Ecclesiology is the “secret sauce” of good missionary work. By ecclesiology, I simply mean the Bible’s teaching about the church. You won’t read much about this topic in many missiology books, but a biblical understanding of the church is vital to fulfilling the Great Commission the way God intends. Not convinced? Here are three reasons why missionaries need a biblical understanding of the church.
It Gives Missionaries Their Job Description
What exactly are missionaries supposed to do? You wouldn’t start a new hire on the job without them understanding their job description. They would do the wrong things or do the right things in the wrong way. Churches that send out workers who aren’t equipped with a biblical understanding of the nature and role of the local church in the Christian life are like employers who send employees out without a clear understanding of exactly what it is they are supposed to do.
A good ecclesiology sets the missionary’s agenda. Look at Matthew 28:18-20. Have you ever noticed how “churchy” Jesus’ words are? He reminds his disciples that all authority belongs to him, the resurrected God-man. If you’ll remember back to Matthew 18:18-20, you’ll recall that Jesus delegated authority to gathered churches to speak in His name. Jesus created the church to be His official representative on earth. Now, given this authority, Christ commissions his people to go to all the nations, proclaiming the gospel and making disciples.
How are they to make disciples? By baptizing those who believe in the name of the Triune God and teaching them to obey everything Jesus commanded. In the New Testament, baptism is the way the individual declares his or her allegiance to God and the way the church agrees with that claim and welcomes the individual into the church (Acts 2:41). Fulfilling the Great Commission entails gathering converts into churches where they learn to follow Jesus together with other believers.
Missionaries are like ambassadors sent from embassies of the kingdom (churches) to labor in hopes that more will bow the knee to King Jesus. Then new embassies are established that bear witness to the manifold wisdom and glory of God among peoples from every tribe, tongue, and nation (Ephesians 3:10; Revelation 5:9).
It Promotes the Gospel
Understanding what a church is and how it is supposed to function is vital to ministry among people with little to no access to the gospel. Faithful gospel churches help teach the gospel both by what they say and by what they show.
The Sunday gathering is a criminally undervalued time for evangelism. While church services shouldn’t be thought of as merely evangelistic, such gatherings filled with God’s Word provide excellent opportunities to explain the gospel to those who don’t know it. Unbelievers get a chance every week to hear Christians sing, pray, and preach the good news. Members of the church can then work together to engage visitors in spiritual conversation and help them understand what they just heard from the Bible.
But a church’s witness to the gospel doesn’t stop with what the church says. The local church shows the gospel in its life together. Church membership provides the world with a picture of Christ’s coming kingdom. In the membership of the church, the outside community will see people from different ethnicities, socio-economic statuses, seasons of life, and so on gathered together around the Word of God, promising to love one another and keep one another following the Lord. In cultures marked by division and strife, churches marked by unity amid diversity provide an attractive apologetic. Jesus himself said the world would recognize his followers by their love for one another (John 13:35).
Christians who come to faith in contexts overtly hostile to the gospel need the support of other believers to persevere. Church membership provides the kind of covenant bondable to withstand that kind of pressure. Together with godly pastoral leadership, the congregation has the joy and responsibility of being a spiritual family to those whose natural family may reject them for their newfound faith.
It Protects the Gospel
How the local church is structured and governed serves to protect the gospel from error that would otherwise erode the church’s witness. Missionaries who desire to see enduring fruit from their ministry should give their attention to how a biblical ecclesiology perseveres gospel fidelity among those they are trying to reach.
False conversions threaten to undermine good ministry. Those quickly given assurance of their salvation without much evidence or follow-up can themselves become inoculated to the true gospel and effectively become anti-witnesses to the gospel. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper help clarify true conversion. When faithfully practiced, these two ordinances given by Jesus to the church draw a clear line between the world and the people of God. In baptism, the church is saying “this one belongs to Jesus and His people.” The Lord’s Supper re-ups that affirmation each time the church gathers around the Table. The ordinances, when practiced rightly, help teach the watching world about who God is and what marks his true followers.
But sometimes people are brought into the church who prove to have a mistaken or false understanding of the gospel and the Christian life. False teachers sneak into communities and lead others astray by spreading outright heresy or promoting forms of syncretism that blend Christianity and another religion. How does ecclesiology help here?
Church discipline is God’s anti-heresy antidote. When a church is no longer able to affirm someone’s claim to know the gospel and follow Christ then it is the church’s responsibility, in love, to remove that person from membership. Practicing church discipline protects the gospel in at least three ways. First, church discipline doesn’t allow someone to feel affirmed in their wrong thinking or wrong living. Second, church discipline protects others in the church from the false views of the one being removed. Third and finally, church discipline protects the gospel’s reputation in the community by saying “this person does not represent us or our God.” Far from harsh and unloving, church discipline is an act of love that benefits everyone. The church’s regular life of membership and discipline works to maintain the church’s grasp on the gospel.
It’s through the ordinary means of the local church that God plans to spread His glory across the earth as the waters cover the sea (Habakkuk 2:14). Let’s support, send, and even serve as missionaries who understand the centrality of the local church and leverage our lives to see healthy churches flourish to the glory of God.