Look at the courtroom-like setting of the story of Ananias and Sapphira. Or look at Jesus’ own brother, James. James was appointed bishop over Jerusalem by the apostles and exercised authority with and over a body of believers. They gathered and passed binding resolutions.
The Orthodox church, by the way, still considers the ruling of the Acts 15 council authoritative and binding.
Paul and Peter and the other apostles carried this very model wherever they established the church — appointing bishops, empowering elders (presbyters), writing that Christians in their community should submit themselves to their authority: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God…Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls.” (Heb. 13:7, 17)
We get some pictures of this in action: If the body at Corinth had no institutional authority, for one example, Paul’s direction to excommunicate one of its members (and later direction to restore him) would make no sense.
You cannot divorce Jesus from the church and keep the New Testament because the New Testament becomes a mess of self-contradiction if it doesn’t pertain to a religion that has an institutional expression.
None of this is to say that religion cannot be distorted or that its leaders cannot abuse adherents. In the face of distorted and abusive expressions of religion, it’s tempting to think that we can divorce Jesus from that mess and have him alone. But it doesn’t and in fact cannot work that way.
Christ is the incarnate Word, God made man. The church reflects this same incarnational reality. It’s divine and human.
Unlike Christ, its humanity is not perfect; we are all being trained in obedience, growing in holiness and sanctity as we become more like Jesus, the primary occupation of the believer. But the reality of our sinfulness doesn’t preclude obedience and submission as we grow; it’s part of our growth.
We’re all imperfect and submit imperfectly. Welcome to the human race. But Jesus and the church require it regardless. To divorce one from the other is to tear the whole thing apart. No one will walk out of the courtroom the winner.
Question for reflection: If we realize that divorce is not an option for Jesus and religion — Jesus and the institutional church — is there a better, more fruitful way to approach the problems the church faces?