Rethinking Church: Why does the church exist?
Dr. Randy White
Over the next few months I want to write a series of articles that “rethink” church. Recently I asked a group of over 100 people to raise their hand if they thought the modern church (in its broad sense) was healthy and strong. No one raised their hand. In spite of the fact thatAmericais filled with bigger churches with bigger budgets and larger buildings, their calendars are filled with amazing events, and their programs are managed by well-trained ministry professionals, few people, if any, believe that the church is strong today.
Five-hundred years ago God was working in the hearts of a scant minority of church leadership to rethink church. Today we call that movement the “Protestant Reformation,” and most of us are participants in some way of the changes that were brought about through that rethinking process. The change was not easy. In spite of the fact that it was a very needed change, many times it was instituted only through the shedding of blood. The church of that day had been given time to repent, but refused (Revelation 2:21). In the end, both the protestant church, the Roman church, and the separate church ended up with much-needed reform.
Has God come to the church once again? The church that has been reformed but has now built up its own need for a new reformation? Perhaps no more poignant word to today’s five-hundred year old reformed church could be found than the word Christ gave to the church at Sardis, “‘Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God. ‘So remember what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent. Therefore if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you.” (Revelation 3:2–3, NASB95)
Join me on a journey. It is a dangerous journey. It will challenge your thinking and intrude into your comfort zone. As we go on the journey, let’s make sure that the Scripture is our only source of authority. Martin Luther and other reformers decried “church tradition” as authoritative, yet now we have our own church traditions that have seemingly become just as entrenched in our doctrine. Let’s begin the journey with the humble prayer, “Father, guide us to be the church as You created it!”
What and Why, Why and What?
What is the church? It is an important question, but I want to ask another: Why is the church? Such a question is not good grammar (Why is an adverb, typically probing into action), but it is a good theological question. The word “what” speaks to questions of description, the word “why” speaks to questions of purpose. I am convinced that the problematic grammar in saying “Why is the church?” is one of Satan’s tools to keep us from asking the right question! In order to be grammatically correct, we ask “What is the church?” and, thus, we never get beyond description.
Just look up definitions of the church and you will see the truth of this allegation.
“The Church is a union of men who are united by the profession of the same Christian faith, and by participation in the same sacraments under the direction of their lawful pastors, especially the one representative of Christ on earth, the Pope of Rome.” (Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church)
“The local church is a community of regenerated believers who confess Jesus Christ as Lord. In obedience to Scripture they organize under qualified leadership, gather regularly for preaching and worship, observe the biblical sacraments of baptism and Communion, are unified by the Spirit, are disciplined for holiness, and scatter to fulfill the Great Commandment and the Great Commission as missionaries to the world for God’s glory and their joy.” (Mars Hill Church)
“The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure word of God is preached, and the sacraments be duly administered.” (John Wesley)
Each of these has varying degrees of merit as descriptions of the church (that is, they answer the “what” question). None of them, however, answer the “why” question.
The what is easier than the why but the why must drive the what! If we only ask what we may never see the flaws in the answer. What should grow out of why!
The church as mystery
In Ephesians 3 Paul gives us insight into what he calls a mystery which has been revealed. By referring to the church as a mystery, Paul gives great insight into the why of the church.
To begin, Paul says that He is a prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles (v. 1). This foreshadows the why of the church. He continues to say that there is a new stewardship of God’s grace (v. 2). Literally, Paul uses the term economy of God’s grace. That is, God has changed the rules of spiritual economy. I would call this a “new dispensation” in which God is now distributing His grace in a different manner, mode, or means than in prior (or future) economies or dispensations. In other words, the work of God has a different set of institutions and ground rules than in previous dispensations. This “economy” was given to me [Paul] for you [Gentiles] (v. 2). Already, we begin to see that the why of the church is going to include God’s work among the gentiles.
Paul then tells us that this stewardship or new economy was a mystery that was only made known by revelation (v. 3). That is, the new work of God could not and would not have been recognized without an unveiling. In fact, Paul continues by saying that this mystery was not in other generations made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed. Preachers and commentators who speak of anyone in the Old Testament having an understanding or foreshadowing of the church-age are simply wrong. Paul is clear that previous generations knew nothing about the work of the church that God would bring about at Pentecost. Specifically, this mystery economy or work of God was that the day would come in which the Gentiles would be fellow heirs and fellow members of the body and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel (v. 6). Paul’s job, having received this revelation of a new economy, was to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God…so that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church (vv. 9-10). That this work was in accordance with the eternal purpose of God (v. 10) is clear, but equally clear is that this eternal purpose was neither instituted nor understood prior to revelation in New Testament days.
So why is the church? The church is the partial fulfillment of the Old Testament work of God that was completely mysterious in the Old Testament. From time to time I hear the phrase “New Testament Church” and I am amused. I wonder what other kind of church there was? The New Testament is clear that there was no Old Testament church! The Old Testament had a nation; the New Testament has a church. Both have their unique purposes under different economies of God’s grace.
Christ in the Gentiles
To the Colossians Paul speaks these same truths, stating that the church is the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations, but has more recently been manifested to His saints, to whom God willed to make known the mystery. Then he clearly defines the mystery as Christ in you, the hope of glory. In context, I am convinced that “you” is the gentiles. Thus, the “mystery” is “Christ in the Gentiles” (Colossians 1:24-27). That is, the mystery is God’s work among non-Jews. Understanding this is fundamental to answering the question “Why is the church?”
A Partial Fulfillment
When God entered into covenant with Abraham, it was a covenant of a nation, a land, and a blessing. Part of that covenant was that in you all the families of the earth will be blessed (Genesis 12:3). The word families is a word which means tribes or later, ethnicities. This promise was repeated in Genesis 22:18, 26:4, and 28:14, and made clear that it was a promise to those who were not physical children of Abraham.
Before I go further, let me state clearly that I abhor replacement theology (the idea that the church is the new Israel). I believe replacement theology is the doctrine of demons and has infiltrated the church in such a way that many people who love God now hate what God loves—Israel and her people. This is not only incompatible, it hinders the church, hurts the believer, and puts a blockade toward understanding the various economies of God’s grace in such a way that one so deceived cannot “rightly divide the word of truth.” If you believe in replacement theology, you should replace your theology! It is a theology of arrogance, denial, and disobedience.
That said, God’s promise to Abraham did, in part, include the gentiles. Gentiles can claim some of the promises of Abraham, namely, being fellow heirs and fellow members of the body and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:6). Gentiles cannot claim the national promises given to the physical descendants of Abraham, nor can we rightly deny the fulfillment of those promises in today’s world to the Jewish people gathered in the their modern nation of Israel.
When we ask “Why is the church?” one of the clear answers of Scripture is that the church exists as one of the fulfillments of the Abrahamic covenant! We exist because God had promises to Abraham! In fact, Paul, as a Jew, rejoiced over this fact. In Ephesians 1 Paul laid out the work of God:
- He gave every spiritual blessing to “us” (the Jewish people).
- He chose the Jewish people to be holy and blameless before Him.
- He predestined the Jewish people to adoption as sons. (It is the Israelites “to whom belongs the adoption as sons” Romans 9:4. Gentiles only receive “the spirit of adoption” (Romans 8:15).
- He gave the Jewish people “redemption through His blood” (remember the Passover?).
- He made known to certain of these Jews the “mystery” of an “economy suitable to the fullness of times.”
- He has predestined them to “an inheritance.”
Having laid forth this outline, Paul rejoices that some Gentiles “after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit…” (Ephesians 1:13). He rejoices because this salvation of the Gentiles and their subsequent sealing of the Holy Spirit” is “given as a pledge of our inheritance.”
“Our” is the key word! Too often we quickly conclude that all personal pronouns include us. However, if you follow the context closely in Ephesians 1, Paul makes a clear distinction between “us” and “you.” Verses 3-12 are filled with references to us, and in verse 13 there is a sharp turn to “you.” Verses 13-14 move between “you” and “us” in such a way that it would press grammar beyond reason to argue that “you” and “us” are inclusive of one another. Paul says “you were sealed” by the Holy Spirit, and that such a work is “a pledge to our inheritance.” That is, the work of God among gentiles is a clear indication that He is fulfilling His promise to Abraham! Paul rejoices because the existence of gentile believers means God is at work to fulfill the rest of the promise to Abraham! Jews can rejoice in the church! The church can rejoice in the Jews! For the Jew, the church can be seen “in view to the redemption of God’s own possession.” That is, the Jew can see the church as a visible promise that God will be faithful to Abraham. The Christian can see the Jew as a visible promise that God will be faithful in the long-run so that both Old and New Testament promises will be fulfilled in totality in coming days.
This interpretation is in agreement with the Prophecy of Noah that Japheth would be allowed by God to “dwell in the tents of Shem” and that the Lord was “the God of Shem.” Noah foresaw a day when gentiles (Japheth) would be blessed spiritually by being allowed to “dwell in the tents of Shem.” In the church, this prophecy is fulfilled. Paul reminds us to serve the Lord humbly because “it is not you who supports the root, but the root supports you” (Romans 11:18). In the church, Japheth is dwelling in the tents of Shem! Let us dwell humbly and with respect and honor to “the root.”
Why is the church?
Back to our question, “Why is the church?” The answer is that the church is because God had promises to Abraham. This is fundamental to a healthy understanding of a church, though it may not seem as such. Typically the reason for the church’s existence is given in “action” oriented answers. For example, one often hears that the purpose of the church is worship, missions, evangelism, fellowship, and ministry. These may be activities that the church does, but they are not the purpose of the church. Understanding church purpose in terms of church activity is what has led to the sick church of the modern world, and here is why: Activity based reasoning for the existence of the church will lead to activity as the primary function of the church.
And activity has become, practically speaking, the primary function of the church. The church has become so program driven that, even when it speaks of being purpose driven, its purpose is defined as activity. What if the church is not to do but it is to be? What if the church exists because God created it as a fulfillment of one portion of His promise to Abraham. If such is the case (and I believe it is), then the purpose of the church is being the mystery of God that is the partial fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. With this as the purpose of the church, then our primary task comes to be one of rejoicing that we are the work of God, anticipating the ultimate fulfillment of God’s Abrahamic (and later Davidic) covenant, and being the work of God in the world for the duration of this spiritual economy.
Give me practical
Some of you are rejoicing out-loud at the truths of this article. Many are saying, “I don’t have a clue what he is saying!” Others are saying, “quit spiritualizing and give me practical.” It is this third group to whom I must address a few prayerfully chosen pointed comments. Our modern church focus on the practical and pragmatic is getting us nowhere except to be more worldly. The practical has caused us to organize like the corporation, merchandise like the retail operation, and compromise to fulfill the subtle motivation to be bigger and better than any other church in town. All this has brought a worldly spirit, a disunity of purpose, an utter and indefensible ignorance of Holy Scripture, and impotence in affecting change in the course of society.
It is time for a new plan. It is time to understand our purpose. It is time for a reformation!
…To be continued
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