How Important is the Church?

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Sam Storms:

The disturbing and unbiblical trend continues: professing Christians who insist they love Jesus but have no formal association with or participation in the life of a local church. What are we to make of this? Is the church secondary to God’s purposes in history? Or might it be primary? And if so, what is the reason for the existence of the church?

Paul speaks to this point in Ephesians 3:10 where he says that “through the church the manifold wisdom of God” is now “made known to the rulers and authorities in heavenly places.” What does this mean?

The word translated “manifold” was used to describe everything from the intricate and colorful design of flowers, to embroidered cloth, to woven carpets, and even crowns with their exquisite jewels. It could be rendered “richly diversified,” “multifaceted,” “highly variegated,” “infinite diversity,” etc. God’s saving wisdom is gloriously intricate in its design and its effect. It is the very antithesis of boredom and routine. In the present context, notes O’Brien, “this variegated wisdom has particular reference to God’s richly diverse ways of working which led to a multi-racial, multi-cultural community being united as fellow-members in the body of Christ” (245).

To whom in particular does God want this made known? To “rulers and authorities in heavenly places,” i.e., angelic beings, primarily demonic spirits (see Eph. 1:21; 6:12; Col. 1:16;2:10). In this way these fallen spirits are provided with a tangible reminder that their authority has been decisively broken and that they, indeed all things, have been made subject to Christ. Thus the purpose for the church extends far beyond its internal ministries. God intends for the church to serve a larger, indeed cosmic, purpose in spreading his glory.

By what means does God intend to accomplish this? “Through the church” (!): not nature, nor other angels, not the animal kingdom, but through the church! It is through the very existence of this new multi-racial, trans-cultural community of believers in which Jew and Gentile are co-heirs of the promises that God makes known his wisdom. No other organization on earth, neither government nor educational institutions nor civic clubs can accomplish this purpose. What, then, becomes of the display of God’s wisdom when the church remains internally divided and externally segregated?

Note also that Paul never says that the church is given the task of “preaching” to the “powers”. He simply says that the wisdom of God will be made known through the church. As Arnold explains, “the church visibly testifies to God’s wisdom by its very existence” (63).

The existence of the church, therefore, “demonstrates to the ‘powers’ that they are in fact powerless to impede the progress of the gospel to the Gentiles and consequently destroy the church, the body of Christ, which they thought they had already once destroyed on the cross [see 1 Cor. 2:6-8]. The purpose of 3:10 in the context of the entire epistle is primarily for the comfort of the readers. Plagued by a fear of the ‘powers,’ the readers would find great encouragement in knowing that the ‘powers’ can see that they have been devastatingly foiled by the emergence of the body of Christ, the church. This would also give the readers added assurance of victory over the ‘powers’ as they engage in spiritual warfare and await the consummation of the age to come” (Arnold, 64).

One cannot read a text like this or countless others like it and conclude that the existence of the church and its numerous ministries are optional, as if it really doesn’t matter what the church is like or whether or not those who profess faith in Christ are involved in one. Don’t ever sell short the cosmic significance of what is happening in that fellowship of like-minded believers with which you are involved. The church, quite simply, is at the center of God’s redemptive purposes and his desire to glorify his Son and our Savior, Jesus Christ.

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I am currently serving churches and colleges as a bible teacher, overseas and in the UK.