We often speak of “my church.” That’s a colloquial way of saying, “the congregation of which I’m a member.” We often act, however, as if the church actually belongs to us. One doubts that many people would be willing to admit that they think of the church as “theirs,” but I’m convinced that too many people do think thus because they manifest their thinking by the way they treat the church. Such a way of thinking is unbiblical.
Scripture repeatedly attributes ownership of the visible church to Christ. In 1 Cor 1:2 Paul greets the “church of God” that is in Corinth. He spoke the same way in 2 Cor 1:1. In Eph 5:23 Paul explicitly calls Christ. “the head of the church.” Christ is he who loved the church and gave himself for the church (v. 25). It’s clearly taught in Scripture repeatedly that the church is a divine institution (Matt 16) established by Christ. He founded it. He rules it. He owns it. We work for him. He gave the visible church, his church, several mandates: love one another, preach the gospel, administer discipline.
We sometimes act, however, as if the church exists primarily for our comfort or for our pleasure or for our satisfaction. One way in which this confusion over the ownership of the church manifests itself is the way congregations and their leadership think about the mission of the church. The word “mission” comes from the Latin verb mitto, to send or to throw. Christ’s church has been sent by her Lord “to make disciples of all nations” and to baptize the same in the triune name of God (Matt 28:18-20). Recently I became aware of a situation where a congregation, with the necessary resources, refused an opportunity to extend Christ’s kingdom through planting a church. Why did they refuse? Because they were afraid of losing members to the church plant. They seem to conceive of the church as a zero sum game, as if somehow, if members left “their” congregation that “their” church would be diminished. Their stance toward the church proposal seems to have been: let the outsiders come to us. I’ve seen this phenomenon more than once. The underlying assumption seems to be, “the church exists for us.”
This is fundamentally a confusion of Christ and culture. In such a case, the “family” culture of the church has triumphed over the “kingdom” culture of the church. Yes, the church is a family and it is a body, it is a bread (1 Cor 10:17), but it is also kingdom. Yes, it is painful to say goodbye to friends and loved ones or to see them leave one’s own congregation to plant a new one in another place, but this is why I say that the church does not exist for our comfort. One thinks of Matt 10:37-39, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” The kingdom of God, as it is represented by the visible church, has a claim on our loyalties that transcends even basic natural relationships.
Yes, church is a place where we gather but it’s also a place where we send. We must do both. It’s not an either/or proposition. The church is not for us. The church is for Christ’s glory. The fields are white unto harvest. The church is the divinely institution for that harvest. How can we refuse our Lord? How can we refuse to extend his kingdom? Have we talked so much about “this kingdom work” and “that kingdom work” that we’ve forgotten that the church is the ONLY institution to which Christ gave the keys of the kingdom? Wouldn’t it ironic if we were obsessed with extending his kingdom through every institution except the one institution to which he gave the gospel and the sacraments? It would be more than ironic, it would be tragic.