Last week, I ended last week’s Elusive Presence essay by saying that thinking of the church primarily in missional terms is a mistake. Specifically, I said, “I believe it is an unbiblical view of the church. And I believe it is an unhealthy diet for the church.” To grasp that first point, I will begin by looking at Paul’s letter to the Ephesians to ground my biblical exposition. While Ephesians it is not a systematic theology of the church, Ephesians is where Paul outlines most deeply and consistently a theology of the church.
Paul begins his letter with hardly any warm up; he jumps in by outlining a breathtaking view of history, in which the role of the church is central:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:3-10, NRSV).
Note Paul’s understanding of the mind of God (if we can talk in such terms) before the creation of the world: “Before the foundation of the world,” he says, God’s first and primary purpose was to create a people for himself, who would live with him “holy and blameless in love.” Before and above anything else, he thought about a people he would adopt as family, who would be brothers and sisters of Jesus his Son.
He did this not for some ulterior motive, so that this family would then go out and do something even more important. But he did this “according to the good pleasure of his will,” and “to the praise of his glorious grace”—meaning because of the simple splendidness of the act. It appears that for Paul, the family of God—the church—is not a means but an end.
The church is in fact the sign and portent of God’s universal will, which is “a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and on earth.” God’s wish is to bring everything into his orbit of love. The plan seems to be this: Everywhere, as far as the eye can see, there will be the family of God—the church—living before its Father in holy love.
Paul continues: “In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory” (Eph. 1:11–12).
Notice how he talks about what we do in light of our being called into the church. Given our interest in things missional, we would expect to read this: “We have been destined according to God’s will, so that we who were first to set our hope in Christ, might live to share that hope with those who don’t know hope.”
Or “We who were first to set our hope in Christ might live to further the kingdom of God in the world.”
Or “We who were the first to set our hope in Christ might live to make the world a better place, to foster human flourishing.”
No. His view of the church is not instrumental at all. Instead, he says that since we have been gathered into the church, we who have first set out hope in Christ should live like this: praising God’s glory.
The point is this: church is its own end. It is created by God’s good pleasure and for our good pleasure. As a result of being called into the family called church, our job is to bask in its sheer goodness, by living together in holy love, and by together praising God’s glory for doing such a hilarious thing.
According to this summary passage, it does not appear that the church was created for the world, as many assume. If anything, the world was created for the sake of the church. That is, the funnel of history is not that the church pours itself into the world to redeem it, but the world--as least those in the world who trust in Christ--is poured into the church.
Paul is not foisting a new idea on the Ephesians. His theology is grounded in the Old Testament. There we repeatedly read how Israel has been chosen by God and esteemed by God, created by God so he might have a people for himself.
One typical example is when the Lord speaks through Isaiah:
But you, Israel, my servant,
Jacob, whom I have chosen,
the offspring of Abraham, my friend;
you whom I took from the ends of the earth,
and called from its farthest corners,
saying to you, “You are my servant,
I have chosen you and not cast you off” (Is. 41:8-9).
Abraham was not only called from the ends of the earth to be father of God’s chosen people, but the people he fathers (by God’s grace) to become a sign of history’s goal:
In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.” (Is. 2:2-3)
In other words, the world comes to Jerusalem. Israel does not go out to the world missionally to transform the world, but at the end of history, the world comes to Mt. Zion to worship and learn from God.
This image is repeated in the New Testament. In Revelation we read about the coming down out of heaven a new Jerusalem, about which John says, “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it” (Rev. 21:22-24).
Again, the image is that in the end, the world comes to the church, the place where people bask in the presence of God, where the pleasure of God is our pleasure, prompting us to erupt in praise: “Nothing accursed will be found there anymore. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him” (22:3).
A vivid description of that worship is found earlier:
And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to the one who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall before the one who is seated on the throne and worship the one who lives forever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne, singing,
“You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power...” (4:9-11).
My reading of the sweep of the biblical picture, then, is that the purpose of the church—the family of God—is not to make the world a better place, but to invite the world into the better place, the place called church.
The Other Side
I recognize this point of view is not widely held among evangelical Christians, and for good reason. There are many verses in Scripture which seem to suggest just the opposite—that the church is not an end but a means, that it was created for the sake of the world. So we need to look at some of these passages.
The classic expression comes from Isaiah 42:
I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness (Is. 42:6-7).
And let me be fair with my quote of Isaiah’s vision in which people from all over the globe come to Jerusalem. It ends like this: “For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, / and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.”
And then there is this key statement of God to Abraham: “… in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Such verses are often used to suggest, among other things, that Israel failed in its primary mission--being a light to the world--and that Jesus, at the end of his ministry, made sure that the church was absolutely clear about its purpose:
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in 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, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” (Mt. 28:16-20).
What could be more clear? Such passages suggest that the purpose of the church is to go out to all nations, to go out into the world on mission, to be missional.
Not quite, in my view.
First, note the context of that key verse in Genesis. God tells Abraham that his family will become a great nation, and that those who bless this great nation will be blessed, and those who curse this nation will be cursed. The implication is that all the other families of the earth will be blessed as they bless the family of Abraham. It’s not about Abraham’s missionary purpose, but about the family of Abraham’s status in the eyes world. The nation of Israel is a sign of God’s ultimate purpose—to create a people for himself—and those who recognize and honor that will be blessed.
We’ll return to the Isaiah passage, but for now let’s move ahead to Jesus’ commission to the disciples. Note exactly to whom Jesus commands to make disciples of all nations: The eleven disciples. That’s all. We automatically apply this verse to all Christians and to the church in general, equating as we do the calling of the original disciples with our calling. But in a larger reading of the New Testament, this command is actually only given to the eleven disciples. It’s the point at which the disciples—learners of Jesus—become apostles, those “sent out” to tell others about Jesus. These eleven very much become the first apostles.
But not every Christian is called to be an apostle. As Paul says in Ephesians when listing the gifts of the Holy Spirit, “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers...” (4:11). Some are apostles. Not all. Nor does he suggest here or anywhere in Ephesians that being sent out to the world was the main purpose of the church.
He specifically says that he is so called: “Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ,” (vv. 7-8). But he does not even hint that his calling is every Christian’s calling, or that of the church in general. It’s his call, and that of the other apostles.
So yes, there are people in the church called apostles who very much are called to go out into the world and preach and teach. And yes, there is a sense in which the teaching of God’s people goes out into the world. And yes, there is a sense in which we are light and even salt for the world, as that passage from Isaiah so beautifully expresses. Let us not denigrate our evangelistic call.
But let me suggest that all this does not constitute our very purpose as the people of God. It is clearly the calling of some of the people of God. And so it must be the calling of others in the family of God to support them in their apostolic and evangelistic work, through prayer and giving. But that is a far cry from this being the very purpose of the church, the reason for its existence.
What about Matthew 25, where Jesus speaks about the call to social justice? Jesus seems to suggest that the judgment of God at the end of history will be determined by our social justice efforts. What could indicate our purpose more than this?
In that passage, Jesus describes a scene where people from all over the world are gathered before him at the judgment. He separates them into two groups, the sheep and the goats, and he says to the sheep:
“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” [notice the language here, the same as in Ephesians, before the foundation of the world God was preparing the kingdom for himself] “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”
And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Mt. 25:34-39, NRSV).
This version, the NRSV, has appropriately rendered the literal “brothers” as “members of my family.” The people who need ministering to are not just people in general, anyone who suffers. The specific people in question are the people of God, the brothers and sisters of Christ, members of the family of God. The call to justice, in this instance, is not even a call to justice--no wrongs are being righted in fact. It’s a simple call for compassion for the people of God when they are in dire straits. It’s a call for the church to be especially attentive to those in the family who suffer. It harkens to Paul’s injunction that we should do good to all men, but especially to those in the household of faith.
What about the prophetic passages from Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and Micah, to name a few? Don’t they enjoin us to be concerned about social justice for all? What about all those harsh judgments against those who oppress widows and orphans and mistreat the sojourner? Who accept bribes instead of doing justice? Is this not a clear and clarion call to work for justice in society?
Yes and no. As we’ll note in a bit, one can hardly deny the need for Christians to work for justice in society. Any Christian whose heart does not break over injustice, who does nothing to alleviate suffering in the world, is likely not a Christian in the first place. But we’ll come back to this.
In the case of the prophetic literature, however, we often fail to recognize that the prophets are little concerned about the widows and orphans and bribes in Assyria, Babylon, and elsewhere. But they are very concerned about it in Israel and Judah, very concerned about it as it is practiced among the people of God.
And why not, if the people of God are called to be a light to the nations? What type of light can they be if they act like everyone else? The call of the prophets is not that everyone, everywhere will pursue justice for all, but that the people of God would treat one another justly, righteously, in the presence of God.
Certainly the other nations come into view now and then in prophetic denouncements, but the overwhelming concern of the prophets is for the quality of life among God’s chosen people.
Again, we need to make a distinction between one task the people of God are called to perform and the very ground of their being, the very purpose of their life together. We are by all means to love the neighbor, which now includes the enemy. One way we love them is through acts of mercy and justice. But this does not mean that the church exists for the sake of the world.
[Next week: my biblical exposition continues, with a look at how Paul’s adapts the concern of the prophets to life in the church—and how that help us clarify the essential purpose of the church.]
Mark Galli is editor in chief of Christianity Today. If you want to be alerted to these essays as they appear, subscribe to The Galli Report.
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