THE PURPOSE OF THE CHURCH
The Bible clearly teaches that Christ came and built His church. In Matthew 16:16-18 he said that he would build His church, and in Acts 2 we can read of its establishment.
Does the church have a particular purpose for being in existence? If no purpose for the church is revealed in God’s Word, then we might assert that the church can engage in any work that its members desire. Yet, just as men do not normally establish an organization which has no purpose, it does not seem likely that the Lord’s church was built with no purpose in mind. It is important to understand that if the purpose for the Lord’s church is revealed, then man has an obligation to keep the church functioning within its God designated purpose.
A study of God’s Word makes it clear that the church does have a definite work, function, or mission to perform. It is a distinctive organization with a distinctive function. A failure to recognize this has resulted in much error.
MEANING OF THE TERM “CHURCH”
It is important to understand the meaning of the term “church” when discussing the purpose of the church because the term is used in different ways in the Scriptures. At times, the word is used in the universal sense (Heb. 12:23; Mt. 16:18) as it refers to all Christians everywhere. It is also used in the local sense to refer to God’s people at a given location (I Cor. 1:2), and it can be used to refer to an assembly of Christians (I Cor. 14:28,34).
It must be understood that any work which God has given the church to do collectively is done through the local congregation. No work is given in the Scriptures for the universal church; it has no organization on earth; there are no officers or a human head. Thus, when we speak of the work of the church, we are speaking of the work of the local congregation.
THE CHURCH VS. THE INDIVIDUAL
In determining the purpose of the church, the distinction between the actions of the church and the actions of the individual must be understood. Some argue that the church is made up of individuals, so when the individual acts, the church acts. Thus, the thinking is that whatever an individual can do, the church can do; whatever Christians can scripturally contribute to, the money from the treasury of the church can be used to support. This position is certainly contrary to the Scriptures and is actually quite ludicrous. While there are many passages we could examine, we will concentrate on two which show the distinction between church and individual action.
Consider Matthew 18:15-17. In these verses, we have a situation where one Christian sins against another. The wronged brother is to go to the brother in error and tell him his fault (individual action). If this fails, he is to take with him one or two other Christians to try to get the erring one to repent (group action). If this fails, he is to tell it to the church, and if the efforts of the church fail (church action), then he is to be as a “heathen man and a publican.” Clearly, Christ is not saying that the entire congregation would have to visit the erring brother, but, instead, representatives of the church would visit the man. The first two steps involve the action of “Christians,” but do not involve “church action.” It is not until the third step that we have “church action.” Thus, individual Christians may pursue a course of action, and that is not the church acting.
The same distinction is made in I Timothy 5:16 where there is a discussion of the “widow indeed.” This widow’s family (i.e., her children and grandchildren), 5:4, has the first responsibility to help her. The family being addressed are “believers.” If they are able to help her, then, it is stated, “let not the church” be charged. Therefore, individual Christians can act in helping a needy widow, and if they do, the church is not acting.
Consider a few consequences of the position that believes the church and the individual are the same. An individual Christian can operate a business. Does this mean that the church can operate a business? Can the church rent out an apartment or own a grocery store simply because the individual can? Also, the individual Christian can make donations to such organizations as the Red Cross, the Heart Fund, and the American Cancer Society. Can the church make donations to these organizations simply because the individual can? Further, an individual Christian can provide clean recreation for his family. Can the church build facilities for recreation, build a theme park, etc. simply because the individual can?
Clearly there is a distinction between the actions of the individual and the actions of the church. The church is not authorized to engage in every activity that the individual can.
Many people, if asked for Bible authority for the church to be engaged in a practice, have a variety of responses. Some say, instead of furnishing Bible authority, “Look how much good it is doing.” These people use the old argument that the ends justifies the means. In the Old Testament (I Sam. 15), King Saul was told to utterly destroy the Amalekites, even to the point of destroying all of their animals. Instead of doing what God said, Saul spared their king (Agag) and the best of the animals. Later, Samuel came to him, and Saul said that he had obeyed the Lord. Samuel said, “What meaneth then this bleating of the sheep in mine ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?” Saul then tried to blame his disobedience on the people by saying that they had spared the best of the sheep and oxen to sacrifice unto God (vs. 15, 21). Samuel rebuked Saul and told him, “. . . to obey is better than sacrifice, and to harken than the fat of rams.” The point is that Saul disobeyed God! It did not matter that some “good” could have come from his disobedience. The ends (having animals to sacrifice) did not justify the means (disobeying God in not utterly destroying the Amalekites).
Some respond, when asked for Bible authority for a practice, by saying something like, “I had rather do wrong than nothing.” This is certainly fallacious reasoning. It assumes that there are only two choices: NOTHING and WRONG. It is wrong to “do nothing,” when we are supposed to be acting, and it is also wrong to do that which is “unscriptural.” The third choice is to do that which is RIGHT — that for which there is Bible authority. There is no excuse for inactivity; the church cannot be excused for failing to carrying out its mission. But, we do not want to be guilty of doing “something” just to say that “something” is being done without first determining if the practice is scriptural or not.
Before we look specifically at the threefold mission of the church, it needs to be noted that the work of the church is primarily spiritual in nature. The work of the church is primarily involved with the saving of souls.
I Timothy 3:15 says, “But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” Paul referred to the church as the pillar and ground of the truth (I Tim. 3:15). The word ‘pillar’ denotes a column which supports weight for a building, and the word ground means a “mainstay” or, as translated by the NASB, a “support.” So the church is the support and the foundation of the truth.
The church actually has a threefold purpose. It is to preach the gospel to all the world, teach its own members, and it also has a responsibility in benevolence to help needy saints. Consider further these three functions.
PREACH THE GOSPEL TO ALL THE WORLD
Various passages reveal that the church is intended to teach the lost. Isaiah 2:1-4 contains a prophecy of the church which reveals that the church would be established in the last days in Jerusalem and that it would be for both the Jews and Gentiles. It is made clear that this “house” would be designed as a teaching institution as verse 3 says, “And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” We have already noted that the church is the “pillar” and “ground” of the truth (I Tim. 3:15). Further, according to Ephesians 4:11-12, the church is to be “edified” or “built up” (NASB) which is accomplished as people are brought to the Lord through the teaching of God’s Word.
It is clear that the early church understood its mission of teaching the lost. Paul, in I Thessalonians 1:8, commended the church at Thessalonica for “sounding out the word of the Lord.” Paul took “wages” from congregations so that he might preach the gospel in other places (Phil. 4:15; II Cor. 11:8). It is interesting to note that the early church was its own “missionary society. It did not just send contributions to some organization for that organization to do the work of teaching.
It is very important for the church to carry out its work of teaching those who are lost. The majority of the world is lost (Rom. 3:23; 6:23), and people are dying daily in this condition. Every congregation should be motivated to fulfill this function of teaching those who are lost. Churches often forget about this work as their main goal seems to be to have a big bank account or to have the nicest building in town. This is certainly sad.
The church can spend its money collected on the first day of the week to carry out this work. It can provide for facilities to accomplish the teaching of God’s Word. The only reason to justify a church building, for example, to begin with, is to carry out that which is its work. Consequently, activities which take place in the building must pertain to the work of the church.
The church can certainly employ methods. The church might send a teaching bulletin out to the community; it may conduct gospel meetings; it may buy radio or television time for gospel preaching. Wages can be paid to a local preacher or preachers in other areas. There are a variety of “methods” that the church can employ in teaching the lost. Regardless of the methods used, the church must carry out this mission. It has been said that “the church is saved to saved others.”
CARING FOR NEEDY SAINTS
The church also has a responsibility in benevolence, but it is clear that the church is not to be involved in “general” benevolence. Its benevolence is limited to needy saints. This is very clear from a number of passages (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-35; 6:1-4; I Cor. 16:1-4; II Cor. 9).
Consider specifically Acts 11:26-30. Here we read of a prophecy by a man named Agabus who prophesied that a great famine would come through “all the world.” Verses 29-30 say, “Then the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judea: which also they did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul.” Thus, the famine was “throughout all the world” but the relief was sent to the “brethren” in Judea.
It is not a question of “IF” non-saints should be helped; it is a question WHO should do the helping. As individuals, we have the responsibility to “do good unto all men” (Gal. 6:10; Jas. 1:27). The church, however, has a limited function in benevolence.
Again, the church may use various methods of carrying out this responsibility. The church may give money to a needy member; it may buy groceries, pay medical bills, or pay the rent for the needy Christian. It cannot, however, make a contribution to some benevolent society, turning its work over to that organization. For example, to teach the lost, a church could purchase Bibles from a company which sells Bibles, but it can not make a contribution to that company simply because of what it sells. In carrying out benevolence, a church could purchase services from a hospital, but it can not make a contribution to that hospital simply because of the work that the hospital does. The church may purchase services from a service rendering organization, but it is to oversee its own work. Just as the church is its own “missionary society,” the church is its own “benevolent society.”
PERFECTING THE SAINTS
The Bible also speaks of the “perfecting of the saints” in Ephesians 4:11-12. The word translated perfecting would involve the putting of a thing or person in the condition that it ought to be. It involves the development of Christians to a proper state of maturity. We have already noted that the church is the “pillar” and “ground” of the truth (I Tim. 3:15), and certainly Christians are to be included in the number of those who are to be taught the truth.
Christians are commanded to grow (II Pet. 3:18), and the writer of Hebrews rebukes Christians for not growing (Heb. 5:12-14). Elders are told to “feed the church” in Acts 20:28, and we learn later in the chapter (v. 32) that it is God’s Word that is able to build us up.
Again, means and methods can be employed by the church to accomplish this. Bible classes, special studies, lectureships, bulletins, and gospel meetings can be designed for those who are already members of the body of Christ.
It is very important that Christians grow. Some fall away completely from the Lord because they have failed to achieve spiritual growth. Individually, we have the responsibility to study, learn, and grow; but the church also has the responsibility to carry out the mission of “perfecting the saints.”
DOES THIS CONSTITUTE A PATTERN?
We have noted that the church has been given the function by God of teaching the lost, teaching those who are already Christians, and, finally, it has a responsibility in helping needy saints. Does this constitute a pattern? Can we add other functions like social reform, providing secular education, as well as providing entertainment and recreation? If these can be proven by the Scriptures to be works of the church, then it would be scriptural for the church to build facilities to carry out these things. A church, for example, would be authorized to build what brethren call a “fellowship hall” if providing recreation can be found in God’s Word to be a work of the church. Yet, things such as secular education and recreation can not be found to be authorized for the church to engage in so building facilities for such or spending money from the treasury for such would be wrong. Sadly, many have added these as a work of the church.
It must be kept in mind that God’s Word is restrictive (II Pet. 1:3; II Tim. 3:16,17; Rev. 22:18-19; II Jn. 9; I Cor. 4:6). In that God’s Word has specified what the work of the church is, it is sinful to add other functions to the Lord’s church. We have been given a pattern for the work of the Lord’s church. Many brethren today have left God’s pattern. Just as we must adhere to the kind of music that God has specified in the worship (vocal), we must also adhere to the work that God has given the church to engage in. Is the congregation where you are a member doing this?