When Jesus spoke about the church, right in the middle of his teaching about the kingdom of God (Matthew 16), what did he mean when he used the word “church”? Before you answer too quickly consider the importance of biblical words and how we have become accustomed to use them thoughtlessly in many instances. This is genuinely true when it comes to the English word church.
Alan Streett understands the word church to refer to what we should call a voluntary association. Most biblical scholars believe that the first church was much like a synagogue. It functioned much like a synagogue if one viewed it as a messianic movement within Judaism. In time the church (congregation/assembly) became a behind-the-scenes gathering of people who voluntary submitted to Jesus and to one another in faith and baptism and then meet regularly for prayer, the hearing of the Word of God and the receiving of the sacred meal, the Lord’s Supper. This church was built by Jesus and it belongs to him, not to us or a human agency. He calls it “my church.” This church has a rock-solid foundation. But how do we understand this foundation?
Protestants and Catholics have a different view of Matthew 16, and Peter’s confession, as most readers well know. Streett opts for Oscar Cullmann’s explanation, one which I find convincing. Cullman, the German biblical scholar, believed that the person and the foundation in Matthew 16 are identical. Peter is the rock upon which the church will be built! Why does Matthew (Jesus) use two different Greek words here? Citing the Aramaic language, in which Jesus actually spoke these words, Street concludes, “The translator rendered Kepha in two different ways–petra and petros. He likely did this for the sake of variety and not to make a distinction between the two [words]” (Heaven on Earth, 174-5). This explanation has solid contextual support and is consistent with the better biblical and non-polemical nuances of the debate. This is especially true since Jesus identifies himself as “the builder” of the church, not the foundation.
The rub here is that most Protestants reject this interpretation because Catholic theology has used it to build a doctrine of apostolic succession that designates Peter as the first pope. But the passage, and the rest of the New Testament for that matter, makes no specific mention of this claim nor does it name Peter’s successors or remotely hint at who such successors should be. Huge interpretative assumptions are made in order to arrive at this understanding. This particular text does not explicitly warrant them.
Finally, Jesus says that his church will endure. “The gates of Hades [death] shall not prevail against it.” What is likely going on here is that Jesus is saying the church will live in the interim period, the time between the kingdom coming and the kingdom coming in its final form. Right now death is still an enemy even though the final victory has been announced in the coming of Jesus and through his resurrection, the event which assures us of the final victory being settled and secure. What takes place in the interim, between the kingdom already here and the kingdom not yet finally here? What takes place is nothing less than the mission of the church. The church can expect persecution, yet it will survive. The church must preach the gospel of the kingdom and thereby snatch people out of death’s grip and bring them into the community of believers. When the church is well it will heal the sick and raise the dead (Heaven on Earth, 176).
If this is true can there be any serious doubt that the church in the West is in deep trouble with every passing day? Part of the answer, a large part I would submit, is to recover a biblical understanding of the gospel of the kingdom and teach people how to live this out day-to-day.