What the church is meant to do—1
When I teach ecclesiology, we discuss the church as the people of God beginning with the pre-lapsarian church in Genesis 2 and moving to a people of God by grace and promise beginning in Gen 3:15. This way of wording things helps bring out the connection between soteriology and ecclesiology. And these two pivotal points on the timeline of the history of the people of God—Gen 2, then 3:15—signify the covenant of life or covenant of works and the covenant of grace respectively. We also discuss the function of the church in terms of the gathering and perfecting of the saints, language borrowed from Westminster Confession 25.3. So, what the church is—the people of God—and what it does: gather and perfect the people of God. Bavinck says somewhere something like: ‘through the church Christ gathers the church.’
‘Gathering’ refers to bringing people into the church, into the body of Christ and the communion of the saints. That is: conversion. This is one of the main functions of the church, and it is done through the proclamation of the gospel: telling people about the depth of sin and the salvation of Christ. The gospel can be explained anywhere, but the church is a kind of proclamation HQ, where the announcement and exposition of the gospel according to the Bible is the main feature of its operation. The language of ‘gathering’ is appropriately restrained. Only God makes saints; the visible church is the Lord’s own means—tools or instruments—for that work of calling and regeneration that is His alone.
‘Perfecting’ is a rich word. It refers, generally speaking, to leading Christians in growth and sanctification—greater wisdom, knowledge, and personal holiness. The word ‘perfecting’ hints at the idea of refinement or purification, to removing impurities, so that we may be reminded that growth is attained by friction or resistance. That is, we do not simply water a plant but also prune it. We not only feed our children but correct them and teach them to handle “no” with humility and obedient resolve. We anticipate sin, discern it, and uproot it. And so the Lord does with us, through His Word. ‘Perfecting’ then indicates sanctification through regular exposure to the Word of God in which is displayed the holiness and righteousness of God and a troubling but trustworthy assessment of the state of man.
The church cannot only evangelize (gather) any more than the church can neglect evangelism for overemphasis on internal issues. The gospel is an outward going thing, of course, but at the same time the primary battle line for every individual Christian and for every local church is the battle with sin in the hearts of the people. In fact it is this very focus that, in my judgment, provides the energy for a gospel that gathers. Distinct but inseparable, they say.
What the church is meant to do—2
‘Gathering and perfecting’ is a helpful way to think about the work of the church. Here I propose a different pair of terms for thematizing that work: the proclamation and pastoral care. We see a similar breakdown in Acts 6:1-6. There we read that there was a problem in the community: some of the elder women were not receiving adequate care, while others were. “The twelve summoned the full number of the disciples” means that the recognized leadership brought everyone together: congregational meeting. These twelve said that it would not do to divert the attention of the primary pastors to these community matters, so it would be best to appoint others to take of such issues. Interesting to note that the twelve encourage the congregation to nominate men from among themselves. In contemporary terms: no one is hired, they are called by the congregation, by the body of Christ, and approved by the leadership.
Many churches have taken Acts 6 as a model to follow and have then distinguished between elders and deacons—elders for teaching and governing, deacons for service. Of course you can only make this distinction if you have enough people, and anyway the distribution of duties cannot always be so cut and dry. That being said, I think there is a helpful pairing here.
Proclamation has to do with the announcement and the explanation of the Word of God. The ‘Word of God’ refers to the powerful promises of God. That is, word, as in words or speech; but uppercase W because it is no ordinary speech with which we are concerned. God’s speech is inseparable from the exercise of His power (Isa 55) and may even be associated with God Himself (John 1). The announcing God’s Word is conveying His personal presence. Now the controlling center of all Scripture is the gospel of Jesus Christ, in whom all of God’s promises were accomplished and remain, sealed in His ascended flesh. So that means that the church is as Paul says a bulwark or a fortress of the truth. The relationship between the church and the truth is symbiotic: the church is brought into being by the truth, and the church’s primary duty is to persist in self-consciously drawing its livelihood and sanctification from that truth—in proclaiming it. So in the church we encounter preaching as formalized announcement of the gospel according to the Scriptures.
Just one thought: this means that whatever the church is up to, it ought to stand for the faithfulness to Scripture of what it preaches, at all costs. Everyone should know that if they want to hear what the Bible says about the redemptive work of God they will hear it if they go to church Sunday morning. Any group of Christians will also have other interests—social justice, political issues, care for the poor, fun activities for kids; but nothing should be allowed to compromise or even in to a small degree obscure the centrality or the faithfulness of the preaching of the gospel according to the Bible.
One more thought: this faithfulness depends upon entering into theological tradition. Put it this way: nature is open and available for anyone to examine. But would you trust a science teacher who had never taken a formal class on science? Or even if he had taken a few courses but didn’t have a four-year degree—would you be eager to hear his insights? Of course not. Such a person couldn’t even teach science to 6th graders. And that’s just modern science, only a few centuries old! Much less should we invest in the Bible teaching of someone without good training or without regard for the great currents of theological teaching spanning something like two thousand years.
One more comparison: would you trust a doctor, or worse a surgeon, tampering with your life, who had anything less than extensive training under recognized experts and tutors, plus his own experience and record of success? Not a chance. How much more should we insist that our preachers involve themselves with humility and reverence in the wisdom of Christianity’s greatest teachers: Augustine and Calvin foremost among them.
So that’s proclamation. The second is pastoral care. Here I wanted to emphasize that the proclamation of the gospel should be supplemented with personal care. Friends are among the finest blessings in this life, in my judgment. Away from America for three years now, I miss my friends above all, or even just having friends. And while friends can provide spiritual backbone, and they can represent the body of Christ, friendship isn’t ecclesiology. Rather, the church should be self-consciously, organizationally (from the top down) invested in the personal Christian walks of each of its members. This means that the stuff preached from the pulpit should be followed-up in the context of whatever a person faces. A pastor—or a church leader such as an elder or deacon properly equipped—should be active and available to oversee the implementation of the gospel in the lives of church members. Looking at it from the other side, accepting the gospel means, in part, that a person has laid claim to his right to the pastoral care of Christ Himself. Christ cares for His people through the faithful ministry of church leaders. That means that pastors owe to Christ an accounting for their shepherding church members according to Scripture.