“To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord…” ~Ephesians 3:8-12
What is the purpose of the Church? What is the Church? Is associating oneself as being a part of the Church necessary and/or relevant within a society that celebrates and disseminates individualism and subjectivism by every possible means? In a culture with a perpetual identity crisis, and with a world that has fundamentally rejected its true identity, I would say that identifying with the Church is more important now than ever. In fact, it is essential.
On the surface, identifying oneself as being part of the Church is identifying oneself as being part of Christ. You cannot be in-Christ and be outside the Church. Likewise, you cannot be in the Church and be outside of Christ (but that’s a different discussion).
Those who truly become Christians engage in a literal transfer from one kingdom to another. They are brought from darkness to light (1 Peter 2:9). It is significant to understand this transfer because there are only two ways man is distinguished before God: you are either in-Christ or outside Him, and those who are in-Christ are equally in the Church.
Mankind (“the world”) has an eternal aptitude to segregate each other based upon an infinite evolutionary development, and redevelopment, of prejudices that are only natural to their inconceivable depravity. The perfect and holy God, however, justly and righteously segregates individuals based upon their relationship with His Son, which He happens to be His Sovereign prerogative (Matt. 11:27; John 6:44; 10:27-29; Rom. 9:14-18; 11:2-10).
With God you are either saved or unsaved, lost or found, adopted or rejected, justified or guilty, condemned or redeemed, humbled or proud, friend or enemy, son or slave, and the list goes on and on.The transfer from the “City of Destruction” to kingdom of God – His Church – is an issue of identity. You either belong to God or you do not, which is the only distinctive in this world and, especially, the next world that matters.
If that transfer is fully understood how can one claim to belong to God and yet lack any personal identification with His family or even, possibly, have contempt for it? You cannot claim to identify with God (know Him) and love Him but fail to extend the same love for His children and identify as being a part of His house and body.
This reality is clearly understood throughout the entirety of the New Testament and, more specifically, the Apostle John addresses this when he writes, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of Him” (1 John 5:1).
Well, what does “love” mean? Love, as represented throughout the entire Bible, is an lifestyle of selflessness, self-denial, and obedience to God and His commands. It is a practical working of one’s faith in God and belief in the truth. It is not a frivolous and unstable emotion or some arbitrary wish of goodwill to your fellow man. Rather, it is an active pursuit of God’s kingdom by submitted to God and actively pursuing the welfare of others above our own. As James says, “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” (James 2:15-16).
I understand the condition and actions of many “churches” and “Christians.” I understand the pain, hurt, and even crimes that have been inflicted upon individuals, people groups, nations, and continents because of the “Church,” and I understand the consequential perception that many in the world have for Christians and Christianity. I had the same perceptions as a result of my life long participation in the “Church” and my personal witnessing of the many injustices.
What gives us hope is that even the Apostle Paul recognized the reality of the miserable representation for God within religious circles. He wrote, “You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you’ (Rom. 2:23-24).” Misrepresenting God is no new thing.
Sadly, this problem continues today in churches and with Christians (this one included), and it has throughout history. It must be understood, however, that many “churches” who claim to be a part of Christ’s Church are not, just like many “Christians” who claim to be in-Christ are not (Matt. 7:21-23). Furthermore, even true churches are imperfect and are led by imperfect people, which results in some events unfolding imperfectly. This would include all of us. It is not just the “them” that we imagine in our minds and accuse in our hearts, which happens to conveniently exclude our own selves.
The Apostle Paul understood this, which is why He commanded us to, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive (Col. 3:12-13),” and to “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you (Eph. 4:31-31)”.
The fallacy of many is the placement of their hope in the Church and the people within it instead of the placement of their hope in Christ. It also resides within their inability to recognize their own sinfulness. This leads to unrealistic expectations and idolatry, because anything we place our hope in other than Christ is an idol, whether it’s something “holy” or not. It also exposes our pride; as if we would perfectly run the Church if we were in charge or as if we never committed injustice against another.
The responsibility to forgive, the mandate of personal repentance, and the realization that our eyes should look to Jesus (Heb. 12:2-3), not men, should eliminate the erroneous idea that one can be in-Christ and yet remain unaffiliated from the Church. It should also eliminate our excuses. Possible maltreatment or the access to various Christian TV networks (which can be vehemently precarious) does not grant the Christian permission to opt-out of divine community. There’s no opt-out clause in-Christ.
The Church isn’t simply a managed corporation or the necessitated result of organized religion (although some “churches” are run both ways). Rather, the Church is a manifestation of the authority given to Christ to rule and reign over the universe and those who are a part of it are not just ambassadors, which is so often proclaimed, but, even more so, a kingdom; and within that kingdom we are priests that minister in the presence of God daily through the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ, who has poured His blood upon the eternal mercy seat in heaven that we might approach God with boldness.
As the Apostle John affirms, “To Him [Jesus] who loves us and has freed us from our sins by His blood and made us a kingdom, priests to His God and Father, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever” (Rev. 1:6).
The Church is a display of God’s Tri-unity and the result of Christ’s vertical and horizontal redemption purchased through the cross. Christ has not only redeemed the relationship between God and man (vertical) but He has also redeemed the relationship between man and man (horizontal). This means, then, that God, whose will is to sanctify us (1 Thess. 4:3), progresses us “from glory to glory” (2 Cor. 3:18) and expands the Gospel through individuals within a divine community that has broken down every wall erected by man.
The Apostle Paul speaks to the “manifold wisdom of God” brought forth through Christ in the Church in a revolutionary capacity. In Ephesians 2:1-10 Paul describes our condition before we encounter Christ and Christ’s regenerating work that granted us vertical reconciliation. He follows this declaration of God’s glorious mercy by describing the horizontal reconciliation won through Christ; the Messiah who restores divine order. In verses 2:11-3:12 Paul writes,
“Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.
For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (Eph. 2:11-16, 18-21).
This brings us to my next point, and one that is more relevant today than I can express considering our global, national, and political climate. The Church is the answer to a world obsessed with attempting to accomplish egalitarianism all on its own.
The Church is a multi-ethnic and multi-racial organism that destroys any disparaging wall humanity can build up. The walls of class (rich and poor), gender, position (“proletariat” and “bourgeoisie”), race (Jew and Gentile), and even religious tradition (circumcised and uncircumcised) are all destroyed in-Christ.
What does this mean?
It means that the rich no longer place their hope in their riches and lord their wealth over the poor but, rather, are generously and joyfully giving to God what is His and giving to those within the body who are in need (1 Jn. 3:16-18).
It means the poor are not jealous or bitter toward the rich because of their ease of life but are content with what they have been given understanding that everything they have, and the rich have, is from God. Therefore, they remove their eyes from what is temporal and recognize the eternal God as their Provider, their portion, and their delight.
It means that husbands no longer lord-over and/or are harsh with their wives by treating them as mere objects to be used and abused but, rather, love them like Christ loved and cherished the Church and gave Himself up for her.
It means that wives will no longer pursue and resent the authority of their husbands, but will willingly submit to and respect their husband as being head of the home as Christ is head of the Church.
It means that the differences of race, religious tradition, socioeconomic position, and/or political worldviews will no longer cause division, but the love of God found in-Christ will unite us, because in Christ and Christ alone do we truly identify. It is having the understanding that Christ has ransomed people from “every tribe and language and people and nation” and that He has made them one kingdom unto our God (Rev. 5:9).
This is not an idea written flippantly by the Apostle Paul. Whenever reading Scripture we need to understand the context of when and where it was written in order to get the full understanding of what is being said. In today’s world of tolerance and pluralism what the Apostle Paul wrote seems almost meaningless. However, in the 1st century AD what he wrote could have incited riots.
Jews and Gentiles did not mix. Jews wouldn’t even enter a Gentile’s house. As one of my church’s pastors stated this past weekend – Jews and Gentiles hated one another after generations of animosity manifested in war, slavery, and death. Even more so, the Jews were under the rule of a facsimile government that represented a Greek king who sacrificed a pig on the altar of the rebuilt Temple. To say, in the least, Jews hated Gentiles and Gentiles despised Jews. Furthermore, think of the cultural treatment of women, slaves, and the people different tribes and nations (especially by Jews). Paul writing, by the inspiration the Holy Spirit, unveiled the manifold wisdom of God – that in-Christ, and manifested His body – the Church, we are all ONE.
In a world with racial, political, religious, national, and sexual upheaval Christ and His Church still remains, and always will remain, the solution. If Paul were writing to the Church today He would likely say, “There is not black nor white; male nor female; Republican nor Democrat; Rich nor poor; American nor Mexican, but all are one in Christ.”
The Tri-unity experienced and the love expressed between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are supposed to be practically manifested in the Church. This is what Christ meant when He said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” In a world of class systems and selfishness Christians would be marked by the selflessness, unity, and holiness that could only be explained by one Name – Jesus the Christ.
The world’s attempts, and our own Christian ignorance, that leads many to believe that egalitarian resolutions can be achieved by goodwill, law, or government only highlights man’s incredible ability to tell God that He is not the Way and that we can do it on our own. This is not to say that we cannot work on earth to promote justice. Far from it! It is only to recognize that true justice, true unity, and real hope is only found in-Christ and it can only be fully achieved through the power of the Holy Spirit, who will manifest it all through Christ’s body – the Church.
Can you imagine if the Church represented God as it should? Imagine if the rich and poor, men and women, American and non-American, Republican and Democrat, and the black and white all immersed their differences in the blood of Christ to the production of one single kingdom that seeks the benefit and welfare of others more than their own. Would the world come up with any other explanation for the witnessed phenomena other than Jesus Christ? The Church has not achieved this reality fully in the slightest, but I am glad that in the midst of all our imperfections the Perfect One stands among the lampstands (Rev. 1:13). He will build His Church, and hell will not prevail against it to the praise of His glory.
So what is the Church and what is its purpose?
The Church is the kingdom of God on earth – His people and priests – and its purpose is to point to the fellowship, love, and authority of the Triune God who alone can reconcile man to Himself and man to man.
This is hardly an exhaustive description of the Church and its functions. I find, as I dwell upon what the Church is, that the Church is an unfolding mystery that confounds the best of us. It is alive and active, spanning from generation to generation. It’s God’s eternal kingdom that is here and that is coming. It is the physical Christ (His body) that remains on the earth to seek and save, heal and deliver, bring freedom to the captives, and to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom to the poor and needy (Luke 4:18). It is a marvelously divine community where God prunes us, grows us and uses us despite our destitute heart and abilities.
My hope is that those who profess to know Christ will fully understand the beauty, riches, comfort, and glory found in His body – the Church.
“Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” ~Ephesians 3:20-21
 All Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version