One of the questions we may ask as Christians is “What is the purpose of the church?” From the beginning of Christian history believers have gathered together to worship, share meals, and celebrate the Lord’s supper. But what exactly is the purpose of this community aspect of faith, and why is it so integral to Christianity? I would like to explore one aspect of this question, beginning through the lens of baptism.
It seems to me to be common within Protestantism today to think about baptism primarily as a sign or symbol of inclusion into a church community. With our baptism certificates in hand, we have entitlement to be accepted unconditionally by a community of loving church members who affirm us exactly the way we are. In return, we ought to unconditionally welcome all others who have been baptized into the family of the church. Isn’t that merely loving people the way that God loves them?
Being a part of a community of baptized believers is a wonderful thing, and certainly is a result of baptism, but does this idea of being simply baptized into an accepting community do complete justice to the Biblical conception of baptism and the purpose of the church community? Paul tells us that our baptism is actually much more profound than we usually consider. See how he describes it in Romans 6:3-11:
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in the newness of life.
“For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
For Paul, baptism is not primarily about community at all, but is about participating in the death and resurrection of Christ, being set free from the power of sin and death. What, then, does this have to do with the church?
Far from being a sign to show that a church community accepts a person just as they are, being baptized requires a person to admit that he is not worthy to be a part of the body of Christ because he is sinful. Similar to Paul’s teachings, the baptism given by John the Baptist to prepare people for the coming of Christ was one of repentance. Believing that Christ died for him, a person is baptized to show that he is included in the church because he has died and risen with Christ through faith (being otherwise unworthy), and renounced his former sinful ways. Led by the Spirit, the baptized believer then starts the process of driving out his remnants of sin and becoming more holy.
According to Paul, unconditional acceptance of anyone into the church, no matter how they live, is really a compromise of the gospel. If a person is baptized, a public profession of his death to sin, but then goes on living in the same sinful way he always has, what message does that send about the gospel and its call for us to repent? It makes it seem as if God, and those who are committed to obeying Him, turn around and say that obedience doesn’t actually matter in the long run.
This, in part, is where the role of the church comes in. For a person who has died to sin through his baptism, the church community is a group of believers that will both encourage him in his faith and hold him accountable to living in a way that honors God. The members of the church provide mutual support in living a godly life.
But isn’t it wrong to judge other people, especially if they are our fellow believers? After all, Jesus says in Matthew 7:1, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” But if it’s truly wrong to judge anyone, then the Biblical letters of Paul, Peter, and John are fraught with sins, especially with John calling some people Antichrist and Paul even going so far as to publicly criticize Peter himself of compromising the gospel! So either the earliest Christian leaders were harshly judgmental, misunderstood Jesus, and were untrustworthy teachers of the faith, or we have misunderstood the role of accountability and judgment in the Bible.
Let’s get some context and look at what Paul has to say about the topic. In rebuking a Corinthian church member’s sexual immorality in 1 Corinthians 5:3-5, he says, “For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.”
But in Romans 14:10, 13 he says, “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God . . . Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.”
These two teachings of Paul seem radically different. Did he have a change of heart about judgment somewhere along the line? Not likely. On closer examination, we discover that these two passages are dealing with two very different kinds of problems in the church, and Paul is perfectly consistent in both of his teachings.
In the case of the Corinthians, it seems that some believers there were doing some pretty serious sins (thereby rejecting the new life they committed to through their baptisms), and no one was doing anything about it! Paul writes to the church in 1 Corinthians 5:1, “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans.” It seems that the church in Corinth was tolerating things that not even unbelievers still in their sins would allow. How was that supposed to be a witness to the life-transforming power of the Spirit? So, Paul tells the church that its duty, far from tolerating the sins, is to remove the sinners from the fellowship of the church.
Paul’s next point clarifies this instruction. In 5:9-13 he says,
“I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people– not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler–not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. ‘Purge the evil person from among you.’”
Paul teaches us to make a distinction between believers and unbelievers when we think about morality. It is only in the context of the church that passing judgment is appropriate. He tells us not to associate with someone who claims to be a Christian, yet persists unrepentantly in his sins. For all of those outside the church, Christians are called to witness to, but are for God to judge.
This indicates that the church community is one that upholds the moral teachings of God in His Word, and that continued unity in the community requires the members to hold each other accountable to those teachings, and for saints who fall to admit their sins and continue striving to be better.
So how, then, is this to be reconciled with Paul’s teachings in Romans? As opposed to the church in Corinth, which was struggling with actual sin, the church in Rome was dealing with doubts about whether certain things were sinful or not. Jews and Gentiles in the Roman church were learning how to live together in unity under the lordship of Christ. This posed many challenges, one of them being the Jewish food laws. It was accepted by all Christians that salvation came by Christ alone, and not by following the Jewish laws and achieving some sort of merit, but some people apparently felt that abstaining from eating certain foods gave God the greater glory. This belief, seemingly a small thing, had led to division and unedifying judgment in that church.
This happened because those who felt comfortable eating pork barbeque perhaps thought that those who abstained were in some way compromising the gospel and the freedom found in Christ, and therefore criticized them. Those who abstained began judging those who ate the pork, perhaps out of a false sense of moral superiority. Therefore, each group made the other feel like it was sinning, even though that was not actually the case. But people began to doubt themselves, and no longer did what they did out of a confident faith, but sinned through their doubt. Those who ate everything could have begun thinking, “Maybe it really isn’t alright after all to eat all this stuff.” As Paul says in Romans 14:23, “For whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” And there was division in the Roman church.
Paul is not arguing here against judgment per se, but of a kind of judgment that does not build up the church, a judgment based on self-righteousness and pride, instead of on humility and care for others. Both groups in the church felt that by eating, or not eating, certain foods, they were glorifying God. It was an inessential issue. The real problem was that the church had made it into an essential one. It was a loss of focus on the truth of the gospel that led to harmful judgments. Paul’s solution, in Romans 14:13 is, “Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.”
So we see, these two teachings by Paul are not true contradictions. Paul expects believers to hold each other accountable for their actions, but in a way that is edifying. Judgment within the church, for Paul, is intended to protect its unity and commitment to Christ, not to divide it.
But all of this now begs the question, do Paul’s teachings accurately reflect the teachings of Jesus? In a fuller context of Jesus’s teaching on the topic in Matthew, he actually seems to be giving more of a warning about judging than laying down a strict law never to do it. Matthew 7:1-5 reads, “’Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.’”
He says that the standard we use for making judgments is the standard that will be used against ourselves. If we are going to pass judgment on another, we had better be ready to undergo the same standard of judgment ourselves. Within a Christian community, that standard is the Bible. So a Christian who wants to hold his brother in Christ accountable needs to be ready to accept when others call him out as well.
Jesus also expects us to be critical of ourselves. How can we recognize the log in our eye unless we judge that it doesn’t belong there? So a healthy Christian life requires to us use our ability to judge right from wrong, to hold ourselves and others accountable.
Now of course we are not expected to run around all the time accusing our brothers and sisters in Christ of sin. All believers fall from time to time, and repent. But, sometimes, we become partially blind, and need some gentle guidance from another.
Remember also that Jesus’ death and resurrection holds everything together. As Christians, we have no need to fear God’s judgment, because Jesus already suffered it for us on the cross. So, holding fellow believers accountable is not about condemning people and cutting them off from the grace of God, but about lovingly helping believers keep their integrity as holy adopted children of God, expressed through their baptism.
Of course, this is merely scratching the surface of what the Bible has to say about this, but hopefully it provides some food for thought. So, what can we at last conclude about the church and its functions as explored here?
1. It is a community of Christian believers providing mutual support and accountability in the faith.
2. Holding others accountable for their lives in Christ is an act of love, intended to maintain unity and faithfulness to Christ.
And finally, allow me to pose a question: Is the church today taking these teachings of God’s Word seriously?