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Reform Magazine | December 5, 2023

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Chapter and Verse: Matthew 16:18

Chapter and Verse: Matthew 16:18

susan_durberSusan Durber reflects on church decline

Jesus said: “… And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”
Matthew 16:18

I’d decided to reflect on this verse before I read in The Oxford Bible Commentary that it is “among the most controversial in all Scripture”. The word ekklesia is not easy to translate (it really just meant “assembly” in the Greek) and, of course, there’s a well-travelled story in the Reformed tradition about whether the word should be translated as “congregation” or “church” (Tyndale went for the former, and the King James Bible the latter.)

I think there’s something in this verse that speaks to a deep anxiety. Statistics speak loudly of decline. Congregations are ending their mission and closing. Stanley Hauerwas writes about the “end of Protestantism”. Within me there’s a heartache that is almost physical in seeing yet another former chapel becoming a “desirable dwelling”. And, when I watched the season three finale of Rev, I got through several tissues.

So how does this verse from Matthew’s Gospel help? Peter knew what it was to weep and to fail, to know disappointment and grief. Peter was, in many ways, so very human, and quite different from stone. This verse reminds me that Jesus chose someone just as human and fragile as the best of us. But, it also reminds me that it is not Peter, or you or me, who builds the Church, but Jesus. That’s quite a thought. Of course, it doesn’t free me of responsibility or vocation, but it does help me to let go of some of my anxiety. The Church is called into being and sustained by Christ himself, and it will prevail, because Christ is risen. Of course, some of the very human shapes it now has won’t last, but the Church itself belongs to Christ…


This is an extract from the July/August 2014 edition of Reform.

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