Why Church Matters
The church is the worldwide people of God, the community of those who have been redeemed by the work of Jesus Christ. The church transcends ethnic, cultural, and racial lines, being comprised of all those who have repented of their sin and trusted in Christ alone for their salvation. The church is the single most important institution on earth, the organism through which God advances his kingdom.
The Origin of the Church
The church derives its being and identity from Jesus Christ. Indeed, Jesus himself declared that he would be the builder of his church and that the gates of hell would not overcome it (Matt. 16:18). The apostle Paul underscores the centrality of Christ to the church when he describes the church as being built “on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20). While the apostles define the church as a distinctly New Testament reality, the prophetic dimension mentioned here by Paul points to its continuity with the covenant people of God in the Old Testament. This continuity between the church and Israel is affirmed by Peter when he identifies the church as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Pet. 2:9; compare Rom. 11:17–24; Gal. 6:16).
The church as the new worldwide community of God’s chosen people is constituted by means of a new covenant in which God, in his great love and on his own initiative, declares to them, “you shall be my people, and I will be your God” (Ezek. 36:28; compare Jer. 31:31–34; Ex. 6:7). The new covenant, foretold by the Old Testament prophets, was established through the atoning death of Christ (see Mark 14:24; 1 Cor. 11:25). The work of Christ has the effect of fulfilling the sacrificial system of the Old Testament once and for all (Heb. 7:23–28). Moreover, the new covenant transcends all ethnic and social boundaries. Every person who trusts in Christ—Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free—is granted the privilege of becoming Abraham’s descendant and thus a member of the people of God, the church (Gal. 3:28–29; Col. 3:11; 1 Pet. 2:4–10).
Christ, having ascended into heaven, did not leave the world without a continuing witness.
The Trinitarian Nature of the Church
As a people gathered by God, established in and through Christ, the church is also endowed with the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38; 1 Cor. 3:16; Eph. 2:22). The church thus reflects the image of the triune God, who exists eternally as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Indeed, the essential identity of the church as communal and relational is rooted in the eternal and blessed community of the Godhead.
Christ, having ascended into heaven, did not leave the world without a continuing witness (John 14:15–17, 25–26). As the body of Christ in the world, the church continues to embody the abiding presence of the risen Christ through the indwelling Spirit. In short, the church is providentially orchestrated by the Father, decisively created by the Son, and continually sustained by the Spirit.
It should be clarified that the kingdom of God and the church of God are overlapping yet distinct entities in the New Testament. The kingdom is somewhat distinct from the church, for the church is specifically the saints, the redeemed people of God, while the kingdom of God is his reign or rule. Nevertheless the church is the outpost of the kingdom, the institution from which the kingdom extends its influence.
The Marks of the Church
While the church is created through the redemptive work of the triune God, it finds diverse expression in different contexts in the form of local congregations. Such diversity of expression on a human level does not, however, bring into question the core unity of the church. This unity is held together by three marks of the true church of Christ: Word, sacrament, and discipline.
The faithful preaching of the authoritative Word of God forms and instructs the community as it grows into Christ’s fullness and likeness (2 Tim. 4:1–2). The sacrament of baptism marks believers’ entrance, by grace, into the community of God’s people, and the sacrament of the Lord’s Table provides ongoing spiritual nourishment as members of the church testify to their common union with Christ and enjoy communion with him, and in him, with each other. Church discipline, finally, maintains the purity of the church by restoring penitent sinners and removing impenitent sinners whose continued presence would impair the overall health of the church.
While the above three marks of the church are observable actions that belong to every healthy expression of the body of Christ, four more characteristics of the church are identified by Scripture. These characteristics have less to do with what the church does and more to do with what the church is. First, the church is one (Eph. 4:1–5). It is called to express the given unity of all believers in Christ by its common faith and mission despite the multiplicity of local churches and denominational polities. Second, the church is holy (Eph. 5:27). It is set apart by and to God, which in turn places a moral demand on every Christian to live a godly life. Third, the church is catholic (Gal. 3:28; Rev. 7:9). It is worldwide geographically and inclusive theologically, assuming faithful adherence to the whole counsel of God as revealed in Scripture. Fourth, the church is apostolic (Matt. 16:18; Acts 1:2–3). It is founded on the authoritative teaching of the apostles and is faithful to the apostolic mission of being sent into the world with the gospel.
One other nonnegotiable mark of the church should be mentioned: suffering. In light of the truth that the church derives its identity and calling from Christ, it is not surprising that the church should suffer opposition and persecution, as did its Lord (John 15:18–20). Jesus made it inescapably clear that suffering, even to the point of death, is a hallmark of authentic discipleship (Mark 8:34–37). Yet while the church presently shares in Christ’s humiliation,
the biblical promise is that it will also share in his glory hereafter (Rom. 8:17, 23–25). The
destiny of the church is to be presented as a pure and radiant bride to Christ himself (Eph. 5:27; Rev. 21:2).
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The Purpose of the Church
Through the indwelling Spirit, members of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church are enabled to worship God, practice fellowship with one another, and reach out to others. The threefold purpose of God’s new community can be discerned here: doxological (as a worshiping community), familial (as a nurturing community where members love and serve each other), and missional (as a community that witnesses and reaches out to the world with the gospel). Let us consider each of these in turn.
Doxological. First, the church is called to be what Israel was called to be—that is, a worshiping and praying community (Rom. 15:5–7). The church ascribes to God the glory he rightly deserves and points the world to the beauty and majesty of its Creator. Every time a local
church engages in worship, it is in effect joining in the eschatological worship that is ever being offered up by those saints who have gone ahead of us into the glorious presence of God
(Heb. 12:22–24; Rev. 5:9–14; 7:9–12). Hence the church that fails to worship fails at its most
Familial. Besides being a worshiping community, the church is also God’s household, the family of which he is father (Eph. 2:18–19). Here is where authentic relationships characterized by love and service can be nurtured. In a fallen world where the image of God in humanity has been grossly defaced by sin, the gathered church becomes an important context of grace; it is the divinely sanctioned arena in which men and women recover their authentic personhood. The Pauline image of the church as the body of Christ is instructive (Rom. 12:3–5; 1 Cor. 12:12–27; Eph. 1:22–23; 5:29–30). Through the indwelling Spirit, Christ as the head of the church gives his body life and direction. At the same time, for the body to function and grow, the different parts of the body need to relate to each other in appropriate submission, serving one another in love, forgiving one another, encouraging one another, and building up one another (Gal. 5:13; Eph. 4:1–2; 5:21; Col. 3:13; 1 Thess. 5:11). The diversity of members and their gifts within the core unity of the church provides yet another testimony to the Trinitarian nature of the one God.
Missional. The mission of the church should be understood in terms of preaching the good news and making disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:18–20). The church does this by holding to the Word of God firmly, obeying it faithfully, and proclaiming it fervently (Phil. 2:16; 1 Pet. 1:22; 2 Tim. 4:2). The church is sent into the world as God’s workmanship and witness (Eph. 2:10; 1 Pet. 2:9). By being salt and light, the church provides a beacon of light to an otherwise dark and hostile world as they bring the gospel to all humanity (Matt. 5:13–16; Phil. 2:15–16). The mission of the church, then, can be understood as the extension of the ministry of the risen Christ “to proclaim good news to the poor . . . to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18–19). The aim of this redemption is the unreserved cosmic worship of God by “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev. 7:9). Thus the ultimate goal of the church is nothing less than the glory of God, expressed from every corner of the globe. Indeed, the church is an agent of reconciliation through which not only humanity but also the entire creation is redeemed and brought under the kingly rule of Christ (Rom. 8:19–22; Col. 1:20).
Church as Preparation
The New Testament expects every Christian to participate in the life of the local church,
meeting with others for worship and fellowship (Heb. 10:25; Eph. 2:14–22; 4:15–16), sharing in its mission and service (Acts 1:8; Rom. 12:3–10), and submitting to its discipline (Matt. 18:15– 20). The church on earth is very much a work in progress, being composed of redeemed sinners still in the process of being sanctified. The hope of its perfection is guaranteed, however. The church prepares the believer for eternal life in the new heavens and the new earth, where life with God is restored to joyous worship and fellowship.
This article is adapted from the ESV Global Study Bible.
- The Doctrine of the Church in the Bible
- 7 Key Characteristics of the Church (Gregg R. Allison)
- What Churches Should Look for in a Missionary (Andy Johnson)