What is the Church for?

What is the Church for? It surely matters that we should know. When a business loses track of its core purpose it can easily start to invest time and money in peripheral things, all the while alienating those customers it should be supporting and encouraging to spend more. I worked for such a company. We were busy, but busy with so many different things, and wrong things, that for all our busyness we were failing as a business. It was not until we were taken over by a more successful company, which brought in a clarity of vision, that we were able to concentrate on those things that our business really existed to do, and slowly we started to bear the fruits of that clarity of thinking.

I do not believe that the Church is a business at all. I do not believe that it is usually appropriate for business models and marketing techniques to find their way into the ministry of the Church. But it is often useful, it seems to me, to step back a moment and consider whether what we are doing, and where our energies are directed, is properly serving the purpose of the Church in the world.

What is the Church for? In Matthew 16:18 our Lord Jesus insists that it is his Church. It is written… “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” .. Upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. What does this mean? It certainly means that the Church, the community of Christ, is gathered upon the foundation of the confession that Christ is the Son of the Living God. If it is his Church, then the Church belongs to God and not to man. And since he is the living God, the Church belongs to one who is alive and present, and calls the Church together by his divine presence in the Church.

In Acts 2:47 we see that the Lord … added to the church daily such as should be saved. But this does not seem to have been an accidental matter, on the contrary, we read in the preceding verse that this growth seems to be predicated upon the fact that they … continued daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. This seems to me to speak of spirituality, hospitality and unity bearing witness in the wider community for the salvation of souls.

What happens if one of those key elements is missing? If there is only a small increase in our communities, after many years, from those who are being added daily, then it is reasonable to reflect on these aspects of spirituality, hospitality, unity and witness. What is missing? Spirituality does not mean simply attending the services of the Church, but requires an inward transformation of the heart by the indwelling Holy Spirit. Hospitality does not mean only that we invite our friends into our homes, but that we offer a generous and open-hearted welcome to all, not only or especially into our homes, but into our hearts. Unity requires more of us than that we believe more or less the same things, it requires that in all we do and all we engage in, we have that singleness of heart which is found only in a shared experience of God in Christ by the indwelling Holy Spirit, and which represents a shared participation in the divine life of the Holy Spirit which transcends all division.

When this life is manifested in the world around us then it produces a fruit, as God wills, of those whom he adds to his own Church daily. Orthodoxy is eminently practical it seems to me. If there is a lack of fruit in the way that the Scriptures describe then we should look to the practical aspects of our life together. Where there is a weak spirituality, a lack of open-heartedness, disunity and a failure to manifest the life of Christ in the world then there will be little or no fruit of those who are added daily as God wills and as the Apostolic Church experienced.

What is the Church for? Certainly one important aspect is that it be that place where the Lord adds daily those who are being saved. A little later in the Acts of the Apostles we read… the churches throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had rest and were edified, and, walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost, were multiplied. Again it seems that St Luke wishes us to consider that the growth of the Church is a necessary measure of the health and well-being of the Church. How does this multiplication, this growth of the Church take place? It seems that it is when the Church is at rest and is edified, or strengthened. But where does this rest and this strength come from? It is found when the Church lives with that proper fear of God, that respect, awe, humble submission and obedience which is due to him, and when it is filled with the presence of the Holy Spirit, who is the source of all comfort.

If we are not seeing much multiplication then it is proper to ask why this might be. There are sometimes good reasons in the will of God. But we can usefully and honestly consider whether it might be because we do not have rest or peace in our community, and that we are not walking in humble obedience but are still divided by self-centredness, so that the fear of the Lord and the comfort of the Holy Spirit is not our overwhelming experience. If we do not see fruitfulness in our service as the Church then it is reasonable to consider that this is because there is something wrong, and that this is a symptom of a spiritual malaise and not what God desires for us and of us.

We can read again in Acts 16:5… And so were the churches established in the faith, and increased in number daily. it seems that in the life of the Apostolic Church this increase was experienced often enough to become part of the sacred account of those times, so that when the Church was living as God intended then he himself brought about that growth which was his desire and purpose for the Church. In this passage we see the connection between being established in the faith and increased in number. What does it mean to be established in the faith? It surely does not mean simply to attend services in the Church, nor does it mean for a congregation that it organises prayer and Sunday School meetings. To be established in the faith is to be rooted and built upon the experience of life in Christ. To be established in the faith is to have an overwhelming trust in God for all things, as individuals and especially as a congregation, so that what is lived together is a shared participation in the divine life of God in Christ by the Holy Spirit. If there is no sign of growth then it is necessary to ask if the congregation and her members are established in the faith, or are trusting in themselves and their own strength and wisdom for their life together.

What else does the Scripture teach us about the Church? In Acts 20, St Paul calls together the presbyters of the Church in Ephesus and says to them… Take heed therefore unto yourselves and to all the flock, over which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God which He hath purchased with His own blood. For I know this: that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things to draw away disciples after them. What does this mean? It surely speaks of the great responsibility which rests upon those who have pastoral care of the Church. In the first place St Paul says, take heed unto yourselves. It is not possible to have a pastoral ministry in the Church, either bishop, priest, deacon, or servant in any ministry, without having taken heed to ourselves, to our own spiritual life.

We cannot give what we have not received, and we cannot teach what we have not learned ourselves. Our own spiritual condition matters, it matters more than anything else in our service, whatever that service is. Often we are tempted to imagine that when we have completed our service we will make some time to be spiritual. But in fact there is no value at all in any service if it is not performed in the grace of the Holy Spirit by spiritual men and women. Indeed we can properly extend this necessary correlation. It is not possible to be a fruitful member of a congregation, let alone have any service, if we have not made our own spiritual condition the priority of our life. It is not possible to be the husband or wife, father or mother, brother or sister, child or grandchild that God would wish us to be unless we have made our own spiritual condition the priority of our life. It is not even possible to be that employee, or employer, that manager or worker, that teacher, or physician, or engineer that God would want us to be unless we have made our own spiritual condition the priority of our life.

How much more this is especially the case for those who have the care of others, whether spiritual or practical, whether within the activities of the congregation or outside. But after we have taken heed of ourselves, we must as our second concern, take heed to the flock of which we are servants, pastors and members. To have heed to the flock does not essentially mean to be engaged in activities. It means above all to be concerned for the spiritual welfare of those among whom we are called to live and serve.

If the Church is a flock then we should have several concepts in mind at all times. The flock belongs to the Good Shepherd, of whom every pastor is a servant. The flock does not belong to any man, not even a bishop. But those with a pastoral ministry are responsible for the well-being and care of each member of the flock of Christ. If we belong to the Lord then our first concern must be the nourishment of the flock of the Lord, and this nourishment is spiritual rather than worldly. Why are we concerned with our own spiritual state and that of the flock in our care? It is because our service is essentially one in which we are called to feed the Church of God.

The pastoral service is not one in which the members of the congregation are to be entertained, or indulged, or satisfied with worldly nourishment. Much of this is poison to those who consume it. But that bread which is to be provided to the spiritual and rational sheep of the flock of Christ is essentially the Bread of Life, which is Christ himself. Christ, who has purchased the Church for himself at the cost of his own blood, entrusts the well-being of his own Church to those who serve, so that they might nourish the Church of Christ with the life and grace of Christ, which forms the Church into the flock of Christ.

We should not imagine that everything which takes place in a congregation is according to the will of God. St Paul himself warns that there will be even those within the Church herself who spread false teachings, harmful nourishment, and lead away some of the flock. How can we discern? It is surely that when the Church is healthy there is a preoccupation above all things with spiritual life and growth, and this is expressed in personal holiness, humility and obedience, and in a corporate holiness, humility and obedience. Where there is division, disunity, self-will, and the intrusion of alien teachings and practices then we may be sure that something has gone wrong, and the flock of Christ is not being fed and is failing to be the Church as God intends.

Then in 1 Corinthians 1:2, St Paul greets the Church in Corinth saying… Unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all who in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours. Even though the Church of Corinth was in a mess, with division and argument, he addresses them as the community they should be, and as God desires for them. He says that they are those who have been made holy in Christ Jesus, and are now called to be holy. Do we imagine that we ourselves are called to be saints? This is what the Greek says. Do we excuse ourselves, and our congregations, as though such an ambition was only for monks and nuns? Yet this is what St Paul says is the requirement for all who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus. We are made holy in Christ, now we need to become holy ourselves, by the grace of God.

St Paul begins his letter by insisting that whatever their problems as a Christian community, they are rooted in a failure to be and become saints. The word holy does not essentially mean not doing bad things, but means that we are consecrated and set apart for God. It returns us to the idea that what matters most is putting God first in all things, in all relationships, in all activities, in all service. It means that we advance in the experience and participation of life in Christ by the Holy Spirit so that wherever we are and whatever we are doing is in the grace of God and belongs to God.

It is not possible to be the Church or to accomplish the will of God for the Church without a seeking after holiness, after perfect consecration to the will of God, after saintliness. We cannot be the Church in our spare time. We cannot become saints together when all our daily work is complete. It must be the central concern of each member, of the servants and pastors, and of the congregations as a whole. To live for the will of God, and in the will of God, whatever this requires of us.

How else may we measure the health of a congregation or community? St Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14:33… God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as it is in all churches of the saints. This is certainly a spiritual rule which applies in our personal lives. When we have submitted to the will of God in humble obedience we find peace in the Holy Spirit. When we are seeking our own will then we find confusion, anxiety, a lack of rest. This is multiplied in the life of a congregation. If there is confusion, disunity, discord and argument in a community then it is not of God. And the proper response to such harmful and destructive conditions must surely be to seek the presence of God, and not to press on in worldly strength to achieve some human objective. If the will of God is known and received in humility by all then there will be peace. If there is no peace then the will of God has not been known or received in humility, and it is necessary to wait on the Lord with repentance, self-sacrifice, humility, obedience and patience.

How are we to do this when we are sure that our own opinions are the will of God? It must be by the giving up of all personal will to the common seeking after God. In his letter to the Ephesians 1:22, St Paul says… And God hath put all things under His feet, and hath given Him to be the head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him that filleth all in all. Do we trust in the head of the Church, which is Christ himself? And do we truly believe that the Church is his own Body, and that he fills us, and even our congregations with his own fulness? What does it mean to be his Body? Surely it means that we must fulfill in our own lives his own humble service in the world. This is what over all things and filleth all in all means. 

It requires us to have a relation with the world outside the Liturgy, which is, to a great extent, the meaning and purpose of the Liturgy. The Church is not an organisation that has some secondary relation to the purposes of God in Christ. It is not a human institution that develops various services for members, like a social club, and also hopes to be engaged in a number of religious activities as well. If the Church is the Body of Christ, and if Christ is the Head of his Body, then every aspect of the life of the Church, his own Body, must be concerned with fulfilling the mission and ministry of Christ in the world, a mission and ministry he began himself, but will complete through his own Body.

Is it possible to properly be the Church and not be engaged in the mission and ministry of Christ in the world? What is the service of the Church to her own members if it is not an equipping for service in and to the world? What does St Paul say to St Timothy in 2 Timothy 16-17… All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly equipped for all good works.

This passage is often used when we are speaking about the inspiration of Scripture. But it is less often used to reflect on what the purpose of the Christian life is actually for. Why do we need doctrine? Why do we need to be reproved and corrected and taught how to live the life of righteousness? It is so that we might become perfect, and this perfection is not found in simply attending Church services, or having some ministry in the congregation, but in being thoroughly equipped for good works.

What are these good works that the members of the Church should be equipped to perform? Our Lord speaks of the judgement at the end of things and tells us what we will be asked about. He says himself...Then shall the King say unto them on His right hand, ‘Come, ye blessed of My Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I hungered, and ye gave Me meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave Me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took Me in; naked, and ye clothed Me; I was sick, and ye visited Me; I was in prison, and ye came unto Me.’

The Fathers say of this passage that we find Christ himself in every poor man we feed when he is hungry or drink when he is thirsty. Shall we say that he means only that we should care for other Christians? It seems to me that the parable of the Good Samaritan is intended to demolish any such views. A lawyer asked our Lord what he should do to inherit eternal life. He knew that the commandments of God were summed up in the words, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind, and thy neighbor as thyself. But we are told that he wanted to justify himself and so he asked Jesus who his neighbour was, just who was it that he was obliged to love as he loved himself. And so our Lord told the parable of the Good Samaritan, where a man was injured by thieves, and was ignored by his own countrymen, and assisted only by someone with whom there was a history of conflict and tension. What does he say to us, about the man who had shown mercy to someone he didn’t know and who belonged to a different culture and community? Go and do likewise!

Why should this surprise us if we understand clearly that we are the Body of Christ on earth. Not representing him like some sort of religious franchise, but actually manifesting the divine presence by the indwelling Holy Spirit. If we are to be found doing his work in his will and by his grace then we will be found doing what he was doing. What do we read in the words of Christ himself. He says that he has …. come to seek and to save the lost. He has come… not to be ministered to, but to serve others, and to give his life as a ransom. He said… I have come to call sinners to repentance. We are surely to be those who minister Christ to the world as the Bread of Life, as the Way, the Truth and the Life, as the well of water springing up to salvation and eternal life.

What is the Church for? It is not for the perpetuation of religion, as if the ritual acts of men were the means of salvation. The Church is called into being not by and for religious activities, but by the indwelling Holy Spirit and the grace of God for the continuing mission and ministry of Christ in the world. The sacraments and services of the Church are not religion but life and grace in the gift of God by the Holy Spirit. But such a life and such a grace must be lived out if it has been truly received, and if it is not lived out then it has not been received at all.

Certainly the Church is to minister to her own members, both spiritually and practically, but the life of the Church is given for the performance of good works in the world, and to the least. It is given so that we might be and become those who show mercy, the mercy of God, to those who are in the society in which we are placed, our neighbourhoods, our towns, our cities. What is the good we are doing? Will we be commended at the end of days? Will those among whom we live speak up on our behalf at the last judgement? Do we make a difference to the people among whom God has placed us, and for whom God wishes us to give our lives in service in the name and grace of Christ?

If our congregations are places of discord, tension and frustration then we are not yet living the life of Christ together. If the communities in which we are placed receive no benefit from our presence then we are not yet living the life of Christ together. If we are so taken up with practical matters that our spiritual life takes second or third place then we are not yet living the life of Christ together. And if there are few signs of growth, if there are not many who are added daily, and if indeed we are losing many of our own, then we must honestly and sincerely ask ourselves why this should be and whether we are not yet the community of saints that God desires us to be.

What is the Church for? It is for the salvation of the world. It is to be that community of Christ which is so overflowing with grace and the divine life that it cannot help but spend its time and effort, its prayer and service, for the sake of the world outside, in the name of Christ who came himself to seek and save those outside the Church, and continues to do so through those faithful Christian communities who give themselves wholeheartedly in humble obedience to God for the sake of the world.

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