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Question: Did Christ establish a Church while on the earth?
Question: Did Christ establish a Church while on the earth?
Introduction to Criticism
Protestant critics of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and some others allege that Jesus Christ did not establish a formal Church while on the earth. For protestants this is related to their belief in the Invisible Church which is the belief that the elect of God are only known to him. This contrasts with the notion of a Visible Church (espoused by faiths like Catholicism as well as that of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) which is the belief in a formal organization established to administer sacraments and which has authority to preach the Gospel.
This article will weigh in on this debate with sources that support belief in a Visible Church as well as reconcile passages that may support Invisible Church within the larger context of Latter-day Saint theology. It will be seen that the concept of a formal organization is known to the primitive Church while also believing that believers form a larger cosmic family, a concept that is eerily similar to the concept of Zion elucidated by texts translated/revealed early in Latter-day Saint history by founder Joseph Smith. Thus they pose no problem for an orthodox Latter-day Saint's worldview.
Response to Criticism
A Formal Church Existed
The concept of a visible Church can be supported by several texts in the New Testament.
The Gospel According to Matthew
Matthew 16:18 is a classic passage that supports belief in a formal Church established by Christ:
- And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. (NIV)
The reference to "my church" (μου τὴν ἐκκλησίαν) may signify that Jesus wanted to build up a singular Church. In subsequent verses Jesus clearly wished to establish a formal authority for declaring doctrine. He told Peter in the next verse (Matthew 19:19):
- I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. (NIV)
On the language of "binding" and "loosing," two protestant scholars wrote:
19. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Cf. Isa 22.22; 1.18 and 3.7 (Jesus has the keys of Death and Hades as well as the key of David); 3 Bar. 11.2 (the angel Michael is the ‘holder of the keys of the kingdom of Heaven’); 3 En. 18.18 (‘Anapi’el YHH the prince keeps the keys of the palaces of the heaven of Arabot); 48 C 3 (Metatron has the keys to the treasure chamber of heaven). Heaven was conceived of as having gates or doors . . . . and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. C. 18.18 and Jn 20.23. Peter is the authoritative teacher without peer. He has the power to declare what is permitted and what is not permitted. Cf. 23.13: ‘But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut people out of the kingdom. For you do not go in nor allow those who want to go in to do so’. Here, as the context proves, the scribes shut the door to the kingdom by issuing false doctrine. The image is closely related to 16.19, and the inference lies near to hand that just as the kingdom itself is taken from the Jewish leaders and given to the church (21.43), so are the keys of the kingdom taken from the scribes and Pharisees and given to Peter. Supportive of this is the broader context of Peter’s confession. In the immediately preceding 16.5-12 Jesus warns: ‘Beware of the leaven of the scribes and Pharisees.’ Matthew takes this to be about the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees. It would make good sense for the evangelist, in the very next paragraph, to tell a story in which Jesus replaces the Jewish academy with his own ‘chief rabbi’.
Another protestant scholar, Oscar Cullmann, wrote:
What do the expressions “bind” and “loose” signify? According to Rabbinical usage two explanations are equally possible: “prohibit” and “permit,” that is, “establish rules” or “put under the ban” and “acquit.”
Jesus, then, is establishing that Peter is being given a formal authority to declare and establish doctrine.
Craig S. Keener, one of the foremost Protestant scholars of the New Testament wrote:
That authority is exercised in binding and losing, which were technical terms for the pronouncement of rabbis on what was and was not permitted (to bind was to forbid, to loose to permit). This verse therefore probably refers primarily to a legislative authority in the church.
This same language of "binding" and "loosing" is used in reference to all twelve Apostles in Matthew 18:17-18. We can soundly infer that the same logic is being applied to them as it was to Peter—that they had a particular, institutional, ecclesiastical authority to declare doctrine on behalf of the entire body of Saints.
This teaching authority is confirmed in the fact that one of the the fundamental crieteria for how early Christians formed the New Testament canon was apostolicity (having origin from one of the Apostles). These apostles set a formal doctrine for the Church which early disciples followed (Acts 2:42). Other than this, the apostles were also given power ("δύναμις") and authority ("ἐξουσία") over all devils, to cast them out (Matthew 10:1) and to cure diseases (Luke 9:1). As the late Latter-day Saint religious educator and author Gilbert W. Scharffs wrote, "Christ had followers, leaders, and rules. That certainly constitutes an organization." This becomes clearer as we look at other passages from the NT.
Lothar Coenen expresses doubt in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology that the passages from Matthew 16 and 18 can be used to support the notion that Christ intended the visible Church to come into being. They indeed remain the only times in all the Gospels that the word most often translated as Church in the NT (ekklesía, "ἐκκλησία") is used. "In all probability[,]" he writes, "Jesus himself called together the Twelve, but did not found the ekklesia as such in his own lifetime, not even through the institution of the Lord's Supper." Though "[t]his by itself would not settle the question whether he intended the church to come into being." Though this skepticism may be unwarranted as we continue to look at other passages from the NT.
Acts of the Apostles
Acts gives a couple of passages that might suggest that an institutional Church was formed.
Acts 2: 37-47 reads
- 37 Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do?
- 38 Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.
- 39 For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.
- 40 And with many other words did he testify and exhort, saying, Save yourselves from this untoward generation.
- 41 Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls.
- 42 And they continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.
- 43 And fear came upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles.
- 44 And all that believed were together, and had all things common;
- 45 And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.
- 46 And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart,
- 47 Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.
Several things of interest emerge from this passage
- There are a group of believers who are both saved in Christ and admitted into the church by ordinance of baptism.
- These believers are united by common belief in the Apostles' doctrine
Officers with authority, followers, common belief and practice. The pattern continues throughout the NT.
In both disputed and undisputed Pauline writings we get the same pattern of officers with authority and followers united by common belief in practice. Ernest Best notes how "[m]inistry in the church is described both in general terms (1 Thess. 5:12; Heb 13:7) and with a variety of more specific titles (e.g. deacons, 1 Tim. 3:8-13; bishops, 3:1-7; elders, 4:17-20...pastors, Eph. 4:11; and prophets, 1 Cor. 12:4-11) and their ministry was a gift from God (Rom. 12:4-8; Eph. 4:7-11)."
Lothar Coenen explains Paul's usage of Church in more detail:
It is not only the church's origin which lies with God. The ekklesia can only be understood in relation to the Lord, as the ekklesia tou theou, the congregation of God (1 Cor. 1:2; 11:16, 22; 2 Cor. 1:1; Gal. 1:13; 1 Thess. 2:14; 2 Thess. 1:4). Only Gal. 1:22 and Rom. 16:16 have the qualifying en Christo, in Christ, or tou Christou, of Christ. The adj. "Christian" is as yet unknown, and would in any case proclaim a sense of ownership which is onoly present in the experience of being received (b) The fact that ekklesia has the nature of an event does not, however, exclude the factor of continuity. However little this happening can be commandedby men, it nevertheless expresses itself in permanent forms and institutions. Where the ekklesia is an event, the institution of ekklesia comes into being and will continue to do so in the expectation that Lord will continue to make his presence real. Coming together (synago as in the LXX) must be reckoned an essential element in ekklesia (cf. 1 Cor. 11:18). Hence the ekklesia can be thought of in purely concrete terms, and any spiritualizing in the dogmatic sense of an invisible church (eccelsia insivibilus) is still unthinkable for Paul.:299
Coenen cites how the church for Paul has geographical location. 33 different geographical locations and local churches associated with those locations are mentioned in the New Testament:
- Antioch, Pisidia: Acts 13:14; Gal 1:2
- Antioch, Syria: Acts 11:26
- Athens: Acts 17:34
- Babylon: 1 Peter 5:13; Acts 2:9
- Berea: Acts 17:11
- Caesarea: Acts 10:1,48
- Cenchrea: Rom 16:1
- Colossae: Col 1:2
- Corinth: Acts 18:1
- Crete: Titus 1:5
- Cyrene: Acts 11:20
- Damascus: Acts 9:19
- Derbe: Acts 14:20; Gal 1:2
- Ephesus: Acts 18:19
- Hierapolis Col 4:13
- Iconium: Acts 14:1; Gal 1:2
- Jerusalem: Acts 2:5
- Joppa: Acts 9:36, 38
- Laodicea: Rev 1:11, Col 4:15
- Lydda: Acts 9:32
- Lystra: Acts 14:6; Gal 1:2
- Pergamum: Rev 1:11
- Philadelphia: Rev 1:11
- Philippi: Acts 16:12
- Puteoli, Italy: Acts 28:13-14
- Rome: Rom 1:7
- Sardis: Rev 1:11
- Sharon: Acts 9:35
- Smyrna: Rev 1:11
- Tarsus: Acts 9:30
- Thessalonica: Acts 17:1
- Thyatira: Rev 1:11; Acts 16:14
- Troas: Acts 20:6-7
There are 6 "regions" of churches:
- Region of Phoencia: Acts 11:19
- Region of Samaria: Acts 8:14, 25
- Churches of Judea: Gal 1:22
- Churches of Galatia: Gal 1:2
- Churches of Asia: 1 Cor 16:19
- Churches of Macedonia: 2 Cor 8:1
Letters to some of these Churches from Paul, for example, were meant to correct false doctrines and disputes that had arisen among them. The New Testament frequently warns against false teachings, prophets, and teachers.
This is perhaps as close as anyone could get exegetically to supporting the concept of Visible Church.
Latter-day Saints Don't Need to Rely on Biblical Scholarship Exclusively to Support This View
It should be noted that Latter-day Saints don't need to support this view from biblical scholarship exclusively. Too many critics make the mistake of assuming that we do. Latter-day Saints have the advantage of believing in continuing prophetic revelation and of having additional scriptures that they can turn to to support different things about the Bible. Oftentimes historical documents can't tell us about what happened one way or the other and we need new sources to turn to to confirm different things. The Book of Mormon acts as a second witness to the Bible. The fact that we can support the view from the Bible and scholarship of it is perhaps tangential to the fact that the Book of Mormon and other modern revelation confirm that Christ wanted to build up the Church (3 Nephi 21:22; 3 Nephi 27: 7, 8, 9, 10, 21; Doctrine and Covenants 10: 53-56). Revelation gives us the new sources of knowledge and information we can turn to to confirm our belief. The only ones who would not allow Latter-day Saints to take modern revelation as a valid source of knowledge and information are those that have already taken it as a presupposition that Joseph Smith is not a true prophet and the Book of Mormon is not true scripture.
Passages that Might Support Invisible Church Support Latter-day Saint Conceptions of Zion
There are indeed many other passages in the New Testament that describe the Church in spiritual vocabulary. The Church is referred to as the Church of God (1 Cor. 1:2; 11:16, 22; 2 Cor. 1:1; Gal. 1:13; 1 Thess. 2:14; 2 Thess. 1:4), the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12, 27; Rom. 12:4-5; Eph. 1:22-23; 4:15-16; Col. 1:18; 2:19), a metaphorical building where Christ is the chief cornerstone (Eph 2:20), the bride of Christ (Eph. 5:22-23), branches of a vine (John 15:1-11), and so forth.
Many Latter-day Saints and non-Latter-day Saints will be interested to know that similar language is employed in Latter-day Saint scripture including the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants to refer to true followers of Christ that don't belong to a formal institution.
In a vision of the apostasy given to the prophet Nephi, he saw that people in the last days during the Great Apostasy had all gone astray except for a few:
they have all gone astray save it be a few, who are the humble followers of Christ; nevertheless, they are led, that in many instances they do err because they are taught by the precepts of men. (2 Nephi 28:14)
Early revelations given to Joseph Smith recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants also refer to Christ's church in spiritual terms. Part of a revelation given as early as the summer of 1828 but most likely in April 1829 reads:
52 And now, behold, according to their faith in their prayers will I bring this part of my gospel to the knowledge of my people. Behold, I do not bring it to destroy that which they have received, but to build it up.
54 Now I do not say this to destroy my church, but I say this to build up my church.
53 And for this cause have I said: If this generation harden not their hearts, I will establish my church among them.
Again, this revelation is given in April 1829 and as early as the summer of 1828, a full 1-2 years before the formal organization of the Church on April 6, 1830. This clearly refers to believers that exist outside of a formal institution. The Savior in this revelation refers to "my church" as "whosoever repenteth and cometh unto [him][.]" (10:67).
This language reflects the Old Testament usage of things like "my people" and "Zion" to refer to the covenant group of people that actually had their hearts turned towards God in love that motivates people to be obedient to God and love other people as themselves. "Zion" becomes a major theme across Joseph Smith's revelations. Zion are those that are "of one heart and one mind" (Moses 7:18), those that are pure in heart (Doctrine and Covenants 97:21), etc.
Subsequent to the organization of the institutional church on April 6, 1830, the Lord refers to the Church as the "only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth[.]"(Doctrine and Covenants 1:30). This clearly refers to a formal institution.
Thus for Latter-day Saints, "church" can be defined both as the formal institution with officers, followers, and common beliefs and practices and those that have been truly been converted to Christ and who wish to become part of the larger fellowship of Zion--the cosmic family of totally altruistic people, turned outwards to care for the needs of another, thus become a people "of one heart and one mind," those that have their hearts purified and become like God by obedience to his commandments and their agapic love for one another. These are those that have been totally converted to Christ and receive all that he has.
Latter-day Saints can gather both concepts of an "invisible church" and "visible church" into a larger, holistic theological concept. Both New Testament exegesis and modern revelation confirm that the Lord wishes to build up a church--both an institutional, concrete entity that exists apart from other institutions of the world and a people who are totally converted to him that can become like God. Thus these disputes for Latter-day Saints ultimately become meaningless as they would see that their theology supports the perfect collapse of both concepts.
- W.D. Davis and Dale C. Allison, Matthew: A Shorter Commentary (London: T&T Clark International, 2004), 270–71, emphasis in original. Quoted in Robert S. Boylan, After the Order of the Son of God: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Latter-day Saint Theology of the Priesthood (Charleston, SC: CreateSpace, 2018), 121–22.
- Oscar Cullmann, Peter: Disciple, Apostle, Martyr (London: SCM Press, 1953), 204–5. Quoted in Boylan, After the Order, 122.
- Craig S. Keener, IVP Bible Background Commentary New Testament (Downers’ Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1993), 90. Quoted in Boylan, After the Order, 122.
- Krister Stehndahl, "Biblical Literature - New Testament canon, texts, and versions - The process of canonization," <https://www.britannica.com/topic/biblical-literature/The-process-of-canonization> (27 August 2020).
- Gilbert Scharffs, Missionary's Little Book of Answers (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2002), 185.
- Lothar Coenen, "Church," The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. Colin Brown (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981), 298.
- Ernest Best, "church," Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, ed. Mark Allan Powell (New York City: HarperCollins, 1989), 135.
- Doyle L. Green, "April 6, 1830: The Day the Church was Organized," Ensign 2 (January 1971).