The Purpose of the Church

Question: What is the task of the church? Answer: 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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:18–20).

Last month, we argued that the church must identify itself as against the world. It can bear witness to the world only if it resists worldliness, flees from idolatry, and hates the deeds of sinful men. How does its other-worldliness shape its task? Has the church any responsibility to the world? Or is part of its mission to those outside the church?



To ask these questions is to explore the purpose of the church. Though evangelicals have made The Purpose-Driven Church a Christian bestseller, they are confused about the purpose of the church. One need only look at a recent issue of Christianity Today for confirmation. In a listing “100 Things the Church is Doing Right,” the magazine featured a wide range of Christian good works, from collecting underwear for the homeless to providing automobile maintenance for single women. Among these “churches” profiled, less than a quarter actually involved the institutional church, and only a handful involved the preaching of the Word. Many of these churches offered full-service, “seven-day-a-week” sets of activities for, all ages and interest groups. One writer recently suggested that small churches cannot compete against these ecclesiastical Wal-Marts and will be forced out of existence.

It should not surprise us that in this free-market landscape we find competing notions of the purpose of the church. Some have claimed that the church is primarily a tool for the transformation of its culture. In the nineteenth century, New School Presbyterian Albert Barnes articulated this view in the context of the church’s relation to social reform. The church, he wrote:

…owes an important duty to society and to God…;and its mission will not be accomplished by securing merely the sanctification of its own members, or even by the drawing within its fold multitudes of those who shall be saved…The burden which is laid upon it may not be primarily the conversion of the heathen orthe diffusion of Bibles and tracts abroad; the work which God requires it to do, and for which specifically it has been plante? there, may be to diffuse a definite moral influence in respect to an existing evil institution. On all that is wrong in social life, in the modes of intercourse, in the habits of training the young, and in the prevailing sentiments in the community that have grown out of existing institutions, God may have planted the church there to exert a definite moral influence — a work for Himself. Barnes offers a classic description of the church as an agent of social transformation. As this cause would be taken up by the social gospel beginning in the latter part of the nineteenth century, the world would set the agenda for the church. Conversion and sanctification of sinners was not enough. Instead, the primary work of the church was its exercise of social influence.

A very different view was articulated by a contemporary of Barnes, the Southern Old School Presbyterian James Henry Thornwell. In his understanding of the church’s responsibility to society, Thornwell came to very different conclusions:

The church is not, as we fear too many are disposed to regard it, a moral institute of universal good, whose business it is to wage war upon every form of human ill. whether social, civil, political. moral, and to patronize every expedient which a romantic benevolence may suggest as likely to contribute to human comfort…The problems which the anomalies of our fallen state are continually forcing on philanthropy, the church has no right directly to solve. She must leave them to providence, and to human wisdom sanctified and guided by the spiritual influences which it is her glory to foster and cherish. The church is a very peculiar society;…it is the kingdom of her Lord Jesus Christ…It can hear no voice but His, obey no command but His, pursue no ends but His.

Here is a clear rejection of Barnes’ claims. The world does not set the agenda for the church. Only Christ, the head of the church, establishes its ministry through His word. The task of the church is to exalt its head, to teach only the doctrines He has revealed, to worship Him as He has commanded, and to order its life by what He has ordained. The church is not an agent of social transformation. The purpose of the church is not to save the world, but to save God’s people from the world. These two models have vied with each other throughout the history of American Protestantism. Their differences lay at the heart of the New School-Old School division in nineteenth-century Presbyterianism and the modernist-fundamentalist controversy of the twentieth century.

Still another version of the purpose of the church comes from the church growth movement in contemporary American evangelicalism. Begun in the 1950s, the church growth school uses social science to discern why some churches grow and others don’t. Its findings have been used by church-planters to identify methods of successful church planting. From telemarketing campaigns, spacious and comfortable facilities, contemporary choruses sung to up-tempo music, and dramatic skits, to warm messages focusing on helping families cope with the pressures of modern life all of the techniques are employed to draw largely baby-boomer worshipers into an attractive and comfortable worship atmosphere.

The more honest church planters in this camp will go so far as to see the church as a business and urge it to adopt a more entrepreneuarial mindset. So the successful church will be “market driven,” seeing the gospel as its product and the local community as the consumer. According to George Barna, “The more successful a church is at fulfilling people’s needs, the greater its chances for growth.”

For church-growth proponents, the primary purpose of the church is to attract newcomers. Typically, this is done by “target audience profiles” of a specific age range and socio-economic profile. The task of the church is to make itself attractive to that specific demographic profile. In many congregations, this thinking has prompted the introduction of contemporary worship with dance, skits, and messages that avoid “Christianese” or evangelical jargon that might bewilder or scare or bore the unchurched.

Like the New School emphasis of Albert Barnes, these churches are trying to get themselves out of their ghetto in order to influence their communities. In the words of one practitioner, they seek to “outgrow the ingrown church.” Unlike the Old School sentiments of Thornwell, these churches are not limiting themselves to the Lord’s specific commands. Stressing an “outward face to the world,” they are more sensitive to the language of the world than to the vocabulary and grammar of the church.

As different as these three models are, what they share in common is the claim that they are about the task of fulfilling the Great Commission. The Great Commission seems to be a simple set of instructions: “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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:18–20). But given these competing models of the church, it is clear that the meaning of Christ’s words is not at all obvious to the church today. So the Great Commission is where we ought to begin in understanding the purpose of the church.


A large multi-million dollar parachurch organization has as its mission the goal “to help give every man, woman, and child in the entire world an opportunity to find new life in Jesus Christ” by the year 2000. And it bases this goal on the Great Commission. Another parachurch organization produces the Great Commission Handbook, and it can be consulted on the Internet through its Worldwide Web address, “”

Of course, it is commendable to see Christians expressing a burden for evangelism. Yet it is important to underscore that the Great Commission is not given to individuals or to the parachurch. Jesus gave the Great Commission explicitly to His apostles. But since the promise extends beyond the apostolic age, to the end of this age, we must ask, whose commission is it after the apostolic age? The answer can be found in Matthew 16:17–19, where we find Peter’s confession of Christ, which is the “Great Constitution” of the church. Edmund Clowney writes that these two texts must be understood together: “The Great Commission of Matthew 28 requires the order Christ has appointed for his church in the Constitution of Matthew 16.”

Rightly understood, therefore, the Great Commission is the task of the church. It follows that the Great Commission is directed specifically to the ministers of the Word. After all, the Commission directs us to baptize. The sacrament of baptism is given to the church, to be administered only by its officers. A prevailing notion among evangelicals today is that special office in the church is really unimportant. Frequently office is disparaged in the interest of promoting the “priesthood of believers,” and a high view of the church is greeted with the charges of clericalism and elitism, which play well in populist evangelical circles. However, the priesthood of believers doesn’t mean that all believers are pastors, and the general office in the church should not swallow up the special offices of minister, elder, and deacon.

As stewards of the mysteries of God, ministers in particular are set apart in the New Covenant for the ministry of Word and sacrament just as priests were in the Old Covenant. John Calvin underscored this point in his Geneva Confession of 1537, explaining that the church should “receive the true ministers of the Word of God as messengers and ambassadors of God,” to “hearken” to these ministers as to Christ Himself, and to consider “their ministry as a commission from God necessary in the church.”

The church is no human invention. It was ordained by God for the task of the Great Commission. For this reason, we can be sure from Scripture that, despite their multi-million dollar annual budgets, parachurch organizations like the ones described above will not fulfill their missions. This is because they have usurped tasks that Christ has given to His church. We dare not replace the church with a vehicle of our design, no matter how much more efficiently it may seem to operate. Christ offers His heavenly authority and protection only to His church; and only its ministers, Calvin wrote, “might confidently expect to be victorious over the whole world.”


Another problem surrounding the Great Commission is to mistake it simply for a command to evangelize. With the dawn of the world-wide missionary efforts in the nineteenth century, evangelicals have read the Great Commission with emphases on the words, “go” and “all nations.” Thus they convert the Great Commission into a proof text for both foreign missions and door-to-door evangelism. In his popular Outgrowing the Ingrown Church, Jack Miller sums up the Great Commission in this way: “It is the privilege and duty of each believer to become God’s zealous pacesetter in bringing the lost to Christ by every means available.” But this understanding reduces the Great Commission to evangelism and further restricts evangelism to spreading of information about the gospel to the world and registering decisions for Christ. The Great Commission is not only about evangelism, nor is it mainly about evangelism.

The point here is not that the church should not evangelize. We must proclaim the gospel to the lost and desire that converts come to Christ. But that is not the only function of the church, and it is certainly not the focus of its worship.

The Great Commission itself suggests something very different. The main verb in the Greek is not “go” (which is a modifying participle), but “disciple” (which is the imperative). The text should read, “As you go, disciple, by teaching and baptizing.” This points us to the truth that salvation involves far more than conversion. It is about becoming a disciple of Christ. The goal of the church is not to get the gospel message to everyone or to get more folks in the door of our churches. Rather, it should be exactly what Christ commands here: “teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you.” This the model for Christ’s followers.

This is why Thornwell’s understanding of the church was so profound He went on to write: [The church] can hear no voice but Christ’s, obey no commands but His, pursue no ends but His. Its officers are His servants bound to execute only His will; its doctrines are His teachings, which He as a prophet has given from God; its discipline His law, which He as king has ordained…The church can announce what [the Bible] teaches, enjoin what it commands, prohibit what it condemns, and enforce her testimonies by spiritual sanctions. Beyond the Bible she can never go, and apart from the Bible she can never speak.

Here Thornwell is echoing Calvin, who wrote similarly, in reflecting on the Great Commission:

Let this be a firm principle: No other word is to be held as the Word of God, and given place as such in the church, than what is contained first in the Law and the Prophets, then in the writings of the apostles; and the only authorized way of teaching in the church is by the prescription and standard of his Word.

In one sense, it might be argued that Calvin and Thornwell held a narrow perspective on the church, limiting what it could do and say. But in another sense, they understood the huge burden placed upon it, for she was to disciple all the nations, by teaching them everything Christ had commanded. This teaching involves the whole counsel of God, not the “four spiritual laws” or even the “five points of Calvinism.”


What then is discipleship? A common word to describe what many people mean by discipleship is “assimilation.” This is the process of getting new members more fully involved in the life of the church, whether through VBS or small groups, singing in the choir, or serving in the nursery. We prefer an older term, Christian nurture, to describe the process of discipleship. In this sense discipleship means being conformed to the whole counsel of God. It trains God’s people for good works and sustains them with spiritual food for their pilgrimage in the wilderness of this world. In other words, we should measure discipleship less by how active one is in the programs of the church than by how effectively the people of God resist worldliness.

Christian nurture sees salvation not as a momentary occurrence but a continuous and arduous process, from which all Christians are prone to wander. It acknowledges that God’s people are in need of salvation continually, from conversion until death. In this context, worship is essential to the health of believers. If we forsake the assembly of God’s people, if we are not regularly sustained by Word and sacrament, we will not persevere in the faith.

Discipling, teaching, and baptizing. Together, these three elements of the Great Commission describe what the Reformers understood to be the marks of the true church: the preaching, of the word (“teaching all I have commanded you”), the administration of the sacraments (“baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit”) and the exercise of discipline (“make disciples”). The Great Commission, then, is a description of the true church fulfilling its mandate. The ministry of Word and sacrament disciple God’s people. These are the keys of the kingdom. This is the ministry that God has promised to bless.


Contemporary confusion about the Great Commission arises from two fundamental mistakes. The first is an unwillingness to believe God and His promise to use the church and the things the world considers foolish to accomplish His purpose of reaching the lost. Much of the innovation in worship today reveals our lost confidence in the promises that God is bound to keep. We really don’t believe that He has entrusted to the church the ministry of gathering and perfecting of the saints, that He will make effectual the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments to that end, and that He will supply the officers of His church with all that is necessary for them to carry out this work.

The second mistake comes from understanding the church and its worship merely as vehicles for evangelism. The goal and purpose of the church is to make disciples. Evangelism is only part of the commission Christ gave to His church. If we take the church’s responsibility to disciple more seriously, we will not tailor our worship to win the approval of the world. Instead of dumbing down, we need to have our worship wise up.

Worship disciples God’s people. It involves teaching all that Christ has commanded.

Thus it is the church, and specifically, the church at worship that fulfills the Great Commission. It is ministering to God by gathering a people before Him in order to offer the sacrifice of praise. It is ministering to the body of Christ by nurturing it through the ministry of Word and sacrament. And all of this happens before a watching world. It sees the church engaged in an odd ritual, speaking a strange language, worshiping the true and living God, and rejecting the gods of this world.

Unless we see worship from the perspective of the Great Commission, rightly understood, our worship will not honor God. Nor will it be effective. For finally, only worship that honors God, that conforms to what He has commanded, will be effective for convincing and converting sinners and for building them up in holiness and comfort.

In other words, worship is essential to the task of the church because it is the God-appointed means of discipling the nations.

D.G. Hart is librarian and associate professor of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia, PA) and is an elder at Calvary Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Glenside, Pennsylvania. John R. Muether is library director at Reformed Theological Seminary and an elder at Lake Sherwood Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Orlando, FL. They are co-authors of Fighting the Good Fight: A Brief History of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (1995).