Did Jesus design the Church?

I’m just fleshing out some thoughts made in two quick twitter responses to an observation made by another twitter user (I feel the question is worth more than 280 characters). The other person had been invited to a conference called “The church as Jesus designed it.” And their response …”I’m not the best Bible scholar but I’m pretty sure he never did that.”[1]

I can understand the nervous response to such claims. There’s been a long history of people claiming to have the all-encompassing answer to what the church should be like and promising a return to the golden era of a New Testament or Apostolic Church. Such bold claims often end up at best with another fossilised tradition with its own rituals or at worst in cultish control and abuse.

However, I want to say that “Yes, Jesus did design the Church” and it’s important that we do say that even whilst humbly admitting that we rarely meet up to the design.

Theologically I want to insist that Jesus designed the Church because it is his church. He promised that he would build it and the gates of hell would not prevail against it.[2] He is the husband who

“loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing[b] her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.”[3]

In fact strictly speaking we must talk about a Trinitarian design. In Ephesians 1 we’re told

Even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes. God decided in advance to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ. This is what he wanted to do, and it gave him great pleasure. So we praise God for the glorious grace he has poured out on us who belong to his dear Son.[4]

So it is God who planned and designed his church. This means that Jesus as God’s Son, fully human is part of the design, he is the stone rejected by other builders but chosen by the true architect as the corner stone. However, as God the Son he is very much involved in the design just as he was involved in the design of creation.

In Biblical studies terms, the objection that Jesus did not design he church tends to arise out of an assumption about the New Testament and early church history. There has been a strong opinion doing the rounds for a few centuries now that Jesus’ first disciples though that his return and the end was a matter of weeks, months or years away. So Jesus and the first disciples hadn’t really planned for a church at all. It was only many years later when Jesus’s followers realised that they were in for the long haul that they set about designing the church institution. The material we find about church design in the Bible comes in the later epistles and in late editorial additions to the Gospels.

But that view is a clumsy distortion of the New Testament data. What we see is that right from the start in Acts and in Paul’s early letters, there is an assumption of the Church as a body (universal) and of local churches with elders and gatherings. Then when you look at what Jesus himself has to say, he clearly sets out his design for his people.

He trains and equips 72 of his followers for mission and church plantingg (Luke 10). He tells his followers how to behave to one another (Love as a new commandment) how to lead (as servants) and what to do when things go wrong and disputes arise (Matthew 18).

So theologically and Biblically (as though we should even think of the two separately), yes Jesus is the one who designed his church.

This is important because too often church leaders and in this day and age, worse still, church consultants can often talk as though they design, build and grow their own churches. So too church members can act as though they have the design rights on their church when they insist that it should either remain a certain way, just as they found and chose it or change to meet a style and blueprint that better suits their needs and priorities.

And that puts the boundaries in place to protect the church and ourselves from our hubrus and our attempts to redesign and reshape the church. I think good elders and church leaders should be committed to reformation, constantly ensuring that the church remains faithful to Scripture. I also believe that reformation will include being responsive to the culture in presentation. It will mean leading congregations in new styles of doing things, music, organisation, communication etc. However we have not got carte blanche to change the message or the essential nature of church.

For those reasons I’m a little uncomfortable even with a phrase doing the rounds at the moment. I don’t like the suggestion that we “re-imagine church.” Oh I know that behind that phrase is probably something innocuous and innocent. I just don’t like it and its potential to mislead our thinking. but maybe I’m just a cranky middle aged Yorkshire-man!

Once there is a humble understanding that it’s Christ’s church, once we remember that God is the true builder then just as when we remember that Christ is the true shepherd, we can then talk about under shepherds, we can properly see our role in helping to equip and build up the church (Ephesians 4:11-12).

[1] Tweet from “Disability and Jesus” 12/02/2016

[2] Matthew 16:18

[3] Ephesians 5:225-27.

[4] Ephesians  1:4-6.