I think that most believers would share my understanding that the Church of Jesus Christ breaks down into various divisions, layers and component parts. There is what theologians like to term the Church Universal, by which they mean all believers throughout time, including the future. Then would come the Church Militant, by which is meant all believers alive at any given moment. Then would come the sub-divisions of the church of a nation, then the church of a city or geographical area…and so on and so forth!
However, whereas these are indeed all biblical aspects of the Church of Jesus Christ as viewed from what we might term its cosmic and corporate aspect, it is nevertheless vital to understand that the New Testament writings, and especially the letters to churches, are concerned not primarily with the cosmic, global or national aspects of the Christian Church, but with the smallest component of all; that is, the individual and specific church each individual believer was required to be an actual part of, and which met in believers homes! Indeed, it is to such churches, and such churches alone (no other type then existed), that the New Testament letters were mostly sent, whether to individual ones or to multiple churches far and wide.
Every believer is, of course, a de facto part of the Church Universal, the Church Militant, the Church National and the church of a whole geographical area, but every believer is most not necessarily part of any given individual and specific church. In the light of these important distinctions there are therefore things that can rightly be said of ‘church’ from the cosmic/global/national/geographic point of view, but which would be nonsensical if applied to individual and specific churches. For example, every Christian in England is, by very definition, part of the church Universal, the Church Militant and the Church National, and it can therefore be said that there is, ultimately, just one church in England; but it would be both ridiculous, as well as sinfully divisive, should any specific and particular church in England claim that it is itself the only church. Nationally there is indeed but one church of Jesus Christ in England, but it is made up of a myriad of individual and specific churches. And of course it is this subdivision of specific and individual churches that gives credence to the fact that whereas all believers are, by definition, part of the Church of Jesus Christ cosmically, globally and nationally etc, it can nevertheless still be said of believers who not be part of an individual and particular church that they are churchless!
It is therefore quite obviously the case that, from the cosmic, global and national point of view, by which I mean the corporate aspect of the Church of Jesus Christ as viewed from God’s perspective, is the means of the gospel being spread throughout the world. It is, in todays common theological jargon, missional! To say that the primary function of the Church of Jesus Christ is to spread the gospel is to make a fully biblical statement. Indeed, as someone once said, in this sense the church exists for mission as a flame exists for burning. However, if one were to say that such is therefore also the case for individual and specific churches, then that statement would be actually completely unbiblical! The thing to be grasped here is the fundamental difference between the Church of Jesus Christ as a cosmic entity and universal manifestation of the Lord, and the individual and specific churches of which every believer is, biblically, supposed to be a part.
When it comes to understanding church life in this context of individual and specific churches, it is vitally important to grasp that the writers of the New Testament never teach, or even suggest, that the function of such churches is to evangelise. Indeed, not only does scripture never suggest that the function of a specific and individual church is evangelism/mission, it rather, in complete contrast, states quite blatantly that an individual and specific church exists solely for the purpose of the building up and spiritual growth of those who are part of it, existing therefore purely for the benefit of those who are already believers. A church and its gatherings are for the purpose of edifying the saints, not evangelism! Individual and specific churches exist to spiritually nurture and build up those Christians who comprise them, pure and simple! Biblically, a church is simply an extended family of God’s people, and families exist for no other ultimate reason than to provide love and nurture for those who are part of the family. A husband and wife love and care for each other! Simple as that! Job done! If they have children then they love and care for them also, raising them in the Lord and preparing them to follow Him as adults, thus repeating the process all over again. But of course, this doesn’t mean that family life is only insular and only about the family members who comprise it. No! As a result of the love and nurture received in family life, each member of that family is enabled to be who they are meant to be outside of the family, being thus enabled to become a better citizen of the wider society in which they live.
And so also with being part of a church. Each believer is, biblically, required to be part of a particular and specific church such as described in the New Testament in order that, as part of that extended family of God’s people, they are nurtured, cared for, held to account and brought into increasing maturity in the Lord. And of course part of that growth is that they in turn learn to provide such care and nurture for everyone else in that church, thus growing in becoming a carer as opposed to merely someone who is just cared for. As with a nuclear family, it is a caring and nurturing thing. Neither nuclear families nor churches exists for any other reason than to provide nurture for those individuals who comprise them. However, as a result of such nurture, each believer in a particular and specific church is thereby spiritually built up and enabled to discover their gifting, function and calling to those unbelievers outside the church, by way of sharing the gospel and doing good works in the world. This is where mission belongs, outside of church life and not as part of it!
Though so very clear in scripture, this is nevertheless sadly and disastrously misunderstood and misapplied by most Christians. As a result, and completely ironically, such misunderstanding actually prevents churches being what they are meant to be, and actually stops them from doing what they are meant to do. The New Testament teaches that evangelism and doing good works in the world (two sides of the same missional coin) are not functions of a church, but rather the function of those believers who comprise a church, and are what they do outside of church life. Get this wrong and a church becomes a dysfunctional church, just as nuclear families can become dysfunctional families.
When we look at the letters to New Testament churches there is something quite amazing that stands out that virtually never has any attention down to it. What we hear today, even from many house churches, is the virtually monolithic challenge to the effect that churches, and therefore Christians, ought to be ‘missional.’ “What’s your vision for evangelism?” “How many churches are you committed to planting in the next year?” “How many folk have you witnessed to this week?” Such is what believers are subjected to again and again and again and again! But when we turn to the pages of the New Testament the simple, and completely amazing, fact is not merely how little of such talk and exhortation we find, but rather that there is none of it at all! At no point does any writer of scripture to a New Testament church in any way suggest that those they are writing to should have a vision, strategy or plan for evangelism. Nowhere does any New Testament writer state, or even suggest, that every believer should be in some way proactively engaged in evangelistic pursuits! The closest thing to any such thought is Peter’s exhortation that his readers be ready to give an answer for the hope they have within them, but of course that is an exhortation to a responsive communication of the gospel when asked, and not an instruction to proactive evangelism.
In the New Testament the way evangelism worked was that apostles and evangelists simply got out amongst unbelievers and preached the gospel. They didn’t drag churches around with them, or try to pressure others into joining them by teaching that everyone else was meant to be doing it too. Quite the contrary! Apostles and evangelists evangelised, and then they either started new churches or fed the new believers into existing ones, so as to be cared for and nurtured spiritually. Those Christians who weren’t apostles or evangelists, and most weren’t, just got on with their daily lives shining like a light for the Lord doing good works in the world; and when those around them asked why they were so different they would simply share the gospel in response as enabled by the Holy Spirit.
Question: What is the strategy for evangelism in the New Testament? Answer: Hardly any at all! But what little there is comprises of apostles (the Ephesian 4 gift of proactive evangelism combined with the Ephesian 4 gift of pastor/teacher) and evangelists (the gift of just evangelism) proactively evangelising, and believers who don’t have such gifts, and most don’t, living quietly and minding their own business, just as the New Testament letters teach, yet being ready to give a response to any who ask them concerning their faith and godly way of life.
Conclusion: It is not the function of individual and specific churches to engage in mission, and church life is actually damaged when such an understanding prevails. Further, it is completely unbiblical, to say nothing of actually unfair and oppressive, to put pressure on believers who are not apostles or evangelists by teaching that they should be taking part in proactive evangelism even if they are not at peace about so doing. The role of believers who are neither apostles nor evangelists is to simply live godly in Christ Jesus, be part of whichever individual and specific church the Lord has put them in, and to support and encourage anyone in that church, or in any other church that they know, who has an Ephesian 4 gifting, be it that of apostle, evangelist, prophet or pastor/teacher.
More to follow in the morning!