As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been reading Pope Francis’s Papal Encyclical, “Care for Our Common Home.” The Pope focuses a lot of attention on curbing human problems–especially climate change and poverty–through public policy shifts. He is certainly not alone in this. It is not unusual to hear Christians calling for systemic shifts necessary to combat the sex trade, poverty, pollution, and a whole host of other human ills.
This has got me thinking: What is the primary purpose of the church? Is it to change the world or save people out of the world? Surveying scripture brings these things to mind:
Israel’s salvation narrative starts with the death of the Passover lamb and the exodus out of Egypt. Entering the land of promise completed their journey.
Noah left the world that was full of wickedness to enter the ark. After the flood, Noah walked into a new creation purged of evil, the home of righteousness (2 Peter 3:13).
When the Israelites were captives in Babylon, some of them returned to Israel when God opened the door. Leaving Babylon ended their captivity. Revelation 18:4 prophetically echoes this when John hears a loud voice telling God’s people to come out of spiritual Babylon.
What do all these examples have in common? Leaving. In every case, there was a choice: Stay and suffer judgment or follow God out. Working to improve the current situation wasn’t even on the table.
These are all Old Testament pictures of salvation in Christ. He is our Passover Lamb, our ark, our way out of Babylon (1 Cor. 5:7; 1 Peter 3:20-22). Preachers of Christ point to the “Exit” sign hanging over the door of this creation. Peter says we are promised a new heavens and earth after God brings an end to the current creation (2 Peter 3:12-13).
This isn’t all that scripture says, however. Both testaments have plenty to say about helping widows, orphans, and the poor. Saints throughout scripture confront corrupt leaders and challenge social structures. Preaching the gospel upended worship and sales of Artemis statues (Acts 19:23-41).
Christianity’s social and cultural impact is also seen throughout post-biblical history: William Wilberforce helped end the slave trade in England; western science (and by extension, western medicine) is a direct result of the Christian worldview; human services like The Salvation Army started as Christian ministries. We could go on and on listing like examples.
Saving people out of the world and changing the world are both ministries of the church. Each aspect of our mission brings perspective to the other. Walking in the Spirit changes this world whether or not we change any laws, feed any poor people, or care for the elderly. The reality of heaven is present on earth through the church.
Our vision of heavenly reality also gives us vision about improving this world in practical ways. The Spirit will motivate us to influence, tear down, and rebuild. The world is passing away but our mandate as long as we are here is to love our neighbors (1 John 2:17; Matt. 22:39).
At the same time, that which is flesh, is flesh, and will not inherit the kingdom of God (John 3:6; 1 Cor. 15:50). This world is broken beyond repair. Nothing we do amounts to a solution, regardless of how many wrongs we right, mouths we feed, or things we recycle. At best we provide palliative care. This is hospice, not a hospital.
As hospice providers, our services to the world aren’t pointless. The church can improve the quality of life in this world, if not the quantity. Still, we shouldn’t have any illusions about how this ends; we shouldn’t confuse comfort with a cure.