Most agree that a church should reflect the nature and character of God. Someone should be able to see the goings on of a church and its members and understand something of God. The problem is, that they seldom see truth about God. Christians become torn between trying to display the love of God or the holiness of God. This is problematic. The church that focuses on the love of God will drift towards an “anything goes” doctrine. The church that focuses on the holiness of God will drift towards a harsh legalism, not unlike the Pharisees of the New Testament. The challenge for a church is to reflect both the love and the holiness of God in order to show truth about God.

To better understand how this can be done, consider Matthew 16. Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am.” Peter provides the correct answer: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Then Jesus says a peculiar thing.

17 Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. 18 “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. 19 “And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:17-19, NKJV).

It is necessary to carefully consider a few of the words in this passage. First, consider “rock.” Jesus claims that upon the rock of Peter’s confession (the Greek words for “rock” and “Peter differ), He will build His church. The church is based on profession that Jesus is the Christ; the Son of God.

Next, consider “church.” The ekklesia was a list of citizens in a community that were called out for important decisions, trials, or defense. Jesus, claims that He will build just this sort of group, on the foundation of this profession of faith. This is the beginning of our understanding of a church. It is a group (and I would argue a specific group, though I do not exclude the notion that there is a universal body of all believers) of people that believe that Jesus is the Christ, which has been called out for a specific purpose. By definition alone, it is apparent that membership has its place.

After this, Jesus says something that has puzzled many for years. He tells the disciples that they are given the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Some implications here (particularly that the disciples, and by extension the church, determine salvation) seem to contradict other teachings of scripture, so it is important to find clarification here.

A good means of clarifying a passage is to look for parallel passages. In other words, look for the same thing said elsewhere in scripture and then look for the context there to find a better understanding of the teaching. A parallel passage is found just two chapters over in Matthew 18.

15 “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. 16 “But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ 17 “And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. 18 “Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 “Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. 20 “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:15-20, NKJV).

This time, the teachings (found here in vs 18) are in the context of church discipline. Where before they were in the context of what composes a church, now they speak to what does not compose a church.

It is important to note that as Jesus says “let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector,” Jesus loved heathen and tax collectors. Love is not absent from this process. The goal of the process is to bring someone to repentance; to encourage faith and growth. The purpose of removing a person from the church is not to shun, but to attend to salvation. How often do we simply try to assume the salvation of someone who strays? That may bring comfort to church members, but which is better: to assume someone is lost only to find in eternity they are not, or to assume someone is saved only to find in eternity that they are not? Love is the means and purpose of this process.

So what of the difficult reaching of verse 18? The church roll is a testimony to the coming judgment. Both by membership and by discipline, the church testifies to the judgment of a just, righteous, holy, and loving God. By profession of faith there is inclusion. By lack of repentance there is exclusion. Faith and repentance are inseparable, thus they both speak here to the nature of God.

Consider the testimony of the church. Be careful here. Many times, a Christian simply considers what the world thinks. There is a desire to gain a hearing; to show love, so that which is offended is avoided. Motives are good here, but the method of considering what the world thinks is questionable. Instead, consider the testimony that the Lord calls a church to show.

Consider three applications here: 1) With no regard to membership or discipline, we lack a good testimony. 2) If we do not show holiness (that is, have no discipline), we testify that God is not good. 3) If we so not show love, we testify that God is not love.

Having considered these things, let me challenge you to do the following:

1) Honor scripture. No matter how difficult, seek to apply these important doctrines.
2) In every aspect of your church, ask, “What does this say about God?”
3) Shore up membership. Seek to display an honest testimony and seek to call brothers and sisters in Christ to commitment.
4) Lovingly hold each other accountable, strengthening each in their walk with Christ.

For further reading, I recommend this book.