countless generic Sundays, kid pastors with lots of tattoos (or tired older guys with the goatee-jean-sport coat look), planning sessions worthy of Dilbert cartoons, and events on the calendar conflicting with things you would rather be doing.
And Jesus only mentioned the church a few times. Thank God. That means we might not have to deal with it.
Trust me when I say I feel you. But let me toss a few questions on the table.
- How many times does Jesus need to talk about something before it becomes important?
- Do the apostles’ writings, that are full of church talk, equally rank with the four gospels as the word of God?
- Does everything we call “church” automatically qualify as church?
These are fly-by questions that I’m not going to remark upon at present. Instead, consider what is actually being said in the gospels. That will be more fruitful than the results of a sixty-second word search in your Bible software.
Jesus spends a lot more time describing the church than naming it. Past the point of His death and resurrection, He expects the believers to continue in fellowship. He selects metaphors to describe it, such as a vine (John 15) and a flock (John 10)—collective entities.
He provides these pictures with the expectation that we’ll be committed to one another. Jesus tells the disciples to “Love one another.” (John 13:34) and “You also should wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14). He gives strong admonitions about maintaining relationships, such as through forgiveness. Only people who are together on a continuing basis need that reminder.
No, Jesus didn’t commonly say “church.” He said everything but.
Suddenly in Acts and onward, “church” and “churches” become a frequent word because the “baby” had been born.
When Jesus did say “church” those few times in the gospels, He used it the way some people say the name of their unborn child. It’s a shot over the bow—a declaration of something to come.
At one point in time, there was no such thing as a recognizable identity called Katie, John, Molly, Drew, or Sarah. Even mom and dad said the name of that unborn child with almost theoretical unreality. It’s hard to talk about Tommy when Tommy isn’t technically here, yet. In the intervening nine months, everybody sticks to talking about due dates, gender reveals, showers, and painting the guest bedroom walls powder blue.
You haven’t heard the expectant parents mention “Bobby,” or “Sam,” or “Sheila” very much?
Don’t tell them it means the baby is unimportant.
Photo credit: Marc Wathleu