The Purpose of the Church
Contemporary popular theology and practice, including the doctrine and practice of the church, is a confused and unbiblical mess.
To quote Augustine and Calvin, many sheep are without and many wolves are within the churches. The confusion can only be eliminated by studying the Scripture. It is the Bible and the Bible alone that furnishes us with the information we need for a correct understanding of the church. Tradition, history, the needs of men and women, and the ideas of men are simply irrelevant to the doctrine of the church.
The Bible alone is the source of our information about the purpose and the organization of the church. A reading of what the New Testament has to say about the purpose and organization of the church quickly leads one to the conclusion that most of those societies that pass for churches today are not churches at all. But in this babble of voices there seems to be some agreement: Nearly everyone wants the church to be something other than what God says it should be.
What is the purpose of the church? Is it to induce a feeling of awe and dependence in worshippers? A warm glow of fellowship? Is it to re-enact the Gospel or the sacrifice of Calvary? Is it to appeal to the whole person? Is it to do good works? Is it to be a social action, anti-abortion, antiwar, and anti-poverty organizing center?
If once we understand what the purpose of the church is, all the rest of the doctrine of the church falls neatly into place. But if we do not know what the purpose of the church is, then we cannot understand how the church is to be organized and operated.
The purpose of the church is really quite simple: Education in the truth.
All its activities are to be educational activities, and all its education is to be education in the truth.
In his first letter to Timothy (3:15), Paul stated his purpose in writing: "I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
In his commentary on this passage, Calvin wrote: "The reason why the church is called the pillar of truth is that she defends and spreads it by her agency.... The church maintains the truth, because by preaching the church proclaims it, because she keeps it pure and entire, because she transmit; it to posterity."
Calvin warns pastors: "How dreadful is the vengeance that awaits them if, through their fault, that truth which is the image of the divine glory, the light of the world, and the salvation of men, shall be allowed to fall! This consideration ought undoubtedly to lead pastors to tremble continually, not to deprive them of all energy, but to excite them to greater vigilance."
Calvin concludes by arguing that "if the church is the pillar of the truth, it follows that the church is not with them [clergymen] when the truth not only lies buried, but is shockingly torn and thrown down and trampled underfoot.... Paul does not wish that any society in which the truth of God does not hold a lofty and conspicuous place shall be acknowledged to be a church."
In his letter to Timothy, Paul stated his purpose as being to instruct Timothy how to conduct himself in the church. Here are a few of those instructions:
1. Charge some that they teach no other doctrine, nor give heed to fables and endless genealogies....
2. Instruct the brethren in these things....
3. These things command and teach....
4. Give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine....
5. Meditate on these things, take heed to yourself and to the doctrine....
6. Teach and exhort these things...."
In his letter to the Ephesians (4:11-14) Paul wrote: "And he himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness by which they lie in wait to deceive...."
In this passage Paul says that the purpose of the church is education: the edifying of the body of Christ until we all come to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God. For this purpose, God has established several sorts of teachers: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. All of these men are teachers, and all are supposed to equip the saints. The apostles, prophets and evangelists did so not only by speaking, but more importantly by writing the Scriptures, and pastors and teachers teach from these documents today.
Another Scripture that is relevant to this question of the purpose of the church is John 21:15-17: "So when they had eaten breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me more than these? He said to him, Yes, Lord, you know that I love you. He said to him, Feed my lambs. "He said to him again a second time, Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me? He said to him, Yes Lord, you know that I love you. He said to him, Tend my Sheep. He said to him the third time, Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me? Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, Do you love me? And he said to him, ˜Lord you know all things, you know that I love you. Jesus said to him, Feed my sheep.
Some trendy holistic gospel people will no doubt think that Christ was talking about literal sheep and food, but Christians know better. He was talking about his chosen ones and the truth. Feeding them is figurative language for educating them in the truth. Let me mention one more passage, if you will.
I do not wish to belabor this point about the purpose of the church, but it is both foundational to a proper understanding of the doctrine of the church and absolutely necessary in this anti-intellectual twentieth century. Matthew 28:19-20: "Go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you...."
Christ commanded the church to make disciples, to baptize, and to teach all the things he had taught. The purpose of the church is education in the truth. Here he speaks literally, while to Peter he spoke figuratively. Now in this benighted twenty first century, many people, including many who claim to be Christians, do not know what the truth is or how it is communicated.
Some think that truth is personal, not propositional; when one has a religious experience, one encounters persons, not believes propositions. One trusts in Christ, not believes that Christ died according to the Scriptures, and was buried and rose again the third day according to the Scriptures.
Believing propositions, believing doctrines is belittled as "historical faith." Even the devils have that kind of faith, we are told. One needs a living, vibrant, personal relationship with Christ.
Some people think that truth is emotional, not intellectual: That the truth stirs the heart, not enlightening understanding.
Some think that truth is practical, not theoretical: One does the truth, not believes it. After all, does not James say that faith without works is dead?
These modern views of truth, all of which are rejections of the Biblical view, pervert both the doctrine and the practice of the church. Many of the worst practices of those societies professing to be churches stem from their false views of truth and how it is communicated: idolatry, ritual, invitations, dance, drama, and music.
Granted that truth is propositional and therefore must be communicated by language, granted that truth is the propositions of the Bible and their logical implications, and granted that the purpose of the church is the propagation of the truth, several things follow:
Virtually all non-educational functions, whether they be charitable, political, social, ceremonial, ritual, aesthetic, or economic are not proper functions of the church. The churches principal and essential job is education in the truth, and the only source of truth is the Bible.
Several years ago I taught a class in the doctrine of God at a large and allegedly conservative Presbyterian church near Washington, D.C. There were two or three people in the class, none of whom was a member of the large Presbyterian church in which the class was being held.
On the same evening, in the same church, a man and a woman were leading an aerobics class of 25 or 30. That church enjoys a reputation of being alive. And the aerobics class was certainly lively enough. But I doubt it.
The Trinity Review, Sept/Oct 1989 - "The Church" by Dr. John W Robbins