I recently read a billboard advertising a local church. Of all the things they might have mentioned this is what the sign said: “Where will you find a church that… 1) Welcomes homosexual couples, 2) Invites questions, 3) Acknowledges many paths to God, and 4) Seeks social justice…” The name and address of a local congregation offering these “opportunities” was provided at the bottom of the billboard.
For some, like myself, this kind of activity in a “Christian” congregation is unsettling; for others, it’s a sign of progress and a breath of fresh air. I like a congregation that invites questions, but a church that legitimizes homosexuality and accepts many paths to God I’m afraid is wandering away from the Word of God. The Bible leaves no doubt about God’s feeling towards homosexuality (Romans 1:16-32), and the notion of many true paths to God is simply foreign to the Scriptures (John 14:6). However, the idea of seeking social justice is cause for consideration. At least on the surface, it doesn’t sound so bad. What could be bad about a church fighting for justice? The Church is here to help people in whatever way it can, right?
A church that seeks social justice may not sound so bad on the surface, but there is a reason we find social activism in the same church that welcomes homosexuality. Both stem from the same underlying misconceptions about God, the Bible, and the Church. It’s the idea that God is whoever you hope he is, that you can find God on any road going anywhere, and that the Church is whatever you want it to be.
The Work of the Church
The question of whether or not a church committed to Christ should be engaged in seeking social justice is best addressed in a larger question: What is the work of the Church? Most people in America would probably agree that for better or worse religion in world is not what it used to be. In the Bible, though, there is a standard for the Church, a blueprint for a firm foundation, and an image of an institution that could stand unwavering against all the tests of time, progression, and persecution. In this God-given design we have a description of not just what the Church is, but also what it does.
The Church is a spiritual institution with spiritual concerns and therefore the business of the Church is always if not entirely spiritual in nature. So says the Apostle Peter in 1 Peter 2:4-5: “Come to Him as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious, 5 you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house [the Church], a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” The Church is a spiritual body composed of spiritual people united by the Holy Spirit serving God who is himself a spirit. It’s no wonder then that Peter says we are as living stones building up a spiritual house offering spiritual sacrifices to God. The Church is a spiritual institution and it makes sense that the work of the Church would also be spiritual nature. When we go through Bible, setting aside any preconceptions about the nature and work of the Church, this is exactly what we find. The Church does have a defined purpose. The Church does have work to do, and those duties are described in the Bible.
The first work of the Church is to glorify God. This work is mentioned specifically in Ephesians 3:20-21. The Apostle Paul says, “Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, 21 to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” Many things in the Bible are said to give glory to God. The creation declares the glory of God (Psalm 19), his salvation testifies to his glory (Psalm 21:5), and here Paul says God is given glory by the Church. How so? First Peter 2:9 may be at least one example: “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, [why?] that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light…” While the rest of the world lingering around in religious indifference and spiritual ignorance the Church does not. This institution, by its very nature and by the work that it does, magnifies the glory of God. This is not to say that anything we might do to glorify God is the business of the Church, but everything the Church does should be directed towards accomplishing this goal. This is big idea, but we can see all the little ways we make it happen – by submission to his will, by accepting his savior, by embracing his Bible, by praising his name and by working to help others do the same.
Very closely related to the idea of giving glory to God is another work of the Church described in 1 Timothy 3:15: “but if I am delayed, I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” The Church, he explains, is the pillar and ground of the truth, or the pillar and foundation truth, and he must mean something specific by that. He doesn’t describe it as just another social network, not some theological think-tank, not a public welfare program. In Paul’s description, the Church is so much more important than that. The implication is that the Church is the steward of truth on Earth. The Church is the standard and benchmark of righteousness. The work of the Church is to maintain truth, to uphold it, to preserve it, and defend it. Our work is to broadcast and perpetuate truth, and to retain a foundation on which truth can exist and thrive in its purest form. No matter how far the world wanders from God pursuing pleasures and progression, the work of the Church is to stand strong and always remain the same. God does not change, the Bible does not change, truth does not change, and therefore the Church should not change. Church buildings will rise and fall, leaders too will come and go, but morally and doctrinally the Church works to uphold and maintain the same eternal truths.
Within this work we should also include the evangelistic efforts of the Church. Like the Church at Jerusalem sponsored Paul and Barnabas to work in the world spreading the word and planting churches, it is the work of the Church today to do the same.
Edification and Encouragement
God does not need the Church, or at least not in the same sense that people need the Church. Hebrews 10:24-25 explains how this happens. “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, 25 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.” The Church is designed by God to meet our spiritual need and this work is especially apparent in the assembly. The assembly should be a body insulated from sin, a place of motivation, consolation, edification, and encouragement. The congregation in Rome is praised for doing this very thing. Romans 15:14: “Now I myself am confident concerning you, my brethren, that you also are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, able also to admonish one another.”
Formal discipline is also a responsibility given to the Church. Matthew 18 is one place that the Bible addresses how to deal with a brother or sister living in sin. The issue is first dealt with individually, then with a few witnesses, and finally, if the problem lingers, it becomes an issue to be judged by the congregation. Matthew 18:17: “…But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.” Only the Church can render this kind of verdict. It is the work of the church and the responsibility of the Church proceed with formal discipline when appropriate.
The last work of the Church described in the bible is best placed under the umbrella of benevolent work. I say “benevolent work” as though this is an open-ended idea in the Bible, but in fact it’s not at all. One work of the church is to be benevolent but to do so within a certain framework. Faithful congregations described in the Bible were very engaged in collecting and giving of their financial means. First Corinthians 16:1-2 describes these activities. “Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given orders to the churches of Galatia, so you must do also: 2 On the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper, that there be no collections when I come.” Why do we find this kind of command in the Bible concerning the Church? At the time of Paul’s writing there were people in the Church who had financial needs and it was important that at all times that congregations had money set aside to address those needs. This collection came from the saints and was for the saints. It was from the Church and for the Church. Under this umbrella there are numerous specific examples of churches using church funds to support church activities and help needy saints. In 1 Timothy 5 the Church funds were used to help widows in the Church and support the work of elders and evangelist. In 2 Corinthians 9 we see the Corinthians and the Macedonians ministering financial need to the Church in Jerusalem. In Romans 15:26 the saints in Achaia are doing the same. And in every other example of benevolent work by the Church the same pattern is followed.
The Work of the Church is Not…
It’s important to know what the work of the Church is, but it’s equally important understand what the work of the Church is not. The Bible emphasizes the importance of leaving worldly concerns behind us when we choose to live for the Lord. This seems to be the point of the Lord’s remark in Luke 9:60 when he said, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and preach the kingdom of God.” It’s the same principle that’s behind Christ’s statement in Matthew 22:21: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” In the bigger picture of eternity, there are some things that matter and many things that do not and many things that just aren’t the concern of the Church.
We’ve described what the Bible says is the business of the Church, but you will find many churches in the world busy with other things than these. Many churches, like the one that motivated the writing of this article, are openly engaged in political activism, or what they called seeking social justice. It’s one thing when an individual uses his or her write to vote, but it’s another when a church makes official political statements and openly endorses political candidates. It’s no more appropriate for a church to support a political candidate than it is for a church to support a baseball team. Education also makes this list of common but inappropriate church activities. The work of the Church is spiritual education, not secular education. All the best intentions can’t justify or legitimize a church sponsored school or college. Even the idea of having a church sponsored college is an oxymoron. The Church is spiritual in nature and secular education fundamentally is not. A church sponsored school is no better of an idea than a government sponsored church. They are different institutions with fundamentally different goals.
Along the same line is church sponsored healthcare, church sponsored childcare and orphanages. Don’t forget, just because something is a good idea doesn’t mean it’s a good idea for the Church as a congregation to support it. Things we do as individuals don’t equate to things we might do collectively as the body of Christ. The Church is not concerned with sports, recreation, or entertainment. I just got a flier from a church advertising a face-melting laser show, free-style dancing, and music featuring the Tran Siberian Orchestra. Churches now have their own coffee shops, bowling alleys, bookstores, and theme parks. Fellowship is good, but when entertainment overshadows the edification at a church is it really a church or just a social organization?
The Church should provide financial support to its members, but the Church is not a welfare program and it’s not a bank. Many churches are establishing their own financial institutions and most churches engage in benevolent work outside of the church. On this subject it’s sometimes good to question the appropriateness of church sponsored mission trips. Are they okay? Well, it depends on the sponsor and it depends on the mission. It might make us feel good to put a roof over someone’s head and put food in their stomach, but is it the work of the Church if we’re not saving souls? Remember what Jesus said to the crowd in John 6:26: “Most assuredly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled.”
Churches in the world are changing. Christianity is changing. Congregations are doing things they’ve never done before. Is it good? Bad? How far is too far? You know my feelings, but what do you think?
Thank you for your interest in the Church and in the Word of God. I look forward to your comments and questions. God bless.
I am a member of the Riverside Road Church of Christ in Ozark, MO, where I share the responsibility of teaching and preaching with several other men. In my secular work, I am a professor at Cox College in Springfield, MO, in the department of radiologic sciences and imaging.