The Purpose of the Church

In one sense, determining the purpose of the local church is not easy.  This is because the Church exists on several different levels, and quoting a passage alone without discussion of what level of the church the passage refers to is an exercise in confusion. 

 First or all, the Church exists as the future cosmic co-heirs with Christ over all creation.  The last part of Ephesians chapter one has this future-cosmic viewpoint (see the end of verse 21).  Verses 22-23 then conclude, “And God placed all things under his feet, and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is His body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way”.   This is indeed one of the key concepts in Ephesians, that God’s plan is, in the fullness of time, to bring all creation under the headship of Jesus Christ (1:10), or to put it another way, to “fill” creation with Jesus (“fill” is one of the key words in Ephesians and Colossians).  The passage quoted here shows that the way He fills creation with Jesus is to create the church, which, because it is like Jesus and reflects Jesus, is able to manifest Jesus throughout all the realms of creation.  This, it seems to me, is also the context which best makes sense of the beautiful words in Ephesians 5, that Christ “loved the Church, and gave Himself up for her, to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to Himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.”  See also the wonderful passage of I Peter 2:4-10 in this regard.

Secondly, the church also exists right now in its corporate state.  In this state, the church exists not as the bride, but the espoused one.  At this level, it also makes sense to speak of the church not just as a local congregation, but also the collection of such bodies in a particular country, society, or even globally.  But our main concern (since normally it is all we can influence) is for the individual congregation.  The local church can only find its goals and marching orders in light of the larger purpose (as stated above), and as spelled out in scriptures that address the local congregation (mainly in the teaching of the Epistles and the examples of Acts, with the latter being interpreted by the former).  Paul is given the gift of most fully explaining the role and purpose of the local church, and his most extended discussions are in I Corinthians and Ephesians (especially I Corinthians 11-14, and Ephesians 4:1-16).  Of the two passages, the one in Ephesians is more helpful in understanding the purpose of the local body, since it deals with the issue directly (whereas most of the passage in I Corinthians is more oblique, as it addresses problems of the local church in Corinth).  This much-discussed passage tells us that God gives to the present Church different foundational gifts (apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor/teachers) for the purpose, “to prepare God’s people for works of service”.  And why are God’s people to do works of service? “So that the body of Christ may be built up”.

 Since verses 11-17 are one sentence in Greek, and critical to the purpose of the local church, we should see how the four best English translations render this whole passage.

The New International Version New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update English Standard Version The New Revised Standard Version
11 It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 11 And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 11 The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers,
12 to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,
13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 13 until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.
14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. 14 As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 14 We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.
15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. 15 but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 15 But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,
16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. 16 from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love. 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. 16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

 

 I would suggest the following thought diagram (based on the ESV):

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 

     to equip the saints for the work of ministry,

          for building up the body of Christ,

               until we all attain

                         to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God,

                         to mature manhood,

                         to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,

        so that we may no longer be children, 

              tossed to and fro by the waves

              and carried about

                        by every wind of doctrine,

                        by human cunning,

                         by craftiness in deceitful schemes.

          Rather, speaking the truth in love,

                        we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,

                        from whom the whole body,

                                          joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped,

                                          when each part is working properly,

                                    makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

Let me summarize this passage by saying that Paul says here that God gives gifted individuals to equip the members to do service work, with the goal being to build each other up into Christlike maturity, resulting in unity, knowledge of God, biblical discernment, and love.

 Now here it would be tempting to limit the purpose of the local church to that of edification, that is, building the members of the church into Christlikeness.  I would suggest that while this is central to the local church’s mission, and certainly fits in well with the future/cosmic purpose of the church related above, that the New Testament as a whole expands upon this purpose in two ways.

 First, the New Testament repeatedly uses priestly imagery to talk about the Church.  This imagery, of course, is based primarily on the Old Testament (disabuse your mind of the priest at your local mainline church). We see hints of that in the passage we just looked at (“ministry” translating the word which the Greek translation of the Old Testament used primarily of the temple ministry of the priests).  But, of course, we are given more explicit links between the church and the priesthood I such passages as I Peter 1:9, Romans 12:1-2, and Hebrews 10:20-22.  The priests were closely associated with the temple of course, which is why Paul, in the last part of Ephesians 4:16 (see above) switches from a body metaphor to an architecture metaphor (“builds itself up”).  This is based upon his earlier use of the temple to describe the church (Ephesians 2:19-22):

 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit

So the imagery of the priesthood and temple remind us that the local church also has some responsibility to minister to God, not just each other. In the Old Testament, this was done primarily by offering prayer and sacrifice.  In the New Testament, this will also be true, though the form of the sacrifice will be different.

 The second reason the purpose of the local church should not be limited to edification (central as that purpose is) is that edification itself will necessarily mean that the church will help its members fulfill their individual purpose as individual members of the Church of God, and this will mean it will involve itself in providing corporate worship/prayer, as well as facilitating evangelism and mercy to those outside the church.

 This, of course, brings us to the third level of the church, that of individual members of the body of Christ, who have a calling which will interact with the local assembly, but is sometimes distinct from it.   The overlap between the corporate and individual levels is real and profound (see, for example, how Paul calls the corporate body the temple of God in I Corinthians 3:16, while a few chapters in 6:19  later he calls individual believers by the same term). Yet a failure to distinguish the calling and present purpose of the individual believer from the calling and present purpose of the local assembly will only result in confusion or distortion. 

 For example, some churches have sought to base a purpose statement around the Great Commission in Matthew 28: 16-20:

 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.  And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted.  And Jesus came and said to them, All authority iin heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

 I hope none will be so obtuse as to think I am minimizing this command by pointing out the following:

  • This statement was given to the eleven disciples, and seems to be the heart of Jesus for His kingdom.
  • It is thus the responsibility of anyone who follows Jesus to take this command seriously.
  • The church as a local body should seek to help its members obey this, both locally and internationally.
  • Nevertheless, the New Testament never uses this statement to formulate the purpose of the corporate church in its worship or services.

 Another passage which is sometimes used to describe the purpose of the church is the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:34-40):

 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question:  “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

  Again, this command is given to an individual in response to a question.  It is entirely illegitimate to take this verse out of its context and apply it to the corporate purpose of the church. 

 The problem with this approach, obviously, is that it allows anyone to take any statement directed to the disciples, or to believers in the church, and absolutize it into the purpose of the corporate church.  Thus, some will say that the purpose of the church is primarily worship, or upholding right doctrine, or evangelism, or social justice, or (you fill in the blank). 

The challenge, then, is to understand how to maintain the distinct purpose of the corporate body, while formulating that purpose to help the individual believer fulfill his purpose as an individual part of the body of Christ. This is especially important in the area of evangelism and witness for the following two reasons.

 First, because part of what is implied in the temple imagery mentioned above is that the beauty of the temple shows the beauty and glory of God.  Since this imagery is applied at both a personal and corporate level, the corporate church has a calling to show God’s beauty and glory as its members work together and display the brotherly love which is the ultimate sign of the gospel to unbelievers (see John 13:35).  In other words, our acts of service show the beauty and love of God, but our fraternal love shows the reality of God within us, and this only occurs when the world sees us work and serve and interact together.

 Secondly, evangelism needs a corporate dimension because it is simply more effective that way.  As the different members, with different gifts, use their gifts and skills together, their work is multiplied. 

So the corporate church has a unique responsibility to facilitate group outreach and service (whether at the congregational level or the small group level).

To sum up, the Church seems to have callings in three different spheres.  First of all, it has a calling to God.  This calling is to honor Him who bought us, by becoming like Christ, and by serving as priests, as part of His temple.  Secondly, the church has a calling to itself, that is, to the individuals within the church.  That calling is to sacrificially help each other, both with our spiritual gifts as well as our common service, to become like Jesus Christ.  Related to that, we have a calling to simply love each other and uphold the unity of the body.  Thirdly, we have a calling to the world. I see nowhere in scripture that speaks of us designing the worship and ministry of the corporate church to appeal to and attract non-believers (though I Corinthians 14:23-25 remind us to be aware that some non-believer might be in our services, and we should avoid confusing them). I do see, however, Christians working together to effectively model and witness to God’s love. 

To this end, I identify our purpose or mission in its most simple form as this: We exist to please God.  He, not each other and not the world,  is our audience.  The ultimate criteria for everything we do is this: Based on what God has revealed about Himself and His desire for the church, would this be pleasing to Him?

 Based on the verses above, it seems to me that we can flesh out this statement by saying that God is pleased when we honor Him as God, when we help each other become like Him, and when we share His love to the world. 

How do we honor God as God, our Father and Redeemer? 

  • By becoming like Christ (moral obedience)
  • By prayer
  • By worship

How do we help each other become like Him?

  • By teaching His Word and helping each other apply it
  • By serving each other in areas of need
  • By praying for each other 

How do we share His love to the world?

  • By modeling his compassion to the needy
  • By proclaiming His love to the lost