The Church Has Two Missions: Narrow and Broad

The narrow mission of a church-as-organized collective is to make disciples and citizens of Christ’s kingdom. The broad mission of a church-as-its-members is to be disciples and citizens of Christ’s kingdom. The narrow employs judge-like or priestly words of formal separation, identification, and instruction. The broad rules and lives as sons of the king, representing the heavenly Father in all of life’s words and deeds.

 

What is the mission of the church? Answering that requires defining what we mean by the “church.” Theologians make distinctions between the universal and local church, the invisible and visible church, the institutional and organic church, or the gathered and scattered church. For our immediate purposes, I’m not interested in any of these distinctions.

The distinction we need is similar to an old Presbyterian division between the elders’ “joint” and “several” power. They say elders are authorized to do some things together or “jointly,” like excommunicate; and other things independently or “severally,” like teach. I don’t expect to revive the language of “joint” versus “several,” but that is the distinction we need for thinking about the church’s mission. Why? Because ascertaining what the mission of the church is requires us to ascertain whom God authorized to do what. To rephrase “joint” and “several,” then, I think we can say that God authorizes a church-as-organized-collective one way and a church-as-its-members another way.[1]

The Narrow & Broad Mission

Broadly, Christ authorizes a church-as-its-members with a kingly authority to represent him as God-imaging sons and citizens, whether gathered together or scattered apart. That’s not to deny there is also something priestly about a church-as-its-members. We’re priest-kings, after all. But I do mean to put the accent on the kingly authority of ruling here.

Narrowly, God authorizes a church-as-organized-collective with a distinct priestly authority to publicly separate sinners from the world and to reconcile them to himself and his people through [re-]naming and teaching.

Very plainly, then, what is the mission of the church? The narrow mission of a church-as-organized collective is to make disciples and citizens of Christ’s kingdom. The broad mission of a church-as-its-members is to be disciples and citizens of Christ’s kingdom. The narrow employs judge-like or priestly words of formal separation, identification, and instruction. The broad rules and lives as sons of the king, representing the heavenly Father in all of life’s words and deeds. The narrow protects the holy place where God dwells, which is his temple, the church. The broad pushes God’s witness into new territory, expanding where his rule is acknowledged. For illustration purposes, we might say the narrow mission is to be an embassy, while the broad mission is to be an ambassador.

In the congregationalist conception, seeing how the two sides of the ledger work together is quite simple. Every church member, by virtue of his or her salvation, is a priest-king. Therefore every member is put to work mediating God’s judgments with the gathered church and ruling on God’s behalf whether gathered or scattered. To ask a member of a congregationalist church about the mission of the church requires specifying which hat you mean for him or her to wear: the whole-church-together hat or the church-member hat? In the presbyterian or episcopalian conception, the priestly and kingly roles work together similarly, but a greater place is given to the church officers in the “Narrow mission” column for acting on behalf of the whole church. That’s why I some advocates of the broad mission might look at the “narrow” column and regard that as the mission of the officers.

Why This is Important

Why is it important to maintain the distinction between the church’s broad and narrow mission? First—believe it or not—for the sake of clarity. It satisfies our conflicting intuitions. When someone asks me, “What’s the mission of the church?” or “Is caring for creation church work?” or “Does the church’s work center on words or both words and deeds?” or “Is the church’s mission to care for the poor?” I need to know whether the questioner means the church as a corporate actor or the church as its individual members.

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