The Work of the Church
Perhaps one of the most influential characteristics of the local church is the mission or the work that it undertakes. Therefore, it is essential that we study the Bible teaching on this topic so that we may be able to determine if a local church is even trying to do its God-given task. However, before we study such an issue, we must first recognize that there is indeed a pattern for the church that God expects us to follow, and we must also understand some basic concepts about the church.
The Three-Fold Mission of the Church
The work of the church can be divided into three separate missions or works. These works are given to the universal church at large, but much of its execution is specified in the divine pattern for the local organization of the church. Consequently, as we will see shortly, certain aspects of various works are reserved for the distributed, individual saints who make up the universal church, while the local church is restricted to other aspects.
Much of the teaching on this subject is spread throughout the New Testament; however, in Ephesians 4 we find a concise description of the spiritual work given to this spiritual organization as well as a listing of the spiritual offices, whose unique roles people fill in undertaking this work.
"But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ's gift. ... And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ," Ephesians 4:6, 11-12
Although this passage is primarily emphasizing the "gifts" that are given through fulfillment of various roles, we can still learn valuable lessons about the nature of the work that is aided by these roles. First, we can recognize that one of the fundamental missions of the church is "the equipping of the saints". This mission is the foundation for the church completing the other two missions, as is indicated by the language of other modern translations (ASV, NASB, NIV). If the church is not properly equipped then it will be unable to complete its other works. Therefore, this one work is essential.
With the church properly equipping its members, it will be enabled to see to perform "the work of ministry". The Greek word here for ministry is diakonia, which is a generic word for service and ministering. Therefore, the general work of service is one of the given missions of the church universal. However, keep in mind that limitations as to how these instructions are executed, and who executes them, will be specified by the organization of the church, as we will later see.
Thirdly, the church should also work towards the "edifying of the body of Christ". This is from the same Greek word that Paul used when he spoke of preaching Christ where He was unknown and edifying, or "building", where no man had before built (Romans 15:20-21). It is also the same word used by Jesus when he promised to "build" His church (Matthew 16:18). Apparently, it here has the same meaning, preaching the gospel so that it may increase the number and further buildup the body of Christ.
It is these three spiritual works that make up the mission of the church: evangelism - spreading the gospel; benevolence - both to saints and others; and edification - teaching and strengthening the existing body of saints. Now, let's examine in more detail the scope, nature, and division of labor for these three works.
The phrase "work of evangelism" refers to the primary mission of the church to spread and teach the gospel to those who are not Christians. We see in the Scriptures that its scope is universal, just as the problem of sin is universal (Romans 3:9-12, 23). Jesus commanded the apostles to preach the gospel to the entire world and to teach those that they converted to follow their pattern:
"Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." Matthew 28:19-20
As we read through the recorded history of the early church, we find that they did indeed spread out over the whole world, proclaiming the gospel, striving to preach where Jesus was unknown (Acts 1:8; Titus 2:11; Romans 16:26; Romans 15:20-21). But, how was this great work accomplished? How was this huge work and responsibility divided among the universal church?
The apostles had a unique role in traveling and spreading the gospel. But, the large part of the work then, and the whole part now, was divided between the local churches and individual Christians. We find that local churches had an obligation to spread the gospel by supporting gospel preachers, or evangelists. The following passage speaks of God's command that gospel preachers should be supported for their work:
For it is written in the law of Moses, "You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain." Is it oxen God is concerned about? Or does He say it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written, that he who plows should plow in hope, and he who threshes in hope should be partaker of his hope. If we have sown spiritual things for you, is it a great thing if we reap your material things? ... Even so the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should live from the gospel." I Corinthians9:9-14
Moreover, as we read through the Bible we find multiple examples of congregations supporting preachers to spread the gospel:
Now you Philippians know also that in the beginning of the gospel, when I departed from Macedonia, no church shared with me concerning giving and receiving but you only. For even in Thessalonica you sent aid once and again for my necessities. ... Indeed I have all and abound. I am full, having received from Epaphroditus the things sent from you, a sweet-smelling aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well pleasing to God." Philippians 4:15-18
Beside the Philippian church supporting Paul, we have the example of the Thessalonian church who was an example also to New Testament churches of spreading the gospel (I Thessalonians 1:1-8). But, in addition to the work done by local churches, we also find individual Christians who were zealous proclaimers of the gospel:
"... At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. ... Therefore those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word." Acts 8:1, 4
Acquilla and Priscilla are specific examples of a husband wife team who corrected and taught through personal evangelism (Acts 18:1-4, 24-26). Personal evangelism is one of the great responsibilities that are given to individual Christians, and one for which they will be held accountable (Matthew 5:13-16; 25:14-30). In addition to personal evangelism, wealthier New Testament Christians were instructed to also support preachers, as one of many possible good works (Galatians 6:6; ITimothy 6:17-19).
The responsibility of all Christians "to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints" is another important facet of evangelism (Jude 3). It is in this sense, all Christians striving to maintain the purity of the gospel in belief and practice, that Paul referred to "the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth" (I Timothy 3:15). The church serves as the mainstay of truth through its continued proclamation of the gospel and its diligent resistance to corruption of the truth (Galatians 1:6-9).
The universal church, although never as a collective unit, undertakes this work of evangelism through the the above division of labor. This is evidenced by the words of Paul:
To me, who am less than the least of all the saints, this grace was given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, ... to the intent that now the manifold wisdom of God might be made known by the church to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places," Ephesians 3:8-10
An individual Christian was able to speak of his individual efforts as partial fulfillment of the church's mission and work to make known the "manifold wisdom of God". Therefore, each individual Christian or church becomes an independent, but vital part of undertaking this important work, and it is through the distributed action of individual churches and Christians that the gospel is proclaimed and the universal church's work of evangelism is accomplished.
Edification of the Saints
The first mission from Ephesians 4:12, "for the equipping of the saints" is sometimes known as edifying, or building up the saints. This refers to the many tasks that a church undertakes to foster the spiritual growth of its members. Some of the many facets of this goal are:
- Grow in grace and knowledge of truth (II Peter 3:18).
- Become more like Jesus Christ (Ephesians 4:15)
- Produce and assume the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-25)
- Putting on the whole armor of God (Ephesians 6:10-18)
- Abound in love "in knowledge and all discernment" (Philippians 1:9)
Included in the many church activities to help us reach this goal, are worship and study services. The writer of Hebrews instructed:
And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching." Hebrews10:24-25
Assembling together is one of the many ways we help to promote love and good works in each other. The Bible also teaches of singing as being another way that we edify each other:
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord." Colossians 3:16
We discover the scope of this work by examining the role of elders in this work. Peter instructs elders to "shepherd the flock of God which is among you" (I Peter 5:2), and the writer of Hebrews reminds that "they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account" (Hebrews 13:17). In effort to perform this work, elders will use various means of teaching including classes, located preachers, home studies, etc.
Please note the scope of the original command. From Ephesians 4:12 we learn that the entire universal church is to be edified. But, when we look at the division of labor and the organization to accomplish this, we find that it occurs on the local church level. Notice, how the elders were to oversee the "flock among them". There is no record of a multi-inter-congregational effort to edify multiple churches using a central organization, whether that organization be a single church, or any other institution. The actual responsibility of edifying the universal church is distributed among the local churches with the work of each church being overseen by its elders. Of course Christians also have an individual responsibility to edify themselves from God's Word (II Timothy 2:15; 3:14-17), as well as each other (I Timothy 4:11-16; Galatians 6:1-2).
Also, please note the spiritual nature of these goals and activities. No where do we read of churches providing recreational or social facilities in an effort to edify the "whole man". This work of the church is clearly spiritual and neither social nor recreational. Moreover, the Bible emphasizes the importance of the spiritual man over the carnal:
For bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come." I Timothy 4:8
"Therefore when you come together in one place, it is not to eat the Lord's Supper. For in eating, each one takes his own supper ahead of others; and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you in this? I do not praise you." ICorinthians 11:20-22
Although the Corinthians were surely in error for their inequitable selfishness, we also learn from the latter passage that the purpose of the assembly was to partake of the Lord's Supper, spiritual in focus, and not physical, as eating meals would be. Please note that the correction was not a more equitable distribution, but it was to eat and drink in their own houses. If the problem was their selfishness, why did he correct it by reminding them of the proper place for eating and drinking, the home? The problem was, in truth, two fold: They were eating in the wrong place - the assembly, and in the wrong way - proud, selfish, shaming those who were without. Both needed to cease.
We must be careful that church does not use its resources for recreational or social purposes for which we have neither justification nor authority. In fact, we find that such is minimized and even condemned by God's Word. Let us not be guilty of "adding to" the work of the church in an effort to please ourselves, follow man's opinions, or maintain traditions.
The work of benevolence, ministering to the poor and needy, is a task that is been emphasized throughout the entire Bible. When God condemned the nation of Israel in the Old Testament, one of the primary reasons was because they not only neglected the needy orphans and widows, but even took advantage of them (Isaiah 1:17,23; Jeremiah 5:25-31, 7:5-7; Zechariah 7:8-14). Therefore, it is no surprise that we find this work again emphasized in the New Testament church:
If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one's religion is useless. Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world." James 1:26-27
"And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith." Galatians 6:9-10
These passages clearly teaches the importance of taking care of those who cannot take care of themselves. This is the nature of the work that was given to the universal church in Ephesians 4:12. However, what is the scope and division of responsibilities for this work?
At this point, it should be no surprise to once again find that both the local church and the Christian individual bear some responsibility. Please note that each of the above passages is addressed to the individual: The first passage, James 1:26-27, begins by examining an "one's" worthless religion. The passage concludes by exemplifying meaningful individual religion ("oneself"), contrasting it with vain religion. The passage is aimed not at the church collective, but it is directed at its individual members.
The second passage, Galatians 6:9-10, is also addressed to the the individual. As we examine the preceding verses in their context, we find mention of many individual responsibilities. This list concludes with the obligation of doing good to all men, especially Christians.
In the New Testament, we find examples of saints acting benevolently, both as individuals and as a church. Regarding individual benevolence, we find that Dorcas was a Christian who was full of good works (Acts 9:36-43). Such compassionate work is not only becoming of the child of God, but it is mandatory. In fact, it is a requirement of any truly needy widow, who is financially supported by the local church (I Timothy 5:3-16). Regarding collective action, the Scriptures record two separate occasions that involve multiple churches, independently offering financial aid to other churches that were overcome with famine (Acts 11:27-30; I Corinthians 16:1-4; Romans 15:25-27; II Corinthians 8-9)
Although both the local church and the individual saint are charged with the work of benevolence, When we examine responsibility of the local church, we find that it is restricted in scope to saints only. First, we find no positive record of the church offering benevolent aid to non-Christians. Neither can the action be necessarily deduced from any passage. Moreover, it is excluded by the directive for individuals to minister to those outside the church. Since there is no Scriptural authority for the church supporting non-saints, we must realize that it is necessarily forbidden.
Secondly, we find that the scripture emphasizes the importance of individuals fulfilling this need, so the church can be left to take care of its own, those who are truly in need.
Honor widows who are really widows. But if any widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show piety at home and to repay their parents; for this is good and acceptable before God. ... If any believing man or woman has widows, let them relieve them, and do not let the church be burdened, that it may relieve those who are really widows." I Timothy 5:3-4,16
The Bible emphasizes the individual's responsibility for two possible reasons: One, it is good for the individual's spiritual character that they "first learn to show piety at home and to repay their parents". And two, the church is primarily a spiritual organization. The church could not begin to satisfy the universal need of the poor and destitute if it tried. If it tried to do so, all of its resources would be consumed on benevolence, leaving little to no remaining resources to use towards saving men's souls. Which is more important?
God has established in the Bible that the church is to be "the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth", "to the intent that now the manifold wisdom of God might be made known by the church" (I Timothy 3:15; Ephesians 3:10). Let us not detract from this work for the sake of tradition or because something is a "good thing" in our opinion. We do not want to "add to" the work of benevolence bymodifying its scope or division of labor.
However, individuals who forsake their responsibility to take care "of all", "as we have opportunity", place themselves in jeopardy of eternal condemnation (Matthew 25:14-46). Let us hold fast to both the way and the importance of the required benevolent work that the universal church is to accomplish.
The universal church has been given a threefold mission or work, as was most concisely taught in Ephesians 4:12. For each of these works, we observed a unique nature, scope, and division of labor. We found that both the local church and individual Christian have responsibilities, and sometimes they are different in scope or nature. However, as each Christian and congregation does their individual part, then the entire universal church progresses towards completion of its tasks, although the work is distributed across both space and time.
Let us be cautious to avoid two pitfalls: First, accomplishing the work of the universal church does not mandate organizing the collective body. Therefore, let us not seek to "activate" the universal body in a way which the Head did not direct. Second, we must be careful to observe how this work is executed, and we must be careful not to confuse the responsibilities of the individual with those of the local church. Either of these pitfalls could cause us to misinterpret God's work for the church and the manner in which He wants it to be accomplished. Therefore, let us be diligent in performing the work of the church, both as members of a local church and as individual Christians. Moreover, let us not pervert the work by "adding to" either the scope, nature, or division of labor. We must be careful to do all things pleasing to God - not just the ones that also happen to be pleasing to us. Although we may all confess Jesus' name, we may sometimes fail to profess in practice that is His body is indeed the Lord's church. We worship Him, and we need Him - not the other way around.
Next: Offices of the Church
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