No question requires our most diligent study to answer correctly than the one concerning the purpose of the Church. Wrong conclusions reached on this important subject will dishonor the Lord and perhaps result in misuse of the Lord’s resources granted to His body. It is of paramount significance then that we start this discussion by defining what the church is.
The Definition of the Church
Jesus Christ himself calls the church “His” and promises to “build” it and guarantees its success against “the gates of Hades” which “will not overpower it” (Matt 16:18). The church therefore belongs to the Lord, and not to the pastors or members of a local assembly. The church has a unique relationship with the Lord as stipulated by repeated references to it being the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:27; Rom 12:5, Eph 3:6; Col 1:18). Other metaphors used in the New Testament to refer to the Church includes the bride of Christ (Rev 19:7–8; 21:9; Eph 5:31–32), or the temple of God (1 Pet 2:5; 1 Cor 6:19). This is a staggering reality in light of the fact that the one who is so united to the church possesses “all authority” in heaven and on earth (Matt 28:18). Needless to say that since the Lord is the head of the church, only he alone must define the purpose of its existence.
The Commission to the Church
After Jesus’s resurrection, he summoned his disciples to meet him in Galilee and there he gave them the great commission. The only imperative in the commission was for his followers to “make disciples” (Matt 28:19). The Lord also gave them express directions on how they were to fulfill the commission; by going, baptizing, and teaching. Minimizing the force of the imperative or any of the participles surrounding it is to limit the scope of the mission. The synoptic Gospels give us accounts of how the Lord himself made disciples after him.
We read in the Gospels that he called the disciples to follow him (John 1:35–51). He then spent a significant amount of time with them and taught them throughout his earthly ministry (Matt 5:1–7:29). At one point he sent them out to preach and make disciples (Mark 6:7–13). Simply stated, our Lord’s life provided plentiful examples of how to fulfil the commission he gave the disciples before his ascension.
Fulfilling the great commission often requires that we go to where unbelievers are and reach them with the truth of the gospel. As Paul says “How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? How will they preach unless they are sent?” (Rom 10:14–15). Evangelism then is the first major aspect of obeying the great commission. To expect unbelievers to flock to our churches to hear and respond to the gospel is to believe too highly of man. Scripture presents man as hostile to God and at enmity with him with a mind set on the flesh and utterly incapable of pleasing him (Rom 8:6–8). Elsewhere the Holy Spirit testifies that a natural man does not accept the things of God for they are foolish to him and he cannot understand them (1 Cor 2:14).
The point of these Scripture references is to conclude the case that sinners will not flock to us, but we must pursue them. Therefore, going is a crucial element of the discipleship process. And words are necessary to fulfil this “first” part of the process. As stated by Paul, “faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17). It bears emphasizing that this is the work of every believer and not just the leaders of a local assembly. Matter of fact, those who are not in vocational ministry tend to have ample opportunities to reach the lost more than vocational ministers because of their broader scope of contact with unbelievers. Another important aspect of evangelism is a transformed and sanctified life.
Wives of unbelieving husbands are commanded to remain submissive to their husbands so that “they may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives” (1 Pet 3:1). And believers are to let their light shine before men in such a way that they may see their good works and glorify God (Matt 5:16). Although the pastor must be faithful in accomplishing the work of an evangelist (2 Tim 4:5), the whole church must be involved in consciously seeking to fulfil this commission by reaching out to unbelievers.
Baptising New Believers
True obedience to the great commission however does not end with the unbeliever coming to saving faith. The immediate step that follows confirms whether the new professor of Christianity is genuine by his willingness to rightly name Jesus as Lord before the eyes of a watching world. The local church has been suitably qualified by the Lord to assess the genuineness of one’s saving faith (Matt 18:18). Baptism is an ordinance granted to the church by the Lord Jesus and a church confirms that the one being baptized has evidence of repentance every time there’s a baptism event. Baptism then is part of fulfilling the mission of the church and a visible gospel presentation of the power of the saving gospel.
This aspect of discipleship was so entrenched into the minds of the disciples to the degree that the call to repentance was also referred to as the call to baptism (Acts 2:38). To be a follower of Jesus Christ and remain unbaptized would have been an oxymoron in the New Testament church and must be the case in our day. The Apostles obeyed the charge granted to them in the great commission by baptizing those who had received the word (Acts 2:41). Although baptism doesn’t save anyone, it is still an important aspect of discipleship simply because our Lord commands it and it also signifies a central reality of the believer’s union with the Lord in his death and resurrection power.
The Lord concludes his address in Matthew 28:16–18 with a direct command of what making disciples looks like. Contrary to most modern strategies that are only concerned with people repeating a prayer after them or walking down the aisle, the Lord says that the rest of the lifelong discipleship process concerns teaching new disciples to obey all that he has commanded (Matt 28:20). The church is the rightful place for this to happen since it is “the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15). As exemplified by the early church, after new believers were baptized, they immediately devoted themselves to “the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42). Teaching is a major component in the life of a follower of Jesus Christ. As Jesus himself said, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me” (John 10:27). Hearing and following the commandments of Jesus is evidence of true conversion. Elsewhere Peter confessed that the Lord has the “words of eternal life” (John 6:68). The main reason why preaching, and teaching occurs in the local church is for “the equipping of the saints for the work of service” (Eph 4:12).
The Lord has designed it in such a way that the sheep will only grow in their maturity and not be tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine by hearing the truth spoken in love (Eph 4:14–15). Believers are equipped to minister and admonish one another when they “let the word of Christ richly dwell within” (Col 3:16). For this reason, teaching is an essential aspect of discipleship and fulfilling the great commission. When one comes to saving faith, in essence, they enlist themselves for war and need to be equipped for it by being taught to absorb and apply Scripture. The believer’s full armor against the schemes of the devil consists of the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (Eph 6:17). To neglect Scripture then is to forfeit the protection and preparation necessary for one to bear up under trials and temptations. As our Lord reminded us when he was tempted by the devil, “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God” (Matt 4:4).
In summary, the purpose of the church is to reach the lost with the word of the gospel buttressed by sanctified lives devoted to the Lord Jesus, followed by the baptism of new believers who respond to that message in repentance and faith, and then being taught Scripture in the context of fellowship in the local church so they grow to maturity for the rest of their lives to the glory of Christ and their own eternal good.
We long to see the townships and rural areas filled with healthy churches that fulfill Christ’s mission. We would love to hear how your church is fulfilling the great commission. Please do not hesitate to contact us today with your prayer requests.