Who is Church for?

January 2nd, 2009

Here’s a brief interruption to my “Homosexuality & Hypocrisy” series.

The Church is the only society that exists primarily for the sake of those who are not its members. — William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury (1881 – 1944)

I’ve been thinking about this quote since I heard it a week ago.  (I’m not sure about the exact wording–Google reports many forms.)  How true is it?  Or maybe put the question this way:  In what sense is that sentence true, and in what sense is it not true?

It’s clearly true in this sense:  For every Christian, evangelism and acts of service are part of our discipleship.  Part of being like Christ.  Our lives should include an outward orientation.  Part of following Christ is loving people.  So as Christians, part of our lives is supposed to be for the sake of those outside the church.

But what does “the Church” exist for?  When we meet together in a local church, what are we doing?  Aren’t we coming to be built up & fed?  To be challenged, encouraged, convicted, held accountable, comforted, consoled, rebuked, taught?  In that sense, doesn’t the church exist to build up the members?

That is, after all, what Jesus commissioned Peter to do–feed His sheep.  He commissioned Peter as a shepherd–a pastor.  The leaders of the church exist “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-16).

Of course, we don’t come to be passive.  The leaders aren’t the only ones who serve.  On the contrary, 1 Cor. 12-14 tells us that we are all given gifts by the Spirit–“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good”–and each member of the body is needed.  So we come together to love and serve one another.  When we’re fed, it’s “for the work of ministry”.

It’s interesting, though.  In these three passages, the purpose of gathering together is talked about in terms of building up the Body.  In that sense, the church–seen as a local gathering of followers of Christ–exists for the sake of its members, not for its non-members.  We gather to be fed, and to serve one another.  When we gather, it isn’t directly for the sake of people outside the church.  Except…

It’s not quite either/or.  The two sides come together, in at least these ways:

  1. The church sends out missionaries.
  2. When we are fed & built up, that means that we grow in discipleship.  And discipleship includes loving those who do not know Christ.  Our edification does include an outward aim.
  3. Feeding & equipping Christians to serve can mean organizing community service efforts.  Or it might not.  Instead, a church might help its members get plugged in with existing community service groups–or encourage & exhort its members to serve in “unorganized”, random acts of kindness.  All three can be good.

But however the church handles community service, we should be sure that we are adorning the gospel with good works–not replacing the gospel with good works.

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3 Responses to “Who is Church for?”

  1. Hannah says:

    Yeah, I thought the same thing Sunday morning. Good post.

  2. Tim says:

    Yeah… But I’m not sure any of this means that I disagree with either Temple, or Geno’s use in Sunday’s sermon. I don’t like it too much as a stand-alone quote, but context matters.

    I don’t know about Temple’s original context, but on Sunday, it wasn’t in a sermon saying, “We need to change church so that it’s all outreach.” It seems like it was intended more as a both/and thing than an either/or thing.

  3. Tim says:

    Geno sent me a comment, which I’m posting with permission:

    It’s like asking which ‘great’ is greater–the ‘Great Commission’ or the ‘Great Commandment’. It should be a both-and. We are built up to do works of ministry. Being built-up is and insider thing, works of ministry are generally seen as outsider things, but can certainly be for insiders as well. However, if we ever get caught in the loop of only ministering among ourselves we will be disobedient to the letter and the spirit of the commission of Jesus.