the weblog of Alan Knox

Defining the Church 2

Posted by on Sep 6, 2006 in definition, scripture | 5 comments

This is the second post in a series concerning the church. (The first post is here.) I plan to study various passages of Scripture to determine a basic biblical definition of the church. From Matt 16:15-19, the church is built by Christ and belongs to Christ. Also, the church is made of those who believe in and follow Jesus Christ. Finally, death will not destroy the church.

Today’s passage is Matthew 18:15-20:

(Jesus speaking to the disciples) Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ 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. Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.

This passage and the Matt 16 passage are the only two passages in the gospels that contain the Greek word usually tranlated church (ἐκκλησία = “assembly, community”). The Matt 18 passage is in the context of several of Jesus’ teachings concerning offenses, forgiveness, and lost sheep. Jesus had just taught the disciples that it is better to leave the “ninety-nine that did not go astray” in order to bring back the one that did go astray. Matt 18:15-20 gives direct application of this teaching, and demonstrates how God uses the community of the church to restore unrepentant, sinning believers.

What can we learn about the church from this passage:

  1. God works through the church to discipline his children.
  2. The church is composed of believers who concern themselves with the lives of other believers.
  3. The number of believers gathered in the church is unimportant (more than one).
  4. Believers become the church when they are gathered in Jesus’ name.

God works through the church to discipline his children. While this does not help us define the church, it is important for our understanding of how God operates through the church. I will discuss this in more detail below.

The church is composed of believers who concern themselves with the lives of other believers. While there is certainly a sense in which everyone I meet is my neighbor, the lives of believers should be shared on a more intimate level. This is God’s plan for the church. Brothers and sisters should expect other believers to examine their lives – not for the purpose of ridicule, but for the purpose of humbly restoring those who have fallen. This sharing in life with one another includes more than pointing out sin; it also includes encouraging, serving, caring for, and providing for one another (actually, it includes all of the “one anothers” of Scripture). As Paul stated to the Galatians, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith (Gal 6:10).”

The number of believers gathered in the church is unimportant (more than one). While it is true that this verse is in the context of church discipline, that does not negate the fact that Jesus is describing the church. In context, it is the same group that treats an unrepentant sinning brother as a heathen, that binds and looses, that agrees on earth, and that is gathered in Jesus’ name – that is, the church.

Believers become the church when they are gathered in Jesus’ name. If numbers are not important, then what is important? According to Jesus, it is important that the believers are gathered in His name. (Note: It is interesting that this group of two or more do not gather on their own. Instead, they are “gathered” – passive voice, not the action of the ones gathered. We know from Matt 16:15-19 that it is Jesus Himself who is responsible for gathering believers into His community.) Paul uses this same phrase when exhorting the Corinthians to hand over a sinning brother to Satan: In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus (1 Cor 5:4-5). There is something more to this statement than simply calling your gathering a church or claiming to follow Christ. Being gathered in the name of Jesus entails submitting to His lordship, living according to His example, following His Spirit. In other words, those gathered in Jesus’ name are gathered with Jesus as their real and present leader.

Binding and Loosing…
Both the Matt 16 and Matt 18 passage include a verse about binding and loosing:

Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on
earth will be loosed in heaven. (Matt 16:19 NKJV)

Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. (Matt 18:18 NKJV)

There is a difference in these two verses. In Matt 16:19, the exhortation is to Peter, signifed by singular verbs. However, in Matt 18:18, the exhortation is to the church, signified by plural verbs.

Unfortunately, the New King James Version does not offer the best translation of the verbs in these verses. The verbs translated “will be bound” and “will be loosed” (in both verses) seem to be in the future tense, passive voice. However, the verbs are actually perfect tense, voice mood, empasizing the aspect (periphrasitc participles). Therefore, “will have been bound” and “will have been loosed” would be better translations (see NASB 1995). In other words, what the church (or Peter as a believer), gathered in Jesus’ name, binds or looses will have already been bound or loosed in heaven. This does not indicate that God follows the desire of the church, but the church gathered in Jesus’ name will follow the desire of God. Remember, the church gathered in Jesus’ name is the church following the real and present leadership of Jesus. The church will therefore agree with what God has already done. Likewise, individual believers (such as Peter) who are following the real and present leadership of Jesus will also agree with what God has already done.

These “binding and loosing” passages indicate something very important about the church. God works through the church to work His will – this includes proclaiming the gospel (the keys to the kingdom) and disciplining an unrepentant sinning child. The church does not have the power or authority on its own to usher anyone into the kingdom or to discipline someone. However, when the church is following the leadership of its Chief Shepherd, the church may offer the gospel which has already been offered by God and enact discipline which has already been enacted by God.

In other words: The church acts according to the will of God.

I realize that this statement seems obvious. However, it is an important reminder in a time when “church” is defined more by tradition, culture, and the desires of men than by Scripture or the will of God.

Next, I will examine a few other passages of Scripture in the gospels where Jesus reveals more about His church, without using the Greek word ἐκκλησία.



  1. Defining the Church 1 – Matthew 16:15-19
  2. Defining the Church 2 – Matthew 18:15-20
  3. Defining the Church 3 – John’s Farewell Discourse
  4. Defining the Church 4 – Acts 1-2
  5. Defining the Church – Implications


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 9-7-2006

    Very insightful comments Alan.

    Question: For the most part, millions of Christians (and non-Christians) gather together every Sunday morning to sing some songs and listen to some preaching. Are they gathered in Christ’s name?


  2. 9-7-2006

    Thank you for your comment. So far, as I have attempted to define the church from Scripture, there has been very little indication of “actions” or “functions”. I do not believe that certain actions or functions define the church. However, a church will participate together in certain activities. Because of this, I can’t make the distinction that you are asking me to make. Is it possible that a group will meet for singing and preaching but are not gathered in Jesus’ name? Yes. Is it possible that a group will meet without singing and without preaching but still be gathered in Jesus’ name? Yes.

    Thanks again!


  3. 2-17-2007

    Alan, I hate to try to jump onto the train 5 months after the caboose has past, but I have heard this line of thinking reproduced in a couple of conversations of late and have some issue with its basis. First, the only implication of number of “congregants” in Matt 18 is 1, he who sins, +1 he who finds fault, +2-3 those who witness, +2 or more who the report is brought to, the [rest of the] church. But all this tells us is that seemingly a church needs 7 or more members to conduct biblical discipline. It tells us nothing of the minimum, ideal, or maximum size of a gathering before it can be considered a church. But I would suggest that a church which cannot enact discipline is indeed a poor church.

    As for verses 18-20, it is speaking of the power of agreement in judgement, and has nothing to do with defining the church size-wise. This has everything to do with regulating the power of one man to pass judgement on another, and the calming effect of intervention by less-interested parties. These 2 or 3 are the same 2 or 3 brought in to be witnesses, hearing each man’s case and passing judgement. That Christ is in the midst of them, and that their agreements are tied to the judgement of heaven is closely related to John 20:23 (NKJV) “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” That is, it speaks of the power of spirit-filled men to council together and to make application of scripture in determining guilt. The function of the church is, should the guilty party not repent, then to carry-out this heaven-bound verdict in exercising discipline. I certainly agree with the comments about the depth of personal involvement and interaction among members of a church, and their role in carrying out discipline—if that is lacking, there is no cost (temporally) to being under discipline.

    One could even go so far as to say that this exercise of judgement and discipline is better enacted in large congregations where 2 or 3 impartial witnesses might be more readily available, since not every member is intimately related to the activities of the offender and the offended, and where the discipline would be not only by close associates but by a larger community as well. I say that not to bring a rain of fire down upon myself, but to suggest that the opposite case of what you are proposing could be made from the same text and that another, clearer text must be sought if your case is to be made.
    Just my 2¢

  4. 2-17-2007


    Welcome to my blog! It’s is never too late to join the discussion. I appreciate what you’ve said. I do agree that Matt 18:20 is in the context of church discipline. However, it is also the only clearly spoken mandate for church “size”: 2 or 3. I am not arguing that the church should only contain 2 or 3 people. What I am arguing is that the number of people involved is not a factor in determining whether or not a group is a church. Unfortunately, this is not a moot point. I have seen an author suggest that a group is not a church unless there are at least 200 members. So, if size is not a factor, what is a factor? This is what I hope to continue to investigate. Please jump into the discussion any time.


  5. 2-17-2007


    I didn’t realize that I knew who you were until after I replied and saw your profile. I hope you do continue to interact with us here on my blog, even as we continue to discuss these issues personally.