I recognize this point of view is not widely held among evangelical Christians, and for good reason. There are many verses in Scripture which seem to suggest just the opposite—that the church is not an end but a means, that it was created for the sake of the world. So we need to look at some of these passages.
I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness (Is. 42:6-7).
And let me be fair with my quote of Isaiah’s vision in which people from all over the globe come to Jerusalem. It ends like this: “For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, / and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.”
Such verses are often used to suggest, among other things, that Israel failed in its primary mission–being a light to the world–and that Jesus, at the end of his ministry, made sure that the church was absolutely clear about its purpose:
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” (Mt. 28:16-20).
First, note the context of that key verse in Genesis. God tells Abraham that his family will become a great nation, and that those who bless this great nation will be blessed, and those who curse this nation will be cursed. The implication is that all the other families of the earth will be blessed as they bless the family of Abraham. It’s not about Abraham’s missionary purpose, but about the family of Abraham’s status in the eyes world. The nation of Israel is a sign of God’s ultimate purpose—to create a people for himself—and those who recognize and honor that will be blessed.
We’ll return to the Isaiah passage, but for now let’s move ahead to Jesus’ commission to the disciples. Note exactly to whom Jesus commands to make disciples of all nations: The eleven disciples. That’s all. We automatically apply this verse to all Christians and to the church in general, equating as we do the calling of the original disciples with our calling. But in a larger reading of the New Testament, this command is actually only given to the eleven disciples. It’s the point at which the disciples—learners of Jesus—become apostles, those “sent out” to tell others about Jesus. These eleven very much become the first apostles.
But not every Christian is called to be an apostle. As Paul says in Ephesians when listing the gifts of the Holy Spirit, “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers…” (4:11). Some are apostles. Not all. Nor does he suggest here or anywhere in Ephesians that being sent out to the world was the main purpose of the church.
He specifically says that he is so called: “Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ,” (vv. 7-8). But he does not even hint that his calling is every Christian’s calling, or that of the church in general. It’s his call, and that of the other apostles.
So yes, there are people in the church called apostles who very much are called to go out into the world and preach and teach. And yes, there is a sense in which the teaching of God’s people goes out into the world. And yes, there is a sense in which we are light and even salt for the world, as that passage from Isaiah so beautifully expresses. Let us not denigrate our evangelistic call.
But let me suggest that all this does not constitute our very purpose as the people of God. It is clearly the calling of some of the people of God. And so it must be the calling of others in the family of God to support them in their apostolic and evangelistic work, through prayer and giving. But that is a far cry from this being the very purpose of the church, the reason for its existence.
What about Matthew 25, where Jesus speaks about the call to social justice? Jesus seems to suggest that the judgment of God at the end of history will be determined by our social justice efforts. What could indicate our purpose more than this?
In that passage, Jesus describes a scene where people from all over the world are gathered before him at the judgment. He separates them into two groups, the sheep and the goats, and he says to the sheep:
“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” [notice the language here, the same as in Ephesians, before the foundation of the world God was preparing the kingdom for himself] “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”
And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Mt. 25:34-39, NRSV).
米国の新改訂標準訳（ＮＲＳＶ、The New Revised Standard Version）では、文字どおりの「兄弟」を「自分の家族の一員」（members of my family）として適切に表現している。世話を必要とするのは、一般の人だけでなく、苦しむ人だ。この質問にある特定の人々とは、神の民、キリストの兄弟姉妹、神の家族のメンバーだ。この場合、正義への呼びかけは、正義への呼びかけでさえなく、実際に誤りは正されていない。これは、窮地に陥っている神の人々への思いやりをシンプルに呼びかけているのだ。苦しんでいる家族に対して、教会が特に注意を払うことが求められている。特に信仰の家族に善を行うべきだというパウロの命令に耳を傾けよう。
This version, the NRSV, has appropriately rendered the literal “brothers” as “members of my family.” The people who need ministering to are not just people in general, anyone who suffers. The specific people in question are the people of God, the brothers and sisters of Christ, members of the family of God. The call to justice, in this instance, is not even a call to justice–no wrongs are being righted in fact. It’s a simple call for compassion for the people of God when they are in dire straits. It’s a call for the church to be especially attentive to those in the family who suffer. It harkens to Paul’s injunction that we should do good to all men, but especially to those in the household of faith.
What about the prophetic passages from Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and Micah, to name a few? Don’t they enjoin us to be concerned about social justice for all? What about all those harsh judgments against those who oppress widows and orphans and mistreat the sojourner? Who accept bribes instead of doing justice? Is this not a clear and clarion call to work for justice in society?
Yes and no. As we’ll note in a bit, one can hardly deny the need for Christians to work for justice in society. Any Christian whose heart does not break over injustice, who does nothing to alleviate suffering in the world, is likely not a Christian in the first place. But we’ll come back to this.
In the case of the prophetic literature, however, we often fail to recognize that the prophets are little concerned about the widows and orphans and bribes in Assyria, Babylon, and elsewhere. But they are very concerned about it in Israel and Judah, very concerned about it as it is practiced among the people of God.
And why not, if the people of God are called to be a light to the nations? What type of light can they be if they act like everyone else? The call of the prophets is not that everyone, everywhere will pursue justice for all, but that the people of God would treat one another justly, righteously, in the presence of God.
Again, we need to make a distinction between one task the people of God are called to perform and the very ground of their being, the very purpose of their life together. We are by all means to love the neighbor, which now includes the enemy. One way we love them is through acts of mercy and justice. But this does not mean that the church exists for the sake of the world.