Main Purposes and Roles of the Church
Greyson M Gambrell
Theology Ministry 504
June 11, 2011
The church has many directives and commands concerning its operation and reasons for existence. Just like there are many commands and instructions for believers in the Scripture, there are many commands and instructions for the church, the believing body of Christ which consists of gathering together of believers in Christ. The Greek ekklesia comes from ek kaleo, which means to call out, and has come to mean assembly. The corresponding Hebrew has the meaning of assembly, congregation, gathered and called out also. Thomas Oden makes a great point that “there is nothing more fundamental to the definition of the ekklesia than that they are loved by the son with a love willing to risk all for the beloved.” (see Eph 5:25). As one looks for the root and underlying theme of the Bible and God’s main point, one see’s that salvation has a common thread throughout. More underlying and giving reason to God’s plan of salvation is the fundamental principle of love. God is love. The law and the prophets hang on loving God with all one’s heart, mind, strength, and soul and loving one’s neighbor as one’s self (see Matt 22:40). In the New Testament, Jesus directs us to love one another, just as He has loved the disciples at that time and loves all of them now (see John 15:12). Christ’s followers are to not only love themselves but love others outside of the church (see Matt 5:46). We are even commanded to love our enemy (Matt 5:44).
In analyzing the main purposes of the church, certainly loving up, in, and out seem to be fundamental to its purposes and roles. In Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, he understands “the purposes of the church in terms of ministry to God, ministry to believers, and ministry to the world.” Certainly the action carrying out the love up, in, and out is through ministry. He names the ministry to God as worship, ministry to believers as nurture, and ministry to the world as evangelism and mercy.
These seem logical as the main points of the purposes of the church, but there are some functions of the church that also apply as functions of the church. For instance, the administering of the sacraments is fundamental to the church. Perhaps this could fit under love of God, but it does not fit nicely to the three ministries of love up, in, and out. Luther even defined the church as “the congregation of saints in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the sacraments rightly administrated.” Also seen in this quote of Luther preaching, seems to be a fundamental purpose for the church. This may fall under nurturing or edification, but is so clear as a role it deserves special notice. In loving one another the church must have fellowship koinonia and have sincere and real brotherly love for the bretheren. Church discipline falls under edification, but is more than reproof by peers and deserves inspection individually. Collective prayer and intercession are important in the various roles of the church. One purpose that rises from the relationship of God with man is the fact that the Holy Spirit indwells the church. This is a role that rises from the loving intimacy of God with His church. Finally, the church has an enemy and is in a fight with satan and his host, and without a choice must be engaged in spiritual warfare.
So essentially there are three main purposes of the church: worship, edification, outreach; but also sacraments, preaching, fellowship, church discipline, prayer, housing the Holy Spirit, and spiritual warfare are also functions of the universal and local church. The next to last mention of the Holy Spirit is not due to its importance. It is the Spirit that really enables the church to fulfill the other purposes. Millard Erickson in Christian Theology writes, “Dwelling within the church, the Holy Spirit imparts his life to it. Those qualities which are his nature and which are spoken of as the fruit of the Spirit, will be found in the church: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Gal 5:22-23). The presence of such qualities is indicative of the activity of the Holy Spirit and thus, in a sense, of the genuiness of the church.” The church has unity and identification and purpose because of the Holy Spirit. Without God’s Spirit the church is another social gathering. It is a function and definition of the church that God dwells in man by the Holy Spirit.
Stanley Grenz comments on worship, “We are to be a worshipping community, offering to God the glory due His name. For this reason we may appropriately speak of the church as being gathered to worship.” Worship is important in its own rite. Grudem puts it this way, “Worship in the church is not merely a preparation for something else: it is in itself fulfilling the major purpose of the church with reference to its Lord.” Worship in the Old Testament was for the praise and exaltation of God. In the Psalms and The Revelation and elsewhere worshippers are represented as recognizing and declaring His greatness.
Edification and nurturing are the aspects of loving one another in Christ. This is done by preaching but as Erickson phrases it, “Note that edification is mutual up building by all members of the body, not merely the minister or pastor.” There are many vehicles for edification. Obviously preaching and teaching in the church are some. This is the primary means for instilling and maintaining the common commitment to shared values and mission of the church community. Luther says, “The surest mark of the true church is that in it one hears the pure gospel proclaimed.” Most assuredly if the truth is being preached, then people should be in the process of being transformed into the likeness of Jesus Christ. This is done by preaching against sin and for change brought about by instruction on how to live and what to believe. This is by exposition of the Word of God and is a necessary function of the church. This was also modeled by Jesus as He taught in the synagogue.
Edification should also be done by members as they help each other in their walk with Christ. Part of edification is when the churches members minister to the needs—both material and spiritual—of each other, while sharing burdens, encouraging and admonishing, and nurturing. Education and teaching are also means of edifying by instruction other the pastor (see 2 Tim 2:2). The Koinonia calls for Christians to work together, have fellowship, and edify one another in this fellowship, up to the head which is Christ. Christians are to love each other and build each other up so they are more Christ like. We are to share each other’s burdens and help each other when one is struggling.
Something that is obvious to edification but often neglected or ignored is the importance to have church discipline. The point of discipline should be edification and especially redemption. Brad Harper and Paul Metzer explain in Exploring Ecclesiology:
While Christ’s grace is a fierce grace demanding repentance and life change, it is grace nevertheless. As the gospel of God’s grace in Christ is no shallow system of behavior modification, neither is church discipline. Grounded in the gospel, it is always a call to respond to the unconditional holy love of God. Only when church discipline arises out of this foundation can it be redemptive.
Church discipline is Scriptural and was described by the Lord as recorded in Matthew 18:15-17. Jesus describes rescuing a brother from sin by personally accosting that person by a lay member, not the pastor. Then the protocol is to get more to confront the sinner. Finally the church must excommunicate the person for a season. This function is part of the church and is like a person cutting off a cancer it is necessary to continue on in health. Calvin believed that “love for one another required just and nurturing discipline of the church body.” This is a role that some churches seem not to show outwardly. So much apostasy is tolerated today that the true recourse for sin is not taken when really church discipline is necessary for the bride to keep herself. This is a purpose of the church as much as worship, even though neglected, because the redemptive work of Christ is expected to be practiced by the church as His body.
Evangelism is clearly directed by Jesus to the apostles and disciples of Christ by the Great Commission and in the period of the forty years after the resurrection. This, according to Grudem, is the primary ministry that the church has toward the world. Certainly, the truth of this statement lies on the everlasting importance of the nature of spreading the Gospel. Evangelicals simply equate “evangelism with the verbalization of the good news, asserting that the outreach mandate of the church lies squarely on the task of declaring the gospel message throughout the world,” according to Grenz. If the Church does not evangelize, Erickson goes on to say, “it will become spiritually ill. For it will be attempting to function in a way its Lord never intended.” The final goal of evangelism should not just be saving people, but making disciples that are taught to obey all Christ commands. The church is always within one generation of being extinct. The attitude of Christians in America is evident how within one generation the climate toward Christianity can claim. China is an example how powerful a simple message of Jesus Christ’s Gospel is hard to keep down even in a climate of repression and persecution. These purposes of the church do not necessarily have a priority but should we neglect the evangelization command we are sick and that local church is set up for death if there is no influx of new believers.
Part of outreach to the world is also simply ministering to the outside world with service. Grenz writes: “our task, however, is not limited to the expansion of the church’s boundaries. Rather, it includes sacrificial ministry to people in need. Outreach, therefore, entails service.” George Boardman mentions, “It is the mission of the church to serve God by serving man. The church is a workshop, a teacher, a reformer, a peace maker, an up builder; in brief the church is God’s agent in administering His kingdom on earth.” This falls under Paul’s eagerness to help the poor, and James’ description of the church taking care of orphans and widows. This is hands on ministry, and as a witness to the world waiting to criticize the church, it is hard for someone to speak ill of acts of mercy and righteousness in love.
The sacraments of God are given by God for the church to administer. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are two essential sacraments that God has given for members of the church. Baptism is for a confession to God and pledge of a new conscience to God that the individual believes in the Gospel and that that Christian identifies with Christ in the death and resurrection of Christ by the act of Baptism. It is an initiation in to the church. The Lord’s Supper is the remembrance of the sin sacrifice of Jesus Christ and the fact that one has eternal life and forgiveness of sins by the body and blood of Jesus. Communion is the central sacrament because of its center being on the Gospel of Jesus.It may be arguable that there are other sacraments, but at least there are these. Thomas Oden writes, “the right and proper use of the sacraments is a sign of authenticity in the church.” Oden relates how Luther argued “(against medieval scholasticists) that only word and sacraments are necessary to the existence of the church, and (against left-winged spiritualists) that without word and sacrament there can be no church.” The number of rites given to the church to follow are not many, but the ones given where given by the instruction and example of Christ and therefore must be reverently and obediently observed. It is left to the church as a function for it to administer. This is an extremely important function of the church to obediently carried out.
Finally, the act of spiritual warfare seems to be left out of the purposes of the church by many of the writers of systematic theologies. Perhaps it is included under some other section of their writings. It is a de facto situation that the church is in spiritual warfare with satan and his hosts. Part of the function is to fight not against flesh and blood but against powers and principalities. Jesus, immediately after being baptized and in many ways beginning his ministry, was led to the wilderness to fight the temptations with satan. This fight was not just defending ones faith by resisting temptation, but was offence by use of the sword of the Spirit by use of the word of God. Christ as our example shows that we must fight against the wiles of satan by spiritually fighting. The gates of hell will not prevail against the church but that does not mean it will not wage a great war against Christ’s church. If satan fought against the King, what about His kingdom. I think that this purpose is ignored to our harm. It is our command to overcome evil with good, that does not change the fact that it is an all out war with satan and his forces. The victory is by Christ and is attained by the church by faith. If the church ignores that it is in war with satan, then it is deluded and obviously cannot fight effectively.
These purposes are not all inclusive, but through research it seems that it covers many of the purposes of the church of Christ. The church is the body of Christ and is the beloved bride of Christ. The body, as the wife, should look to the husband as a faithful wife seeking to be obedient to her husband. We are to be about fulfilling the role of becoming a chastened bride and we should fulfill all the functions and purposes of the church. The better the church understands the purposes why it exists and what functions is entrusted with, the better it can please God and function well as Christ’s believers and body inhabited by the Holy Spirit. With God’s help the church can fulfill its purposes and functions and please God who is the head of all things. Many churches focus on just worship. There are many purposes of the church and the church would do well to see to all facets of the responsibilities are seen to and addressed. Studying this subject is very informative about the nature of the church and sheds light on what the church is to be about daily and when gathered. Faithful application of effort to these purposes can make the church more effective and will definitely make the church more healthy and powerful.
Boardman, George. The Church. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons,1901.
Erickson, Millard. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998.
Grenz, Stanley. Theology for the Community of God. Grand Rapids: Eardmans, 1994.
Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000.
Harper, Brad, and Paul Metzer, Exploring Ecclesiology. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2009.
Oden, Thomas. Systematic Theology. Peabody, Ma: Hendrickson, 2006.
Thorsen, Don. An Exploration of Christ Theology. Peabody: Hendrickson, 2008.
 Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 265.
 Thomas Oden, Systematic Theology (Peabody, Ma: Hendrickson, 2006), 273.
 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 867.
 Grudem, 865.
 Erickson, 1049.
 Stanley Grenz. Theology for the Community of God (Grand Rapids: Eardmans, 1994), 490-91.
 Grudem, 867.
 Erickson, 1066.
 Erickson, 1064.
 Grenz, 472.
 Oden, 299.
 Grenz, 496.
 Brad Harper and Paul Metzer, Exploring Ecclesiology (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2009), 176-77.
 Don Thorsen, An Exploration of Christ Theology (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2008), 323.
 Grudem, 868.
 Grenz, 502.
 Erickson, 1063.
 Grenz, 504.
 Ibid, 505-06.
 George Boardman, The Church (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons,1901), 45.
 Harper and Metzer, 358.
 Ibid, 362.
 Oden, 300.
 Oden, 272.