Let me begin this essay by responding to some critiques of the series up to this point, and especially about last week’s essay, “The Church Does Not Exist for the Sake of the World.” While most readers seem appreciative, I expected pushback for the counterintuitive emphasis I’m trying to bring to bear in the series.
Note that word—emphasis. The careful reader sees that I’m not saying that we should forget about loving our neighbor and that I’m not arguing that in glorifying God the church should not reach out in mission. Thus the charges of “binary thinking” or of offering a “false dichotomy” are a failure to read what I’ve actually written.
More to the point: I’m arguing that the evangelical movement in particular has made an idol of activity for God, to the point that God has been increasingly eclipsed from our hearts and minds (though he is still on our lips, to be sure). To call us back to our first love does not mean that I deny the importance of our second love—the neighbor. And to question our idolatry is not binary nor a false dichotomy any more than it was for Jesus when he cleared the moneychangers from the Temple.
Let me be absolutely clear here: I am not like Jesus; I am very much a moneychanger, caught in the nexus of daily life and worship of the horizontal at the expense of a deep and abiding love for my Lord.
One critique I agree with: I failed to note that many missional thinkers are not first and foremost talking about the church’s mission but God’s. That is, it is God’s mission to bring the world to himself, and we just participate in his mission. Fair enough. I will say, however, that I wonder if this picture of God is an instance where we’ve created God in our image. That is, we are so absorbed with doing and acting that we just can’t imagine God as anything other than one who has a mission himself.
I grant that there is a theological argument that says God’s essence is not so much a static “being” as much as a dynamic “doing” or “pure act” (e.g., Barth). Suffice it to say, I’m not completely convinced—the main problem being that if God has a mission, that means he is unfulfilled in some way and thus has to complete a mission to be fulfilled. This strikes me as anthropomorphic and only tempts us to rationalize our addiction to activity. Instead, we might be called to abide in the reality that God, whose Son called himself “The Lord of the Sabbath,” is characterized as living in a reality described as “rest” (Heb. 4:6–11). This is how Thomas Aquinas, among others, thought of heavenly perfection anyway. But I will also admit my thinking here is merely suggestive and that this subject deserves more of my attention.
Another critique is more ironic. One respected professor says I’ve written nothing but a “college essay” that doesn’t take into account the thinking of John Calvin, Karl Barth, and other theologians. Actually, I’m sorry to hear that my essays are at as high a level as a college essay! Like most good journalists, I want my essays to be comprehended by a high-school reading level (the usual target for most journalistic outlets), but apparently I’ve failed.
The writer went on to quote Protestant theologians, like Barth, who think the church’s mission is, in fact, to make the world a better place. Though I’ve written a biography of Barth and am fairly well read in Protestant theology (and Catholic and Orthodox as well), I’m making a starting argument that the Bible itself does not support this common Protestant view. It nearly goes without saying—but apparently I have to say it—that I am not writing a “theology of the church” as such but mostly making an argument that we’ve made an idol out of neighbor love at the expense of the first and greatest commandment.
I acknowledge that the argument cannot really be proven—for idolatry of the heart is not subject to proof of the sort one can make in an argument. I’m assuming that my half-century of being embedded in evangelical culture may have given me some insights into the movement’s strengths and weaknesses. In the end, I’m mainly asking readers to review their own experiences, as well as their own hearts, to see if my analysis is anywhere close to the truth. If someone replies, “Well, it doesn’t reflect my church experience or my heart,” I can only say praise God! But the responses I’ve received so far suggest that the problem is a serious one in many quarters and needs attention and prayer.
Paul’s Prophetic Side
Last week, I left off the biblical argument just before I got to Paul. The argument, in case you are new to the series, is that the Old and New Testaments, contrary to our usual reading, don’t think of the church as a means to an end (i.e., the church’s purpose is missional, to make the world a better place). This was another misunderstanding of one otherwise thoughtful writer, who suggested I’m arguing that the church is an end in itself. I can see how my argument could be read that way. Instead, to be more precise, the church’s end is God and our fellowship with one another in God. Anyway, on to Paul:
I find it interesting to see how Paul adapts the prophetic concern—for righteousness among the people of God—to the local situation in Ephesus. In this epistle, he is clearly concerned first and foremost about the quality of life of the people of God.
For example, what, in Paul’s mind, are we supposed to do once we have been incorporated into the family of God? Note one summary that comes at the end of that classic passage on grace: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Eph. 2:8–10, NRSV throughout unless noted).
From beforehand—which again reverberates with “before the foundation of the world” in chapter 1—God prepared us, called us, saved us to do “good works.” In chapter 1, we saw that those predestined works were summarized like this: “He chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love” and to “live for the praise of his glory.” Not holy and blameless in some abstract way, nor holy and blameless in morality in general. But to be holy and blameless in one specific thing: before God in love.
It should not surprise us then that, just after Paul says that we have been predestined for good works, he goes on to describe those good works primarily in terms of love:
So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth ... were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. (Eph. 2:11–16)
Right after the line about good works, Paul begins talking about the new and amazing fact on the ground, that the people of God includes both Jews and Gentiles. Though formerly hostile to one another, that dividing wall between them has been demolished in Christ. Paul is anxious for his readers to see this utterly new situation: “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (3:18–19).
And in light of this new reality, he exhorts his readers:
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (4:1–3)
To summarize his argument: We all have been saved by grace. Through grace we are now called to live a life of good works, to be holy and blameless in love in the presence of God. Specifically, that means we are to learn how to live in love and unity in the body of Christ, both Jews and Gentiles together, as we glorify God. We are to live with one another in humility and gentleness, with patience and bearing one another in love, and to make every effort to maintain this unity in peace. These are the specific “good works” that we are called to perform.
Since the church’s destiny—its very reason for being—is to be a people that basks in the pleasure of being united to God in Christ and to one another so that Christ fills all in all, then right now, before that promise is fulfilled, we are called to live into that destiny. That means first and foremost learning to live in unity and love with one another as we praise his glory together in worship. This, it seems, is the equivalent of the prophetic call for the people of Israel to live righteously together.
We should note how this is the call of Jesus to all those who believe in him. Note his prayer at the end of his earthly life. It is the climax of his prayer, the destination of his prayer, what is most important for him to say at the end. He’s not merely praying for his disciples (soon-to-be apostles) but everyone who will come to believe in him:
I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:20–23)
The church’s main horizontal “mission” (if we want to call it that) before the parousia is to live together in peace, to love one another, to do good works for one another, to be holy and blameless in love before God and one another, bridging the classic divides between Greeks and Jews, male and female, slave and free—and all in the context of worship, living for the praise of God’s glory.
When we do this well, we are ever so faintly showing forth life in the New Jerusalem, thus being a light to the nations, a sign of where history is headed, when
He [God] will dwell with [his people], and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. (Rev. 21:3, ESV)
In the New Jerusalem, Christ will fill all in all, so that all the family will bask in the sheer delight of his love, praising and glorifying him forever.
My conclusion after surveying this biblical landscape is this: The church’s mission is not to go out and make the world a better place, to be a blessing, to transform culture, to bring justice to the earth, to work for human flourishing. The church’s destiny and purpose are to live together in love in Christ, to the praise of God’s glory. That, in fact, is the destiny of all humankind, no matter what corner of the globe they come from.
Simply put: Rather than the world being the purpose for the church, the purpose of the world is to become the church.
[Next week: Why making the church all about mission is unhealthy for congregations.]
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.