What authority does the church have in the world? Not only is this an important question, but it’s a question that has been at the center of recent conversations concerning the topic of Christian Nationalism. Yet, when we consider the purpose of the local church, we must understand that this is also a question that gets to the very heart of the church’s God-ordained foundation and function. Therefore, the more specific question we need to be asking is this: What authority has Christ given the church?
As we prepare to answer that question, we need to begin in the Old Testament. There, we discover that, under the Old Covenant, three offices comprised the divinely designated representatives of God. Those representatives of heaven included the prophets, who declared, “Thus says the Lord,” as they spoke to the people of God on behalf of God (Isa 4:22). It included the priests, who mediated the Old Covenant through sacrifices (Lev 9:15). And it included the kings, who ruled and reigned over the children of Israel (2 Sam 2:4). But now, through the New Covenant, Jesus has been revealed to be the fulfillment of all three of those Old Testament offices. He was and is the ultimate Prophet, Priest, and King. As the Word of God made flesh, Jesus is the Prophet who always proclaims the truth of God (Deut 18:15; John 1:1). As the Mediator of a new and eternal covenant, he is the High Priest, who himself has become our once, for-all-time, sacrifice (Heb 4:14). And as the one who reigns from heaven and will reign on earth, he is the King of kings and Lord of lords (Rev 9:16).
Like a divine rope with three strands, it is by this three-fold office that the crucified, resurrected, and ascended Christ now leads his church to carry out the gospel mission, as his ambassadors and representatives upon the earth. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:17–21:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconcilingthe world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
The Authority to Make Disciples
So, when was this ambassadorial authority given to Christ’s followers? To see that, we turn our attention to the gospel of Matthew. As we do, it’s worth noting that Matthew’s gospel is primarily focused on helping Jewish believers understand how Jesus, the Messiah and King, has inaugurated his Kingdom and how he expects his Kingdom citizens to live and operate. Of course, as Jesus enters the scene of redemptive history, as recorded in the gospels, he is doing so as the one who has all authority. And, with that authority, he makes a fundamental shift in who represents heaven on earth.
We find that exact moment in Chapter 28 of Matthew’s gospel. Even before his crucifixion, Jesus had commanded his disciples to meet him in Galilee after he was raised from the dead (Mark 14:28). Following that instruction, along with a helpful reminder from an angel at the tomb, the disciples meet the resurrected Christ on a mountain in Galilee (Mark 16:7). As he appears to them, Jesus begins by establishing his all-encompassing authority, declaring, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (v. 18). Notice, that no domain is excluded in this proclamation. Jesus is saying, unequivocally, that everyone and everything, both in heaven and on earth, is within the realm of his sovereign rule and reign. And it will be upon this basis that Jesus grants his disciples the authority to make disciples.
We see this sacred mantle delivered by Christ in verses 19–20. Jesus says:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
This monumental mission has traditionally been called the Great Commission. Notice that the apostles, who will go on to become the very foundation of the church, are not given a mission to be mercenaries who create converts by force. They’re not called to be vigilantes of law and order who wield the sword of retributive justice. And, they’re not called to obtain political power in order to overthrow the Roman Empire. No, the sacred mantle Christ entrusts to his disciples is the divine authority to proclaim the Word of God and shepherd the people of God for the glory of God.
In short, disciples are entrusted with the privilege and responsibility to make disciples. We accomplish this, first and foremost, by proclaiming the gospel from our neighborhoods to the nations. Salvation comes only through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, so we must share the good news with everyone in our spheres of contact and influence (Rom 10:13–17). From there, as Jesus explains, disciple making involves baptizing believers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This public profession of faith and identification with the risen Christ and his church, is the believer’s first act of obedience to Christ. This, then, leads to the culminating portion of Christ’s commission, which is teaching believers to continue submitting to Christ’s lordship in all things, with the accompanying promise that he will always be with us.
The Authority to Affirm Believers
Thus, it is the church of Jesus Christ, with her Lord as the Head, who now represents heaven on earth (Eph 5:23). As Christ’s ambassadors, the church now bears the weight of the sacred mantle, appointed to fulfill a calling of eternal significance. Yet, one of the great challenges found within the responsibility to make disciples is the existence of imposters. Like Satan himself, who disguises himself as an angel of light, there are imposters in this world who claim to be genuine believers in Jesus Christ, and fellow representatives of heaven, but are not (2 Cor 11:14–15). Jesus warned us of these people and provided the criteria by which to discern their true spiritual identity (Matt 7:15–20).
It is for this reason that the church has also been given the authority to affirm true believers, which we find prescribed in Matthew 16. In verses 13–19, a dialogue between Jesus and his disciples begins with a question:
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
There’s a parallel structure found within this passage. On the one side, we see Peter rightly declaring the identity and role of Jesus in redemptive history, as revealed to him by God. But then on the other side, we see Jesus declaring the identity and role of Peter, and more specifically his confession, in redemptive history. John MacArthur makes a helpful observation, saying:
It was not the apostles themselves, much less on Peter as an individual that Christ built his church, but on the apostles, as his uniquely appointed, endowed, and inspired teachers of the gospel…The foundation of the church is the revelation of God given through His apostles, and the Lord of the church is the cornerstone of that foundation.1MacArthur, John F. The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Matthew 16–23. United States: Moody Publishers, 2011, 28–29.
In other words, Jesus is declaring, in this moment, that the authority of the church rests upon this faith-filled, Spirit-revealed confession of Christ as the Son of the living God. This is precisely why Jesus tells the apostles, as the conduits of divine revelation and the future witnesses of his resurrection, that he is giving them the keys of the kingdom of heaven. What do keys accomplish? They give you the authority and ability to unlock and open doors. Thus, Jesus is declaring that the right and authority to open the door to heaven, if you will, comes only through the good news of the gospel. No one enters heaven without coming through Christ, who is the door (John 10:9).
This is what makes the sacred mantle given to the church such a weighty privilege and responsibility. Christ has entrusted the church with the responsibility to identify who is making a credible profession of faith in Christ, based upon their life and testimony, and who is therefore baptized into the visible body of believers known as the church. This is a major aspect of what church membership is all about. It’s about individual believers expressing a desire to be united to a true, biblically sound church, and in turn, that church mutually affirming professing believers as members of the body with all the privileges and responsibilities that come with that reciprocal relationship.
With this in mind, it should be emphatically emphasized that the church has not been called to declare an individual saved. We have no authority to bestow salvation or to absolve sins. That authority belongs to Christ and Christ alone. As stated in the Great Commission, our role is not to confer faith, but to proclaim the gospel and to affirm credible professions of faith.
The Authority to Discipline Members
As we consider the gravity of the church’s high calling, it’s also important for us to consider the flipside of her authority to affirm believers, which is found in Christ’s reference to “binding” and “loosing.” For that, we turn our attention to Matthew 18, where we find those two references repeated. Once again, speaking to his disciples, Jesus instructs them, saying:
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them (v. 15–20).
For context, Jesus has just finished telling a parable about lost sheep, emphasizing God’s affection for each of His children. He uses the metaphor of sheep to explain how much joy there is in heaven when a believer who has gone astray is restored to fellowship in the local church (v. 12–14). Therefore, in verses 15–17, Jesus provides the steps for restoring sheep to the fold, which is the prescription for church discipline. It also includes the way individual believers in the church should conduct themselves as it pertains to communicating offenses against one another.
It’s crucial for us to recognize this for what it is. It is not a mean-spirited, antiquated way of handling church conflict. On the contrary, this is God, in His omniscient wisdom, divinely ordaining an infinitely loving process for the church to fulfill her purpose. And, within that process, we notice the culminating step for a professing believer who persists in unrepentant sin. If the initial steps of restoration are unsuccessful, Jesus says:
If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector (v. 17).
These are the instructions provided by Jesus Christ, who is the Head of the Church, for how churches are to proceed when a professing believer refuses to repent. The church is called to remove that individual from church membership and to begin evangelizing that person with the gospel. Why? Because the characteristic pattern of their life no longer bears the markings of a genuine believer. Instead, their life testifies to a heart of rebellion to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now, as those who exist in a culture of ultra-sensitivity, we may be tempted to respond to this instruction by saying, “Well, that doesn’t seem very nice.” But let me ask you, which is the more kind and loving action? Is it to hold a person accountable for their pattern of sinful behavior with the hope of helping them to see their genuine need for salvation, or is it to ignore sinful behavior, sweeping it under the proverbial church rug with a broom called kindness until that person eventually dies and stands before God on judgment day, only to realize that they were never actually a Christian at all, and will therefore spend an eternity in hell? It is not kind, or nice, or loving to turn a blind eye to members of the church who persist in unrepentant patterns of sinful behavior. It’s been said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but we might also add that the path to hell is cemented by unhealthy churches that fail to carry out their God-given responsibility. That’s not love. It’s cowardice. Our King has given us a command, and we are called to obey him.
That brings us back to the repeated concept of “binding” and “loosing.” In verse 18, Jesus summarizes his instructions by saying:
Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
So connecting to our passage from Matthew 16, this is another crucial aspect of the gospel authority that has been entrusted to the church. With that in mind, it’s important to note that Jesus is not saying that the church has the authority to determine what takes place in heaven. Rather, he’s saying that the church has the ability and responsibility to declare on earth what has already been declared to be true in heaven. It’s the church exercising the wisdom of God, as revealed in the inspired, authoritative Word of God, to rightly discern spiritual realities “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10).
To see a practical example of this, we can look to 1 Corinthians 5. There, Paul instructs the church to place a certain man outside the fellowship of the church, declaring him to be an unbeliever who is still bound in his sin. Why? Because that is clearly the reality of his condition (1 Cor 5:1–2). Heaven, of course, already knows that he is bound in sin, because God knows it. Therefore, with the goal of seeing this man loosed from his sin, as Paul says, “for the destruction of his flesh,” the church is called to remove him from their congregation. Why? Because this man’s soul is at stake. Eternity is in the balance. It’s literally a matter of spiritual life and death. This is the sobering weight of the sacred mantle.
O Church, Arise
The church’s great calling to take up this sacred mantle is declared triumphantly in the hymn, “O Church, Arise.” The first stanza exhorts the body of Christ through song, saying:
O church, arise, and put your armor on;
Hear the call of Christ our captain.
For now the weak can say that they are strong
In the strength that God has given.
With shield of faith and belt of truth,
We’ll stand against the devil’s lies.
An army bold, whose battle cry is love,
Reaching out to those in darkness.2https://store.gettymusic.com/us/song/o-church-arise-arise-shine/
As each church seeks to rightly respond to the high calling of Christ, may we recognize the gospel authority that has been entrusted to us. May we receive the sacred mantle of proclaiming, preserving, and protecting the gospel of Jesus Christ. And may it be said of each of our churches that we love the gospel deeply and that we take our God-given privilege and responsibility seriously for the good of God’s people and for the exaltation of God’s glory.