What is the purpose of the Church?
This question might provoke a variety of answers: to save the lost, to worship God, to have fellowship, to show care to the neighbor, and so on. Most Christians likely would suggest that the purpose of the Church is to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the lost. Indeed, Jesus came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10). In the Church, Jesus has promised to be in the midst of “two or three” gathered in His name (Matt. 18:20). In the Church, Jesus lets Himself be found in the Word and the Sacraments, which testify, or bear witness, to Him (1 John 5:7–8).
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus has compassion on people in need (Mark 6:34). Jesus came not to be served but to serve and give His life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). When Jesus saw people hungry or sick, He would feed and heal them. Jesus served and had mercy upon those in need.
Just before Jesus was handed over to be crucified, He prayed that the Church might be one (John 17:11, 21, 23). Jesus desired His Church to have fellowship, or to have a life together as one people, before His Father, just as He and the Father are one. God has called us into the fellowship of His Son (1 Cor. 1:9).
From the Gospels, we see that the work of Jesus was to witness, to show mercy, and to have a life together with His people. From these examples, it would seem there are several purposes of the Church, including proclamation.
Describing Our Purpose
“Witness, Mercy, Life Together—in Christ, for the Church and the World” describes what Christians as individuals—and collectively as the Church—do. Different words could be used. A slogan could be created, a program or process developed, that encompasses the work of Christians as the Church, but the Scriptures succinctly summarize this work—this purpose—as “Witness, Mercy, Life Together.”
It seems that with the election of each new Synod president there has been a new campaign, slogan, program or emphasis. Not only is this understandable, but it is one of the ways a Synod president exercises pastoral care for the church-at-large—by noting particular needs for a given time. In the past, the Missouri Synod, for example, has heard and responded to “Forward in Remembrance,” “Keep the Message Straight,” “Ablaze! ” and “One Mission, One Message, One People.” Yet, each of these programs, emphases, or themes has dealt with one or more aspects of “Witness, Mercy, Life Together.”
In light of the many challenges facing our Synod, and considering the recent discussion of how to reorganize the Synod for the most effective and efficient use of the Lord’s gifts to His Church, it is important to focus on the purpose of the Church more than the specific process of carrying out its work. Witness (martyria), Mercy (diakonia), and Life Together (koinonia) describes the purpose of the Church in a way that keeps the focus on the cross of Jesus and yet also clearly articulates the work of the Church both internally and externally.
The Witness (martyria) aspect of our threefold emphasis is mission and evangelism. The image for Witness depicts the cross in the center with the Greek word martyria (witness) at the bottom. Above the cross is a symbol that resembles the tongue of fire at Pentecost, or perhaps a dove or a drop of water for Baptism. Red is the color we use for Pentecost Day, ordinations, and days commemorating the martyrs of the Church, whose death testified to Jesus. Witness, mission, evangelism: All flow from the cross of Jesus.
The word that the New Testament uses for Witness (martyria) is the same word the ancient Greeks used for testimony in a courtroom. Martyria could refer either to the testimony given or to the person who gave the testimony. In this sense, a person, or his or her life, could become a witness. This Greek word also is the source of our English word martyr, someone who loses his or her life for the sake of Jesus. In fact, the death of Jesus was a witness: “For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood: these three agree” (1 John 5:7–8). After Jesus cried, “It is finished,” and gave up His Spirit (John 19:30), the soldiers pierced His side, from which flowed blood and water (John 19:34). In the next verse, John proclaims, “He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true . . . that you may also believe” (John 19:35). The testimony, or witness, of Jesus creates faith so that you may also believe. Notice that the testimony, or witness, about Jesus centers on the cross. The cross of Jesus is at the center of every witness about Him. The witness of Jesus includes not only the spoken Word but also Baptism (“the water”) and Holy Communion (the body and “the blood”). The Holy Spirit works behind the scenes, so to speak, so that we see Jesus. The witness of Jesus is connected to His cross, proclaimed through the Word and given out in the Sacraments. This is the heart and center of witness.
Martyria also can refer both to facts that a person has experienced, or knows firsthand, and to the truth. When a person bears witness to the truth, he or she is confessing. This aspect of martyria is seen in the preaching of John the Baptist. When the priests and Levites came to the Jordan River to question John the Baptist, the Gospel writer reports “the testimony of John” (John 1:19). The text continues, “He confessed [homologein], and did not deny, but confessed” (John 1:20). Here John the Baptist testified what he knew, and he confessed the truth. In the New Testament, the word for “confess” is formed from two Greek words: homo, which means “same” and logos, which means “word.” To confess is to say the same words that another testified to or bore witness about. Witness and confession go hand in hand.
Witness and confession cannot be separated from each other. The separation of witness and confession is an indication of a problem. This seems to be a tension in the Church at times. Some people focus on witnessing but seem unconcerned with how carefully that witness is spoken or if it is delivered in the way handed down to the Church through the ages. Other people seem more concerned with the articulation of the message and with the tradition in which it was given than actually witnessing to people. Each of these views indicates a distortion or a separation of witness and confession. A biblical, cross-centered witness confesses the Lord’s truth both in the Law and the Gospel. A faithful witness proclaims the harshness of the Law and identifies sin as damnable. But it also proclaims the Gospel in its fullness as the free gift of God, the forgiveness of sins, in the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. A biblical, cross-centered, confession witnesses to the world. Witness, mission and evangelism go with confession. In Christ, the Lord has declared to us, “You are My witnesses” (Is. 43:12).
The image for Mercy is violet and reminds one of the penitential seasons of the Church: Advent and Lent. Those in need of mercy, help and service are often sorrowful. As in the case of Witness, the cross is at the center. Every act of mercy and service flows from the cross, where Jesus came to serve us and to give His life as a ransom. To the right of the cross is the Greek word diakonia, which in Greek literally means “service.” Mercy describes what the service delivers. To the left of the cross is a heart with a cross representing the love of Christ shown to the neighbor. The Mercy work intended here is primarily of human care for the sick, lonely, orphan, widow or widower, and so on.
The word diakonia literally means “waiting at table,” which is how it was used in Acts 6, when the apostles said, “It is not right for us to give up preaching in order to wait tables” (v. 2). In a more general sense, diakonia means “to provide for the body” or “to serve.” To the Greeks, such service was looked down upon and considered beneath dignified or noble people. Yet Jesus uses this very word of Himself: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Jesus did not consider serving us to be beneath Him. In fact, His service is centered on His cross. Such service is motivated by genuine love; Christ’s love and mercy for us, as well as His obedience to the Father, led Him to the cross. Because of His love for us, we serve our neighbor and show mercy to him. In so doing, we
In Acts 6:4, the apostles said, “We will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” The word ministry is also diakonia. The service of the Word refers primarily to the preaching of the Gospel, which delivers Jesus, the Bread of Life, to those who hear it. There is an overlap between Witness (martyria) and Mercy (diakonia). This overlap between Witness and Mercy is shown in our image as overlapping circles. All the areas of the Church’s life are interconnected. While each area is distinct, they also flow together with one leading to another. So, if a person goes out to witness and discovers another in need, he or she stops and shows mercy to that person. In the third century, Turtullian wrote, “‘See,’ they say, ‘how they love one another,’” (Apology, XXXIX; ANF 3, 74). This was written when the Church was struggling against the pagan world of the Roman Empire. The acts of mercy the Early Church did for one another served as a witness to the world. While human care is not the proclamation of the Gospel, it does bear witness to Christ and the love Christians have for their neighbor because of His service to us on the cross.
Life Together (Koinonia)
The image for Life Together is green, which is the color of the Church, the Pentecost season, and life. The Church’s life together is life under the cross of Jesus. Like the images for Witness and Mercy, the cross is at the center. To the upper left, the Greek word koinonia appears. Koinonia is usually translated as “fellowship.” The word fellowship is familiar to the Church. However, due to various uses of the word such as church fellowship, communion fellowship, right hand of fellowship, fellowship hall, and so on, this word might not be the best to describe the church’s life together under the cross. Life Together includes many aspects of the Church’s life: worship, church fellowship, Holy Communion, schools, universities, seminaries and more. The lower right side of the image has a chalice with grapes, recalling to mind that in the Lord’s Supper Jesus not only gives us His body and blood along with the forgiveness of sins, He also gives us a collective life together. Individual grains become one loaf. Individual members become one body with Christ as the head, guiding our Life Together.
The word for Life Together occurs less in the New Testament than either the word for Witness or Mercy. Life Together (koinonia) is somewhat abstract in Greek. In fact, the term is so broad that at times it can be challenging for us to pin it down. The word means “fellowship” or “participation.” The Christian has fellowship, participation, or Life Together with Jesus because of Jesus’ work on the cross. “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord” (1 Cor. 1:9). The Christian has fellowship, participation, or Life Together in Communion fellowship, that is, in receiving the true body and blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. The Church has fellowship or a Life Together with herself and with individual members who have been made one body in Christ. Christians have fellowship, partnership, or Life Together in carrying out the Witness (martyria) and Mercy (diakonia) of the Church. As the Church lives her Life Together under the cross, opportunities for Witness and Mercy abound.
The Witness, Mercy, and Life Together of the Church centers on the cross of Jesus. The Church’s Witness to the world proceeds from the cross of Jesus, where He died to forgive the sins of the entire world. The Church’s work of Mercy is enabled by the cross, where Jesus showed His love for us. As He loved us, we go and love our neighbor, helping, serving, and showing mercy to them when in need. The Church’s Life Together is lived under the cross of Jesus. Each of these is held together and connected by His cross. Each overlaps and flows into the other yet retains a distinctive emphasis and purpose. The words behind Witness, Mercy, and Life Together are found throughout the Scriptures. These or similar words are used by churches throughout the world to describe the purpose of the Church. Martyria, diakonia, koinonia are ecumenical words, known by the Church worldwide.
Represented as three equal circles, they serve as a reminder that no one area should dominate the other. When Witness (martyria) is emphasized to the diminishment of the other two, the focus becomes mission, evangelism or witness without care for the neighbor or for a Life Together gathered around the Word and Sacraments. When Mercy (diakonia) is emphasized above the others, the end result is a social gospel, where feeding the poor or caring for those in need is seen as equal to or more important than the forgiveness of sins. When Life Together (koinonia) is emphasized above the others, some sort of rabid ecumenicism is
created, where the confession is lost and honest differences in the Church are no longer seen, where unity is the overarching principle. None of these three extremes represents health for the Church.
The work and life of the Church engages in Witness (martyria), Mercy (diakonia), and Life Together (koinonia) with the cross of Jesus at the center. These aspects flow into one another. One begins with Jesus, and each aspect complements and flows into the others. Jesus bore witness to His Father by going to the cross. Jesus served and showed mercy to those in need. And Jesus has called us into a Life Together with Him. As the Church lives in Christ, the Church also follows this pattern, this threefold emphasis of Witness, Mercy, and Life Together—for the Church and for the world.
> For more on the new threefold emphases, go to www.lcms.org/?17740.
> To read the "Witness, Mercy, Life Together." blog, go to www.wmltblog.org/.
> To order "Witness, Mercy, Life Together." posters, see “new releases” at www.cph.org.
About the Author: Rev. Dr. Albert B. Collver III is director of church relations—assistant to LCMS President Rev. Matthew C. Harrison.
Albert B. Collver III