What is the task of the church? Sounds like an easy question, no? The answer is more complicated. We can probably agree on three basic tasks: (1) to preach the gospel, (2) to administer the sacraments, (3) to maintain discipline among its members. But beyond this we differ. Should the church be helping the poor? Should it be an alternative polity, as Stanley Hauerwas and others have argued? Should it be making political pronouncements, as so many denominations do?
We cannot answer these questions without first making a crucial distinction – one that is too often ignored. There are, in fact, two uses of the term church:
- the church as institution, and
- the church as corpus Christi or body of Christ.
The institutional church is an organized body to be distinguished from other communities, such as marriage, family, state, business enterprise, &c. God has given it the three tasks mentioned above. It is called to gather at least once a week to hear the Word, to celebrate the sacraments, and to nourish and support believers in their life of obedience before the face of God . It is bound together by a common confession that Jesus Christ is Lord, the second Person of the Trinity, who was sent by the Father to offer his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28). The institutional church is governed by specific office-holders, as prescribed in scripture (e.g., I Timothy 3:1-13).
However, the body of Christ is not a differentiated institution at all. It encompasses the entire people of God in every aspect of their lives. It includes the institutional church but is hardly limited to it. It is synonymous with the kingdom of God or the City of God, as Augustine called it. It is more than formal liturgy and synodical assemblies. Like God’s ancient people Israel, the church as corpus Christi is mandated to serve God and neighbour in every calling and cultural setting, and not just in the institutional church. In this sense the church’s mandate encompasses also the state’s mandate to do public justice, the family’s task of raising children to assume adult responsibilities, and the business enterprise’s vocation to be a steward of creation’s potential, among many other legitimate activities. The task of the corpus Christi is thus not institutionally delimited but is bound by the central divine command to love God and neighbour in every area of life (Matthew 22:37-40).
Many Christians lose sight of this fundamental distinction between church institution and corpus Christi. Nevertheless, recognizing it will enable us better to comprehend how our membership in Christ’s body impacts obedient living across the full spectrum of human activities, without in any way deflecting the institutional church from its divinely-mandated mission.