Our Arena for Growth
“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.”
Ephesians 4:11–14 (ESV)
Christ loves His church, and so must all those who profess to follow Him (Eph. 5:25). That is why the doctrine of the church was not a secondary concern for the Protestant Reformers. Understanding the nature, marks, offices, and purpose of the church according to Scripture was one of their chief goals.
Today we will begin looking at the purpose of the church. The purpose of the church for the Lord is easy enough to discern—its purpose in relation to the Lord is to bring Him glory. But God also established the church for the good of His people, and understanding our Creator’s purpose for the church in relation to His children will help us seek the good He has for us and help maintain His intent for His body.
The first purpose God has for the church that we will consider is for the church to be the arena of spiritual growth. In today’s passage, Paul explains why God gave His church Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers: so that we all would be equipped for ministry, understand true doctrine, and grow to spiritual maturity (Eph. 4:12–14). Our Lord does not redeem us from sin and then stop working in us. No, His intent is that we grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18). And He brings us to maturity primarily through the instruction provided by the officers in the local church and the fellowship we enjoy with one another as we study God’s Word together. Personal, individual study is well and good, even necessary for our spiritual growth. However, we will attain maturity in the faith only through our participation in the local church. In the context of the covenant community, the Lord works through the faithful preaching and teaching of His Word by His appointed officers.
In our individualistic age, when too many Christians think church membership is optional and that they can grow spiritually just fine on their own, the comments of John Calvin on today’s passage must be heard:
“Our true completeness and perfection consist in our being united in the one body of Christ. No higher description of the ministry of the word could have been employed, than to ascribe to it this effect. What is more excellent than to produce the true and complete perfection of the church? And yet this work, so admirable and divine, is here declared by the apostle to be accomplished by the external ministry of the word. That those who neglect this instrument should hope to become perfect in Christ is utter madness. Yet such are the fanatics, on the one hand, who pretend to be favoured with secret revelations of the Spirit, - and proud men, on the other, who imagine that to them the private reading of the Scriptures is enough, and that they have no need of the ordinary ministry of the church.
“If the edification of the church proceeds from Christ alone, He has surely a right to prescribe the manner by which it shall be edified. Here Paul expressly states that, according to the command of Christ, no real union or perfection is attained, except through the outward preaching in the church. We must allow ourselves to be ruled and taught by men. This is the universal rule, which extends equally from the highest to the lowest. The church is the common mother of all the godly, which bears, nourishes, and brings up children to God, kings and peasants alike; and this is done through the ministry He has given in the church. Those who neglect or despise this order choose to be wiser than Christ. Woe to the pride of such men! It is, no doubt, possible that divine influence alone could make us perfect without human assistance. But this passage is not telling us what the power of God could accomplish, but what God’s will is - and what Christ has appointed.”
Our Saviour has established the church as the arena for Christian growth. If we neglect its ministry, we will remain immature and undiscerning.
God has designed us as individuals and His church as a corporate body such that we grow to maturity within the context of the local church’s ministry. No amount of study that we do on our own, however helpful it may be, can substitute for the benefit we receive by participating in the educational ministry of our local church. Let us not fail to participate in the church, which is God’s primary arena for our spiritual growth.
Devotional first published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. www.ligonier.org/tabletalk. © Tabletalk magazine. Used with permission.