"Porch Church"

Ryan Glomsrud
Friday, April 29th 2011
May/Jun 2011

Have you ever heard someone say that they don't need to go to church on Sunday because they are going to have "porch church"? That's when you manage to wake up on Sunday morning but only shuffle in your slippers to the couch or rocking chair on the porch to stream a sermon on the web. Sipping on your cup of Joe, you may not be listening to the preaching of the Word, but I suppose it is one better (although just barely) than snoozing through a service at "Bedside Baptist" or "Pillow-side Presbyterian." I don't know what is the Lutheran equivalent, maybe "Lay-me-Down-to-Sleep Lutheran"? In any case, the Scripture reference that is most frequently trotted out to justify such neglect of the communion of the saints at Lord's Day worship is Matthew 18:20: "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I among them." See, it is claimed, you can have "church" at home by yourself, as long as there are two or three gathered’your spouse and maybe the family dog just to be fully compliant to the letter of the law. Unfortunately, this is probably one of the most misunderstood (one is tempted to say abused) passages among low-church evangelicals. To put matters simply, it is a verse taken horribly out of context and means almost the exact opposite of what the verse-quoter would like it to mean.

Matthew 18 as a whole is probably best known as a chapter for instructing Christians in how to deal with conflict. What should you do when you are having a disagreement with another Christian? If you know your Bible well, you'll turn to Matthew 18:15-20 for advice. "If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother." That's the protocol; keep the matter private, if possible. Don't be passive aggressive, just go talk it out and try to come to terms over your differences. If successful, you have won your brother, kept the peace, lived a quiet and humble life, and demonstrated Christian patience and charity to one another. But what if the private meeting doesn't go very well? What if matters take a turn for the worse and your brother hardens himself against you, worsening the conflict and deepening the trouble? Well, the passage continues on. Here we find the context for our verse allegedly in support of "porch church." Jesus explains, "But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector" (vv.16-17, emphasis added). Now this is interesting: If a conflict between brothers cannot be handled privately, Jesus instructs us to involve the church, presumably the elders. Here the elders serve in their appointed office, and the church may call a brother to account. This is called "church discipline," and for Reformed churches is an identifying mark of a true church. Implied at the end of verse 17 is that the church has the power of excommunication ("Let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector"’in other words, as a stranger and alien to the covenant promises).

Recognizing that this may be difficult to swallow, although just how much so is difficult to tell, Jesus himself goes on to assert the authority of his appointed officers, the elders of a church. "Truly," he says’no joking in other words’"whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (vs. 18). Whoa! Did Jesus, the only mediator between God and man, the one to whom belongs all authority in heaven and on earth, just say to his disciples that they had the power to bind and loose in heaven and on earth? Yes, and in fact, it wasn't the first time he instructed his disciples that this kind of authority had been delegated to the church. Two chapters earlier Jesus said much the same to Peter after his confession, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (16:16). Then came Jesus' famous statement: "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (vv.17-18). Then in the next sentence Jesus grants to Peter and the church the power to shut and loose, find and free. Namely, he grants the "keys of the kingdom." "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (16:19). So the exact phrase delegating an appropriate authority of excommunication (i.e., binding and shutting) has been granted to the church in at least two places by Jesus himself.

Returning to the hypothetical brotherly conflict of chapter 18, Jesus explains that if elders of two or three in number are unable to bring a brother to repentance, that they do in fact have the power to excommunicate, a serious move of temporal churchly justice to declare that without repentance this brother is under the wrath and condemnation of God and Christ is of no use to them. "Again I say to you," Jesus concludes, "if two or three of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them" (vv.19-20). In other words, if two or more elders are gathered to make this kind of drastic pronouncement, then it is as if Jesus himself is among them, casting the brother out, and the Father in heaven will heed their administration of justice.

This is not a teaching to take lightly, and it certainly has nothing whatsoever to do with listening to sermons on the Internet and neglecting the corporate gathering of the body of Christ. If anything, it means the church is that much more important than our Sunday-snoozers would like, in fact having the power to open and shut the kingdom of heaven. What precisely this means is asked in Question 83 of the Heidelberg Catechism: "What are the keys of the kingdom? Answer: The preaching of the holy gospel, and Christian discipline, or excommunication out of the Christian church; by these two, the kingdom of heaven is opened to believers, and shut against unbelievers." Next time you are tempted to sleep in on Sunday morning and catch the latest evangelical super-pastor on the Internet, get yourself to church, or you may find the elders knocking at your door. The meeting of two or three gathered there will be to encourage you to get back to church for Word and Sacrament ministry!

Friday, April 29th 2011

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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