Last week, I ended last week’s Elusive Presence essay by saying that thinking of the church primarily in missional terms is a mistake. Specifically, I said, “I believe it is an unbiblical view of the church. And I believe it is an unhealthy diet for the church.” To grasp that first point, I will begin by looking at Paul’s letter to the Ephesians to ground my biblical exposition. While Ephesians it is not a systematic theology of the church, Ephesians is where Paul outlines most deeply and consistently a theology of the church.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:3-10, NRSV).
Note Paul’s understanding of the mind of God (if we can talk in such terms) before the creation of the world: “Before the foundation of the world,” he says, God’s first and primary purpose was to create a people for himself, who would live with him “holy and blameless in love.” Before and above anything else, he thought about a people he would adopt as family, who would be brothers and sisters of Jesus his Son.
He did this not for some ulterior motive, so that this family would then go out and do something even more important. But he did this “according to the good pleasure of his will,” and “to the praise of his glorious grace”—meaning because of the simple splendidness of the act. It appears that for Paul, the family of God—the church—is not a means but an end.
The church is in fact the sign and portent of God’s universal will, which is “a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and on earth.” God’s wish is to bring everything into his orbit of love. The plan seems to be this: Everywhere, as far as the eye can see, there will be the family of God—the church—living before its Father in holy love.
Paul continues: “In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory” (Eph. 1:11–12).
Notice how he talks about what we do in light of our being called into the church. Given our interest in things missional, we would expect to read this: “We have been destined according to God’s will, so that we who were first to set our hope in Christ, might live to share that hope with those who don’t know hope.”
No. His view of the church is not instrumental at all. Instead, he says that since we have been gathered into the church, we who have first set out hope in Christ should live like this: praising God’s glory.
The point is this: church is its own end. It is created by God’s good pleasure and for our good pleasure. As a result of being called into the family called church, our job is to bask in its sheer goodness, by living together in holy love, and by together praising God’s glory for doing such a hilarious thing.
According to this summary passage, it does not appear that the church was created for the world, as many assume. If anything, the world was created for the sake of the church. That is, the funnel of history is not that the church pours itself into the world to redeem it, but the world–as least those in the world who trust in Christ–is poured into the church.
Paul is not foisting a new idea on the Ephesians. His theology is grounded in the Old Testament. There we repeatedly read how Israel has been chosen by God and esteemed by God, created by God so he might have a people for himself.
But you, Israel, my servant,
Jacob, whom I have chosen,
the offspring of Abraham, my friend;
you whom I took from the ends of the earth,
and called from its farthest corners,
saying to you, “You are my servant,
I have chosen you and not cast you off” (Is. 41:8-9).
In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.” (Is. 2:2-3)
In other words, the world comes to Jerusalem. Israel does not go out to the world missionally to transform the world, but at the end of history, the world comes to Mt. Zion to worship and learn from God.
This image is repeated in the New Testament. In Revelation we read about the coming down out of heaven a new Jerusalem, about which John says, “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it” (Rev. 21:22-24).
Again, the image is that in the end, the world comes to the church, the place where people bask in the presence of God, where the pleasure of God is our pleasure, prompting us to erupt in praise: “Nothing accursed will be found there anymore. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him” (22:3).
And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to the one who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall before the one who is seated on the throne and worship the one who lives forever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne, singing,
“You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power…” (4:9-11).
My reading of the sweep of the biblical picture, then, is that the purpose of the church—the family of God—is not to make the world a better place, but to invite the world into the better place, the place called church.