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Does Matthew Teach an Invisible Church?

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The author of Meeting the Protestant Challenge explains why Catholics believe that the Church is a visible hierarchical institution when Jesus says that the Church in Matthew 18:20 is an invisible union of believers.


Cy Kellett:
Hello, and welcome again to Catholic Answers Focus. I’m Cy Kellett, your host, in studio again with Karlo Broussard. Hello, Karlo.

Karlo Broussard:
Hey, Cy.

CK:
Karlo, the author of a couple of books, including Prepare the Way, Overcoming Obstacles to God, the Gospel, and the Church, and Meeting the Protestant Challenge, How to Answer 50 Biblical Objections to Catholic Beliefs. And I’ve got an objection to Catholic beliefs for you today.

KB:
Fire away, brother. Let’s see what you got.

CK:
Well, hierarchy is a real hard one on a lot of people, and it seems like maybe harder in the modern world than it’s ever been before. We just don’t like hierarchy.

KB:
We don’t like authority. Yeah.

CK:
It sticks in the craw, this hierarchy thing.

KB:
I don’t believe in organized religion.

CK:
Yes. Right. And so we have … Well, we even have those YouTube people who’ll be like, “I’m a … ”

KB:
It’s about relationship, not about religion.

CK:
Yeah, about … Right. Right. Non-religious Christians, basically, is what they are. And they’re very popular on YouTube. And I think it comports with the modern understanding of who we are and what we are and all of that. So the Catholic would assert the Jesus established a church and that that church has a structure, which is, in fact, hierarchical. Is that a true thing to say?

KB:
That’s right. Yep. And that constitutes the visible dimension of the church.

CK:
And Jesus founded it?

KB:
Correct.

CK:
It was not [inaudible 00:01:23] … That’s the Catholic … I just want to get the Catholic-

KB:
It was divinely constituted. Right. It has divine origins, not man-made. It’s not of human origin. So at least some aspects of the hierarchical nature of the Catholic church have divine origins, not merely human origins. Like for example, cardinals, right? That’s not of divine constitution. That’s something that’s man-made, right.

CK:
Yeah, people. Right.

KB:
An honorific title that’s been given, and they have certain roles to help out the church in ways that other people don’t, like they help out the Pope.

CK:
Jesus didn’t assign monsignors either. He didn’t-

KB:
Correct. Correct. But we argue that there are essential aspects to the church that Christ established as a part of His church that are hierarchical in nature, namely the apostolic office and their successors, the bishops, and the presbyters, who bishops ordain to minister with them to the people of God. And then you could also throw in the deacons as well, that they constitute the hierarchical nature of the church. So as the church teaches, the catechism, for example, quoting the dogmatic constitution on the church [foreign language 00:02:29] in paragraph 771 in the catechism, it says, “The church is a visible organization through which Jesus communicates truth and grace to all men and is, at the same time, a society structured with hierarchical organs and the mystical body of Christ, the visible society, and the spiritual community.”

So the Catholic position is that the church is a spiritual community. It does have an invisible dimension, which signifies the unity that we have via grace and being united to Christ through grace. But there’s also, at the same time, this visible dimension to the church. It is a visible society with hierarchical organs, as the Second Vatican Council teaches. And so that dimension of the church, the visible nature of the church, is often an aspect of the church that is denied by some of our Protestant brothers and sisters.

CK:
All right. So let me give you one objection then, because Jesus himself seems to preach a church that is not hierarchical at certain points. So let me give you one of those. How can the Catholic church believe that the church is a visible hierarchical institution when Jesus says in Matthew 18:20 that it is an invisible union of believers, specifically, “Where two or three are gathered, I will be in the midst of you”?

KB:
That’s right. Yeah. And you’ll find this among some of our Protestant friends, where they think, “Hey, we’re in the name of Jesus. That’s the church, baby. So let’s go have church at the house.” You’ll hear that. “Good morning, church”, right-

CK:
Right. Exactly.

KB:
… or, “Let’s do church outside,” or, “Let’s do church in the house.” And I get what they’re saying. But some say that to express a very technical theology, that they believe the church is merely invisible. So how do we respond? Well, first of all, we have to read Matthew 18 verse 20 in light of what comes right before, namely verses 15 through 18. So in Matthew chapter 18 verse 15, Jesus says, “Hey, if a brother sins against you, go and try to convince him.” If you can’t win him over, Jesus says, verse 16, “Take two or three with you. On the count of two or three witnesses, every word may stand.” And if you still can’t win over your brother, in verse 17, Jesus says, “Tell it to the church and if he, the sinner, the one who’s offended, refuses to listen even to the church,” Jesus says, “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

So notice the gravity of the consequences for not listening to the church. In the Greek there, it has the connotation of disobedience. You’re disobeying the judgment of the church here. So notice implication number one, that the offender becomes an outcast. They’re treated as a Gentile or a tax collector. Well, for the Israel of God in the old covenant, that means you’re a traitor if you’re a tax collector. So you’re not a part of the family, man. You can’t participate in the covenantal blessings. If you’re a Gentile, obviously you’re an outsider, outside of the people of God. You can’t participate in the covenantal blessings, as you can as an Israelite. And Jesus is applying that language to the person who disobeys the judgment of the church, implying that if you are such a person, you’re an outcast. You’re outside of the Christian community. Well, that implies that there are visible boundaries that constitute membership in the Christian community, right?

CK:
Yes.

KB:
So the very context of Matthew 18:20 reveals to us that the church is not merely invisible but that there is a visible aspect such that you can be an outsider. You can know and be able to identify one who is not a part of the Christian community, namely those who disobey the judgment of the church. And so that leads us to the second implication here is that there is here revealed a rank of authority, that not everyone in the church of Jesus has the same authority but that there are some in the church who have a higher rank of authority to make and pronounce judgements that exclude other members of the church from the Christian community if they do not adhere to the judgment of the church.

So it’s an authority to make the judgment and settle the matter. And it’s an authority to exclude those who don’t adhere to the judgment from the Christian community. So not only does it reveal visible boundaries that constitute membership in the Christian community, it also reveals higher ranks of authority to make these judgements and exclude those who are disobeying.

And of course, this leads right into Matthew 18. Right after Jesus says, “If he refuses to listen to the church, treat him as a Gentile or a tax collector,” in verse 18, he says, Jesus says to those to whom he speaking, the disciples there, the apostles, “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven. And whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” And that’s rabbinical language that connotes or conveys judicial authority, the authority to make pronouncements about what is legally binding and what is not and also the authority to exclude people from the community and to remit and allow people to come back into the community. And we find that language in first century Jewish historian Josephus around AD 90. So that was common language for-

CK:
Oh, okay.

KB:
… amongst the rabbis. And Jesus is applying that to the apostles. And so the apostles here have this judicial authority to govern the Israel of God in a new covenant, to make pronouncements about what is a legally binding for the Christian people and what is not as the people of God, like disciplinary matters, and also the authority to exclude people from the Christian community if they’re not living according to the Christian way of life, and in this text, if they’re disobeying what the church judges to be the way of life and how we ought to do things.

So rather than Matthew 18:20 proving that the church is merely invisible and thus denying the visible aspect of the church, the verses right before it actually reveal the contrary, that the church is visible in nature. There is a visible dimension to the church that’s found or identified in this hierarchical structure, this hierarchy to make these judgments, this hierarchy that has the authority to bind and loose, which by the way, is backed by heaven itself. So that suggests that they have divine authority to do this. They’re not doing this on their own authority. They have the very backing of heaven itself. So their authority is not of human origin, it’s of divine origin.

And so there, we have the Catholic paradigm of the church. We have in the Bible, the blueprint for ecclesiology, or study of the church, the blueprint for the church. Yes, there’s an invisible dimension, but there’s also this visible dimension as well that has divine origin.

CK:
It’s hard to imagine a church where two or three people get together, that’s the church, and then they get to bind and loose, because then you have [crosstalk 00:09:57].

KB:
That’s right, because notice in the context, the two or three witnesses, where they’re going and trying to convince their brother and win him over, Jesus doesn’t necessarily say they have the authority to bind and loose as the two or three gathered. Those two or three are gathered in the name of Christ when they’re trying to win over their brother. But Jesus says there’s something beyond the two or three gathered in the name of Christ. If they can’t win their brother over and convince him, then you take it to the church. And the church is the one that has the authority to bind and loose. So there’s something going beyond just merely two or three gathered in the name of Jesus.

CK:
So what does it mean then to say that where … What is Jesus trying … What is he communicating then when he’s saying … If he’s not communicating, look, “Every time two or three Christians get together, that’s the church, because I’m right there with you,” what is he communicating when he says this?

KB:
Yes. So, let me just first say that in magisterial documents, the church does use this passage in a loose and general way to refer to, “Where everybody is gathered in the name of Jesus, Christ is present there.” The church does apply this passage to that general sense. But if you look at the text within its context, within its immediate context, as I argue in my book, there’s good reason to think that the two or three gathered is referencing the two or three in verse 19, where Jesus says in verse 19 that, “The Father will do for them that which they agree upon on earth.” So that’s verse 19. So we can’t skip over verse 19.

In verse 19, Jesus says, “If two of you ask on earth for anything, my Father will grant it to you from heaven.” Well, that sounds a lot like verse 18, where he says, “Whatever you bind and loose on earth shall be bound and loosed in heaven.” So I would argue that the two or three gathered in verse 20, “There am I in the midst of them,” Jesus is referring to the two or three who are agreeing on earth but the Father is backing from heaven. In other words, the apostles who are binding and loosing with the backing of heaven.

CK:
So when he says, “You,” he’s talking to the apostles?

KB:
Correct. I would argue that the two or three-

CK:
That’s what you’re saying. He’s saying, “When two or three of you are gathered.”

KB:
That’s right. Amen. I would argue that the two or three gathered in its immediate context is referring to the same person, the apostles, to whom Christ is saying, “Whatever you bind and loose on earth is bound and loosened in heaven.” And so that would be the immediate first-level interpretation. And then, of course, we could apply that by way of extension-

CK:
Sure.

KB:
… to, “Everyone who’s gathered in the name of Jesus, there Christ is present in our midst.” But within its immediate context, it seems as if Christ is referring to those who he’s referring to in verse 19 and in verse 18, mainly those who have the authority to bind and loose on earth, make these judgments with divine authority, with the backing of heaven. And that, “Christ will be in their midst,” is a hint to how Christ will be present to his church when his church is making these authoritative decisions.

CK:
Do we have any evidence of that, of the church … like in the Bible, for example, is there any evidence of two or three apostles getting together and Jesus being in the midst of them then? You would think if that’s what he meant, there’d be some evidence of it.

KB:
Yeah. And I would argue there is. We could look to the council of Jerusalem. And I would suggest, and I would argue, that what we see in the council of Jerusalem is the early church following the prescription that Jesus prescribed here in Matthew 18 verses 15, all the way through 20, when there’s the theological controversy about whether the Gentile converts must be circumcised or not in order to be legitimate Christians and be welcomed into the fold and the covenantal family of God. Paul and Barnabas are trying to settle it.

And Luke tells us in Acts 15, one through two, Paul and Barnabas could not settle the dispute. So what did they do? They took it to the church. They followed Jesus’s instructions, and they take it up to Jerusalem for the apostles and the presbyters to consider the matter. And that’s, of course, where Peter gives his definitive declaration and his speech that, “No, it’s not by circumcision. It’s by the grace of God through faith. So both, whether you’re Jew or Gentile, it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to be circumcised. All are welcome into the covenantal family of God, by grace, through faith.”

And so I would argue that the council of Jerusalem is following or playing out that blueprint, following that blueprint. And even in Acts 15:28, we read, “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to put forward these things.” And so notice how the council fathers appeal to the Holy Spirit as affirming and agreeing with their decision, which would cohere with what Jesus said, “Whatever you bind and loose on earth is bound and loosed in heaven.”

So I would say the council of Jerusalem is your example that you’re asking for where the two or three gathered, where the hierarchical ranks of the church gathered together to make definitive decisions concerning doctrine and discipline, and having the backing of God itself … God himself, not itself. Himself.

CK:
Right. So you actually see played out. That’s so interesting that you actually see played out at the council of Jerusalem exactly what Jesus is prescribing in the gospel of Matthew, “This is how you handle this.”

KB:
If you had a disagreement, you take them to the church. And as I always argue, that’s the blueprint for the church in the first century of how you settle these doctrinal issues. And so a major problem or conundrum comes up for a Protestant who denies such a church in the present day for Christianity after the apostolic age. Because if that’s the blueprint in the first century church of how you settle doctrinal issues and there’s no evidence that such a paradigm shifted or changed to suggest that we don’t have that church anymore, that sort of authority and that hierarchical rank, is to profess a church that is non-biblical. It’s to profess a church that’s not the church of the first century, in its essence.

And so you have an entire paradigm shift of how to, “Do church,” as some Protestants like to say, an entire paradigm shift of how to function as the church of Jesus Christ. And of course, this is the problem with Sola Scriptura because that advocates an entire paradigm shift concerning how we settle doctrinal issues. In the first century church, you go to those who can speak for Christ. You go to those who can bind and loose with the backing of heaven.

But in Sola Scriptura Christianity, that paradigm is no longer. And you go only to the apostolic writings. And so you’re actually functioning as a Christian Church in a way that’s non-biblical. And it’s ironic. It’s interesting because these are the very Christians who are appealing to the Bible alone for how to function as a church.

CK:
This is a tremendous lesson in not taking a single line of scripture out of its context-

KB:
That’s right.

CK:
… and elevating it above everything else that’s around it-

KB:
Correct.

CK:
… which I have to admit I’ve done with lines of scripture before where you get so locked in on that, that you stop taking it as part of the organic whole. And it becomes kind of a … I don’t know. It’s like a sticking point. But this has a totally different meaning when taken as part of the organic whole.

KB:
And I would add two sides, I do in my book, that Jesus actually seems to be making a direct allusion to Deuteronomy 17, 6 through 12, whenever he says in Matthew 18 verse 16, I think it is, “Take two or three witnesses, that on account … ” “Take two or three with you, that on the account of two or three witnesses, every word may stand.”

Well, that same phraseology is used in Deuteronomy 17, verses 6 through 12 in reference to the governing authority within Israel in the old covenant. I’m not going to read the whole passage there to you, but you have in there instructions. Moses is giving instructions on how Israel is to govern and talking about those governing officials, making pronouncements on the … And those who are accused of immorality and bad behavior must be accused on account of two or three witnesses.” And these governing officials make judgements. And if the judgments aren’t adhered to, there’s serious consequences, like capital punishment type of thing. And what’s interesting is that you see parallels. So Jesus is directly alluding to Deuteronomy 17, 6 through 12, and you see parallels between these two passages, Deuteronomy 17, Matthew 18.

And so, for example, there’s a governing body that has authority to make judgements on certain matters. There is a need to employ the testimony of two or three witnesses. Obedience to the authoritative judgment is necessary, and there are severe consequences for not obeying the proper authoritative judgment. You see these four principles found in both Deuteronomy 17 and Matthew 18. And in Matthew 18, Jesus is directly alluding to that.

So Deuteronomy 17 serves as an interpretive precedent, you might say. It serves as an interpretive context in order for us to understand what Jesus is doing in Matthew 18, namely he’s constituting his disciples, and primarily the apostles, as the governing officials of the new Israel, the Israel of God in the new covenant, the Christian people. And of course, that implies further that the church is not merely invisible, just like the Israel of God was not merely invisible in the old covenant, but also has this visible dimension to it identified in the body of governing officials who govern the people of God on this earth.

CK:
So it’s not bad news then. I mean, the fact that the church is hierarchical is not bad news. It’s good news.

KB:
It is not bad news.

CK:
It’s meant to help us.

KB:
Amen, number one, because Jesus gave it to us. And if Jesus gave it to us as a gift, it’s a good gift because all good things come from God who has made flesh Jesus Christ. And secondly, it’s good news because we’re not left to our own powers. We’re not left to ourselves and trying to figure everything out of how to function and live as the people of God in the new covenant. So just like the people of God in the old covenant had leaders in Moses and various others to guide and lead them, so too Christ has given us leaders with the backing of heaven, with the divine authority to govern us. And when it comes to teaching us and sanctifying us with the gifts of the sacraments, we have the promise of Christ that the Holy Spirit will guide and lead these governing officials to teach us the truth without error and to give us the life that Christ came to give so that we may have it to the full.

CK:
Karlo Broussard, Thank you again.

KB:
Thank you, Cy.

CK:
I always enjoy it. Karlo Broussard, the author of … Well, [inaudible 00:21:26] if you want to read some of these challenges and how a Catholic answers those challenges, you can get Karlo’s book Meeting the Protestant Challenge, How to Answer 50 Biblical Objections to Catholic Beliefs. I’m Cy Kellett, your host. Thank you so much for joining us. We’re always happy that you do. If you wouldn’t mind giving us those five stars wherever you get your podcast, we’d really appreciate it. And share the podcast with others by letting them know they find out all about us at CatholicAnswersFocus.com. We’ll see you next time, God willing, right here on Catholic Answers Focus.

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