Preserving Distinctive Church Function

John Clark
West Chester, Ohio

Someone has said that a fanatic is a fellow who redoubles his effort while forgetting his goal. How foolish is such a one' As I look at the situation that exists in so many churches of Christ across the land, I ponder this question: Have they forgotten their goal or mission but are redoubling their effort in a near fanatical attempt to attract the attention of the world? Speed means nothing if we are going in the wrong direction' I intend to exhibit in this article evidence that churches of Christ are rushing headlong into practices that reveal either a misunderstanding of or an indifference to the divinely revealed function of the church. Careful study of the New Testament proves that there is a distinctive function given to the church. Only when we know what that function or mission is will we be able to preserve it.

The Misunderstood Christ

God had a definite purpose in sending Christ into the world. Standing before Pilate, Jesus declared, "To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth" (John 18:37). The writer of Hebrews quotes Jesus as announcing, "I come to do thy will, 0 God" (Heb. 10:7). On several occasions Jesus proclaimed that his life was dedicated to the fulfillment of the Old Testament scriptures (Mark 14:49: Matt. 26:54). The pleasure of the Lord prospered in his hand (Isaiah 53: 10); he did not please himself (Rom. 15:3): but did always the things that pleased the Father (John 8: 29): he prayed with complete submission (Matt. 6:42): obeyed unto suffering and death (Heb. 5: 7-9); and finished the work God gave him to do (John 17:4; 19: 30).

Satan sought to thwart him (Matt. 4:111; John 14:30, 31). The masses attempted to make him a king on their own terms (Mark 6:45, 46: John 6:15). A close and trusted disciple rebelled at the idea of his death (Matt. 16:21-23). Some turned away to walk with him no more (John 6:66). None of these things deterred him! Though frequently misunderstood by friend and foe, he accomplished his mission! At his crucifixion there were those who cynically cried, "Come down from the cross and we will believe" (Matt. 27:42). Blinded by prejudice, they failed to see that only by such a sacrifice of himself could he fulfill his mission and save the world. There are those in our day who cry to the church, "Be what we want you to be and we will believe." Jesus' rebuke to Peter seems apropos for such people: "You are not setting your mind on God's interests, but man's" (Matt. 16:23 New American Standard Version).

Eternal Purpose

God has a definite purpose for the church that is clearly revealed in the New Testament. Look at the Book of Ephesians for a moment. We read there that God's scheme of redemption was "according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will" (1: 11). The word "purpose" is from PROTHESIS which means "the setting forth of a thing, placing it in view" (Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament). Paul thrills us with the explanation that the church is the result of "the eternal purpose" of God (3:10, 11)! God's plan for the church was set before him from eternity!

Paul assures us that we can understand what he knew about the church (3:3,4). This is encouraging! Let each reader of this article take the Bible and determine for himself what it teaches about the mission of the church. What is the function or mission of the church revealed on the pages of the New Testament? Why was it established? With these questions, we here seek to summon you - by the apostolic subpoena "Prove all things" - to a study of that institution, conceived in the mind of God and purchased at awful cost, that exists upon this planet as a monument to the wisdom of God (Eph 3:10, 11).

Spiritual Function

The purpose, mission, or function of the church is primarily spiritual i.e. saving souls. The spiritual nature of the church is disclosed in a number of interesting texts. Jesus declared, "My kingdom is not of this world" (John 18:36). Peter describes the church as a "spiritual house" (1 Pet. 2:5). The same apostle called the same institution a "holy nation" (I Pet. 2:9). Paul called it a "holy temple" (Eph. 2:21). HAGIOS is the word translated "holy." The basic idea in the word is that of difference from ordinary things, that of being set apart from ordinary purposes. By its nature and function the church of our Lord is different! It has a higher function than any human institution!

Further evidence of the spiritual function of the church is discovered in Paul's description in I Tim. 3:15: "the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth." "Pillar" is from the Greek STULOS, a column supporting weight. "Ground" is from HEDRAIOMA, a foundation or mainstay. The church has been given by God a distinctive role and responsibility in this world. It is neither political, social, nor economic. It is the great work or function of the church to hold high, defend, and proclaim the, truth, the word of the living God in order to the salvation of men from sin.

There is a significant passage from the apostle Peter that helps us to see the spiritual function of the church. "But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people, that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light" (1 Peter 2:9). Here, the apostle writes of both the nature and the function of the church. He uses four descriptive phrases that point to the nature. In this text, if you were to strip away the qualifying phrases, it would read like this: "Ye are - that ye should." Peter is telling the church "Ye are something (nature) in order that ye should do something (function.)." What is the church to do? "Shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light." The expression "Shew forth" is from the Greek EXANGELLO. IV. E. Vine tells us that this word has the meaning "to tell out, proclaim abroad, to publish completely" (Expository Dictionary of New Testament Word). What is the church to "proclaim abroad?" The "praises of him." This word has been translated "excellencies," "goodness" and "wonderful deeds" in other translations. The church is to proclaim abroad what God has done to save the world. The love of God that gave his son (John 3:16); the desire of God for all men to be saved (I Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9); God's acceptance of all who will obey his gospel (Rom. 1: 1, 16; Heb. 5: 8, 9; Mark 16:15, 16) - these things are to be proclaimed by the church! The church exists for this purpose! "Ye are - that ye should."

Functional Organization

It might be well, at this point, to note in what sense we mean or use the term "church" as we discuss function. The word "church" is used in the New Testament in a universal (Matt. 16:18) and a local (I Cor. 1:2) sense. To, put it another way, we can use the term to refer to all the redeemed or the saved that gather in a local assembly. In this article, as we discuss the function of the church, we use it in the latter sense, for the only functional organization of the church in the New Testament is that of the local church (Acts 14:23; Phil. 1:1). Therefore, we are discussing here what is the mission, function, or work of a local church.

Three Things

The New Testament reveals three areas of work that churches engaged in with evident divine approval. Having considered these three you have a total picture of the function of work or a local church. Anything beyond this is a departure from the divine order.

Evangelism. The church is to preach the Gospel. This is "sounding out the word of the Lord" (I Thess. 1:8). The Book of Philippians tells of a local church's support of a preacher as he preached among them and far beyond (Phil. 1:5; 4:15, 16).

Edification. Churches are given the responsibility of edifying or strengthening themselves. We read of the "perfecting of the saints" (Eph. 4:12). Paul writes of "the edifying of ~ itself in love" (Eph. 4:16).

Benevolence. The church is to supply the needs of its worthy indigent - "poor saints" (Rom. 15:26). This is called "ministering to the saints" (2 Cor. 9: 1). We have examples in Acts of a church caring for its own (Acts 2:44, 45; 4:32-35; 6:1-4). We find churches sending aid to those churches that were not able to care for their own needy (Acts 11:27-30; Romans 15:25-27; 1 Cor. 16:1-3; 2 Cor. 8 and 9). There is no evidence of a program of general benevolence i e. among non-Christians. In fact there are restrictions placed on the use of a church treasury among the saints! Paul teaches us this in I Timothy 5.

Voices from the Past

Twenty-five years ago a voice of concern was raised about what was going on among churches of Christ by one who was one of the best known and most respected preachers of the day. The late N. B. Hardeman made the following statement about departures from the divinely prescribed function of the church:

"Again, I say to you, with caution and thought, that it is not the work of the church to furnish entertainment for the members. And yet many churches have drifted into such an effort. They enlarge their basements, put in all kinds of gymnastic apparatus, and make every sort of an appeal to the young people of the congregation. I have never read anything in the Bible that indicated to me that such was a part of the work of the church. I am wholly ignorant of any scripture that even points in that direction . . . . Many brethren have looked upon our young people's meetings with some degree of suspicion. If we are not careful, we may have an organization not at all different from others which we now condemn. Really, brethren, I have failed to find anywhere in the Bible where there is a difference made in the teaching or church work between a young fellow and old fellow. Just where is that passage that intimates the church should be divided according to years? Brethren Srygley and Tant thought that such distinctions evidenced our drifting away. To say the least of such, there is a danger. I submit to you preachers that we should be exceedingly careful lest, in our enthusiasm to make a big show, we turn apart from the straight and narrow path and have within our midst something that the Lord does not want."

-- (Hardeman's Tabernacle Sermons,

Vol. V, Pages 50 and 53)

The noted H. Leo Boles wrote:

"The mission of the church is not to furnish entertainment."

- (Sermon Outlines, Outline 27) In the Gospel Advocate Annual Lesson


"Building recreation rooms and providing and supervising recreational activities at the expense of the church is a departure from the simple gospel plan as revealed in the new testament . . ."

- (1951, Page 229)

In 1948 B. C. Goodpasture wrote the following in an editorial:

"For the church to turn aside from its divine work to furnish amusement and recreation is to pervert its mission, Amusement and recreation should stem from the home rather than the church. The church, like Nehemiah, has a great work to do; and it should not 'come down on the plains of Ono' to amuse and entertain. As the church turns its attention to amusement and recreation it will be shorn of its power as Samson was when his hair was cut."

-- (Gospel Advocate, May 20, 1948)

Evidence of Departure

Those who clearly understand the work or function of the church revealed in the New Testament are frequently shocked, often sickened, and always saddened by what they see occurring among churches of Christ throughout the land. Practices which have nothing whatsoever to do with the true function of the church are being promoted with great enthusiasm. From literally hundreds of quotations, news items, etc. that could be presented, a few have been selected to show the situation that exist.

Recreation. Here are some things going on among churches of Christ:

"Broadway church of Christ wins two basketball games" (Lubbock, Texas).

"The recreation hall, a short distance east of the church is equipped for ping pong and a number of other games. It can also be used for skating parties. The building also has a completely equipped kitchen and other facilities for serving banquets. A Texline Boy Scout banquet was one of the first events held in it. E. D. Sheets said the building is available to all organizations improving the community" (Texline, Texas).

In the May 23, 1963 Memphis Press Scimitar, there was a picture and story about the $18,000 lodge built and operated by the Jackson Ave. church of Christ in Memphis, Tennessee. The story says: "A major new encampment site for the Churches of Christ is being readied for the first campers. It comprises 167 acres across the entrance to Shelby Forest. A lodge is nearing completion. A swimming pool is planned . . . . . Although financed by one church, Jackson Avenue, it will be open to all Churches of Christ."

A church in Tennessee tells us what to expect of it: "Expect a church that loves young people and provides a dynamic program for them including Valley View Youth camp operated each summer. Also meeting in the church annex a Cub Scout pack, Scout troop, an Explorer Post, and a Girl Scout Troop" (Madison, Tenn.)

Entertainment. Yes, this is a growing practice among churches!

In the July 20. 1963 Arkansas Gazette the following item appeared: "Sixth and Izard Church of Christ will sponsor a youth talent show at 7 p. m. Friday at the Arkansas Arts Center Auditorium in MacArthur Park. Young people from other Churches of Christ in the Little Rock area have been invited to participate. Among the performers will be Dot Back of Harding College in Searcy, a recording artist. After the program the young people will be served refreshments at the fellowship room at the Sixth and Izard Church of Christ. The room is located in the educational building across the street from the main church building." (In 1950 the present preacher for the church named in the article above wrote the following: "Take for example the question of recreation. If there should be such a question, it should be solved in the homes not the church . . . . The church that goes into such business will be lost to the Lord." (Cleon Lyles, Let Not the Church Be Charged)

From the bulletin of a Texas church we read the following:

"Come to the Puppet Show - all ladies. Wed. Noon, December 3. All men and boys: Thursday evening, 7:30 o'clock. The theme for these two important meetings is 'Forward Through Fellowship.' We want every member of this congregation to be present at one of these meetings if possible."

"It is time again for one of the most festive and enjoyable occasions conducted by this congregation. Our teachers' appreciation banquet . . . The price: $1.00 per plate" (Lubbock, Texas).

Secular Education. Kindergartens and grammar schools, teaching secular subjects and operated by churches are springing up all over the country. A church in northern Kentucky is teaching college courses. The following newspaper account explains it:

"Its an unusual school in every way. Classes are conducted on Saturday nights. Students range in age from 20 to 78. The classroom is Covington's Garrard Street Church of Christ, 218 Garrard Street . . . . This unique school is the Christian Service and Leadership School conducted under the auspices of the Garrard Street-Church. The idea originated with F. Furman Keaxley, minister of the church . . . 'With all the government emphasis on improving education, I felt the church should join in this effort' . . . 'We want to make our church a service agency in the community rather than stand apart as an ivory tower' . . . There are now 40 students enrolled in five courses: remedial English, history of the Roman period, principles of teaching, and comprehensive survey of the Bible." (Cincinnati Post and Times Star, January 21, 1967)

Enterprises to Deal With Social Ills. The number of illegitimate births in this country is a matter of national shame. It is one of the great social ills of our time. Now we see churches are involved in this problem by starting homes for unwed mothers.

" 'Every mother and her baby is a child of God,' reads the message in the front page of a handsome booklet, 'You Should Care' mailed this week as the Oak Hills Home for Girls launches a campaign for $350,000.. . . Oak Hills Home for Girls was started by the Church of Christ and licensed by the State Department of Social Services in December 1965. It is now seeking broader community support . . . Eventually the home hopes to serve 250 unwed mothers a year . . . Detroit's three such homes for unmarried mothers are Florence Crittenton, William Booth Memorial, and Marillac Hall . . . . All three receive part of their support from United Foundation through United Community Services. A new agency can not apply for UCS until it has been operating for 18 months. 'We will apply in July, as soon as we are eligible,' says Dean A. Thoroman, executive director . . . No girl will be refused because she can not pay, Thoroman said, but those who can will be asked to pay the actual cost of their care . . . an appeal for memorial gifts. 'Where is your monument for posterity?' reads a headline. 'The Board of trustees of Oak Hills Home for Girls will consider naming the suburban unit of the downtown unit in memory of donor of $125,000' " (Detroit News, March 26, 1967).

If anyone needed to be convinced that things are getting in a real mess, the above ought to do it! There is not a scintilla of evidence in the scriptures that the church is to take on the care of the unwed mothers of the world. If it could be shown that such were the benevolent responsibility of the church, how can you ever justify the church begging from the world in order to discharge that responsibility? Further, this Home for Girls in Detroit is a business enterprise they are going to ask the girls to pay if they can! Who dares to call this benevolence?

Ultra Vires

There is an interesting legal term that has an application to the present crisis among churches of Christ. This is the phrase ultra vires. The powers of a corporation are limited to those expressly given or implied to it by law. If a corporation acts in excess of its express or implied powers it is said to be acting ultra vires - beyond its powers. Acts ultra vires will furnish ground for the forfeiture of the charter of a corporation.

When churches of Christ engage in practices which have nothing to do with the clearly prescribed work that is stated in the -New Testament when they act without divine authority they are acting ultra virus. They are forfeiting their right to be light-givers to a sin-darkened world. Remember the sobering words of our Lord: "Repent - else I come unto thee quickly and remove thy candlestick out of his place" (Rev. 2:5).

Cause and Cure

Why have these things come to pass? What can he done about it" An answer to the former question will go a long way in answer in the latter.

Ignorance of God's word and a failure to consistently apply it. Jesus gave us the key to religious error when he declared, "Ye do err not knowing the scriptures" (Matt. 22: 29). "Where is the scripture?" was once a watchword among us. Centuries before Christ, the prophet Hosea announced "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge" (4: 6); "therefore the people that doth not understand shall fall" (4:14). Practices like those listed above, would have brought immediate opposition twenty-five years ago. There would have been an outcry heard across the land. Now these things are sanctioned by the silence of leaders and supported by a people ignorant of the true function of the church.

One example of this lack of knowledge is the failure to distinguish between the holy and the profane - the sacred and the secular. The prophet Ezekiel condemned the priests of his day because "they put no difference between the holy and profane" (22:26). The writer of Hebrews condemned those who counted the blood of Christ an "unholy thing" (Hebrews 10:29). This refers to those who treated sacred things as ordinary things. We have already noted in this article the significance of the word "holy" - it refers to that which is different, set apart by and for God. Those who happily support church sponsorship of Boy Scout troops, ball teams, etc. need to see that such has no more place in the function of the church than the Lord's Supper would have being served at a Scout meeting. As I write this I have before me an article written by a preacher in the Cincinnati area that argues that there is just no distinction in the Bible between the religious and the secular. He so contends in order to defend a church's right to run a grammar school and teach secular subjects. With such men and such thinking among us, it is no strange thing that the present situation exists among churches of Christ!

Leading men change and the multitudes follow. The apostle Paul gave this warning: "of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them" (Acts 20:29). Though we are exhorted "not to think of men above that which is written" (I Cor. 4:6), prominent preachers and leaders can lead a large portion of the brethren where they want to. It is good to love and appreciate those who preach God's word, but our loyalty must be to the Lord!

The division in the churches that occurred in the last century over a missionary society - a human organization through which churches preached the gospel - resulted from the influence of prominent men who changed. Without the influence of men like Alexander Campbell, such a human organization probably could not have succeeded. Campbell underwent an evolution in thinking from 1823 ("in their church capacity alone they moved "Christian Baptist) to 1842 ("a more ample, extensive, and thorough church organization" - Millenial Harbinger). As a result, he convinced many to follow. Division resulted. The kind of thinking that made the missionary society possible soon led to other departures.

There is unquestionable proof that prominent men among us have changed their thinking on what the church can do. Practices which would have been challenged in the past are sanctioned now. We are rushing headlong down the same road that led to disaster in the last century!

Growth of "Social Gospel" among us. This has conquered many of the major denominations in this country. It now strides with triumphal steps among churches of Christ. The term "Social Gospel," when properly applied, refers to a socio-religious movement that began in Post-Civil War America and reached its high point in the years preceding World War 1. Those who fully embraced it were concerned about this life more than eternity. They saw the gospel as that which dealt with the problem of human misery hunger, disease, poverty, etc. They saw the church not as a body seeking to reconcile man to God, but as an institution whose task was that of reconciling the conflicting forces of society. Some joined the movement as a result of the Darwinian philosophy, the evolution of man, and the tremendous impact it had on the times. Others cast their lot with the movement because they were caught up in the liberal philosophies resulting from Liberalism's destructive criticism of the scriptures. Some, overemphasizing the social implications of the teaching of Jesus, joined the cause.

There are social implications in the gospel. Changed men are bound to influence change in society, but to change the church from an institution whose primary function is that of meeting man's spiritual needs into an institution devoted to relieving man's physical needs is to pervert the gospel. As churches zealously build hospitals, homes for unwed mothers, and all sorts of institutions to fight poverty, hunger, disease, crime, juvenile delinquency, etc., they have become a part of the this life thinking that has conquered the denominations. Their preachers tell us, so often, that they are not nearly so much concerned about the virgin birth, the death, or the resurrection of Christ as they are the condition of man while here on earth. The great truths of the gospel are no longer meaningful. Take care of man's physical needs! This becomes the all-consuming passion and purpose! Many brethren think that the host of institutions among us that seek to meet man's physical needs indicates a growth of spirituality. I suggest to you it means the opposite! We need to return to a realization that man's greatest need is to save his soul - that heaven and not this present world is to be our greatest desire!


Just as a poll taken in the first century revealed many confused concepts of Christ (Matt. 16:13, 14), so a survey of present day thinking reveals a conglomeration of confused concepts of the church. Let us not be interested in "flesh and blood" opinions, but let us seek ever and always to know what the Father has revealed about the blood bought and heaven bound church of our Lord Jesus Christ. We need to be teaching boldly and plainly what the true function of the church is. Churches need to be functioning! We can maintain the distinctive function of the church if we will give ourselves unreservedly to the task. May the vision of heaven's joys move us to the task!

TRUTH MAGAZINE, XII: 1, pp. 12-17
October 1967