The purpose and power of the church

He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:7-8)

The purpose of the church is to be a witness to Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth until the Lord comes again.

The power to be the church comes from the Holy Spirit.

These may not seem like remarkable statements, but they are helping me form my own understanding of the nature of the church and the relationship between the Methodist movement and the institutional church.

The primary purpose of the church is to bear witness to Jesus Christ. It exists as a form of testimony and to testify to what we have seen and heard. It also bears the testimony the stretches back to Israel and through the history of the church. Our new testimony is contiguous with and of a kind with that previous testimony.

When I began to think about the church as witness, it changed my reading of scripture. For instance, I had not really ever paid much attention to these words from Peter before:

You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this. (Acts 3:15)

And this is why the gospel as described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 includes great detail about who witnessed the resurrected Christ. These acts of witness are important because the church exists to bear this witness to the ends of the earth — across space and time.

This conception of the church as witness stirs up for me recollections of things written by Walter Brueggemann and Stanley Hauerwas, two contemporary writers and scholars who have had a significant impact on me. Brueggemann writes quite a bit of scripture itself as a form of testimony. Hauerwas grounds ecclesiology on the way the language the church uses shapes both how we see the world and how we understand ourselves. His narrative and cultural-linguistic theology strikes me as very much in keeping with the claim that the purpose of the church is to bear a testimony, to make witness, about the true nature of our existence.

And — just to be clear — I do not believe that witness is merely about what we say, although it is certainly about that. It is about what we do and how we live together. We catch a glimpse of that in Romans 1 when Paul is celebrating the existence of the Roman church.

First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world. (Romans 1:8)

The one piece that I’ve always felt was sorely lacking in Hauerwas was the Holy Spirit. Hauerwas’ descriptions of the church always feel — at least to me — rather naturalistic, as if sociology and psychology could account for the church by themselves. But in Acts 1, we get the corrective to that.

Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 1:4-5)

If the purpose of the church is to bear witness to Christ, the Holy Spirit is the source of the church’s power to do so. It is the life energy of the church.

Since that is the case, the church is called to “wait” for the promised Spirit in prayer and worship and works of mercy. The church is called to make itself fit to receive and bear the Holy Spirit through confession, forgiveness, and repentance. We must wait on the gift of the Holy Spirit and receive that gift if we are to be the witnessing church.

And this insight has helped me in thinking about John Wesley and Methodism.

The purpose of Methodism was to reform the church by spreading scriptural holiness. It was, in the language I’m using here, a movement trying to reconnect the church to its source of power, so that the church might have the strength to achieve its purpose, bearing witness to Christ in all things. The reason Wesley was correct to resist breaking away from the Church of England was because the mission of Methodism was to revitalize the church not to be the church.

If you read Wesley, you discover pretty quickly that he did not see the church achieving its purpose. He often said you cannot judge true Christianity by the conduct of those who call themselves Christians. In other words, a lot of church people in his day were bad witnesses. They had neither seen nor heard the gospel, and yet were passing themselves off as representatives of it. Wesley movement had the intention of helping the church achieve its true purposes by connecting it back to the source of its power, the Holy Spirit.

In our day, no less than in Wesley’s, the church is in dire need of the Holy Spirit. Too many of us left Jerusalem before Pentecost. We try to bear witness when we have not received the power to do so. The Methodist mission is still necessary today. We still need a vigorous ministry connecting us and our churches to the Holy Spirit, the source of life, through faith in Jesus Christ.

But we also need to understand that the power serves a purpose. We are to bear witness to the ends of the earth. We are to declare and to embody the living witness to the truth that Jesus was killed, but on the third day he was raised.

These thoughts of mine are not as coherent as I would like them to be. Blogging for me always is a kind of work of process and a first-draft kind of writing. But I think there is much fruit in those first two statements:

  • The purpose of the church is to bear witness to Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth until our Lord comes again.
  • The power to be the church comes from the Holy Spirit.

This is at least the beginning of my ecclesiology.

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