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White Horse Inn: Conversational Theology

What is the Church’s Mission?

Release date:

November 15, 2011

In recent days, Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert have taken a fair number of hits for their arguments in What is the Mission of the Church? (Crossway, 2011). (See one review here) The main worry is that they define the mission too narrowly, focusing on the Great Commission. At least on the more vehement side of the opposition, the concern is that there is no place for the church to have an impact on culture, particularly in social and economic terms.

Having received some similar objections to my argument in The Gospel Commission (Baker, 2011), I think that many criticisms rest on basic confusion of categories. There are several examples that could be mentioned, but I’ll stick with this one: the confusion of the church as a divine institution (place) with the church as Christians (people).

Gathered to Receive and Scattered to Serve

We are made Christians—from the beginning to the end of our discipleship—through the ministry that Christ ordained: preaching and teaching, baptism, the Supper, and the privileges and responsibilities of church membership. Growing up into Christ together, we are living stones in a global sanctuary. Our heavenly citizenship shapes the way we live out our earthly citizenship. Like salt that loses its savor, we are always on the verge of being reabsorbed into the world’s bloodstream without contributing any distinctive flavor or preservative characteristics. So we come to church each week to be “re-salinated,” bathed again in the minerals of God’s Word, swept by the Spirit into the unfolding story of Christ’s kingdom. We exchange gifts among the saints and then get shaken out into the world for our various callings throughout the week. The church’s job is not to raise children, fix neighborhoods, manage relationships, and heal society. Rather, the church is commissioned to make disciples of Christ by preaching, administering the sacraments, and teaching them to observe everything he commanded. All of the other things—being good neighbors—can be done by the members, and not only with other Christians but with their non-Christian neighbors who also care about the needs of their community.

Historically, evangelicals have an almost Gnostic (hyper-spiritualized) view of the church. It is simply the sum total of born again individuals. There is often little conception of the church as a divine institution with ordained offices and a holy ministry of preaching and sacrament. Accordingly, the church is seen not chiefly as a community of sinners receiving God’s judgment and grace, but as a group of activists fulfilling Jesus’ redeeming work and building his kingdom. “Getting saved” and “joining a church” or “believing” and “belonging” are considered two separate issues. Some zealous world-changers who have left their pastoral ministry to become humanitarian activists even celebrate their freedom from the church to become truly “missional.” No longer members of a church, they are followers of Jesus. This older pietist bifurcation between personal salvation and the church has widened with each generation to the point now where the Great Commission itself can be described implicitly as narrow and confining.

The confusion of the church as a divine institution with the church as the people of God leads to statements today like, “We can’t go to church, because we are the church!” But this is a false choice—as bad as the nominal “Sunday Christianity” that treats formal membership in the church as fire insurance. The truth is, if we don’t go to church, we can’t be the church. We need to be made Christians or we cannot be Christians. Before we can be active doers of the Word, we have to be grateful receivers. Something must be done for and to us before we have something to do and give to others. Each Lord’s Day, the Risen Lord loads us down with his gifts and then we distribute them to our brothers and sisters—as well as outsiders according to the proportion we have been given.

The callings of Christians are myriad: as children, parents, co-workers, employers and employees, citizens, volunteers, friends, and neighbors. Some of us are called to be missionaries or to live and work in other vocations where we are loving and serving people in other countries. However, we don’t have to visit a church bulletin board or parachurch website to find some faraway neighbors who need us; they are right under our nose. They are our spiritual mothers and fathers in nursing homes, brothers and sisters suffering from illnesses. It could be someone simply going through the stress of everyday life, child care and a lay-off at work and is perhaps one relative, friend, or fellow believer away from not being able to manage it all. We want to do something important—extraordinary—with our lives, but God calls most of us, most of the time, to do a lot of relatively important but ordinary tasks that our real neighbors actually need. The church prepares us to be better citizens of earth because its sacred ministry makes us first and foremost citizens of heaven.

If we can distinguish between the church as organization (place) and the church as organism (people), rather than setting them in opposition, then we can avoid the dangers both of ecclesial mission creep and of ignoring our worldly callings.

Schools cannot usurp the role of families, but children learn many important things outside of the home. The responsibility and authority for national defense are not entrusted to the family, but the military has no say in our home life. Fire departments have a narrowly defined mandate. No one expects them to offer plans for managing Italy’s debt crisis. We do not raise a hue and cry when they do not provide long-term health care. Nevertheless, fire-fighters vote, some even participating in neighborhood, state, or national political parties and coalitions; serve on the school board, and volunteer for all sorts of community services, as well as church activities and offices

Many callings intersect in the life of every believer; the mandate given to Christians is far wider than that given to the church as an institution. The New Testament provides directives for believers in their marriages and parenting; a few commands concerning relationships with employers and employees as well as rulers. However, it also assumes that families still do the lion’s share of raising children; we still owe taxes to our governments to provide for common society, and non-Christians as well as believers owe each other justice, backed up by courts and law-enforcement.

Much of what I’m arguing for here is found in Abraham Kuyper’s idea of “sphere sovereignty,” where Christians participate in many different callings and none of these callings or spheres can claim sovereignty over all the others. Even if Christians formed the majority in a society, the church would never have authority to wield the temporal sword—whether in the milder form of policy legislation or by actually taking up arms for its causes. Christians work alongside non-Christians in all of these spheres of common grace, bringing the depth and breadth of their biblically-informed wisdom to bear on these varied decisions and actions.

Christians are not free to ignore the plight of their neighbors. As our catechisms point out, we violate the Sixth Commandment not only when we actually take someone’s life (a sin of commission) but when we fail to do what we could do to preserve their life (a sin of omission). Shaped by the biblical story, some disciples will be called to devote time, talents, and treasure to neighbors who are being kidnapped in Thailand and sold in sex trafficking in San Diego. Others will be called to care for a child with cerebral palsy. Many other, less auspicious crosses, will be borne by believers that are nevertheless part of a vast safety net that the Triune God weaves in his common grace for the care of his creatures. But if the church is distracted from fulfilling its calling, then even these temporal benefits of Christ’s kingdom will diminish. The salt will lose its savor.

The church is both a place where Christians are made over a whole lifetime and a people who are then “salt and light” in the world.

Mercy Ministry

One concrete example of this principle is the office of deacon. I spent a whole chapter on this in The Gospel Commission. I did so for two reasons. First, in spite of all the talk of mercy ministries, this office is often under-appreciated today. Second, the call to love and serve our neighbors (the Great Commandment) is often simply confused with the call to make disciples (the Great Commission). Of course, we do both out of love, but with different mandates, methods, and goals.

Although I’ve read Paul’s Epistles closely for a long time, only over the last few years has it really hit me how obsessed the Apostle was with an offering for the Jerusalem saints. We know that the diaconate was established when the Greeks and Jews were squabbling over the daily provisions.

And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6 1-4).

Stephen and several others were chosen. “These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them” (v 6). The result? “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith” (Ac 6:7).

Already we learn two imporant things about this ministry of mercy. First, it is important. The ministry of the Word was clearly paramount, but instead of neglecting, much less setting aside the bodily welfare of the saints, the apostles established a separate office for it. Both jobs needed to be done well. Second, it is an office in the church. Exercising the direct authority of Christ himself, the apostles instituted an office that highlighted Christ’s redemptive love for the whole person. The church is not called merely to save souls, but to care for people in the totality of their earthly needs.

Paul also spelled out to Timothy the qualifications of deacons as well as elders. Pastors and elders are “overseers,” while deacons are “servants.” Pastors preach, teach, and administer the sacraments; elders rule; and deacons serve: thus mediating Christ’s threefold office of prophet, king, and priest.

And now Paul mentions this diaconal ministry in the latter part of several letters. We know that Paul was obsessed with the gospel—and with getting it to the Gentiles, which is why he was so ambitious to make it all the way to Rome before he died. Yet he was also burdened with a major relief project.

Paul mentions this in 1 Corinthians. A disciplinary letter written to an immature church that in many ways mirrored the individualism, social stratifications, and worldliness of its urbane culture, 1 Corinthians 16 explains,

Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come. And when I arrive, I will send those whom you accredit by letter to carry your gift to Jerusalem. If it seems advisable that I should go also, they will accompany me (16:1-4).

At first, it may seem like a passing remark in the signing-off section of Paul’s epistles. But it is actually more than that.

First, the collection was occasioned by a desperate need. Political agitation by various groups of Jewish zealots had led to another Roman crackdown and this included what amounted to a blockade of basic necessities to Jerusalem. Many died of starvation. It was during this time (the mid-40s) that James wrote his epistle, addressing the social conflict in the Jerusalem church between the rich and the poor and calling believers to be doers and not merely hearers of the word.

Second, the collection was especially formal. It wasn’t just another collection taken “on the first day of the week,” as Christians have been taking collections in the public service ever since. Paul assumes some general familiarity with this project: “Now concerning the collection for the saints,” which he has only mentioned here for the first time in this letter.

Third, the collection was catholic (universal). It was not merely the initiative of one local congregation: “…as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do…” It is an apostolic injunction to be received and obeyed by all of the churches.

Fourth, although all churches are to participate, each collection was local, to be taken up each Lord’s Day in every church. No last-minute fund drive when Paul comes! The believers in Corinth are called to make this collection part of their weekly worship service. Thus, it isn’t a top-down enterprise, but a movement of charity from all local assemblies to another local assembly. This expresses genuine catholicity. Although the injunction is apostolic, the administration is to be determined by each church’s officers (most likely, the deacons). “And when I arrive, I will send those whom you accredit by letter to carry your gift to Jerusalem.” Paul respects the integrity of this local church and its officers. As an apostle, he will send the officers (most likely, deacons) with the gift to Jerusalem, but he will send “those whom you accredit by letter.” He even adds, “If it seems advisable that I should go also, they will accompany me.” Paul really wanted to be there for the giving of the grand collection, but he cedes that personal right to the officers of that church.

Paul refers to this collection also in Romans 15.

I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another. But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit (vv 14-15).

Yet Paul connects his “priestly ministry of the gospel” in offering up of the Gentiles as a sacrifice of praise to his campaign for relief of the Jerusalem saints:

This is the reason why I have often been hindered from coming to you….At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints. For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem. They were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material blessings. When therefore I have completed this and have delivered to them what has been collected, I will leave for Spain by way of you. I know that when I come to you I will come in the fullness of the blessings of Christ (vv 22-29).

Paul concludes by asking for prayer “that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints, so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company. May the God of peace be with you all. Amen” (vv 31-33).

Why is this collection so central to Paul’s apostolic mission? In Romans, it is a concrete expression of the goal of Paul’s entire ministry. “Salvation is from the Jews.” The Great Commission goes out from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria to the uttermost ends of the earth. So it is only proper that the spiritual gift that goes out to the Gentiles comes back to the Jewish saints in material blessing. Central to Paul’s gospel is that in Christ the wall of partition between Jew and Gentile has been removed. And now the collection expresses that truth. The drama leads to doctrine, doxology, and discipleship. “Put your money where your mouth is,” as they say. Paul seems to imply in Romans 15:14-15 that the Roman Christians, though “filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another,” needed a strong admonition to care for the saints.

And this was probably as much of a test of discipleship for the Jewish believers as it was for the Gentiles. Even more than today, accepting charity in the ancient world was an embarrassment, but Jews had been especially careful to avoid the charity of their Roman occupiers. There would have been members of the Jerusalem church who were demanding that Gentile converts adopt Jewish circumcision and dietary laws. Then in walks Paul, the former persecutor of that very Jerusalem church now an apostle to the Gentiles, flanked by representatives (probably deacons) from far-flung Gentile churches, carrying a treasure to lay at the feet of suffering brothers and sisters. Nothing drives home the gospel more and challenges spiritual arrogance than being destitute—even physically—and depending on the kindness of “foreigners.” Yet in this very act, the Jewish believers were bound more deeply to their Gentile co-heirs than they were to their Jewish neighbors. They were no longer strangers and aliens.

So how did the Corinthians do when Paul finally came around for this collection? We find out in his second letter to the church (2 Cor 8:1-9:15). Paul provokes the Corinthians to jealousy by recounting the generosity of the Macedonian churches in spite of their poverty: “We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.” They even “begged us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints.” “Accordingly, we urged Titus that as he had started, so he should complete among you this act of grace.”

So Paul clearly saw this collection as connected to the gospel itself. It is not the gospel, but the reasonable response to it. They must stop thinking of this collection as a tax—”an exaction,” but “as a willing gift” (v 5). The Corinthians had excelled in knowledge, now it’s time for them to excel in generosity (vv 7-8). “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that although he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you b his poverty might become rich” (v 9). He reminds them that they started this project of collecting funds in Corinth a year ago and he urges them now to finally complete it. Just as we build up each other through the diversity of our spiritual gifts, so also through the diversity of our material means. The poor need the rich and the rich also need the abundance of gifts that the poorer members bring to the body (vv 12-15).

At a time when more Christians are martyred in an average year than all of the martyrdoms under the Roman emperors, is diaconal ministry as crucial a concern in our churches as it should be? At least in Reformed and Presbyterian polity, every member is a part of the local church and every local church is a microcosm of the broader (catholic) church. We’re connected, not hierarchically, but covenantally, in a network of shared, representative, ministerial authority. Pastors and elders represent this catholicity in the local church and in broader assemblies. Why shouldn’t deacons as well, as Paul’s example clearly shows? Deacons are not elders-in-waiting; it’s a different but equal office, with its own rationale and gifting. Local churches have plenty of opportunities to look after the daily welfare of the saints under their care; how much more could be done, expressing the catholicity of Christ’s body, if the diaconates of various denominations were linked together in a network of relief to the body of Christ throughout the world? When one part suffers, the whole body should feel the pain.

Even if we could get agreement from everyone on the importance of diaconal ministry for the saints, the larger question concerns the scope of mercy ministry. Let me cut to the chase and then defend briefly my conclusion. In my reading, Scripture gives ample authorization for the church in its official mandate to care for the temporal welfare of the saints. However, it does not sanction as part of the church’s official mission the extension of this welfare to the world at large. Again, recall my main point: the church is not called to do everything that God calls Christians to do in the world. This is not a question of whether Christians (and non-Christians) are commanded by God to seek justice for their neighbors. The Great Commandment—love of God and neighbor—remains in force. Written on the conscience in creation, it is the standard by which God will judge the world on the last day. However, civil government was introduced to legislate and enforce this law of neighborly justice. The church is the creation of the Word, specifically the Gospel. It gives rise to a community of the age to come within the crumbling order of this present evil age. We are obligated to both mandates, as citizens of both kingdoms.

We are familiar with the ways in which liberal Protestantism has turned the radical message of the new covenant into a blandly sentimental ethic of universal brotherhood. Yet we are in danger of seeing that happen in evangelical circles today as well. Again, the problem is not that Christians are too concerned about justice and the good of their neighbors! The problem comes when we reinterpret the story of Jesus and his body as an allegory for the march of human progress.

The astonishing thing about the apostolic community was not that it tried aggressively to transform the world, but that, for all of its faults and failures, it was a recipient of God’s gracious invasion. The early Christians attempted no transformation of Jewish or Roman society, but they refused to allow the presuppositions, methods, standards, and goals of society to have any ultimate claim on their identity as Christ’s body. This strange new society emerged out of their weekly reorientation around Christ, through the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, the Supper, and the prayers (Ac 2:43). Although they gave freely, not out of forced redistribution, believers shared all things in common and gave as anyone had need (vv 44-45).

Mercy Ministry Beyond the Church?

What do we say, then, about the passages that are offered to support a wider mission of mercy?

Paul says, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal 6:10). There is nothing in the context to suggest that it is deacons who are being addressed. This is a general call for believers to extend help to everyone, and especially to fellow church members. Hebrews 13:16 exhorts, “Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares…Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Heb 13:1-2, 16). Entertaining angels unawares is probably a reference to Abram’s unwitting hospitality to strangers who were actually angels sent to save him and his family from the destruction of Sodom. In any case, the reference to strangers here, like the prisoners mentioned in verse 3, is most likely to believers who were showing up on doorsteps of fellow-saints seeking a hiding place from the authorities.

This context of Hebrews is important for all of these relevant passages. Jesus had already prepared his disciples for this scenario. For example, in Matthew 24-25, Jesus speaks of what will happen in between his ascension and return in glory. There will be persecution. Believers in Christ will be cast out of the synagogues, their own relatives will hand them over to the authorities, and there will be wars and rumors of wars, until the gospel is preached to every nation. And then Jesus speaks of the last judgment when he separates the sheep from the goats:

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me (Mat 25:34-36).

What is especially striking is that the righteous answer, “‘Lord, when did you see you hungry and feed you and thirsty and give you drink?’…And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me'” (vv 37-40, emphasis added). Meanwhile, the reverse happens in the case of the goats: Jesus indicts them for turning their back on the saints—and therefore, on him, while they protest the charge and defend their righteousness (vv 41-45). Do you see the main point, though? Jesus is saying that any solidarity expressed with these persecuted brothers and sisters—even to the point of putting one’s own life in jeopardy—is solidarity with Jesus himself. Ecclesiology, not social justice, is what such passages are all about.

The bond between the Head and his body is so inextricable that when the ascended Jesus appeared to Saul on the Damascus road, he asked, “‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ And he said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting‘” (Ac 9:4-5). Paul would never forget—and only grow in his understanding—of the significance of this bond of union between Christ and his church. Sometimes, in the laudable zeal for reaching out to those outside the church, we ignore or take for granted the priority of Christ’s own body.

Neither does the Sermon on the Mount pertain to the world at large any more than do the Beatitudes that introduce it. Again, the context is persecution and the radically new stance of Christ’s kingdom vis-à-vis the ungodly forces of this age. Instead of driving out the Canaanites in holy war, we pray for our persecutors. When they demand our suit, we give them our shirt, too.

Our dual citizenship issues in a dual mandate: the Great Commandment (to love our neighbors by our common service in our worldly callings) and the Great Commission (to love our neighbors by our holy service in witness to the gospel and participating in the holy commonwealth of the saints). As neighbor-loving Christians, we may give generously to support agencies for the general relief of those in need, volunteer at soup kitchens, or care for an unbelieving parent in his or her old age. However, as co-heirs with Christ, we give joyfully to the support of our brothers and sisters because with them we share equally all that God has given us in his Son. These two mandates intersect in the life of every believer, as Paul tells the Thessalonians:

Now concerning brotherly love, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one (1 Thes 4:9-12).