Round Table: The Purpose of the Local Church
Living in a post-Christian culture appears to be taking its toll on the local church. We no longer reside in small towns where people work together through the week and walk to church together on Sundays. We get in our separate cars from our separate neighbourhoods and homes, convene for an hour or two, and go home. Does this hour of the week change who we are? Does it connect us with the body of Christ?
This shift in culture leads to our first 2017 Round Table question: “What was the purpose of the local church in the New Testament, and does the modern local church still satisfy that purpose?”
Timon Cline, Reformed Baptist
There are two reasons that the New Testament model for the church will never go out of style: (1) explicit commands from Scripture, and (2) the unique ministries performed by the church.
We are God’s creation and his word expresses his concern for how his creatures should live. The NT instructs Christians to go, make disciples, baptize, and teach obedience to God’s word. The life of Saint Paul is a picture of the model lived out, and his concern for the local church—those marked out by the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23)—and how it should function, is unavoidable.
The local church is depicted in the Bible as the place of worship and communion with God. A local church is not simply a group of individuals who share belief in Scripture, but a community that comes together regularly, in obedience, to worship—an act we are not to forsake (Heb. 10:25)—and to join in corporate prayer and confession. Though there is room for creativity and innovation in church life, these are not governing principles. Humans, have “idol factories” for hearts, as John Calvin said, and are notoriously unreliable when inventing ways to approach God (Exodus 32). Sincerity and goodwill are not enough, and God is not indifferent to how he is approached. At the most basic level, the NT church model is relevant today because it embodies how God organized his people through the power of the word. It performs certain functions that can be mimicked by other institutions but never accosted in total.
Freedom is found in instruction, in that it allows something to be used in accordance with its intended purpose. The Bible does this for the church. Christians are simply unable to be obedient to the totality of Scripture without taking part in a defined body of believers, because many of said commands are applicable only in that context. Saint Cyprian of Carthage famously said that “outside the Church there is no salvation,” and far from abjuring this doctrine, Calvin held that “beyond the pale of the Church no forgiveness of sins, no salvation, can be hoped for”. It is impossible to be spiritually healthy outside of the NT church model sanctioned by scripture.
While the true Church is the body of all believers (universal), this spiritual body also has a physical identity. It is through this physical body that the doctrines of the church (and tradition) are protected and taught, it is through this body that spiritual accountability and discipline of believers is maintained, as well as their spiritual nourishment. It is through this body that the sacraments of the Church are performed and through which grace is dispensed. The church is charged with God’s ministry and the protection of his word and sacraments, it is thereby the setting in which the Spirit ministers most acutely to believers. That is something that transcends time, grounds one’s faith in the historical communion of saints, and remains relevant for all Christians.
Matthew Schmidtz of First Things has pointed out that the younger generation favors rigid structure and tradition to combat a “floating sense of dislocation and disinheritance.” Schmidtz’s insights may contain the antidote for the dilapidated shell that is much of the modern American church. It is likely that the disconnectedness that many millennials feel within the local church is a direct result of lax ecclesiology. The genuine Christian community that we so long for cannot develop and grow outside of the Biblical model that God desires for it to follow. A return to Biblical faithfulness and doctrinal rigidity in this area, and a rediscovery of sound tradition, are the best things for our churches in any age or context. In the end, the purpose of the church is not confined to how “effective” it is thought to be, but by how obedient and connected it is to its architect and sustainer, Christ Jesus. The rest will follow (Matt. 6:33).
Jacob Prahlow, Seeking
Any full discussion of the church—in either its New Testament or current forms—demands more space than a round table affords. Accordingly, I want to focus on two central characterizations of what the New Testament Church seemed to be and how contemporary local churches might still satisfy those purposes: the Church as expectant and missional.
The New Testament Church lived in the constant hope that Jesus would return soon. As Acts 1:11 records, the Church believed that, “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Paul’s correspondence to the Thessalonians makes clear that many early Jesus followers believed this event to be imminent. However, the great pause between the first and second comings was not to be a period of relaxation and leisure, but rather a time of activity. Those gathered in the name of Jesus were committed to fulfilling the Great Commission and being witnesses for the risen Lord “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The expectation that Christ would return enlivened and empowered the New Testament Church to fulfill its purpose of spreading the Gospel of Christ to all peoples.
The same expectant and missional emphasis should characterize the modern church today. Although increasingly a buzzword, “mission” derives from the Latin missio, meaning “to send.” While this may conjure images of traveling to foreign nations or witnessing on street corners, the truth is that all Christians are, in some capacity, sent to where they currently work, eat, shop, and sleep. Jesus told his disciples that they would first go to Jerusalem—the very city they could see from where they stood. Local churches, too, belong to cities, places where church attenders interact with countless lives on a daily basis. A key characteristic of the local church, then, must be missional interaction with the community in which it resides. In reality, this means training and guiding Christians to love and live like Christ in their daily lives. Christians cannot make church a two-hour block of time on Sunday mornings and then leave the message of the Church behind the rest of the week. We must be constantly working to further the Kingdom.
Likewise, the contemporary church must live out the expectant nature of the New Testament Church. This is easier said than done, of course, for one could contend that the Church has been akin to the boy crying wolf about the return of Christ for nearly 2,000 years now. Unbiblical predictions of the day and hour in which the Lord returns aside, a more consistent theme of the Church has been forging a balance between the hope of the Lord’s return and continuance of daily life (including the continual spread of the Kingdom). As Martin Luther once said, “Even if I knew tomorrow that the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” We must learn and live out the reality that the early Church embodied: expectation does not excuse us from God’s missional work, but must encourage us to press forward, to fight the good fight of faith, and to the finish the race to which God has called us.
Kenneth O’Shaughnessy, Eastern Orthodox
I find the purpose of the local “New Testament” church to be best summed up in a passage from the Old Testament. Per Deuteronomy 12:1-14:
These are the statutes and ordinances which you shall be careful to do in the land which the LORD, the God of your fathers, has given you to possess, all the days that you live upon the earth. You shall surely destroy all the places where the nations whom you shall dispossess served their gods, upon the high mountains and upon the hills and under every green tree; you shall tear down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and burn their Ashe’rim with fire; you shall hew down the graven images of their gods, and destroy their name out of that place. You shall not do so to the LORD your God. But you shall seek the place which the LORD your God will choose out of all your tribes to put his name and make his habitation there; there you shall go, and there you shall bring your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the offering that you present, your votive offerings, your freewill offerings, and the firstlings of your herd and of your flock; and there you shall eat before the LORD your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your households, in all that you undertake, in which the LORD your God has blessed you. You shall not do according to all that we are doing here this day, every man doing whatever is right in his own eyes; for you have not as yet come to the rest and to the inheritance which the LORD your God gives you. But when you go over the Jordan, and live in the land which the LORD your God gives you to inherit, and when he gives you rest from all your enemies round about, so that you live in safety, then to the place which the LORD your God will choose, to make his name dwell there, there you shall bring all that I command you: your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the offering that you present, and all your votive offerings which you vow to the LORD. And you shall rejoice before the LORD your God, you and your sons and your daughters, your menservants and your maidservants, and the Levite that is within your towns, since he has no portion or inheritance with you. Take heed that you do not offer your burnt offerings at every place that you see; but at the place which the LORD will choose in one of your tribes, there you shall offer your burnt offerings, and there you shall do all that I am commanding you.
So what are some of the things we see here that relate to how the local church should function in our modern world (which is of course how it was expected in every age)?
- Within the church, there should be none of what the world worships. The church must be a place where we are able to “lay aside all earthly cares that we may receive the King of all.” What comes in with us must be rooted out and burned.
- We must assemble at the place God has chosen. Even if one believes that God chooses to be “wherever two or three are gathered” in God’s name, that gathering has some essential features, as we shall see next.
- The church is the place we make sacrifices. These are literal offerings, that we must give, partake of, and become. The epitome of this sacrifice is the Eucharist, and without constant celebration of that rite we do not become the body of Christ—it is our communion that is our community. We do this rejoicing together: as the Psalmist says, we “offer the sacrifice of praise.” This should go with us into our homes and work.
- We should not change to meet the times, although in times of upheaval we may need to follow the Lord more simply—not in a manner that does away with the tradition handed down to us, but in a way that looks forward to when we can participate in the mysteries of God in fullness and rest. Our forward movement should not be progressive in the political sense, but in the “next year in Jerusalem” sense.
- While our celebration should be wholly distinct from the world’s celebration, our rejoicing should spill over into the community, so they will want to come rejoice with us.
If American local churches (or any local church) are failing in their mission, they have failed to meet at least one of these criteria. Where they are succeeding, they have succeeded in at least one of these areas.
Peter Schellhase, Episcopalian
There is much discontent with the state of local churches today. The symposium prompt suggests that the church’s surrounding environment— a “post-Christian culture” is a contributing factor to this. In a sense, our culture has been influenced by Christianity for so long that it has forgotten why the church, as an institution, is needed. Local churches, too, often lose sight of their purpose and mission as the church, choosing to adopt structures and leadership techniques drawn from modern business culture, or emphasizing social justice in a way that confuses the church’s mission with political activism. Even more traditional congregations often divert their energies into petty feuds, apocalyptic obsessions, private revelations, and other distractions. All of these vain pursuits are different ways of hiding the light of Christ under a basket.
Like two successive waves of a tsunami, the “leadership revolution” transformed evangelicalism just before the “internet revolution” arrived to undermine it. The Internet allows people to compare notes on abusive leadership and raise the hue and cry over churches that are failing to protect the vulnerable. The institutional Roman Catholic Church had its clergy sex abuse scandals exposed and covered by the institutional press. The decentralized, anti-institutional world of evangelicalism is experiencing the same exposure thanks to the decentralized, anti-institutional world of Internet bloggers. On which stone would we rather fall? I prefer the bloggers myself. But what they expose is a new generation of self-made charismatic CEO-pastor hirelings, who livestream their sermons to tens of thousands of people every Sunday, but are incapable of shepherding the local flock.
In a sense, evangelicalism has been too successful. The churches are too big, too centralized, too little present in the streets and neighborhoods where people live. Smaller churches continue to exist and keep themselves afloat, but stagnation becomes a problem, especially in non-denominational or fundamentalist churches that do not experience a meaningful institutional connection with the wider church.
How does this situation compare to the local church experience as we find it in the New Testament?
It is difficult to find a systematic treatment of the “local church” as such in the New Testament. The Gospels do not directly address local church issues, since the action they describe takes place before Pentecost. The Acts of the Apostles, various epistles, and the Revelation of John mention local churches and local church issues, although these references are occasional and often situation-specific. However, we can recognize some consistent themes.
Jesus Christ commissioned his apostles to “go 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 observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19). This commission sets the direction of the early church, and defines the character of early “local churches.”
Some dimensions of the experience of the early church cannot be replicated. The new church in the book of Acts is in a period of extremely rapid expansion and change. However, its adherents immediately set to a certain pattern of life. As we read, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). These actions correspond to the central elements of the liturgy of the Word and Sacraments. A little further on, “all who believed were together and had all things in common . . . day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes . . .” (2:44–46). We can perhaps see here the emergence of local congregations.
This was the church in Jerusalem. The pattern of Paul’s evangelism among the Jewish diaspora was to go and preach in the synagogues as well as in homes. The synagogue was a substitute for Temple worship, and by the witness of the Gospels it seems Sabbath attendance at the synagogue was the established custom for all Jews, except in Jerusalem, where the presence of the Temple made the synagogue superfluous. As Christians moved out of the synagogues for various reasons, including a growing number of Gentile converts and persecution from the Jews, they took the liturgy of the synagogue with them, and it persists to this day especially in the part of the liturgy that is centered on the ministry of the Word. The ritual meal of the Lord’s Supper was also quickly incorporated into the Christian worship service, and the Eucharistic prayers themselves are adapted from a Jewish blessing prayer.*
The early church had other functions. It ordained a diaconate for various practical and charitable works such as distributing food to widows. Early instruction manuals show that deacons also occupied roles of responsibility and honor in the sacred liturgy, such as reading the scriptures, distributing the sacraments, and keeping order. Deacons could gain a high profile in the community for their good works, which was dangerous in times of persecution. Stephen, a deacon, was the first martyr.
In every New Testament reference, we can see that the most important purpose of the local church was to come together as a body to participate in the worship of God, just as in the Jewish synagogue and Temple that preceded and informed its worship. The Scriptures were to be read and taught, and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper administered.
Today, there are many “local churches,” some on opposite street corners, all apparently in more-or-less bitter schism against one another. Nevertheless, we could say they all perpetuate the work of the local churches we glimpse in the New Testament, insofar as they, in the words of the Prayer Book, continue to “set forth [the] true and lively Word, and rightly and duly administer [the] holy Sacraments.”
I do not think we ought to attempt to reconstruct the social moment of the early church. Many in my parents’ generation spent a great deal of their spiritual energy chasing a dubious ideal of the “early church” experience, often by abandoning existing church institutions in favor of starting their own churches or participating in “nonhierarchical” house churches. These efforts almost inevitably fall prey to the same human failings as other church institutions—while lacking the institutional stability and resources to counteract them. I hope my generation does not make the same mistakes.
*See, for instance, this exposition of the Eucharistic prayers.
Drew McIntyre, United Methodist
Before Jesus returned to the right hand of the Father, he charged the disciples—the primitive church in utero, in the persons of the apostles—to make disciples of all the nations, to teach them to obey his teachings, and to baptize. (Matt. 28:19-20) From observations elsewhere in the New Testament, it is clear that these disciples were made by and sustained in communities. The earliest Christians were Jews, and were initially part of both the synagogue (on Saturday), and the church (meeting on the day of resurrection, the “Lord’s Day”). The combination of Torah-centered worship on Saturday and table fellowship on Sunday eventually became the normative form of Christian worship until the Reformation. Thus Acts tells us that, after Pentecost, the members of the apostolic church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42) This sounds to many liturgical scholars like a nascent version of the liturgy of the Word and Table. Along with the New Testament, early writings like the Letter to Diognetus and the Didache make clear that the early Church was distinguished from the pagan world by its way of life: by not practicing infanticide, eating food sacrificed to idols, or engaging in prostitution, and by according greater honor to foreigners, women, and slaves (Gal. 3:28) than their surrounding cultures. Thus the purpose of the early church was to baptize and pass on the teaching of the apostles, to worship the Triune God, and to disciple people into followers of Jesus, who lived as aliens in whatever countries they inhabited.
The modern local church varies greatly in fulfilling this purpose. The unity of Word and sacrament was broken by the radical reformers, the apostles’ teaching was diluted to varying degrees as continuous schisms either downplayed the fullness of Christian teaching or embraced outright heresy (like, for instance, Oneness Pentecostals or Unitarians). Likewise, the distinctive ethical practices of Jesus-followers have ebbed and flowed over the centuries, struggling in particular in eras when the church was wed to state power and/or the dominant culture. My own tradition describes the church thus: “The visible church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments duly administered according to Christ’s ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.” (Article XIII of the Methodist Church) The United Methodist Church, the Mainline expression of Wesleyan Christianity, purposefully sets out “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” This itself is a compromise statement, reflecting the evangelistic ethos of one wing of the church and the social ethos (think Rauschenbusch) of another. Similar tensions exist among different Christian communions and within them, much like the UMC.
In the West, many local churches have forgotten their purpose, choosing instead to focus on efforts to alleviate various forms of suffering or work for a vaguely-defined justice, often to the detriment of disciple-making (this is certainly linked to doctrinal problems, but that is an exploration for another piece). Thus the Mainline denominations and similar bodies—like, say, the Church of England—are struggling with swiftly diminishing numbers in Europe and North America. Oftentimes, churches that are the exception numerically are lacking liturgically, with the sacraments either diminished or completely absent from some of the largest, fastest-growing churches. In the developing world, however, the situation is quite different: Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, and other churches are flourishing, often in situations of poverty, oppression, and outright terrorism. There has also been a Pentecostal explosion around the world, which, despite its rapid and sustained growth, often also fails to practice worship that (glossalalia notwithstanding) the apostles would recognize. Nevertheless, these churches often exhibit a distinct social witness that is commendable. Catholic and Orthodox parishes vary widely also: Catholic churches in the U.S. are bolstered largely by immigration, but have struggled for ethical legitimacy following the abuse scandals. Orthodoxy is flourishing in the U.S., but its witness has been damaged in many places around the world, in particular Russia, where it is uncritically wedded to state power and the dominant culture.
Thus the church today is its truest self in the non-Western world. Today, as in the first centuries, the church flourishes where it is not allied to the dominant powers of society. Those churches least effective in fulfilling their purpose are those, particularly in the West, that are clinging to Constantinian methods and the ethos of the early and mid-20th century. Churches that are making disciples, baptizing and inviting people to a distinct way of life, celebrating the Eucharist, and loving their neighbors with radical hospitality are a distinct minority. But finding tares among the wheat is no surprise, and the good news is that despite our manifold sins and apostasies, Christ still promises to show up when two or more gather in his name. (Matt. 18:20)
Bryan Wandel, Anglican
Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). The only way to life is the way of death. Jesus of all people would know, so we trust him on this.
Now, death and resurrection are the work of the Spirit, but the church is the soil. You, the seed, fall into this messy place for many reasons. Perhaps, like Jesus said, it is so that you will not be alone. Perhaps it is for the music or the encouragement. But the Lord has bigger plans, and he has come to bury you here.
The soil is rich. Like all soil, it receives its vitality and nutrients from the decay of other living organisms. God has designed that your new life would grow from a church of living organisms who are daily dying.
Look at Mrs. Brown over there. For many decades, Jesus Christ has been killing her natural self, her old vanity, her varicose pride. In the years of disappointment, a new woman has been gradually created in her. But that long sanctification has not only been for her own sake—it has also ensured that the burial of your own grain of wheat will be in rich soil. Her little deaths have filled the space with hard-fought wisdom, passages through pain, and surrender to God in the smallest, hardest things. They were, in a sense, superabundant and made the congregation of her fellow worshippers teem with minerals and quiet energy. Will you learn from her? Will you take time to place your hands in her wounds? Discover what they are like. Christ has met her there, and he will meet you there, too.
Why do you insist on finding your own parched dirt? Do you not know that God has prepared for you a better garden? The people in this church are dying to their old selves and that is why it looks so messy. C.S. Lewis imagines Jesus saying, “Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked—the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.”1 The church, therefore, looks gross and unattractive. Compost often does. That is why it is the place for you to die and receive new life. As a seed feeds off the death of its forebears, feed on their deaths.
This all culminates as we feed on the ultimate nutrient in this ground of burial, the death of the Son of God. We receive the Eucharist each week, and the fruit of his mortification becomes the beginnings of our first growth as seedlings. A slain body becomes in us a Life-Giving Spirit.
The favorite symbol of the church to identify her own is baptism. The Apostle Paul and the Church Herself ask: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” Do not think that this is but one moment of a Christian’s life. The Scriptures call us to renewed repentance and new life by recalling us to our baptism again. We are baptized into the death of our sin by the local church, and our baptisms will finally be complete when we sin no more and reign in the New Jerusalem forever. In between, we spread the waters of baptism over more and more of our lives, submerging them in the church in order to grow—here is the image again—a garden for the Lord. It begins with baptism and it ends with baptism. It is baptism all the way through.
The local church is a ground of burial that is becoming a garden of God. Jehovah has a place for you there. Whichever one you fall into, you will need to plunge yourself into the grace of God in others’ lives, receiving a new self through the richness of their transformations. You will not see it until you have plunged so deep as to lose yourself there. But be encouraged. The local church is the last stop on the way of death, but we are also the first feast of the new life.Show Sources
1 Lewis, C. S., Mere Christianity (New York: Harper Collins) 196-197
We invite your participation in charitable discussion of these viewpoints—and others—in the comments section.