By God’s grace I am a member of the church of Jesus Christ. As such, I have a share in the church’s life, work, worship, and fellowship. I am blessed by them and contribute to them. Yet I cannot put an equal sign between the church and me. The church is and does far more than I can ever be or do. But does it work in the other direction as well? In other words, is it also the case that many things I am and do are entirely lawful but cannot be identified with the church and its work?
Let’s think about this more concretely. Christians do many things every day that are morally permissible and honoring to God. They go to work, they take piano lessons, they play with their children, and they eat meals. When engaged in such activities, are they doing the work of the church? Put in these terms, most Christians would probably answer no. But if the question is how far the church’s work extends or how far the church’s work should extend, many Christians would struggle to give an answer. Christians seem to know instinctively that it’s rather silly to claim that weeding one’s backyard is the work of the church, but it is not at all easy to explain exactly where the church’s work ends and the individual believer’s work—simply as an individual believer—begins. Could the church claim my weeding as its own work if it so wished, or is there something about the nature of the church that makes it not only silly for the church to do so but also impermissible?
This is not merely a theoretical question but one with concrete practical implications. Every church must wrestle with what it ought to be doing. Churches devoted to Reformation Christianity know that they must, for example, call worship services and proclaim the gospel. But how much more should they do? It is good for Christians to stay in shape, so should the church sponsor aerobics classes? It is good for Christians to work and thus to contribute to the financial well-being of society, so should the church run economic development programs in its community? It is good for Christians to vote and contribute to their nations’ political life, so should the church embrace a social justice ministry?
In this essay, we will briefly consider the nature of Christians’ vocations in this world, and then turn to the nature and responsibilities of the church. I argue that Scripture does not simply leave questions about the church’s proper role to the discretion of believers, but provides clear direction about what the church’s ministry should be. God has given the church unique responsibilities and the church must be content to leave other (important!) tasks to individual Christians and other social institutions. By maintaining proper distinctions between Christians’ vocations and the church’s ministry, both the individuals and the corporate body are protected and allowed to flourish in ways they cannot if these categories are confused.
The Vocations of Individual Christians
Any suggestion that the church might not be properly equipped to pursue a broad range of cultural endeavors risks raising suspicion that an anticulture, retreat-from-society mentality lurks below the surface. But such an agenda is foreign to Reformation Christianity and is antithetical to the concerns of this essay. Christians today are often presented with a false dilemma: either have a dim view of Christian cultural involvement, or promote a holistic vision of ecclesiastical cultural activism. This is a false dilemma in part because of the Reformation doctrine of vocation. God calls individual Christians to a variety of vocations in the world. Even if Scripture compels us to conclude that the church itself must limit its activity to certain unique responsibilities, the doctrine of vocation displays that Christians ought to have an affirmative view of human culture broadly conceived.
The Reformation doctrine of vocation teaches that God has called each person to a variety of tasks in this world (vocation is derived from a Latin word for “call”). The Reformers recognized—over against much of the emphasis in medieval Christianity—that all lawful occupations are honorable and can be pursued for God’s glory and our neighbor’s good. God not only calls some people to the full-time work of gospel ministry, but also to a wide variety of productive human tasks. Martin Luther promoted this idea forcefully, as did Calvin, the Puritans, and many others in the Reformed wing of the Reformation.
One of Luther’s most powerful ideas with respect to vocation was that vocations are not so much what we do but what God does through us. God is the one who ultimately heals the sick, feeds the hungry, and brings children into the world. Yet he is ordinarily pleased to do so through physicians, farmers, and parents. Our work, however mundane it feels, is noble because through it God himself cares for his creation and advances his wise purposes. (1)
It is no wonder that Scripture speaks highly of hard work at a multitude of tasks. From the beginning, God made human beings in his image to exercise dominion in the world and to be fruitful and multiply (Gen. 1:26-28), commands he echoed in revised form after the fall into sin (see Gen. 9:1-7). Bearing and training children is lauded and honored throughout Scripture. Godly men such as Daniel served in political office, even in a pagan court. The book of Proverbs frequently exhorts hard work, with the expectation that financial gain will follow, which should in turn be used to help the needy. Even Ecclesiastes, wrestling with the vanity of life under the sun, found wisdom in enjoying work as its own reward and “casting one’s bread” widely, seeing where God will give fruit (9:7-10; 11:1-4). When military officers—in the Roman army, no less—turned to Christ, they were not instructed to abandon their posts (Acts 10; see also Luke 3:14). Paul urged New Testament Christians to be content in whatever station of life God had placed them (1 Cor. 7:20-24). And Paul warned strongly against any idleness in this world, even as we wait longingly for the second coming of our Lord (2 Thess. 3:6-12).
Long before establishing the New Testament church, God established marriage and family (Gen. 2:24; 9:1, 7), the state (Gen. 9:5-6; Rom. 13:1-7), and implicitly many other institutions that support various human vocations. Christians, who have become citizens of a kingdom not of this world but have not yet been taken out of this world (John 17:14-16; 18:36), continue to be called of God to serve him and their neighbors through these noble callings.
What Is the Church? What Is It Supposed to Do?
Christians, through their divine vocations, should be actively involved in a wide variety of activities and institutions in this world. But does this imply that the church itself should be actively involved in these same cultural endeavors? In order to answer this question we must explore what Scripture says the church is and what the church ought to be doing. I argue that the answer to the question must be negative.
First, what is the church? Scripture speaks of the New Testament church as a community specially established by Christ himself, which is the gathering of the new covenant people and the present-day manifestation of the kingdom of heaven Christ proclaimed. Especially important here is Matthew 16:18: “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Jesus did not have to establish the family or found the state. God had already ordained such institutions long before. But the New Testament church was something new that could appear only in the wake of Jesus’ redemptive mission. He announced the coming of his kingdom and indicated that though this kingdom is ultimately a heavenly and everlasting realm, its life and power is made manifest here and now in the church. As Jesus proceeded to tell his disciples, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:19; see also 18:15-20). Life in the church offers a foretaste (however imperfectly) of life in the new heavens and new earth. By entering the humble gates of the church, we enter the magnificent portals of the heavenly kingdom.
At the same time, it is crucial to recognize that the church is not something entirely new. God had given covenant promises to his chosen people throughout the Old Testament and gathered them into communities of various shapes (as an extended household under Abraham, as a theocratic nation under Moses). The New Testament church is the community of the “new covenant,” gathering its citizens from families and nations all over the world. The church today is one people with the saints of old. As Paul explains, members of the church become no longer “strangers to the [Old Testament] covenants of promise” (Eph. 2:12; see 2:11-3:12), for in Christ believers are the children of Abraham and heirs of the promises made to him (Gal. 3:29; see 3:7-29).
The Bible explains what the church is from another angle as well. The church is a body of believers governed by ordained officers and united in corporate activities. In Ephesians 4:1-16, Paul speaks of the unity of the “one body” of Christ and states that the ascended Christ gave gifts to men. Specifically, Christ established various offices of ministry for which he raises up qualified men to serve—apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers—and these officers instruct, protect, and edify the church. The larger New Testament story demonstrates these truths. In the Great Commission, Jesus commissioned his apostles to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19-20), a task they carry out through the book of Acts. These apostles, with the “whole gathering” of the church, appointed godly men “to serve tables” in acts of mercy to the needy (Acts 6:1-6). This was probably a first glimpse of the office that would come to be known as “deacon.” Later, as they planted new congregations, the apostles “appointed elders for them in every church” (Acts 14:23), men who were “to care for the church of God” (Acts 20:28). Though there are good reasons for believing that the offices of apostle and prophet were designed for the temporary task of laying the foundation of the church (see Eph. 2:19-21) and no longer exist today, the New Testament makes clear that other offices endure and are essential for the church. This is clear especially in the pastoral Epistles, which Paul wrote to prepare the church for the future as he and his fellow apostles left the scene (see 1 Tim. 3:1-13; 5:17-19; Titus 1:5-9). Though the churches of the Reformation have some different views about exactly what the permanent offices are, I agree with the classic Reformed conviction that the New Testament establishes three: minister, elder, and deacon. Governed and served by these officers, the church meets together in regular worship and fellowship (e.g., see Acts 2:42-47; 20:7-11; 1 Cor. 11:17-34; 14:26-40; Heb. 10:24-25).
Many people in recent years have been attracted to a distinction between the church as “institution” and as “organism.” As Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck put it, this distinction “says that the church as gathering of believers is manifest to us in two ways: in the offices and means of grace (institution), and in a community of faith and life (organism).” (2) In some sense this distinction must be true; otherwise the church would cease to exist when not gathered for corporate worship. Some people, however, understand this distinction in ways that raise serious questions. For example, some teach that when individual or groups of believers take up their various vocations in this world and seek to perform them in God-honoring ways, they are the church as “organism” at work.
Scripture never quite describes things in this way and for good reason, I believe. When speaking of the institution-organism distinction, Bavinck also wrote: “The two are given in conjunction and continually interact with and impact each other”; and perhaps even more importantly: “the office does not suppress the gifts, but organizes them and keeps them on track.” (3) While Bavinck does not unpack the implications here, the important idea I wish to note is that whatever the so-called organic church does, it does as guided and governed by the ordained offices. It has no independent sphere of operation. Thus it is a healthy instinct when Christians (to recall an example used above) do not view their weeding the backyard as the work of the church. Their ministers, elders, and deacons are not “organizing” or “keeping on track” of such activities. It is similar when a few Christians spontaneously eat a meal together, play a round of golf, or start a small business. Their elders did not tell them to do so, give them permission to do so, or provide biblical instructions for cooking, putting, or hiring.
Nor should they. Ministers, elders, and deacons should not do so because Christ has not given them such authority. Here it is important to remember that the church is a supernatural reality. Unlike the family, for example, it is not part of the creation order and thus grounded in nature itself. To understand the church, one does not explore natural revelation. A minister, elder, or deacon, to understand his responsibilities as an ordained officer, does not reason from his natural abilities or natural functions as a farmer, businessman, husband, or father. Because God established the church supernaturally, through the redemptive work of Christ, the church and its offices are only what God supernaturally made them to be. And the only way to know this is through supernatural special revelation, not through natural revelation. The officers of the church, therefore, have only the authority that Scripture tells them they have. Ministers should only preach and teach what the Word of God says, and nothing more. Elders should oversee the worship and pastoral care of the congregation, but not lord it over believers’ consciences by imposing obligations beyond the Word. Deacons should provide aid for the poor and needy according to Scripture’s instructions (which I believe, though I know this is controversial, means aid for the Christian poor and needy, not for the poor of the world generally). (4) Therefore, if “the church” is only in operation where its officers are organizing and governing, then “the church” should only be doing things for which its officers have authority from Scripture to provide divinely sanctioned instruction.
Thus when Christians weed, eat, golf, start businesses, or do a myriad of other things as part of their earthly vocations, they must do so as the fruit of faith, for God’s glory, and for their neighbor’s good, but it is not the church itself at work. They may, in their own way, be enjoying camaraderie with fellow church members, but this is a blessed by-product of their union in the church, not the activity of the church per se. Christ, speaking through Scripture, has given his church, through the servant leadership of officers, the authority to open and close the gates of heaven through its discipline, to make disciples of all nations, to preach and teach the Word, to celebrate the sacraments, to engage in pastoral care, to provide for its needy, and to devote itself “to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (e.g., see Matt. 16:18-19; 18:15-20; 28:16-20; Acts 2:42; 6:1-6; 20:7-11, 28-31; 1 Cor. 11:17-34; 16:1; 1 Tim. 4:6-5:22)—and if the New Testament commands the church to do other things, please include them on this list! It is a wonderful and unique set of responsibilities that no other social organization can provide. The church has no authority—and should have no desire—to add responsibilities according to its own wisdom.
To conclude, I wish to reflect briefly on several benefits and implications of the theological conclusions drawn above. First, observing the distinction between Christians’ vocations and the church’s ministry provides wonderful focus for the church. The push to involve the church in promoting social justice, economic development, Christian art, or any other hot causes offers serious temptation to be distracted from those tasks that Scripture explicitly tells the church to pursue, centered on the proclamation of the gospel. It is difficult enough for a church full of sinners to do these tasks well, without being spread in dozens of other directions simultaneously.
A second point is immediately evident: distinguishing Christians’ vocations from the church’s ministry promotes excellence in both. Lack of focus breeds mediocrity. Multitasking looks outwardly impressive but produces sloppy results. The church may be tempted to embrace a Wal-Mart or Target philosophy of one-stop shopping, but it ought to remember that no one goes to big-box stores seeking high quality craftsmanship. Time and resources are always scarce, and if the church wishes to do its biblically mandated work with excellence, then it better be devoted to it. Likewise, Christians’ attempts to pursue excellence in entrepreneurship, music, or use of natural resources are much more likely to excel when undertaken by those whose vocations lie in these areas, rather than when directed by the church’s elders and deacons who may be well meaning but ignorant about these areas of human life. Men are qualified for church office based upon spiritual qualifications (1 Tim. 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9), not technical know-how in this or that cultural activity.
Third, observing the distinction between Christians’ vocations and the church’s ministry protects Christian liberty. This may surprise those inclined to see my conclusions as restrictive for the church. As the Reformation recognized, however, one crucial aspect of Christian liberty is freedom from having the church bind one’s conscience in matters beyond biblical teaching—a principle the Roman church was violating left and right. God has called Christians to a multitude of vocations, and Scripture says little or nothing about the details of most of them. When the church refuses to take them over or to supervise them as its own proper work, it thereby protects the liberty of those called to such work, so that they may do it according to their own judgment and expertise. This does not mean that their vocational work is morally indifferent—quite the contrary. But doing their vocations well means discerning natural revelation and applying the general rules of Scripture through godly wisdom, and for such matters, church officers have no special authority or insight. Each Christian has the liberty—and responsibility—to pursue his own vocations, being open to the wise counsel of fellow Christians but without fellow Christians binding their consciences in matters of wisdom.
Finally, I want to emphasize that the relationship between Christians’ vocations and the church’s ministry should not be viewed as adversarial. It becomes adversarial only when one encroaches on the work of the other. The relationship ought to be mutually supportive. The church should exhort all of its members to pursue their vocations with godliness and excellence, not dictating the details of how to do them, but encouraging them to cultivate their gifts and opportunities and teaching them God’s Word, which will be a safeguard in all their work. From the other side, Christians must never pursue their vocations in a way that crowds out their responsibilities toward the worship and fellowship of the church. Instead, their humble and faithful labors in all of life should provide wonderful testimony to the grace of Christ within them and adorn their profession of the gospel (see Titus 2:5, 8, 10). Some of them may even support the mission of the church in unusual and sacrificial ways. On the church’s mission field, for example, there is often significant temptation for the church, as it observes great social ills around it, to become a full-service organization promoting political reform, economic development, or medical care. But the church itself doesn’t have to do all this. Some devoted Christians, whose skills and vocations lie in these areas, may be able to move into local areas to begin small businesses, run medical clinics, and operate orphanages. This can provide wonderful testimony to the love of Christ in all sorts of practical areas, without the church itself being distracted from that great missionary task Christ entrusted to it.
1 [ Back ] See Gene Edward Veith, Jr., God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life (Wheaton: Crossway, 2002).
2 [ Back ] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 4:330.
3 [ Back ] Bavinck, 4:332.
4 [ Back ] I offer a brief argument for this position in David VanDrunen, Living in God's Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 157-59.