We often speak of “my church.” That is a colloquial way of saying, “the congregation of which I am a member.” We sometimes act, however, as if the church actually belongs to us. One doubts that many would be willing to admit that they think of the church as “theirs,” but it seems that some do think thus because they manifest their thinking by the way they treat the church.
One way in which this confusion over the ownership of the church manifests itself is the way congregations and their leadership think about the mission of the church. The word “mission” comes from the Latin verb mitto, to send or to throw. Christ’s church has been sent by her Lord “to make disciples of all nations” and to baptize the same in the triune name of God (Matt 28:18–20).
One example of confusion over the ownership of the church occurs when a congregation, with the necessary resources, with an opportunity clearly before it, refuses an opportunity to extend Christ’s kingdom through planting of a new congregation because they fear losing current members to the church plant. Those who worry about the effect of the church plant on the mother church, as it were, seem to conceive of the church as a zero-sum game, as if somehow, if members left “their” congregation that “their” church would be diminished. The stance toward the church-planting proposal seems to be: let the outsiders come to us. This phenomenon has occurred more than once. The underlying assumption here seems to be, “the church exists for us.”
This is fundamentally a confusion of Christ and culture. In such a case, the “family” culture of the church has triumphed over the “kingdom” culture of the church. Yes, the church is a family and it is a body, it is a bread (1Cor 10:17) but it is also kingdom. Yes, it is painful to say goodbye to friends and loved ones or to see them leave one’s own congregation to plant a new one in another place, but this is why we need to understand that the church does not exist for our comfort. One thinks of Matthew 10:37–39:
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
The kingdom of God, as it is represented by the visible church, has a claim on our loyalties that transcends even basic natural relationships.
Scripture repeatedly attributes ownership of the visible church to Christ. In 1Corinthians 1:2 Paul greets the “church of God” that is in Corinth. He spoke the same way in 2Corinthians 1:1. In Ephesians 5:23 Paul explicitly calls Christ, “the head of the church.” Christ is he who loved the church and gave himself for the her (v. 25). It is clearly taught in Scripture repeatedly that the church is a divine institution (Matt 16) established by Christ. He founded it. He rules it. He owns it. We work for him. He gave the visible church, his church, several mandates: love one another, preach the gospel, administer discipline.
Yes, church is a place where we gather but it is also a place where we send. We must do both. It is not an either/or proposition. The church is not only for us. The church is also for Christ’s glory. The fields are white unto harvest. The church is the divine institution with responsibility for that harvest. How can we refuse our Lord? How can we refuse to extend his kingdom? Have we talked so much about “this kingdom work” and “that kingdom work” that we’ve forgotten that the church is the ONLY institution to which Christ gave the keys of the kingdom? Would it not it ironic if we were obsessed with extending his kingdom through every institution except the one institution to which he gave the gospel and the sacraments? It would be more than ironic, it would be tragic.