Identifying the Lord’s Church (Part 4): What Is His Church to Be Doing?

Identifying the Lord's Church

As we begin this final lesson in our study, let us be reminded of what we have learned so far. Jesus built one church and His church is to follow His will as it has been expressed in the New Testament. Those who make up the Lord’s church are those who have been added to it by God upon believing, repenting, and being baptized.

Once we are part of His church, we need to know the work in which the church is to be engaged. After all, it is His church and we are blessed to have been added to it; therefore, we should seek to do His will. So in this final lesson, let us consider the following question: What is His church to be doing?

Bringing Glory to Him

After writing about how the church was part of God’s “eternal purpose” in order to make known His wisdom to the world (Ephesians 3:10-11), Paul said, “To Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen” (Ephesians 3:21). But how does the church bring glory to Him? To answer this, let us consider some principles found in a couple of other relationships.

First, Jesus glorified the Father. Before His death, Jesus prayed, “I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do” (John 17:4). Jesus glorified the Father by doing His will.

Second, the wise man noted, “An excellent wife is the crown of her husband” (Proverbs 12:4). Paul explained the parallel between the relationship between a husband and wife to that of Christ and the church: “Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything” (Ephesians 5:22-24). Just as a wife brings glory to her husband by submitting to him, the church brings glory to Christ by submitting to His leadership.

The church does not glorify the Lord by doing whatever we think will please Him. Jesus made that clear at the end of the Sermon on the Mount: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness’” (Matthew 7:21-23). Many thought they were doing things to honor the Lord when they were actually doing things which were not in harmony with His will.

The world is full of churches doing things that they think will honor the Lord. However, this is not the mentality we are to have if we want to bring glory to Him. Instead, the church is to bring glory to Him by submitting to His will for the church. As Jesus told His apostles in the Great Commission, when they made disciples they were to teach them “to observe all that [He] commanded” (Matthew 28:20).

The Works of the Church

The following activities are the collective works we can read about the church doing in the New Testament. These are the things the church is to do in order to bring glory to the Lord. There is much more we could discuss about each of these, but this will be a fairly brief overview.

Evangelism – This is the work of spreading the gospel to those who are outside of the church. The church in Thessalonica was an example in this: “For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith toward God has gone forth, so that we have no need to say anything” (1 Thessalonians 1:8). There are several ways in which churches can be involved in the work of making the word of God known to the world around:

  • By individuals – When persecution began against the church following the death of Stephen, the disciples were scattered. Luke recorded, “Therefore, those who had been scattered went about preaching the word” (Acts 8:4). This is not something that people would start doing when they were being persecuted if they were unwilling to do so before. Instead, this shows that they were already individually engaged in the work of evangelism.
  • By preacher(s) working with a local congregation – After the gospel spread to Antioch, Barnabas was sent there. After a period of time, he recruited someone to help in this work. “And he left for Tarsus to look for Saul; and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. And for an entire year they met with the church and taught considerable numbers; and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch” (Acts 11:25-26). Through the work of these two men, “considerable numbers” we able to hear the truth.
  • By sending out preachers to other locations – Later the church in Antioch was involved in evangelism in a different way: “Now there were at Antioch, in the church that was there, prophets and teachers… While they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away” (Acts 13:1-3). By sending them out, the church in Antioch was supporting them in their work by providing the means through which they could carry out their mission (cf. Romans 10:15).
  • By supporting preachers elsewhere – Paul told the brethren in Corinth, “I robbed other churches by taking wages from them to serve you” (2 Corinthians 11:8). Philippi was one church that sent support to Paul while he was preaching elsewhere (Philippians 4:15-16).

Edification – This refers to the work of building up or strengthening those who are within the church. In describing the church, Paul wrote, “From whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love” (Ephesians 4:16). With all of the members working together, the church is able to be strengthened and grow. This is done in a few ways:

  • By the “leaders” in the church – Paul wrote, “And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-12). We do not have living apostles and prophets today, but we do have their inspired teachings in the word of God. Evangelists, pastors (elders), and teachers – through the instructions contained in the word of God – are able to equip disciples and build them up in the Lord.
  • By all of the members – “Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God. But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called ‘Today,’ so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:12-13). Even without a “leadership” role within the church, all Christians are to work to encourage one another.
  • By focusing on the word of God – When Paul met with the Ephesian elders, he said, “And now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32). Edification is not an emotion or feeling; rather, edification is the strengthening that comes by hearing and studying the word of God.

Benevolence – This is the act of helping those who are in need. The church was involved in this work from its beginning. Luke recorded, “For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales and lay them at the apostles’ feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need” (Acts 4:34-35). However, it is important to note that the church’s work in benevolence is different from the works of evangelism and edification which are ongoing and always needed. The church’s role in benevolence is limited in the New Testament.

  • For saints, never for non-saints – In every example of benevolence provided by the church, the recipients were always and without exception Christians (Acts 4:32; 11:29; Romans 15:26; 1 Corinthians 16:1; 2 Corinthians 8:4).
  • Only when there are not others to help – In discussing the church caring for those who were “widows indeed” (1 Timothy 5:3), Paul explained that if others were able to help, they were to do so: “If any woman who is a believer has dependent widows, she must assist them and the church must not be burdened, so that it may assist those who are widows indeed” (1 Timothy 5:16). In other words, the church was a “last resort” for those who needed help.
  • Only under exceptional circumstances – Luke recorded the circumstances that led to benevolence being sent to brethren in Judea: “Now at this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them named Agabus stood up and began to indicate by the Spirit that there would certainly be a great famine all over the world. And this took place in the reign of Claudius. And in the proportion that any of the disciples had means, each of them determined to send a contribution for the relief of the brethren living in Judea” (Acts 11:27-29). Benevolence was not sent because the Judean Christians had a lower standard of living; rather, it was sent because there was a risk of them dying if they did not receive help.
  • Meant to be a temporary measure – In writing to the Corinthians about the benevolence that was being collected to send to Christians in Jerusalem, Paul wrote, “At this present time your abundance being a supply for their need, so that their abundance also may become a supply for your need, that there may be equality” (2 Corinthians 8:14). There was no expectation that the brethren in Jerusalem would perpetually be in need. In fact, there was an expectation that they would be in a position in the future to provide help to others – even the Corinthians – because this relief was for a temporary and exception condition, not for a permanent and typical condition.

Worship – This is about offering praise to God in a corporate setting. While worship can certainly be offered in other settings, it is clear that it was one of the activities which was done by the church when they assembled together. Beginning on the day of Pentecost when the church was established, those who made up the church were “devoting themselves to the apostles’ doctrine and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). They continued “with one mind in the temple…praising God” (Acts 2:46-47). In the New Testament, we can read about the church partaking of the Lord’s Supper and giving on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; 16:1-2). We also see singing (Colossians 3:16), praying (Acts 2:42), and preaching or teaching (Acts 11:26) being done by the church.

What About Other Works?

There are many other things that people have decided should be done by the church – day cares, youth camps, benevolence for non-Christians, etc. Many of these could be classified as “good works” (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16-17) for individuals to be doing. But does that mean they are “good works” for the church to be doing?

There are limits to what local churches can do – limits that have been given by the Lord in His word. First, churches are to do only those things which are authorized (Colossians 3:17; Matthew 7:21-23) – we discussed this in the second lesson. Second, churches are not to do some good things that individuals might do. Notice the following passage:

If any woman who is a believer has dependent widows, she must assist them and the church must not be burdened, so that it may assist those who are widows indeed” (1 Timothy 5:16).

As we noted earlier regarding this passage, benevolence provided by the church was to be a “last resort.” If others could help, they were to do so. This was not merely advice, this was a command from an apostle that carried the same weight as a command from the Lord (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:37). The church was to “refuse” to help certain widows and “must not” assist them (1 Timothy 5:11, 16). However, this did not mean that these needy widows were not to be helped at all; individuals – particularly family members – were to help them. In fact, individuals can help Christians and non-Christians (Galatians 6:10); but as we have seen, the church is more limited. Some “good works” that individuals might do are not to be done by the church. Instead, the church must simply “hold to the traditions” handed down by the apostles (2 Thessalonians 2:15) and limit itself to the work that has been given for it to do in the New Testament.

Conclusion

The church is not to be anything that we (or those we are trying to reach) want it to be. The church must submit to the will of Christ in all things – just as we as individuals committed to do when we obeyed the gospel and were added to it.


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Comments

  1. I use to believe and teach as you do. I have written a book on this topic, entitled A Community of Believers by Timothy Glover. There is so much that I don’t know where to begin. Essentially, you have the idea of a corporate church which is identified by its organization, rather than the people. There is a huge difference between the “institutional church” mindset, and the “called out body” of the redeemed. The church of God at Corinth was not a local institution. It was only the called out living in Corinth. You assume what you cannot prove. All that you say the church does (Work of the church), describes a class of people that carry them out individually, not corporately. The thought of the local church organization is a product of human innovation, not the result of God’s wisdom.

    We have conditioned our minds to believe that the local church organization is that medium through which individuals carry out their work. This is similar to Catholicism. Whether it’s salvation, marriage, forgiveness, benevolence, evangelism, worship, etc, institutionalism teaches that these are done through the organization. The Bible teaches they are done by each individual without any boundaries set by an organization regarding place, time, order, serving participants, etc.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Tim. Your book sounds interesting. I may need to check it out.

    I have to admit, I think this is the first time I’ve been accused of having an “institutional” mindset. While I agree with you that the church is the people (that was the previous article in this series) and that it is different from other types of man-made institutions and organizations, that does not mean it is without structure and organization. We are “individually members” of a body (1 Corinthians 11:27) and that body is the church (Ephesians 1:22-23). This body is “fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part” (Ephesians 4:16). This implies that Christians are part of a body that is working together – collectively or corporately. If there is no local church organization through which Christians work, what “flock” are elders to oversee (1 Peter 5:2)? How are widows indeed to be “put on the list” to be cared for by the church if there is no local church involved in that work (1 Timothy 5:9)? Why would Paul tell the church in Corinth that he was receive wages from “other churches” when he was really just receiving support from individual Christians (2 Corinthians 11:8)?

    I firmly believe that the work of individuals is vital and that we cannot simply expect “the church” to do what we as individuals should do. But that does not mean there is no organized local church.