A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Great Ends of the Church, Part I: Why Church?
March 9, 2017
To follow Jesus is to be part of his church, a community called by God to live, worship, and work together. But couldn’t we just as faithfully be Jesus’ disciples individually, participants in the church invisibly and spiritually? If Christianity is essentially a personal matter, one might legitimately ask whether the church is necessary, or even if it is more of a hindrance than a benefit to authentic Christianity. After all, the visible church is necessarily an institution, and institutions tend eventually to become self-serving.
Yet the evidence in Scripture is overwhelming – the essence of being Christian is to be engrafted into an earthly society over which Jesus is sovereign. There is no such thing as “personal Christianity” apart from the visible institutional church, according to John Calvin. “Away from her bosom one cannot hope for any forgiveness of sins or salvation.” (Institutes of the Christian Religion 4.1.4) Yet, necessary and holy as this community may be, it constantly struggles against institutionalism, that is, the tendency to become so focused on self-preservation and its own advancement that it forgets its mission.
The church is in fact the necessary means for fulfilling both our Lord’s Great Commandment (Matthew 22:34-40) and his Great Commission. (Matthew 28:16-20) Jesus calls his followers to do things that can be done only in concert with each other.
The church is not the end product of Christian faith, but the means through which Jesus’ followers fulfill greater ends. The church points beyond itself, toward what Jesus calls the “kingdom of heaven” or “reign of God.”
Noting that Jesus spoke continually about the “kingdom,” but referred to the “church” only twice in the Gospels, Alfred Loisy famously quipped in 1902, “Jesus came proclaiming the Kingdom, and what arrived was the Church.” Does this mean that the church is an impediment to fulfilling Jesus’ program? If we understand it as a means to an end (as Loisy did), rather than as the end itself, we discover its critical place in the economy of God’s kingdom.
Keeping the church as “means” rather than “end” preserves its integrity. When its perpetuation becomes its primary purpose, it inevitably falls into decline, and often into corruption.
Our forebears in the United Presbyterian Church of North America knew this well when, more than 100 years ago, they formulated a statement that has become a classic expression of the church’s purpose. Known as “The Great Ends of the Church,” the statement has remained virtually intact in the many subsequent iterations of the Presbyterian Book of Order. Currently it is included in the section on Foundations of our life together. (F-1.0304)
The Book of Order’s recitation of the church’s Great Ends is the final in a trio of classic formulas describing the church’s foundational identity and purpose. First it lists the four “Marks of the Church” set forth in the Nicene Creed (F-1.0302). Then it follows with the three Reformed “Notes of the Church” as developed in the Scots Confession (F-1.0303). In both cases, each point in the formula is interpreted with significant commentary. However, with the “Great Ends of the Church," the Book of Order offers no commentary on any of its points. Might this disparity itself be a sign of nascent institutionalism, that we give more thought to the church’s identity and structure than to its purpose?
I urge us to consider carefully each of the six Great Ends of the church:
Taken together, they answer the odd question with which we began, “Why Church?” In coming weeks we shall discuss each of them in turn.
One other important point: All of these “Great Ends” apply to every Christian congregation. It is insufficient for one congregation to be about proclamation and another about justice, for one to focus on love and another on truth, and so on. The church must pursue all of these ends in each of its local manifestations, if it is to be the church that fulfills its Lord’s purpose.
Yours in shared mission,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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