In Matthew 18:17, 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.” What does Jesus mean when He says “church” here? I thought the church wasn’t really a thing until the book of Acts…
The word “church” here is a translation of the Greek word ekklēsia. This word most literally means “assembly” or “congregation.” Since it eventually came to be applied to the gathering of Christian believers after Jesus’ resurrection, ekklēsia is most often translated as “church” in the New Testament.
However, at this point the disciples would not have had in their minds what the assembly of Christian believers would look like after Christ’s resurrection. Their primary point of reference for understanding what Jesus was talking about would have been the synagogue of the Jews. At that time (as throughout history since then), the synagogue was the primary gathering place for the Jews, especially away from Jerusalem (where the Temple was). The synagogue was the center of daily religious life, particularly in the reading and teaching of God’s Word, and it also carried a governmental significance in the community. We see this in the fact that people could be expelled, or “put out,” of the synagogue, like the man born blind in John 9.
The use of the word “church” here in Matthew 18 can be a little confusing, because it can make it sound like Jesus was at this moment clearly establishing a new and distinct religious institution apart from the synagogue. But the apostles would not have seen it this way. They did not see the “church” as an immediate clean break from the old way of doing things. Rather, they saw faith in Christ as a continuation of the Jewish faith, and rightly so. This is why they first went and preached the gospel in the synagogues, both at Jesus’ example and instruction during His presence among them, and also after His departure. Even when the apostles eventually went to Gentile lands, they habitually started by preaching the gospel in the Jewish synagogues, understanding that the gospel was “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16). The synagogue was where the assembly (church) of God’s people happened at that time, so they started there. It’s only after the message of faith in Christ is repeatedly rejected in the synagogues that we see the gradual formation of the distinctly Christian gathering of God’s people which came to be called the “church,” and which consists of both Jews and Gentiles knitted together in Christ.
But understand, even though we today have the distinct word “church” for this gathering, the New Testament believers were still using ekklēsia, a general term for “assembly,” to refer to themselves. And there were other “assemblies” at the time, just like there are now. Some were religious, like the synagogues, and others were civil, like the “assembly” that gathered against the apostles in Ephesus (see Acts 19). So it was not the word “church” that set apart the New Testament assembly of believers. It was the fact that this assembly gathered in the name of Jesus Christ.
It’s helpful to remind ourselves of the actual meaning of church. It’s one of those words that we use so often, it can easily lose its significance in our minds. Jesus defines this assembly very simply when He says, “where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst” (Matt. 18:20). This destroys the notion that “church” is just about your own personal experience with God. You may commune personally with God through prayer and praise while alone in nature, but that ain’t church. The New Testament condemns the “habit” of “forsaking our own assembling together” (Heb. 10:25); Jesus wants no part with those who refuse to join themselves in fellowship to His people.
A Note on Church Discipline
Don’t miss the context of Matthew 18. It’s important for understanding the nature of the church. We said above that one of the functions of the synagogue was governmental; the synagogue made judgments about those who were in and those who were out. This is a function which Jesus explicitly tells His disciples carries through to the Christian church.
We tend to think of Jesus’ words in v. 20—“where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst”—as a sweet unconditional blessing from God on any group of people claiming to be gathered in Jesus’ name. But the context here is that of church discipline. Jesus is giving instructions for how to deal with an unrepentant member of the community. In fact, He requires His church to make judgments about such a person. When the church does so, it glorifies Christ as it demonstrates His authority and promotes the purity of the Christian community. While this passage is about what the church is, it is even more so about what our Lord expects His church to do.