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The Historic View
No one is sure where the “simple church” model will take us. But at a time when moral absolutes are being reconfigured in our culture, it would be beneficial to consult with early church fathers on this subject.
The third-century bishop of Carthage, Cyprian, is known for his declaration, “Outside the church there is no salvation.” Whether he was referring to those who left the church or those who had never been a part of it, he compared their plight to that of the poor souls who didn’t make it on the ark before the flood.
This may sound like a blunt and condemning statement in the ears of a postmodern Christian who attends church if, where and when he or she chooses, and who believes one’s relationship with God is an entirely personal matter. The problem is, Cyprian had the Bible on his side.
The New Testament does not envision the possibility of authentic spiritual life outside the body of Christ. Whether it’s in the “I am the vine” passages of John 15 or the exhortation to not “forsake the assembling of ourselves together” (Heb. 10:25, NKJV), Scripture is clear in its teaching that Christian faith is meant to be lived out in community.
In addition to the positive instructions to participate as an active member of the body of Christ, Jesus’ words on church discipline reveal the serious side of life outside the church. Although it may not carry much weight today, for early Christians, the threat of excommunication was a dire warning that put their very souls in danger.
Jesus says this much when He lays out the earthly—and eternal—consequences for the unrepentant sinner who is put out of fellowship: “‘And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven’ ” (Matt. 18:17-18).
Later, Paul fleshes out Jesus’ principles on church discipline when he instructs the church at Corinth to expel the immoral member in their midst. Paul notes that by doing this the church is turning the unrepentant sinner over to Satan so that, though he may be physically destroyed, his soul might be saved (see 1 Cor. 5:5).
Like Cyprian, Jesus, Paul and the writer of Hebrews are not suggesting that salvation comes through participation in church activities. They are saying that fellowship with the body of Christ reveals and strengthens the union believers already have with Christ Himself—the two are inseparable.
In this season of uncertainty about what a genuine church looks like, it is essential that we hold on to the historic, biblical concept of the family of God and our membership in it. Although it is crucial for us to reject old, tired models of church that don’t inspire vibrant faith, we must be careful that we aren’t attempting to tear down what God intends to build.
After all, it was Jesus who said in Matthew 16:18: “‘On this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.’ ” In the end, regardless of the opinions of men, the church will stand.
Matthew Green is a freelance writer and vice president of communications for Pioneers, a global church-planting organization based in Orlando, Fla. He blogs at matthewdgreen.com, and his local church meets in a movie theater.
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