This weekend was the final session of the Saturday adult catechesis sessions that my wife and I coordinated for our parish. For various reasons, we won't be doing this next fall. I suspect that I'll be busy with a couple of other projects I have going, and Gina always has enough to keep her busy.
Anyway, the speaker this week is one of our diocesan staff who works in social justice ministries and education. All in all, I thought it was a positive session, and I think the speaker puts her faith into practice in a postitive way. I disagreed with a couple of sweeping comments she made about the death penalty and war, but I sort of expect that some Catholics will feel strongly against both. Given that prudential judgement is involved in each case, I expect there would be some disagreement.
However, there was one comment that bothered me, and I brought it up during the session break. The speaker had claimed that Christ did not start a church but a mission. I pointed out to her that Christ indeed founded a church in Matthew 16, albeit perhaps not a full-blown hierarchy as later came into existence within 40 years of Christ's death. She acknowledged that point, but when I mentioned the word ekklesia being used twice in Matthew, she latched on and claimed that "most scholars agree" that Jesus probably never used the word "church." I responded that that probably depended on the scholars and that some would say their's no reason doubt that he did. She indicated that there was reason to doubt it because the word doesn't appear in the other gospels. The reasoning seemed peculiar to me.
So let me start my response by acknowledging that Jess probably didn't use the word ekklesia. It's more likely that he was speaking in Aramaic than Greek, so it would've been an odd word choice. However, it's clear that Jesus meant something akin to what the word ekklesia came to stand for. Lack of similar events in the other gospels is merely proof that the event comes from a different perspective than the others. If we dispute everything that only occurs in one of the three gospels, we have to dispense with a whole lot of the Word. In fact, some of the most memorable words of Christ would have to be dismissed as improbable (for example, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life"). We'd also have to dismiss such important scenes such as the wedding at Cana and the raising of Lazarus from the dead, not to mention a good portion of the infancy narrative.
In addition, while the word "church" only occurs three times in Matthew, it occurs many times in Acts, which was written by the author of Luke. So you have two different authors writing for two different audiences, both using a Greek word for "assembly," which is what we now call the church. In addition, the septuagint uses the same Greek term in no fewer than 30 places. So the claim that this term would somehow not be familiar to Jesus or wouldn't have been something he would say just falls flat.
So why would that claim be made, and what are the implications of accepting it? Well, there are two of which I can think. First, the same passage in Matthew (16:18) in which Jesus uses the word "church" or "assembly" (which is what the Greek term means literally) is also the point at which Jesus renames Peter and grants him the keys. This is the verse that is used most often as the basis for the primacy of Peter and the foundation of the Papacy (a term that appears no where in scripture but which, nonetheless, is a critical part of our faith). It is the most clear claim to both the establishment of the Church and the establishment of the See of Peter that the Church has (notwithstanding all of the practical examples of Peter exercising his role in Acts and beyond).
So if we dismiss the meaning of Jesus' words here (as opposed to the exact wording used), we undermine very important aspects of our faith. What's more, we undermine the authority that those words bestow upon the Church as the mystical body of Christ joined to its hierarchical, institutional form, as well as the authority bestowed upon the successors of Peter.
Now, this is not to say that I think the speaker's intention was to undermine the authority of the Church. However, I can't say the same for the scholars in whom she places her trust.