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Essential services: Part 1 — The why of church

Essential services: Part 1 — The why of church

In recent times, dictionaries have gotten into the habit of giving an award to the ‘word of the year’. It provides some motivation, I suppose, to all those other words to try harder next year, while also allowing the dictionary companies to parade their social consciences. Recent winners have included ‘climate emergency’, ‘toxic’, ‘cancel culture’ and ‘they’ (as a non-gendered singular pronoun).

I’m guessing 2020 will have plenty of candidates: ‘pandemic’, ‘social distancing’ and ‘black lives matter’ are obvious favourites. My personal choice would be ‘unprecedented’, which has been used at unprecedented levels.

But my way into the rest of today’s post is to suggest that essential services has been one of the phrases of the year in 2020. The privations of lockdown have forced everyone in the community to pause and consider what really matters. When severe limits are placed on what can or should be done, what essential things must be done?

This has been true, of course, for churches. We’ve had to consider how to retrieve as many essential services as possible, given that nearly all our normal activities have no longer been possible.

And now, as we start on the road back to normal, it’s an excellent time to reconsider what ‘normal’ essentially is. This is not only because we will still have limitations placed upon us for some time to come, and some tricky choices to make. It’s also because the coronavirus lockdown should help us realise that we always have limited resources and opportunities, and that tricky choices always have to be made about what is essential and what is peripheral.

For many of us, restarting church is a chance to reboot—to consider what existing essential things we must put back in place, what new essential things we might take the opportunity to start, and what non-essential services, activities or priorities we might quietly allow to remain in ‘shutdown’.

And following on from my post a couple of weeks back on pragmatism, we need to make these decisions with a conscious reflection on our principles—that is, on what the Bible itself directs us to consider as essential.

That’s what I thought I would do over the next few posts: go back to Scripture with the posture of an apprentice, and have a crack at laying out the essential principles of church ministry. I’m sure I won’t get everything right or complete, and I’m equally sure that there will be other good ways to express the same principles. But I hope my attempt will stimulate you to articulate your own version of the essentials more clearly.

Where to start?

Our instinct is to start with what and how. What are the essential activities or events or programs that we must get up and running as soon as possible? And how could we do them as effectively as possible?

It’s better, though, to start with the essential why, because what and how always flow from why. The reason or purpose we have for doing something generates particular aims or goals, which in turn lead us to think about exactly how we will achieve those aims, with what particular resources and actions. But it starts with why. Why are we churching? What reasons or purposes shape the whole enterprise, provide it with meaning, and direct the particular strategies and activities we undertake?

The why of church comes, of course, from God, who gathers his people together (‘church’, remember, is a jargon word for ‘assembly’ or ‘gathering’). You could describe the whole Bible as the story of God scattering people in judgement (think driving out Adam and Eve from the garden; the tower of Babel; the scattering of Israel), and then acting in his grace and power to gather his chosen, redeemed people around himself. The why of church is the story of Scripture, and many of the Bible’s major events and themes are milestones towards God’s ultimate purpose to gather his scattered people around himself.

Take Sinai. When God brought his redeemed people to the rock of Horeb and spoke to them “on the mountain out of the midst of the fire”, it is described in Deuteronomy as “the day of the church” (or ‘assembly’, Deut 9:10; cf. 5:22, 18:16; Acts 7:38). The redemption from Egypt generated a congregation, assembled at Sinai, in which God spoke to his people and they responded (in fear, in protestations of obedience, and in gross apostasy and idolatry—but that’s Israel for you).

Deuteronomy also speaks of another place of gathering still to come: the Place God will appoint in the promised land that will be the divine assembly point for Israel, where they will come together and meet with him (Deut 12:5-7). That place turns out to be Jerusalem (or Zion), the city where God causes his name to dwell—and from which he withdraws his presence in judgement as the sad, sinful history of Israel unfolds. Once more the people are scattered among the nations, and once more God promises to gather them “out of the countries where you are scattered, with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and with wrath poured out” (Ezek 20:34).

Then God’s purpose to gather a people for himself reaches its climax as Jesus comes in Matthew 16:18 declaring that “at this rock I will build my congregation” (my translation).

This is a verse with a controversial history and a few complexities. Complexity 1: Is the ‘rock’ Peter himself, or Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ, or Christ himself as the object of that confession? Complexity 2: What does the slightly unusual construction of “at (or ‘before’) this rock” mean (epi plus the dative, for Greek nerds)? It is usually rendered in English versions as ‘upon’ or ‘on’ because that’s what you normally do with rocks when you’re building. You build on them. But given the rich biblical history of the ‘church’ that takes place at the ‘rock’ (that is, the rock of Horeb), it seems more likely that this is what Jesus is referring to, and why Matthew records the unexpected phrase ‘at this rock’. Just as on the day of the church at Sinai, so Jesus will build his congregation—not at an earthly rock, with its thunderous revelation of the Law, but around the rock of his own redeeming presence and work, as the eternal Word of God.

This way of reading Matthew 16 I owe to Broughton Knox (see the reference below). But I think DBK got it from Hebrews 12, which makes precisely this connection. Hebrews 12 sees the heavenly church of Jesus, the joyful assembly of the firstborn, as the counterpart and fulfilment of the terrifying church at Sinai. And this is the church to which we have now come, and from which Jesus now speaks to his people (Heb 12:22-25).

This was, in fact, one of Knox’s chief contentions about the doctrine of church in the New Testament—not that the local congregation was the central reality (as he has been sometimes thought to teach), but that the church of the New Testament is chiefly and first of all heavenly. Jesus is gathering to himself a redeemed people, united to him spiritually, crucified with him and raised now with him in the heavenly places.

This is the church that the seer of Revelation reveals to us, as he draws back the curtain and we see visions of the heavenly reality that will one day descend to the earth in a new creation. He sees a great multitude, assembled before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev 7:9-10).

This heavenly, eschatological assembly is the church that Jesus has created through his death and resurrection, and is now building. From this ultimate purpose of God in Christ, our local, earthly congregations find their reason to exist. The rationale and purpose of everything we do in our local churches—and beyond them—is to participate in the building work that God is doing in his Son and through his Spirit: to gather people into the heavenly, eternal congregation of Jesus the Christ.

This is a change of focus for many of us. We see the growth of our local church as the key purpose, and are busy organising the ‘building’ work that seeks to fulfil that purpose. And it is certainly true that ‘building’ work takes place in the local church, and that we are called to participate in it faithfully and wisely.

But it’s strange how silent the New Testament is on the growth of the local church. It rarely if ever speaks of it, but it constantly speaks of something bigger: of the growth of the gospel all over the world (Col 1:6); the growth of the cosmic ‘body of Christ’ in the heavenly places, with Jesus as the head, far above all rule and authority and power (Eph 1:20-23).

The big why of church is that it is the glorious purpose of God for Jesus to build his church in the heavenlies. That ultimate purpose generates more proximal and immediate purposes for us, both in our local congregations and beyond. It drives us to seek certain outcomes, and to engage in certain actions or activities to achieve those things.

But it gives our desire for growth in our local churches a revitalised rationale and focus. We need to view all our local, intermediate purposes—and the activities we engage in—in light of the cosmic, heavenly purposes of God in Christ.

“Think cosmic, act local”, you might say.

In next week’s post, we’ll tease out what that means by apprenticing ourselves to the extraordinary letter to the Ephesians, where the apostle Paul does exactly that—applies the cosmic plans of God for the body of Christ to the realities of life and ministry in a local church.


  • The article to read for DB Knox’s take on Matthew 16 is ‘The Church, the Churches and the Denominations of the Churches’, first published in Reformed Theological Review (no. 48, 1989), 15-25, and reprinted in D. Broughton Knox Selected Works, volume II, Church and Ministry (ed. Kirsten Birkett; Kingsford: Matthias Media, 2003), 85-98.

  • For more on ‘starting with why’, you could read Simon Sinek’s book Start with Why (London: Penguin, 2011). It’s one of those classic businessy leadership books that has an excellent and simple point to make—that a clear, powerful Why will inspire your team to take action, rather than How or What—but pads itself out with interminable stories about Apple and Walmart and other business case studies. If you skim past the stories and the other padding, it’s a useful one-hour read at most.

  • This week’s random image is a famous chunk of mountainous rock, snapped on holidays a few years ago. Recognise it?

Two Ways News
Two Ways News
Gospel thinking for today, with Tony Payne and Phillip Jensen.
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