Primary Function of the Church

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Churches are confused.  There appears to be no consensus on what function the church serves in the world.  Building up believers, evangelizing the lost, feeding the poor, lobbying government, and protesting legislation are just a few of the functions churches feel compelled to perform.  Rick Warren recognized this lack of direction and has created a Purpose-Driven empire paving a path for everyone to follow.  If number of books sold is any measure, his ideas have clearly become the de facto standard in the church.  Warren’s five functions for the church are: Worship, Fellowship, Discipleship, Ministry, and Evangelism.  Warren is not the first to develop such a list, of course.  Most books on the church contain a similar list with some level of modification.  The unsettled question continues to be how much of its resources and time does the church reserve for each function?  The answer to this question is, to some degree, the distinguishing mark among various local churches.  The impact of Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, and the church-growth movement has lead most churches to focus almost exclusively on evangelism.  Most fundamental churches focus more on a form of discipleship, almost to the exclusion of evangelism.  Other churches place the emphasis on worship (expressed in singing, dance, art) almost to the exclusion of true discipleship.

With churches focusing on such a variety of functions today it is not difficult to ask, if the church is the only institution Jesus established and promised to build, was he so terribly vague in telling it what to do?  The purpose of this research paper is to demonstrate Scripture’s pervasive teaching that discipleship (maturing of believers) must be the local church’s primary function.  Scripture beats the discipleship drum through the Great Commission, the descriptions of the church, the commands to the church, the metaphors of the church, the leaders of the church, and the gifts of the church.  Once the church embraces its primary function, it will be better equipped to accomplish the multiple demands of Scripture, and it will avoid activities which have no place in the church.  Churches fulfilling their biblical functions and avoiding unbiblical activities will then find greater unity and cooperation among other local churches resulting in a stronger witness to the world and ultimately more glory to God. Matthew 28:18-20 is one of the most under-applied passages in Scripture.  In this passage Jesus sets forth the so-called Great Commission:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.  And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

This text has become the rallying cry for every evangelistic activity by churches and religious organizations alike.  Rick Warren exemplifies this when, directly under the heading “Purpose #3: Go and make disciples” he states, “This purpose we call evangelism.” [1]  He further confuses the issue by stating the fifth purpose of the church is discipleship.[2]  Understood exegetically, Jesus’ command is not evangelism, but discipleship.  Jesus establishes the authority undergirding the command and then states, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19a).  The verb “make disciples” is the only imperative in vv. 18-20.  “Go”, “baptizing”, and “teaching” are all participles acting as verbal adjectives which describe “make disciples.”  If this was a call to evangelism, it would be a radical shift in methodology from preaching the gospel.  Certainly there are no evangelicals claiming that baptism and knowledge (the result of teaching) makes one a Christian.  A disciple is not a convert.  A disciple was a convert.  BDAG defines the verb μαθητεύσατε (make disciples) as “to cause one to be a pupil, teach.”[3]  Hendriksen states, “The term “make disciples” places somewhat more stress on the fact that the mind, as well as the heart and the will, must be won for God. A disciple is a pupil, a learner.”[4]  To make a convert means causing someone to change their mind and hold an opposing belief.  A pupil, or a disciple, is made when the convert sits under the feet of a teacher in order to grow in their knowledge and understanding, and then conforms their life according to that understanding.  Jesus is clear that discipleship, not evangelism, is his intention when he states in vs. 20, “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”  Evangelism is the first step of discipleship, and in that sense it is part of the Great Commission, but only in that sense.  “The emphasis in the commission thus falls not on the initial proclamation of the gospel but more on the arduous task of nurturing into the experience of discipleship.”[5]  Therefore Matthew 28:18-20 teaches that discipleship is the primary function of the church.

Perhaps the Great Commission is a call to discipleship, one might say, but the church is commanded elsewhere to evangelize.  While it is true that there are passages that emphasize evangelism over discipleship (Mk. 16:12; Acts 1:8), discipleship is the emphasis of the New Testament commands and descriptions of the church.  Many of the occurrences of the term ἐκκλησία (ekklesia, translated church or assembly), when used a reference to the Christian church, are in the context of the edification of believers.  Acts 9:31 speaks of the church having “being built up”.  Acts 16:5 says, “the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily."  In 1 Corinthians 14:5 Paul desires the expression of gifts “so that the church may be built up.”  Paul, ever the evangelist, “went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches” (Acts 15:39).  Jesus died “that he might sanctify” the church (Eph. 5:25).  Acts 11:26 states regarding Barnabas and Saul that “for a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people,” displaying an emphasis of building up the church.

In addition to the descriptions of the church, the commands to the church emphasize discipleship.  Paul exhorts the Ephesian elders to “pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock… care for the church of God” (Acts 20:28).  1 Timothy was written so that “you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God.”  It interesting that in such a key letter regarding the church evangelism is completely absent.  Instead, Timothy was to “charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine” (1:3).  Timothy is also to “command and teach” everything Paul has written to him (4:11).  Timothy is never commanded in this letter to do any form of evangelism, but instead is told to “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (4:13).  2 Timothy is very much the same with only one reference to evangelism.  Paul exhorts Timothy to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim. 4:5).  That command is preceded by the commands to “follow the pattern of the sound words” (1:13), “remind them of these things” (2:14), and “preach the work… reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (4:2).  Paul’s concern for the church is not that they be preoccupied by evangelism, but that they would grow in spiritual maturity.

The metaphors of the church have been appropriately used to support various truths about the church.  The church as the body of Christ demonstrates how each individual member plays a unique role in accomplishing God’s purposes (1 Cor. 12:12-31).  The church as the bride of Christ teaches Christ’s love for the church, the one he has redeemed (Eph. 5:25-27).  The church as the flock of the Good Shepherd instructs us of our helplessness and dependence on the Shepherd for guiding, feeding, and protection (Jhn. 10:7-18).  The church as part of God’s family tells of God’s love for his children as co-heirs with Christ of all spiritual blessings (Gal. 4:7).  Yet Scripture expounds these metaphors even further, revealing that the church’s function is to build itself up in sanctification.

The physical body is made up of many different parts both external and internal.  At its most basic function every part is to serve the body.  In fact, there are very few body parts which even have the ability to serve something other than body.  The appendages and the mouth are the only body parts which have the potential to affect the outside world—yet even these are primarily self-serving to the body.  Without the arms and hands the body wouldn’t be able to feed itself.  Without legs and feet the body wouldn’t be able to go to where food and shelter are.  The internal organs are dependent on the external parts for their own sustenance.  They in turn process food, break down chemicals, and send nutrients throughout the body so that the external parts can continue to work.  Similarly, every time Scripture speaks of believers as the body of Christ it is in the context of purification, sanctification, and building itself up.  In other words, the body of Christ in Scripture is entirely self-serving.  Paul writes to the believers in Rome reminding them, “so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another” (Rom. 12:5).  He then goes on to exhort them to use their spiritual gifts: prophecy, serving, teaching, exhorting, contribution, leadership, and mercy (12:6-8).  Though these gifts could potentially be used to serve those outside the body, Paul intends for them to serve one another.  In 12:9-21 he continues with the well known “one-another” commands.  In writing to the church in Corinth Paul defends against the idea that any part is unnecessary.  In fact, “God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it … that the members may have the same care for one another.  If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:24-26).  Paul does not say that all are needed in order to evangelize the lost, but instead to serve one another with care and compassion.  Ephesians 5:24 is a brief but compelling passage.  Paul exhorts wives to submit to their husbands “as the church submits to Christ…”  How what does the church submit to Christ?  Paul has just stated one way, by “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” (v. 22, emphasis mine).  Of course that is not the only way.  Generally speaking the church submits to Christ by being obedient to Christ’s commands.  Within the context of Ephesians this obedience occurs when the church relates to itself properly.  After establishing the immeasurable blessings we have in Christ (1:1-23), and the grace by which we are brought into this body (2:1-10), Paul speaks of the unity that exists between to the two peoples of God—Israel and the church (2:11-22).  The church is, after all, a mystery (3:1-13) for which Paul exerts himself that the body would be strengthened (3:13-21).  This body is to be unified and is “to grow up [not out] in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, join and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (3:15-16, emphasis mine).  Paul continues for the rest of the letter exhorting the believers how to live so that they may “grow up” and build themselves up.  Let it be said again that Scripture gives no purpose to the “body of Christ” other than to serve itself to a sanctified end.  This is a powerful metaphor and one that deserves more attention than is possible here.

An even more vivid metaphor Scripture has made use of is that of the church as the bride of Christ.  Ephesians 5:25-27 is a common text for husbandry, but it is even more powerful in ecclesiology.  Paul declares that “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle, or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (emphasis mine).  It is true that from God’s perspective the church already is fully sanctified, holy, and without blemish (Romans 8:30), but this does not mean that the beautification process is complete.  Engaged couples are known to be starry-eyed toward their beloved.  As far as the man is concerned his bride-to-be could be covered in mud yet she would be as beautiful as ever.  Despite this fact no bride would step in the wedding chapel covered in mud.  The bride prepares herself for the wedding day.  This is exactly what we find in Scripture.  The Marriage Supper of the Lamb is going to be, literally and figuratively, out of this world.  In observing the vision of heaven, John writes,

Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out, ‘Hallelujah!  For the Lord our God the almighty reigns.  Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride had made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure’—for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.[6]

John wants to make it very clear that the Bride was not prepared in Heaven as a bride prepares just prior to the wedding.  The Bride, the church, prepared itself on earth by its deeds.  Therefore not only did Christ give himself up for her “that he might present the church to himself…”, but the Bride in turn prepared herself to be presentable to her Groom.  Though John does not describe these righteous deeds, we can be certain that they are deeds of self-preparation not preparation of others, since that is exactly what a bride does and what Scripture commands us to do.

The church as the flock of God may seem out of place in the context of its function because the context is usually about the Shepherd, not the sheep.  While Scripture does not speak in terms of sheep-to-sheep relationships, it does speak of the leaders of the church as shepherds of the flock.  Peter and Paul use this analogy and demonstrating that the leaders of the church are shepherds who have one primary focus: the flock.  Paul is exhorting the Ephesian elders face to face for the last time when he tells them, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God…” (Acts 20:28).  Likewise Peter exhorts the elders among his readership to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight… being examples to the flock” (1 Pet. 5:2-3).  What Peter and Paul are telling the elders is that their business is the flock.  They are not told to add to the flock, only to care for those they already have.  This metaphor teaches us that the primary responsibility of the leaders is to care for, lead, and guide believers.

The metaphor of the church as God’s adopted children also serves to point to the primary function of the church being edification.  This metaphor is the most pervasive in the New Testament and cannot receive full treatment here.  The term “brother” occurs almost 250 times[7] in Acts to Jude.  Most of those occurrences refer to the relationship believers have with one another.  Paul and the other epistolary authors use this relationship frequently in appealing to fellow believers.  Several passages stand out as having particular importance in this discussion.

Romans 14 is a well known passage among those who discuss Christian freedom.  What makes this passage relevant is Paul’s emphasis not on freedom, but self-restriction for the sake of “your brother.”  He states, “For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love” (v. 15).  Again he says, “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble” (v. 21).  Paul is teaching that as fellow children in God’s family, we ought to make sacrifices for each other.  Galatians 6 speaks of mutual restoration; “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness” (v. 1).  Furthermore, we are to “bear one another’s burdens” (v. 2).  In Philippians Paul exhorts the believers to “do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation…” (2:14-15).  Paul’s point that we must act so as to demonstrate our status as children of God.  Our actions should be those that lead to blamelessness, innocence, and purity.  A final example will suffice.  Peter encourages his readers, “as obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct” (1 Pet. 1:14-15).  He continues in the same vein describing the Father’s imperishable work in their lives.  As a result of that work he adds, “having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart…” (v. 22, emphasis mine).  The familial relationship each believer has to each other should be demonstrated in mutual edification.

Every metaphor Scripture uses to describe the church clearly reveals the church’s primary function as edification and the building up of itself.  Metaphors in themselves are inadequate in establishing church doctrine, and must be combined with concrete teaching.  The Great Commission, the descriptions of the church, and the commands to the church have already been discussed, but there is much more biblical evidence pointing to edification being the primary function of the church.  The final two pieces of evidence are the commands to the leaders and the purpose of the gifts.

Jesus said, “I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18).  Part of building his church includes providing instructions for the qualifications and duties of its leaders.  The qualifications for leaders are those which will allow the church to fulfill its primary function: edification.  In 1 Timothy 3:1-13 Paul gives the most extensive treatment of qualifications for elders and deacons.  Two credentials in particular stand out as have a direct purpose: “able to teach” (v. 2), and “he must manage his own household well” (v. 4).  Every leader in the church should be able to teach.  Teaching has the purpose of increasing knowledge, which is one of the key factors in spiritual growth.  Paul shames some of the Corinthians for their lack of knowledge: “For some have no knowledge of God.  I say this to your shame” (1 Cor. 15:34).  Paul frequently desires that his readers would grow in knowledge (2 Cor. 8:7; Eph. 1:17; Phil. 1:9; Col. 1:9).  It is knowledge that allows one to defend against false doctrine (1 Tim. 6:20; 2 Tim. 2:25).  Paul tells the Roman believers that he is satisfied about them because they are “filled with knowledge and able to instruct one another” (Rom. 15:14).  Teaching is the catalyst for spiritual growth among believers; therefore the church’s leaders must possess the ability to teach.

Each leader in the church also “must manage his own household well” (1 Tim. 3:4).  Paul provides the reason this is so: “for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” (v. 5, emphasis mine).  Paul is here indicating one of the primary roles of the leader is to care for God’s church.  How are they to care for the church?  Paul makes it clear in another letter, “admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all” (1 Thess. 5:14).  This is such an important part of the leader’s responsibility that the Holy Spirit gives similar instructions to Timothy, the Thessalonians, the elders of Ephesus (Acts 20:28), and those of the dispersion (1 Pet. 5:2).  In defending against the false apostles, Paul told the Corinthians that his God-given authority was for building them up (2 Cor. 10:8).  A thorough study of the commands to church leaders is impossible here, but such a study would reveal that virtually every instruction to church leaders is intended for the benefit of the church itself, not for those outside the church.[8]

A second part of Christ building his church is the giving of gifts.  In writing to the church at Corinth, Paul finds it necessary to give extensive treatment to the purpose and proper use of spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12-14).  At the beginning of his discussion he states, “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (v. 7).  These gifts include wisdom, utterance of knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, tongues, and interpretation of tongues (v. 8-10).  This list is not an exhaustive list, but it is one of the most thorough.  To teach the necessity of the variety of gifts Paul continues with the analogy of the body (previously discussed in this paper), and concludes chapter 12 with another list: apostles, prophets, teachers, miracles, healing, helping, administrating, and tongues.  After an important sidetrack on the importance of love in the use of gifts (ch. 13), Paul returns to deal with the proper use of gifts in chapter 14.  Paul makes it clear that the expression of gifts is for the common good.  Paul prefers the gift of prophecy because the prophet “speaks to people for their up-building and encouragement and consolation . . . so that the church may be built up” (14:2-5).  Paul denigrates an emphasis on tongues because it does not benefit the church as much as “revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching” (14:6).  So Paul exhorts them saying, “so with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church” (14:12).  Again he says, “let all things be done for building up” (14:26).

Paul’s letter to Ephesus echoes this truth.  Ephesians 4:11-12 states, “and he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (emphasis mine).  This is to be done “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood…” (v. 13).  When it comes to the purpose of the spiritual gifts, Paul’s concern is that they be used not for personal benefit or glory, but primarily for the benefit of other believers.  Peter shares this concern when he writes, “as each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Pet. 4:10).  Each of the passages demonstrates the primary purpose for pouring forth of gifts by the Spirit is for the benefit of believers that the church may be built up.

This paper has attempted to show Scripture’s emphasis is on the priority of edification as the primary function of the church.  Wayne Grudem, in his Systematic Theology, disagrees with any such attempt and issues the following warning: “We should be aware of any attempts to reduce the purpose of the church to only one of these three and to say that is should be our primary focus.  In fact, such attempts to make one these purposes primary will always result in some neglect of the other two.”[9]  He then describes what happens when a church places too much emphasis on each of the purposes, and says of edification, “a church that places the edification of believers as a purpose that takes precedence over the other two will tend to produce Christians who know much Bible doctrine but have spiritual dryness in their lives because they know little of the joy of worshiping God or telling others about Christ.”[10]  There are a couple responses to this warning.  First, Grudem demonstrates a narrow understanding of edification.  By his statement that edification only produces “Christians who know much Bible doctrine but have spiritual dryness,” it appears he would define edification as the relating of Bible facts.  This definition is far from the biblical definition of edification.  Certainly knowledge is part of edification, but only in the same way that evangelism is part of discipleship.  In other words, knowledge is the first step to edification and by no means the end of it.  In fact, the Greek word used for building up, or edification (οἰκοδομέω) is much broader than the communication of knowledge.  One definition includes “to help improve ability to function in living responsibly and effectively.”[11]  Paul distinguishes between knowledge by itself which “puffs up” and that which is accompanied by love which “builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1).  Edification in Scripture is demonstrated not only by teaching, but by rebuking, training, comforting, rejoicing, encouraging, serving, leading, and loving.  Biblical edification does not produce dryness, but fruitfulness!  Second, Grudem holds that simply because Scripture teaches multiple functions of the church each must receive equal time in practice.   Indeed in his presentation of the various functions he gives each of his three functions (worship, edification, and evangelism/mercy) equal treatment—a brief paragraph for each[12].  Unfortunately most of the passages Grudem uses for evangelism and mercy should be under the edification section.[13]  This is an unnecessary conclusion since worship is a byproduct of and occurs during edification.  The same is true of evangelism and mercy.  As I attempted to show earlier in this paper, evangelism is the first step of discipleship, not a separate activity altogether.  Furthermore, Paul indicates that evangelism can occur at the same time as edification—particularly during preaching and teaching (1 Cor. 14:24-25).  Therefore the idea that each function is autonomous and can be separated to accomplish equal practice is untenable.  However Grudem’s warning does demonstrate what happens when one misapplies the function of edification, which is not uncommon.

There is no question that God has equipped the church to perform multiple functions.  These functions have been divided in various ways[14] and often can be combined into general headings (e.g. discipleship and training fit under edification).  A brief look at current church movements indicates that movements tend to emphasize a function they deem more important.  The seeker-friendly Church Growth movement emphasizes evangelism.  The Emergent Church emphasizes postmodern evangelism and social impact and particularly deemphasizes teaching.  The Charismatic movement emphasizes worship and the use of the gifts.  Some conservative churches emphasize teaching without an understanding of biblical edification.  This paper has looked at The Great Commission, the descriptions, commands, metaphors, leaders, and gifts of the church, showing that the primary function of the church is the edification of believers, for the building up of the church, that in the day of Christ they may be presented without spot or wrinkle, a bride prepared for the Groom.  If Bible-believing churches will turn to Scripture to understand their primary function and how that function is to be carried out, they will be better equipped to fulfill the other functions while avoiding unbiblical pursuits, and ultimately fulfill their purpose: the glory of God



[1] Warren, 104

[2] Ibid. 106

[3] BDAG, 609

[4] Hendriksen, 999

[5] Hagner, 887

[6] Rev. 19:6-8, emphasis mine

[7] 242 in the ESV

[8] 2 Timothy 4:5 “… do the work of an evangelist…” is one of the few, if only, exceptions.

[9] Grudem, 868.

[10] Ibid. 869.

[11] BDAG, 696.

[12] Grudem, 867-8

[13] Under the category of “Ministry to the World” Grudem includes passages that explicitly state financial relief for believers.  For evangelism, the only passage Grudem provides is Matt. 28:19 which emphasizes discipleship beyond evangelism.  Grudem, 867.

[14] In The Master’s Plan for the Church, Macarthur lists at least 10: preaching, evangelism, worship, prayer, discipleship, shepherding, building up families, training, giving, and fellowship.

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