What does it mean to be “Church?” The mission of the Church in Light of Three Biblical Images

[1] When theologians speak of the “mission of the Church” they usually try to describe what the Church is to do in the particular environment in which it is found. Of course, there are many biblical texts that provide direction for this: the Church is to make disciples by baptizing people from all nations and teaching them to obey the commands of Jesus (Matt. 28:19-20); the Church is to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins in Christ’s name to all people (Luke 24:47); the Church is to practice justice, mercy, and faith (Matt. 23:23); the Church is to witness for Jesus to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8); and so forth.1 Any concept of mission, however, will be informed by a basic ecclesiology. What does it mean to be “Church” in the first place? I would like to offer a few thoughts on how the question of the Church’s mission might be framed or re-framed in consideration of three prominent biblical images for Church.2

The Church as the Bride of Christ.

[2] In the Gospels, Jesus identifies himself as “the Bridegroom” (Mark 2:19) and in Ephesians, Paul interprets marital relations as “a great mystery” that can be applied to Christ and the Church (Eph. 5:31-33). Likewise, in Revelation, the Church is identified as the bride of Christ (Rev. 21:9; 22:17).

[3] What is perhaps most compelling about this image is that it defines the Church in terms of its relationship to Jesus Christ and specifically defines that relationship as an intimate bond of love. The Church, according to this image, consists of those people who are loved by Jesus Christ and who love Jesus Christ in return.

[4] The basic mission of the Church seems to be simply to love Jesus. We must ask what that means and how we do that-and, again, the Bible will give us a lot of help: Jesus says, “Those who love me keep my commandments” (John 14:21). Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” Peter says, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you,” and Jesus responds, “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17). Many other directives can be found regarding how people who love Jesus should act and what they should do.3

[5] The significant point, however, may be that “feeding sheep,” “keeping commandments,” and other such directives are strategic initiatives that flow from a primary mission statement. The basic mission of the bride of Christ is to love the Bridegroom; everything else is just strategy.

[6] I admit now to a level of discomfort with language that seeks to prioritize certain matters over others, indicating that one thing is primary and other things are secondary. Who am I to make such determinations? Well, I would not dare not do so myself, but there was a time when someone came up to Jesus and asked him, “What is the greatest commandment of all?” He did not say, “There are lots of commandments and they are all equally important.” He had a straightforward answer: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind.” That is the prime directive. Everything else flows from it, including the second commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”4 Note also that, in the book of Revelation, the Church at Ephesus gets in trouble not for failing to carry out any specific directive, but for faltering with regard to what appears to have been the primary expectation: “You do not love me as you did at first” (Rev. 2:4).

[7] What this means for our modern context, I think, is that the worship life of the Church is an essential part of its mission. We love our Bridegroom Jesus most obviously when we worship. Whatever else we do “as Church” is to flow out of that worship as an extension of it. We exist as a Church to worship God and love Jesus and one way that we worship God and love Jesus is by living the way that God wants us to live and doing the work that Jesus would have us do.

[8] This understanding of Church and mission is compatible with Lutheran tradition. Martin Luther’s Small Catechism begins its explanations for each of the Ten Commandments with the words, “we are to fear and love God, so that we . . . .” Thus, Luther treats the ethical life of the Church as an expression of its doxological and liturgical life. Likewise, the ELCA constitution, lists one of the “purposes of the ELCA” as being “to worship God” (Provision 4.02). Worship is not just conceived of as an occasion for Christian nurture (through Word and Sacrament) but as an essential element of the Church’s raison d’ etre.

[9] It is common for some congregations to identify worship with the internal life of the Church, as opposed to its external life of service to the world. Mission, which is definitively external, is then equated with the latter. One problem with this paradigm is that worship is external as well, for the focus is properly on God, not self. A more biblical model might describe the external mission of the Church as being to love God (through worship) and to love neighbor (through service).

The Church as Branches on a Vine

[10] In John 15:5, Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” This verse exemplifies but also expands upon an image that is used repeatedly throughout the New Testament, namely the metaphor of “fruit-bearing.” The Bible often describes the work of the Church as being to “bear fruit” (e.g., Matt. 13:23; 21:43). In itself, such a metaphor implies a natural activity, something that one does simply because of what one is-indeed, the fruit that one bears reveals one’s true nature and character (Matt. 7:16-18).

[11] We see some development of this image throughout the canon. In one memorable parable, believers are likened to the soil in which the seed of the Gospel is planted (Mark 4:8). If they are good soil, the plants that take root in them will bear much fruit. But elsewhere the Synoptic Gospels do not allow believers such a generative role: they are not soil, but plants. Still, the bearing of fruit testifies to the quality of these believers: good Christians are like trees that bear good fruit and bad Christians (e.g., false prophets) are like trees that bear bad fruit (Matt. 7:15-20; Matt. 12:33).

[12] In the Johannine writings, believers receive a further demotion: no longer are they the tree or plant (much less the soil), but only the branches. In John, disciples are not simply told that they should bear fruit (John 15:8; cf. Luke 3:8) and threatened with what will happen if they don’t (John 15:2, 6; cf. Matt. 7:19; Luke 13:9); they are also assured that if they remain in Christ they will bear fruit, for Christ will produce it within them. Thus, the bearing of fruit testifies more to the quality of Christ than to that of the believers themselves.5

[13] The image of the Church as branches on a vine prompts some re-consideration of the tendency for theologians to equate mission with “what the Church does in the world.” According to the Johannine projection, the essential mission of the Church would be to bear the fruit that Christ produces. This implies an ecclesiology defined more by being than by doing. In a fundamental sense, the Church fulfills its calling and mission simply by being the people whom God creates in Christ.

[14] Another way of putting this would be to say that the Church’s mission is to bear the fruit of Christ’s mission. The Church is the recipient and beneficiary of Christ’s mission and its essential calling is to be the people in whom Christ’s mission is fulfilled. Accordingly, we might begin reflection on “the mission of the Church” by analyzing any number of scriptural texts that define the mission of Christ.

According to Matthew 1:21, the mission of Christ is “to save his people from their sins”; the mission of the Church, then, is to be people who are saved from their sins.

According to Mark 10:45, the mission of Christ is to serve people and give his life as a ransom for many; the mission of the Church, then, is to be people who are served by Christ and ransomed by the giving of his life.

According to Luke 4:18, the mission of Christ is to liberate the oppressed and set captives free; the mission of the Church, then, is to be people who have been liberated and set free.

According to John 10:10, the mission of Christ is to bring people to a full recognition and experience of the value of life; the mission of the Church, then, is to be people who fully recognize and experience the value of life.

[15] In every instance (and there could be many more), the first calling of the Church is to be people in whom Christ’s mission is fulfilled. A natural tendency of believers, however, may be to follow the examples of Peter or Martha in viewing themselves primarily as ministers rather than as recipients of ministry. Peter would rather wash his Lord’s feet than allow his Lord to wash him (John 13:6-8). On the mount of Transfiguration, he feels a need to justify his presence by doing something (indeed by building something) rather than recognizing that he is simply there to experience an epiphany (Mark 9:5-6). Likewise, Martha is distracted by much serving at a time when the only thing necessary is to receive what Christ would offer her (Luke 10:38-42). She misses this essential point: the one she wishes to serve came “not to be served but to serve” (Luke 22:27; cf. Mark 10:45).

The Church as the Body of Christ

[16] Another very prominent image for the Church in the New Testament is that of “the body of Christ.” This is explicated especially in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12 where Paul uses the metaphor to emphasize the unity of the Church: individual Christians are like the many parts of one body, with Christ as the head, directing them all (see also Ephesians 1:22-23).

[17] This image brings out the dynamic of unity-in-diversity that seems so relevant for the Church in its present context. The many parts of the body are all different from each other, yet all are necessary. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you” and even the members that seem weaker are indispensable (1 Cor. 12:21-22).

[18] Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us that the unity of the Church as the Body of Christ is “not an ideal which we must realize but a reality created by God in Christ in which we are invited to participate.”6 We do not have to strive to become the body of Christ. We are the body of Christ. We are all part of one body, whether we realize it or not. What happens to one of us affects the whole body, whether we realize it or not. The mission of the Church according to this image is not to achieve unity but to act as the unified entity that it is.

[19] This image implies that the Church embodies Christ’s continuing presence in the world and so acts as Christ in the world. The Church serves and suffers for the world as Christ served and suffered for the world. In many ways, the mission of the Church as the Body of Christ is simply to continue doing what Jesus did.

[20] In this regard, we might note that the primary work of the earthly Jesus according to the Gospels was to proclaim the rule of God. He did this by a) preaching that God’s kingdom was near; b) teaching people the will of God, so that God could rule in their lives; and c) delivering people from disease and demons. Matthew 4:23 offers a convenient summary of these three components of Jesus’ typical ministry. Furthermore, though Jesus encourages his followers to do many things (give alms, pray, love their enemies, etc.), he specifically commissions those who are called apostles to do the same three things mentioned above: preach the kingdom of God, teach people the will of God, and deliver people from disease and demons (see Matthew 10:7-8 and 28:16-20). Those three activities, then, should probably receive special attention in any expression of the Church’s mission, when the latter is conceived as an ongoing expression of the work of Jesus.

[21] The image of the Church as the body of Christ, however, implies something more than imitation. The Church does not simply ask “What would Jesus do?” and then seek to follow his example. Rather, the Church becomes the physical medium through which the risen Lord continues to do what the earthly Jesus did. The risen Lord Jesus Christ acts and speaks through the Church.

[22] This image is compatible with that of the Church as bride of Christ and as branches on a vine, but seems to reference what must be chronologically secondary. The mission of the Church is, first, to be the people in whom Christ’s mission is fulfilled and, then, to be the people through whom Christ’s mission is fulfilled for others. The image of the Church as the body of Christ develops this second aspect of its calling. Thus, with reference to points made above, the mission of the Church might also include:

offering people salvation from their sins

serving people and testifying to Christ’s ransom for the many

liberating the oppressed and setting captives free

bringing people to a full recognition and experience of the value of life.

[23] Yet in all of these activities (and many others) the Church functions as the body of Christ, as an agent through which the risen Lord Jesus continues to minister to the world.


[24] The richness of biblical imagery for the Church helps to move theological conceptions of mission beyond pedantic descriptions that focus on delineating appropriate or even necessary activities. As a community of people justified by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8), the Church should never be described in terms of its “works.” It is more properly defined with reference to what Christ does. The three images we have examined indicate that the Church is a) those people who have been wed to Christ in a relationship of love; b) those people who are joined to Christ in such a way that the fruit of his ongoing ministry is produced in them; and c) those people who are so closely identified with Christ that they have become the medium through which he continues to minister to others.

[25] Notably, all three images are intensely relational. Further, the three images describe the Church’s relationship to Christ in terms that are progressively intimate. In the first image (bride to bridegroom), the Church retains a separate identity, choosing freely to respond to Christ’s love. In the second (branches to vine), the Church’s identity is joined to that of Christ, such that the Church is now intrinsically dependent upon Christ in a way that makes “choice” nonsensical (a bride may long for her bridegroom, but branches cannot even survive apart from the vine). With the third image (body to head), the relationship becomes even more intimate in that this intrinsic dependence is now mutual (the head requires a body in a way that a vine does not require branches). With this image, the point is not simply that the Church can do nothing apart from Christ (John 15:5), but that, normatively, Christ does nothing apart from the Church. The Church is the physical manifestation through which Christ operates in the world.7

[26] With regard to mission, the image of the Church as the bride of Christ suggests that its first and primary calling is to worship God and love Jesus; all activities that the Church’s mission might entail should be construed as expressions of such worship and love. Alternatively, the image of the Church as branches on a vine suggests that its calling is to be the beneficiaries of Christ’s work, the people in whom Christ’s mission is fulfilled; specific activities associated with the Church’s mission should be equated with the expected results of such fulfillment, with the words and deeds of people whose lives are sustained by Christ. Finally, the image of the Church as the body of Christ suggests that its essential mission is to continue the work of Jesus in the world, not simply by doing what he would do, but by actually becoming the people through whom he continues to act; various activities of the Church’s mission should be understood as the works of the risen Lord Jesus, who chooses to manifest his continued presence in this world through his people.

End Notes

1 On the various biblical construals of mission, see David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996); Wayne Stumme, ed., Bible and Mission: Biblical Foundations and Working Models for Congregational Ministry (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1986).

2 There are of course many other images: the Church as a family (Matt. 12:50; Rom. 8:29); the Church as a sheepfold (John 10:1-16) or flock (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2); the Church as a field or building (1 Cor. 3:9); the Church as a temple (1 Cor. 3:16; Eph. 2:21-22) or temple pillar (Rev. 3:12; cf. 1 Tim. 3:15); the Church as lively stones (1 Pet. 2:5); the Church as an assembly of citizens (Eph. 2:19); the Church as adopted children (Rom. 15; Gal. 4:5) and thus heirs (Rom. 8:17; Gal. 4:7); the Church as salt (Matt. 5:13) or light (Matt. 5:14); the Church as a kingdom or priesthood (1 Pet. 2:4) or both (1 Pet. 2:9; Rev. 1:6; 5:10); the Church as a chosen race or holy nation (1 Pet. 2:9); the Church as aliens and exiles (1 Pet. 5:11); the Church as the elect (Matt. 24:22); the Church as a pregnant woman (Rev. 12:1-2); and no doubt many more.

3 For example, we might surmise from 1 Peter 1:8 that the primary mission of the Church is to “rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy” since that, above all, is what people who love Jesus do. Or, we might reason from Luke 16:13 that the primary mission of the Church is to despise (resist and condemn) mammon, since being devoted to mammon is diametrically opposed to loving God. Or, we might conclude from Romans 12:1 that the mission of the Church is fulfilled when its members present their bodies to God as a living sacrifice, since this constitutes a supreme act of love for God (what Paul calls “spiritual worship”).

4 In Mark 12:28-31, the two commands are presented with clear priority for “first” and “second.” In Matthew 22:37-39, this priority is preserved but its significance is lessened by the contention that the second command is “like” the first. In Luke 10:27, any notion of prioritization is removed and the commands are collapsed into a single one. This development within the Synoptic tradition illustrates a consistent perspective that regards love for God as best expressed through love for neighbor, and conversely, regards love for neighbor as best practiced when it is an expression of love for God. On these love commands, see Victor Paul Furnish, The Love Command in the New Testament (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1972); Pheme Perkins, Love Commands in the New Testament (New York: Paulist Press, 1982).

5 We might also consider the Pauline notion of fruit that the Holy Spirit produces in believers (Gal. 5:22-23). Paul explicates such fruit as internal virtues rather than as the external good deeds that seem to interest Matthew (5:16). We cannot be sure what John would identify as the “fruit” that Christ produces in believers-moral virtue, good works, and even doctrinal purity are all possibilities and, of course, are not mutually exclusive.

6 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1954), p. 30.

7 Of course, these are only images and can not be pressed too far. We know that Christ has an existence apart from the Church, as a part of the Triune Godhead manifest specifically through the Son who is seated at the right hand of the Father in glory. Nevertheless, the imagery of the body of Christ does convey a certain intention of Christ to depend upon the Church to do his work on earth, just as the Church must depend upon Christ for its sustenance and viability.