Thornwell on the Purpose of the Church

We live in a day and age in which the church is having an identity crisis, much of which is rooted in a misunderstanding of the Great Commission.  Like many problems in the church today, this one is nothing new.  The 19th century saw the same problem in which many people started to see the role of the church as an agent of social change in the world.  Responding to this trend, James Henley Thornwell said the following:

[The church] is not, as we fear too many are disposed to regard it, a moral institute of universal good, whose business it is to wage war upon every form of human ill, whether social, civil, political, moral, and to patronize every expedient which a romantic benevolence may suggest as likely to contribute to human comfort….  The problems which the anomalies of our fallen state are continually forcing on philanthropy, the church has no right directly to solve.  She must leave them to providence, and to human wisdom sanctified and guided by the spiritual influences which it is her glory to foster and cherish.  The church is a very peculiar society;…it is the kingdom of her Lord Jesus Christ.

This view stands in stark contrast to the sentiments of many modern Evangelicals who are not satisfied with the biblical purpose of the church: a ministry of the Word, sacraments, and discipline.  Ditching these three marks of a church, Evangelicals have redefined both its nature as well as its purpose.  Churches are now seen as agents of cultural change within the community, arms of larger political movements, and visible extensions of social welfare programs.  Thornwell continues:

[The church] can hear no voice but Christ’s, obey no commands but His, pursue no ends but His.  Its officers are His servants bound to execute only His will; its doctrines are His teachings, which He as a prophet has given from God; its discipline His law, which He as king has ordained….  The church can announce what [the Bible] teaches, enjoin what it commands, prohibit what it condemns, and enforce her testimonies by spiritual sanctions.  Beyond the Bible she can never go, and apart from the Bible she can never speak.

Thornwell was speaking as an “Old School” Southern Presbyterian, keeping his audience focused on the aforementioned biblical marks of a church which the Reformers greatly emphasized.  Not much has changed today, save for the fact that there are even more distractions than ever.  The sorry state of worship (or lack thereof) in your average Evangelical church is indicative of this.  A reformation of doctrine includes a reformation in the church’s priorities as well.

Before I came to embrace Reformed theology, I attended a church in Woodbridge which epitomized this problem.  They had a wonderful ministry to help the homeless and others in need, but they neglected to care for the spiritual needs of the congregation.  It was all externals.  No substantive preaching of the Word.  An incredibly low view of the sacraments.  Church discipline was practically non-existent.  How long will this continue to plague the church?

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