In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus promises to build his church. He says, “So, then, I speak to you because you are Peter. And upon this rock, I will build my church (ἐκκλησίαν) and the gates of hades will not over power it (αὐτῆς)” (Matthew 16:18).
The word “church” and the pronoun “it” above are in the singular. In other words, Jesus says that he will build the church, the one church.
His promise leads us to ask an important question: Which church is he building?
Is he building the Baptist church, the Presbyterian church, the Roman Catholic church, the Orthodox church, or any of the other denominations?
The answer to this question requires careful, theological discernment of Scripture. Yet it also requires some knowledge of the past. The Holy Spirit has been at work in the church for 2,000 years, and the evidence of this work (you will know them by their fruits) helps us to zero-in on an answer.
I want to address Protestants directly here: Be Reformed, and understand your tradition. Martin Luther desired to reform the church (the catholic church). Only when he found that to be impossible, did he support a break from the Roman Catholics.
And yet: this was not a break from the historic church over the ages. It was a continuation. The Roman Catholic institution had fallen away from being the holy, catholic, and apostolic church.
The Protestants had not. In them, the historic body of the Christian faith continued. It was messy. But it was not something new. It was something traditional.
Jesus prayed, “Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one” (John 17:11). And Paul confesses, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4–6).
One body. One Spirit. One Hope. One Lord. One Faith. One God. One Father.
We are called to be one with God in one body of Christ.
To be the church means to be united as one. And so, there is necessity to be united within the body of Christ and to confess the same thing, as Paul notes above.
One church cannot confess that Christ is a created Spirit, whereas another one confesses that Christ is the Lord. They are not one body because they do not have one Lord.
The church is founded on the teaching of Christ, as testified to by inspired Scripture. It is the body of Christ, the elect saints, those in whom the Spirit dwells. According to Scripture, the marks of a church include an ordered leadership (elders, deacons, etc.), the centrality of the word, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. The mission of the church is discipleship (both the making of disciples and the nurturing of the same) and worship.
And the church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord. Additionally, the church’s one inspired testimony to Christ is Scripture. So, the unity of the church revolves around the unity of worship of Christ on the foundation of Holy Scripture.
And that unity ought to be seen in right practice.
Denominations are denominations of a whole. The moment we forget that, we betray our confession of “one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
Baptists, Presbyterians, Anglicans and all those whose foundations are Jesus Christ as testified to in Scripture are the church.
Denominations must, therefore, collegially work together for sake of Christ’s teaching and for the sake of the Gospel. And yet: how many Baptist denominations won’t even talk to another Baptist denomination due to their differences? How many Presbyterian groups won’t either?
Something has to change. We need to practice unity, the unity that we have in Christ.
It’s not an interesting idea. It’s a theological necessity.
The church traces its history to the New Testament. In that testament as well as the Old Testament, we learn of Christ who is the church’s one foundation. Denominations whose foundation is Christ and whose authority is the Christ-testifying Scripture are the church. We did not begin with Martin Luther nailing the 95 theses to the Wittenberg church door.
The church, washed by word and Spirit, has existed throughout the ages. The Roman Catholic church is, thus, a schism from the catholic church (i.e., the church whose foundation is Christ and Scripture). They did not reform. They did not return to a vision of the centrality of Christ based on Scripture alone apart from Papal authority or tradition (when that tradition is viewed as equal to Scripture).
So which church is Jesus building?
Jesus is building his church upon Peter and his apostolic confession. With Peter, the church confesses “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). And Jesus builds his church on this confession, and he grows it through his divinely inspired word. Any denomination of the whole that confesses Christ according to the Scriptural witness is the church that Jesus is building.
George Zhou says
“And the church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord. Additionally, the church’s one inspired testimony to Christ is Scripture. So, the unity of the church revolves around the unity of worship of Christ on the foundation of Holy Scripture.”
Love this statement. The about denominations is part of a whole is as well. Thanks for the insights Wyatt!
I’ve been kind of confused lately because I have also been reading some blog posts on Pulpit and Pen, who are pretty critical about New Calvinism, ecumenism, charismatism, etc. They seem to promote staying separate from these groups that propagate falsehood and unhealthy theology.
How are we actually suppose to practise unity with the Anglicans, Wesleyans, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, etc when most Pastors either (1) don’t want their flock to be led astray, (2) don’t want to be seen as affiliated or endorsing the other , and (3) already have enough trouble keeping their own congregations unified?
Would definitely appreciate your insights Brother,
Thanks again for the article,
Thanks for your kind comments.
I haven’t read the Pulpit and Pen articles. So, I cannot comment much there. I would say that Christian unity is necessary part of being the church: but we cannot have unity when Christ and his word are not central.
Re: denominations. Let’s take Anglicans as an example. The vast majority of worldwide Anglicans are faithful (similar to evangelicals). North American Anglicans are the exception. Many Anglicans have betrayed the faith. But they are tiny minority of Anglicans. The ACNA and ANiC in Canada are a faithful fellowship of North American Anglicans in fellowship with the international community. My thought is this: associate with the faithful Anglican community internationally and those part of this majority international fellowship who live in Canada (i.e., ANiC).
I think the same holds true for Presbyterians etc. Many Presbyterians have lost their first love. They’ve lost being the church. But many have not. So, for example, the PCA is a strong group whose one foundation of Jesus Christ. We fellowship with them.
As to how this happens, I think groups like the Gospel Coalition Canada are making headway here. TGC Canada endorses confessional unity across denominations. In so doing, anyone who joins TGC Canada affirms Jesus Christ as Lord and Scripture as central. No matter the denomination. It’s a visible expression of unity.
As to your final question: If the church is meant to be unified, then unity beyond the local church will benefit local churches. There are added resources, help, and Christianity community. And God blesses obedience. He grows his church.
We talk about separation. But I think we need to talk about standing still. If your association dismisses the Bible as authoritative and Christ as the centre, then they are the ones who have separated.
Anyway, these are short, basic thoughts. Check out some of the stuff that is happening at ca.thegospelcoalition.org. Come to our national conference this Fall (Oc 29-31, 2018). I think a lot of the unity will happen through people talking to each other, learning each other’s names, and partnering together for the sake of the Gospel.
George Zhou says
Good Afternoon Wyatt,
Thanks for the feedback. I do agree that we are to be unified as ONE body. The verse that comes to mind is that we are to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3).
I believe TGC has modelled this really well and I have been blessed by all their work. It’s great too see Christians come together. Looking at their foundational documents, they call themselves “evangelical” in the “Reformed tradition”. I would say I am in that camp as well.
However, based on their confessional statement, they appear to be standard evangelical. Would there be room for Pentecostals, Arminians, Lutherans, etc in there? And though they would be uniting many like minded Christians, would they also be dividing this group from the rest of the body?
Lastly, I’m so excited for the Conference. Actually I sent you an email 2 weeks ago about it, I was wondering if you had a chance to look at it?
Thanks once again for your time, I enjoy reading all your posts.