The church: Knowing and living its purpose
The purpose of the church is to reveal God to the world, to be a classroom of discipleship training, to demonstrate how redeemed people live in community, and to partner with God in His mission.
What is the church? Why do we have one?
Our thoughts about the church are often rather casual. It is a building on the landscape, a place to meet friends on Sabbath, just one among many different faith groups. Or it may be my employer.
We often evaluate the church in terms of what it does for us when we attend its services or programs. Thus the endless variety of expressions heard: “I like/dislike the music/ preaching/atmosphere/sound system/ Sabbath school/warmth/coldness. There are not enough aisle seats. The fellowship meal is what keeps me going there.”
What is the use of the church? The typical answer depends on what I feel the church does for me. The Bible’s answer is different. According to scripture, the importance of the church is not so much what the church does for you or me but what it does for God.
When we begin to understand this, we move from a self-centered view of the church to a God-centered awareness that God created the church for His own purposes – and that all who attend are enveloped in a grand design that originates with God. When we understand this, the Christian life becomes a lot more than a continual struggle to cultivate a list of virtues and avoid a list of vices. We begin to see the church as the representation or demonstration of God in this world – that the way we live and the way we respond to one another is part of a much larger story and purpose than we ever imagined.
In this context, let us consider the purpose of the church in four different yet interrelated dimensions.
1. To bring attention to God
It should not be surprising to discover this as a theme in scripture. The apostle Paul summarizes the purpose of his own calling and provides a crucial insight regarding the purpose of the church. “To me … this grace was given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ … to the intent that now the manifold wisdom of God might be made known by the church to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places, according to the eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ephesians 3:8-11).1 Elsewhere, Paul conveys similar thoughts (Colossians 3:17, Galatians 1:15, 16). The same idea is found in the words of Jesus (Matthew 5:16), of the prophets Isaiah and Zechariah (Isaiah 42:5-7, Zechariah 8:23), and of Peter (1 Peter 2:9).
Ellen White also spoke and wrote frequently with this theme in mind. “The Lord does not want us to walk in darkness and perplexity. He desires us to know the truth as it is in Jesus, and wherever we go, to proclaim that truth. By word and deed we are to reveal Jesus to the world.”2 “Christians are set as light bearers on the way to heaven. They are to reflect to the world the light shining upon them from Christ. Their life and character should be such that through them others will get a right conception of Christ and of His service.”3
The purpose of the church is to bring attention to God, not to itself. The size of its membership, the architecture of its buildings, the extent of its presence in the world can sometimes be mistaken for its real impact: how much does it really present a picture of who God is and what He wants to achieve in this world?
2. To be the classroom for discipleship training
One of the main emphases we make in the proclamation of the gospel is that God in Jesus Christ has forgiven our sins. But we must never stop there. What we really need to be proclaiming as well as demonstrating is that the salvation offered to us, provided for us, is deliverance from the dominating power of sin in our lives. Jesus did not come only to save us from the punishment of our sins, but to provide us power to overcome the tendency to continue in sin.
The discipling role of the church is to help us understand that the gospel is not just a set of beliefs but a power that changes us profoundly and continually. Salvation is much more than release from the consequences of our sins. It also ushers us into a new realm of thinking and feeling, where the heart and will become pure, where sin is seen in its true light. Jesus came to save His people from their sins, not just from the punishment of their sins (see Matthew 1:21).
The hard truth of the gospel is that it reframes everything in our lives, not just our religious acts. Sooner or later, the gospel brings us to a confrontation with our habits and our attitudes. It initiates warfare with our idols and our self-centeredness. It delivers us from an egocentric way of thinking. And ultimately, a true understanding of the gospel introduces us to a deeper happiness than can be found anywhere in life.
Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus concerning his desire and prayer that they would be “filled with all the fullness of God” (see Ephesians 3:16-19). He appealed to the church members in Colossae to live with new perceptions and new behaviors. “If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth… . Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry… . But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. Do not lie to one another” (see Colossians 3:1-11).
These changes in conviction and conduct do not happen instantly. One grows in the development of Christian views, values, and graces. The church is the classroom for discipleship training in which a person’s life is transformed into Christlikeness and in which an individual learns how to use his/her talents, skills, and energies in the mission of God. “There is nothing that the world needs so much as a knowledge of the gospel’s saving power revealed in Christlike lives.”4
3. To demonstrate how redeemed
people live in community God does not call people to live in isolation from each other. On the contrary, the call of God embraces relationship with others. Some of these relationship expectations can be very challenging, because they cut across many of our cultural and cultivated affinities.
It is very tempting to adopt a onesided view of spirituality – to concentrate on my connection with God while neglecting my interactions with people. A presumed spirituality can flourish amidst social neglect (see Malachi 1:10; Jeremiah 22:11-18). J.B. Phillips rightly states: “The truth is that the wholeness which God is working to achieve is never complete in an individual, but through individuals living together as one body, each supplying the deficiencies of the others.”5
The challenge for the church is to demonstrate how followers of Jesus Christ live out the principles of discipleship in a social context. The church is called to be cross-cultural, multicultural, counter-cultural, and transcultural. A place where the upsidedown priorities of the beatitudes operate. A place where service counts above status, where humility replaces hubris, where love reigns instead of lust, and where a competitive spirit is exchanged for collaboration.
Paul’s admonition to the churches under his care embraced new dimensions of every human relationship: husband and wife, parents and children, employers and employees, Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, wise and otherwise.
Apparently, some of the Christians in Corinth had taken each other to secular courts to settle matters. In his letter, Paul takes a dim view of church members who sue one another in secular courts. In effect he says, “Can’t you find a way to sort out these differences among you? You are going to judge the world one day with Christ.”
He goes on to write: “It is already an utter failure for you to go to law against one another. Why do you not rather accept wrong? Why do you not let yourselves be cheated?” (see 1 Corinthians 6:1-8). Paul advises that there is an option when believers are faced with the struggles of living in community: you can choose to lay down your rights.
Of all the purposes for the church here described, this one, about demonstrating a redeemed society, is the most challenging because it directly confronts the human tendency to be self-centered.
What might happen in our faith community if the world really did see the dramatic difference that God makes in all human relationships? Is it right to expect that as a result of Jesus in their lives the people of God would be the happiest group on the planet, the healthiest group on the planet, the most peaceful group, the most helping group, etc? Is this not what Jesus meant when He said that He came that people might have life and have it more abundantly?
4. To be a healing/reconciling presence in the world
Many Christians believe they are called to retreat from the world. Jesus calls us to be His followers. Like Him, we are not of the world. But He sends us into the world (John 17:15-16, 20:21). For it is His desire to save the world, not just the church. He calls us to be partners with Him in the mission of God.
A thoughtful review of Jesus’ ministry reveals that the whole spectrum of society received His attention and care. But Jesus appears to have special regard for the least, the lost, the last, the lowest, and the left-out. He gave attention to those most overlooked by society: children, the poor, the sick, those maimed or mentally challenged, and sinners of the worst kind (Matthew 4:23, 24). In the minds of many, His reputation was sullied by the time and attention He gave to those society had marginalized.
Jesus ministered to the demonpossessed and the disfigured. He healed withered limbs and wounded spirits. The blind, deaf, and dumb were recipients of His tender mercies. Jesus identified with human need. In fact, He makes this a test of true discipleship. Our service to Him is seen in our service to others (see Matthew 25:35-40).
It has been a weakness of religions that they care more for religion than for humanity. Christ cared more for humanity than for religion – rather, His care for humanity was the chief expression of His religion.
The story of the exodus is the metanarrative within which the Old Testament people of God find their identity and purpose. It is an example of God engaged in mission. In the exodus, God responded to all the dimensions of Israel’s need – political, economic, social, and spiritual. Our commitment to mission must demonstrate the same broad totality of concern for human need that God demonstrated.
There are two ways of falling short in our understanding of mission: one is to concentrate on its spiritual significance and marginalize the political, economic, and social dimensions; the other is to concentrate so much on its political, economic, and social dimensions that the spiritual dimension is lost from sight. “The world cannot possibly begin to believe in the reality of an unseen God, extravagant in mercy, lavish in goodness, bent on redeeming and reconciling and restoring creation, until our churches are living object lessons of this very thing.”6
God’s mission involves the restoration of all that was true about His whole creation, and the eradication of all the evil that has worked its way into this world. Our mission, therefore, has to be as comprehensive in scope as the gospel the whole Bible gives us.
We must be careful lest we buy into the idea that the markers of religious life are Bible study, prayer, and witnessing. This is an incomplete list. What is missing is service. The whole of life is seen as a response to God’s grace. Both work and worship are dedicated to Him.
Church members easily fall victim to the idea that we serve God best when we are in church, when we are praying or reading the Bible, or giving Bible studies or handing out tracts, and that our work is merely a necessity to provide resources to serve Him when we have completed our allotted task or shift of duty. But in the larger view of discipleship, our daily work becomes an outworking of God’s sovereignty, a platform for service to others on behalf of Him who called us and who equipped us to do it.
It is participation in the mission of God that consecrates every kind of work that is done for the sake of human community. Any job, any profession that is pursued in the interest of serving God and advancing His reign in individual lives and human community becomes a sacred calling. We must challenge the idea that ministerial work is more holy than teaching math or fixing machinery.
The purpose of the church is to reveal God to the world, to be a classroom of discipleship training, to demonstrate how redeemed people live in community, and to partner with God in His mission. What an awesome challenge! What an amazing privilege! What an energizing objective!
Lowell C. Cooper is a vice-president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.
- All Scripture passages unless otherwise stated are from the New King James Version.
- Ellen G. White, Review and Herald, January 19, 1905, par. 24.
- ---, Steps to Christ (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1956), p. 116.
- ---, The Ministry of Healing, (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1942), p. 133.
- J.B. Phillips, Making Men Whole (London: Fontana Books, 1964), p. 115.
- Mark Buchanan, Your Church Is Too Safe (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2012), p. 170.