Did Christ really intend to found a Church?

Father John A. Kiley

A peculiar idea that surfaces from time to time is the notion that Jesus Christ never intended to found an actual Church. A few have proposed over the years that Jesus came simply to announce a Gospel of salvation and reconciliation.

His ministry was simply to preach and teach, to heal and challenge.

Organized religion, which subsequent generations would experience, is considered an after-thought, a structural tactic, guaranteeing some order and continuity over the centuries. Some might also unkindly suggest that organized religion is simply an abuse of authority, an effort to control the masses and place power in the hands of a few. True religion would be simply a matter of the Spirit breathing where he will, an experience of personal conversion and gradual, individual development in the Christian life. Any sense of church, any sense of community, would be accidental to the solitary soul maturing before God. Church might be helpful to some or even harmful to others. Either way, Church was not part of the original plan.

As generous as these notions might be with their rejection of all constraint and dominance, they simply do not square with the outline of salvation history as found in the Scriptures and the traditions of the Church. God created Adam and Eve as a couple. He saved Noah and his wife and his three sons and their wives as a family. He promised Abraham and Sarah a vast progeny, as numerous as the sands of the sea or the stars in the sky. He raised up 12 tribes from the patriarch Jacob. He bestowed his special blessing on the enslaved Hebrew community in Egypt, led them as a people through the wilderness and established them as a nation in Israel. From these chosen people came the heralded Messiah. The hundreds of decades from Adam to Christ and especially from Abraham to Christ have been the history of a people, of a community, of a nation. The Jews were God’s instrument of salvation in the pre-Christian world. Through the Jews the Messiah would be announced and through the Jews the Messiah would arrive. God would hardly employ community life so practically and so symbolically in the Old Testament only to abandon the plan in the New Testament.

Frankly, the New Testament abounds in organizational references. In this week’s Gospel, Jesus clearly calls Sts. Peter and Andrew as his first two disciples. Even at this initial stage of Church life, St. Peter is given his special name indicating his later role in guiding the Church community. Next week’s Gospel will add Sts. James and John to the Master’s growing list of disciples. Eventually Jesus will come down from the mountain after a night in prayer deliberately to nominate 12 chosen men as his apostles. These specially-mandated ministers will receive personal instruction from the Master, insights not shared with the crowds. Decades after these 12 men were chosen, their exact names would be recalled in the four assorted Gospel accounts. This does not bespeak a haphazard beginning to the Church. As Jesus’ life drew to a close, he re-affirmed the prime vocation of these men at the Last Supper. And he reserved his final commission for them at the Ascension.

Even among these 12 Jesus selected Peter, James and John for particular intimacy. They alone witnessed the raising of Jairus’ daughter, the Transfiguration on the mountain, and a close view of the agony in the garden. St. Peter’s confession of faith is given pride of place in all four Gospel accounts. It was truly a foundational event. Even St. Paul, who never met Christ or an apostle before his conversion and whose ministry began as a miracle of grace, felt compelled to go up to Jerusalem to explain himself to the “pillars” of the Church who were resident there. And he was proud to receive “the right hand of fellowship” and the laying on of hands from the early Church’s first hierarchy to legitimize his ministry to the Gentiles. Bishops, elders and deacons as well as a lay apostolate were in active evidence within decades of Christ’s return to this Father.

Christ might not have envisioned or even intended the hospitals, colleges, chanceries, basilicas, shrines, convents and cemeteries that constitute the Christian Church today. But an enduring and effective structure was plainly in the works from the Sea of Galilee to the mountain of the Ascension.