Is it the case that the Church has a mission or is it more correct to state that the Church is defined by mission? Some very strong statements have been made regarding the link of the church to mission. Famously Emil Brunner stated that: 'The church exists by mission, just as fire exists by burning.' Jurgen Moltmann states that the church can only really be understood in the context of mission. Hendrik Kraemer states that the deepest reason for the existence of the church is mission. Personally I believe that these statements show a serious misunderstanding of the spiritual reality underpinning the Body of Christ. The aim of this paper is to raise some of the questions involved and to argue that mission is a role of the church and not a definition of it.
First let me state categorically that there is no doubt that believers both individually and corporately are sent. Whilst there are other references the clear statement of the Lord should suffice as proof:
Joh 17:18 As thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world.
But let us note that Christ clearly draws a parallel between Him being sent and the body of believers being sent. Christ is the 'I AM'. He is self-existent, 'before Abraham was I AM.' Whilst it may possibly be argued that the name or role of 'Jesus' was given as part of the incarnation; Christ Himself certainly did not require sending in order to exist. Thus given we are sent 'even as' Christ was sent is it not reasonable to assert that we must have some separate existence to? The same parallel between the two 'sendings' is repeated in John 20:21.
Perhaps Ephesians 3 is one of the most fundamental church defining passages within scripture. It is intriguing in that it is used by those that seek to define the church through mission and yet I believe that careful examination of the key verses show the complete opposite.
Eph 3:6 That the Gentiles should be fellowheirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel:
Eph 3:9 And to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ: Eph 3:10 To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God, Eph 3:11 According to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord:
Eph 3:21 Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.
It is argued from verse 10 that the church is central in preaching or declaring the wisdom of God to everyone. However as Ephesians 3:6 clearly states the mystery that this chapter is describing is not the 'mystery of salvation' but the mystery of a universal church. It is true that they become part of the church through partaking of the Gospel but that should not distract us from the thrust of the passage. The mystery is the church.
This brings us to the question: how does the church make the manifold wisdom of God manifest to the principalities and powers in heavenly places? Is it through our having been sent to preach the gospel? I suggest that it is not. Do we realistically believe that angels are only discovering the nature of the church when it is explained to them from the pulpit on a Sunday morning? The church declares the gospel to men (Eph 3:6) through our actions. The church declares the wisdom of God universally through our existence.
Eph 3:21 also must not be ignored. It states that God obtains glory from the existence of the church throughout all ages. Whilst we are on a mission in this present church age we will have no such role during the tribulation. Our role in the millennium will not be as ambassadors as Christ will be present. Our eternal role is not yet fully understood. Yet in each of these eras the church will be bringing glory to God through the fact that it shows forth the nature of God that it should be allowed to exist.
Notwithstanding the above we should not polarize our thoughts to the point where mission is just another bulletin board within the church building. Whilst Christ was not defined by mission He did devote His life upon earth and His entire body to the fulfillment of His sending. Even so we, as the body of Christ on earth today, should devote our lives and bodies to the fulfillment of the sending that He passed on to us. It does not define us, but it should characterize us. The body exists to do the will of the Head and as His desire is the salvation of souls and the spread of the gospel then our should be too.