I’ve made a great deal of reference in the past to the “three-fold purpose of the Church,” and staked a great deal of my commentary and interpretation of various theological issues on this three-fold principle (worship, edification, ministry). As have recently been thinking about giving a presentation on this in the upcoming semester, I suddenly realized that I could not remember the premise for this system. I was sure it was biblical, but no “proof-text” came to mind, so I’ve gone back to my class notes from Systematic Theology III, and am more than pleased with what I found.
First of all, the purpose of the Church is rooted in the identity of the Church. Well that makes sense! So what is the identity of the Church? A fellowship, a family, a shadow kingdom… the list could go on for ages. We need to get the root of the matter if we’re going to get anywhere near a clear and simple answer. Dr. Davis at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary describes the Church as a “theanthropic entity,” that is, something that includes both God and humanity together. Ultimately, the Church is the fellowship between redeemed creation (and creatures) and God. Adam & Eve experienced this before they fell to sin, the Patriarchs experienced this in limited fashion in their walks with God, Israel experienced this in a slightly broader fashion with the presence of God in the Temple in Jerusalem and the giving of God’s Law, and the Apostles experienced this in literal fellowship with Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. This reality is experienced by us today in the form of the Christian Church, enabled by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Where does this lead us? The presence of God is the key here, so we need to look at God first, the Church second, and the purpose of the Church third.
God is one God, yet three distinct persons within one being: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. These persons can interact with each other, and we can interact with each of them individually, yet they are all eternally and completely one divinity.
Thus, the Church’s identity is going to reflect this dynamic of simultaneous oneness and threeness. The Church is one thing, as God is one God, but the Church is also three distinct things at the same time.
- As pertains to the Father, the Church is a family. God the Father literally adopted us through His Son, Jesus, to be children and heirs along with Jesus.
- As pertains to the Son, the Church is His body or bride (no this is not a paradox if you take into account the Bible’s “one flesh” theology of marriage). Paul spends a lot of time addressing the Church as Christ’s mystical body.
- As pertains to the Holy Spirit, the Church is His Temple. Remembering that a Temple really just means God’s “house,” a place where He can be found and interacted with, this makes perfect sense, though Paul does offer us some pretty clear teaching in this area too.
So that’s the essence of the Church’s identity, rooted in the identity of God. How, then, does this inform the purpose of the Church?
- The Church as the family of God points to the function of worship. Remembering that worship is ‘worth-ship’ – giving and acknowledging the true worth of something – it makes sense that in the course of our family fellowship, we acknowledge and declare God’s worth, which is infinite. Even when Paul was writing about our adoption into God’s family, he set it in the context of blessing God. This concept of having been created to worship God was also known to the OT prophets.
- The Church as the body of Christ points to the function of edification. In the midst of Paul’s teaching about the fact that the Church is the body of Christ, he explicitly states that he gives certain gifts to the Church for the edification of all its members as they grow into the fullness of Christ.
- The Church as the Temple of the Holy Spirit points to the function of mission. The business of the Holy Spirit throughout the Bible is always creating life. Whether God’s breathing life into creation for the very first time, restoring life to the physically dead, or giving people who are spiritually dead a second birth, it’s always described in Spirit terms (remembering that in Greek and Hebrew, ‘breath’ and ‘wind’ and ‘spirit’ are all the same word)! The presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church, then, is what enables us to go out into the world on a mission involving spiritual ministry and physical ministry.
So that’s the thinking behind this three-fold purpose of the Church.
One last quick note before I finish this post, though, is that we should not get too carried away with the Trinitarian model as if we only worship God the Father, only Jesus enables us to build up the body, and only the Holy Spirit empowers us to carry out God’s mission in the world. All three persons of God act in union with one another. In the same way, then, the Church needs to learn how to fulfill all three of these purposes without treating them as completely different things. Our corporate act of worship can be a form of witness to the world as well as an opportunity to build one another up. This is not only possible, but a good thing to do! However, we must never forget that the purpose of worship is to worship God, and nothing else. Similarly, we can bring worship into our worldly service, or train other Christians while serving the world, but those get in the way of the actual serving, then it’s gone awry.
The Church’s purposes are three: worshiping God, building up the Church, and ministering to those outside the Church. May God give us grace and endurance to pursue all of these with equal vigor.