The Problem of “On this Rock I will build my Church”

Recently when the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC)  has  denominational gatherings we have been using as themes phrases from our doctrinal commitments we call “Affirmations.”  The affirmation taken as the theme around the Annual Meeting was  “the Church as fellowship of believers.”  This is basically it for our ecclesiological affirmations.   I have felt since seminary that this affirmation and our ecclesiology in general is fairly weak, or perhaps more to the point doesn’t seek to answer questions I think an ecclesiology should answer.

Tuesday Evening June 28 Ruth Hill former executive director of Womens Ministries for the ECC in seeking to expound upon this affirmation chose Mathew 16:13 ff.  From this passage she articulated 5 characteristics of the Church, confession of Jesus as the Christ( Messiah), a called out people, people committed to on going growth and being with the hurting,  people who have the Concerns of  god, people who take up their Cross.  Based on  Matthew 16:13 ff, the above is what Hill sees as marks of the church as a fellowship of believers.

Ruth Hill passed over the part of this text that makes this passage explicitly ecclesialogical vs 18 and 19,  not entirely in silence. Hill did say that she did not have an answer to whether or not “the Rock” was Peter, and simply mentioned the myriad of arguments on the different sides of this question.  However, she did not even touch upon the question of the Keys of the Kingdom and binding and loosing.  Hill focused on Jesus Christ as the one who builds the Church.  Yet, can we talk about the characteristics of church and pass over without comment upon who or what Jesus builds the church? It is odd that this passage would be picked to talk on the theme of Church as Fellowship of Believers and then  in using this passage skip over the portions of the text that explicitly are about the church.  Granted the explicit references to the church are also the highly contested portions of the text, but if that bit was not there it wouldn’t be so obviously an ecclesiological passage and not necessarily a good proof text for reflection on this particular affirmation.  Though it seems to me that primarily affirming the church as a “fellowship of Believers” may not fit well with passages like Matthew 16: 13 ff., with their structural metaphors and sense of personal and historical continuity.

What struck me in seminary and continues to strike me is both the organic and the structural metaphors for talking about the church.  There is a solidity and a persistence through time in Jesus’ language in Matthew isn’t conveyed by the affirmation of the church as “fellowship of believers.”   Not that a fellowship necessarily can’t have these characteristics.  This was reinforced for me in  Hill’s sermon.  The traits she teases out of this passage don’t necessarily require that the “fellowship” of believers have any actually and historical connection and continuity to that first fellowship drawn around Jesus.  But if the rock upon which Christ says he will build the Church is in someway personal and has or is connected to the historic person of Peter, than being in continuity with that rock seems to me to be a trait of the church, even if able to be characterized in someway as a “fellowship of believers”.

Fellowship of believers could be defined in such away as to embrace this sort of continuity.   If fellowship is to be in connection with all those who have been baptized and believe, through out time.   If the church is a fellowship of those who confess with Peter and with all those from Peter to our own time.  However, it does seem that this idea of church as fellowship of believers on one level assumes continuity and structure yet can’t allow itself to see some continuity or structure as a trait of the church.