Dr. Arnold interviews Greg Gilbert on the mission of the church.
Topics of conversation include:
- A definition of the term mission
- A definition of the word church
- How the mission of the church is to proclaim the gospel and make disciples
- The difference between an individual Christian’s responsibility and the organized church’s role when it comes to engaging in good works
- How pastors should lead their churches in thinking through issues of social justice, poverty, etc.
Greg Gilbert is the senior pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, KY. He is the author of Assured: Discover Grace, Let Go of Guilt, and Rest in Your Salvation (Baker, 2019), and What Is the Gospel? (Crossway, 2010). He has also co-authored the book What Is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission (Crossway, 2011).
Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.
Brian Arnold (00:17):
What do you think of when you hear the word church? I think that for so many people, the church is the place they go to on Sunday, they sing some songs, they give some money, they hear a sermon, and then repeat it the next week. But the church is meant to be something so much bigger. Jesus Christ died for his church, and the church is the mission of God for the world. Through the church, God is reconciling sinners to himself and bringing them into the family of God. But what is the nature of that mission? Is the church a cultural change agent for social justice? Is the church meant to be a seeker sensitive place, simply a tool to get people saved through evangelism? Is the church meant to disciple people who are already professing Christ? Or is it some combination of these? Well, defining the mission of the church is critical in our day, especially as we see such decline happening in this culture.
Brian Arnold (01:03):
If we would see the church impact this world for Christ, then we must know what the mission of the church is. Well, to help us understand the mission of the church, we have with us today, Greg Gilbert, who is the senior pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. He’s the author of What Is the Gospel?, Assured: Discover Grace, Let Go of Guilt, and Rest in Your Salvation. And for our time together today, he’s the co-author of What Is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission. Greg, welcome to the podcast.
Greg Gilbert (01:37):
Thanks Brian. Super good to be with you.
Brian Arnold (01:39):
So we always have one big question for our guests. Today that question is—what is the mission of the church? And I think we need to begin with some definitions here. And one of those definitions is the word mission. The way that we use mission today, that word really isn’t even found in Scripture, is it?
Greg Gilbert (01:56):
Well, it comes from Latin, so no. It’s, you know, missio, and it just means to be sent, in order to accomplish a certain thing, you know? A similar word in Greek, though, would be the word that the word apostle comes from. Which also means…you know, an apostle is a sent one. And it means to be sent to do a particular thing. But that’s essentially what it means. What is the thing Jesus himself has sent the, you know, the church to do?
Brian Arnold (02:24):
Well, let’s dive into that. What did Jesus commission the church to do? So yeah, with what is mission—mission is what we’re sent to do. And then church. Like, how would you define the church, maybe, before we hop in? And then we’ll bring those two together.
Greg Gilbert (02:42):
Yeah, sure. Well, I mean a church is not just any group of Christians who happen to be sitting around at a Starbucks. A church is a group of Christians who have a mutual understanding that they are organized together as a local embassy of the king of heaven. And when they have that mutual understanding with one another, they’re taking on themselves certain responsibilities and obligations that they did not have five minutes prior before they made that mutual recognition. So, you know, for example, if you’ve got a Bible study that meets at a Starbucks, you’re not necessarily taking on yourself the obligation, for example, to church discipline. To perform church discipline on somebody if they’re in unrepentant sin. But as soon as you, you know, you folks at the Starbucks table say, “Hey, we want to be a church.” Well then, all of a sudden, you do in fact have obligations like that one. And a whole lot more. So it’s an organized group of people who mutually recognize and affirm that they’re an embassy of the king, and therefore they have certain obligations and responsibilities.
Brian Arnold (03:53):
I want to go right for the jugular of something there, because I can imagine somebody listening and thinking of Matthew 18—”where two or three are gathered, there I am in the midst of you,” as the definition of a church. So if I’m with a buddy, and we’re on Camelback Mountain climbing, and we’re like—”look at God’s glory out here,” who would say—”well, there’s the church gathered together.” So you would say that’s not the best way to think of it.
Greg Gilbert (04:14):
Yeah, no, that’s not even what that verse means. If you read, you know, up into that chapter above that, the whole context of that chapter is, in fact, about an organized local church. So it’s—how do you handle it when a brother sins against you? And eventually it comes down to—you bring it to the church, which is like, as an organization, able to both listen and speak with one voice. And then Jesus uses the keys of the kingdom language—whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. So we’re talking huge categories of authority there. The ability to speak for the king on earth. And it’s not individual Christians who have that. It’s organized, local embassies of the king. And then, you know, immediately after that Jesus tacks on that phrase, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” Well, it’s in that context of an organized local church. And being gathered in Jesus’s name means to take his name on you as a group of people, as an organized embassy of the king. That’s what that means.
Brian Arnold (05:28):
Well, I think that clears up a lot of the confusion around that verse. To me, it’s one of the most misquoted verses in the Bible, especially with so much confusion about ecclesiology—what is the doctrine of the church today? How do we form churches and think through their structure? Which is so lacking. So I think this conversation is going to help with that, of even determining what the mission of the church is. So how would you define, in maybe a sentence or two, what the mission of the church is?
Greg Gilbert (05:55):
Well, it’s a complicated conversation, but it’s a very simple conclusion—that the mission of the church, like the golden instructions that the king has given to his embassies in the world, is to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ and make disciples of Jesus Christ. Kind of full stop. Like, that’s it. And, you know, at the end of Matthew, he follows that up by saying, “teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded.” But that’s like the, you know, that’s the guts of making disciples. That’s what that means. So he’s just explaining it. But yeah, the golden mission is—proclaim the gospel of Jesus and make disciples of Jesus.
Brian Arnold (06:37):
I think that’s important. Even looking at the great commission, so-called great commission in Matthew 28—”baptizing them.” That means you’re bringing them into the faith. There’s evangelism occurring. People are giving their lives to Christ. And then—”teaching them to observe all I’ve commanded you” is discipleship. So evangelism and discipleship form these core pillars of the mission of the church.
Greg Gilbert (06:55):
Yeah, that’s right. And even baptism is explanatory of proclaiming the gospel, because it’s the end, right? You proclaim the king, you proclaim the king’s mercy to rebels, and baptism is…really, it’s the pledge of allegiance to the kingdom of heaven. That’s what it is. It’s taking the microphone of the universe, essentially, and saying to heaven and hell and everybody else who’s listening, “I have a new king. I renounce my loyalties to the world and to my king’s enemies. And I am with him now.” And so it’s a declaration of war on hell.
Brian Arnold (07:32):
Well, the book you wrote, What Is the Mission of the Church? You co-authored it with Kevin DeYoung, and there was obviously some controversy brewing that led you guys to write this. And I’m sure that since the time of writing, it’s received quite a bit of criticism. Lay out for us—why did you write this book, and what types of criticism were you receiving and what were you kind of writing against?
Greg Gilbert (07:55):
Yeah, so we…Kevin and I were, and are, a part of just a friend group that would get together a couple of times a year and talk about all kinds of things. And there was a point where Kevin and I were sort of arguing about this topic with another dude in the friend group. And another guy in the friend group said, “Hey, Greg, you and Kevin seem to be saying like…arguing the same thing. You guys could get a long way in writing about this.” I mean, he’s Presbyterian and I’m Baptist, so we figured we would hit the rocks eventually trying to write a book about the church. But he said, “Hey, you guys should give it a shot.” And so we did. What we were thinking about though, were just…not anything in particular, but books, podcasts, blog posts at the time, that was the deal…churches and their mission statements, who just kept saying things like, “the mission of our local church is to transform the city and transform the world.” You know, using that kind of language. “Have our city in the shalom of God and bring, you know…bring it into peace with God.”
Greg Gilbert (09:06):
And we just saw—both of us just saw—a multitude of theological questions/problems with that kind of language, that kind of covered the waterfront. And the more we thought about it, we realized, “wow, this is a super complicated conversation that seems to skitter from one topic to another along the beach.” And so we just thought, “well, let’s see how far we can get with a book.” And out popped—What Is the Mission of the Church?
Brian Arnold (09:33):
Well, it’s a book that in my previous context did not strike me, because I had not come into contact with that much. When I moved to Phoenix in 2015, I started to encounter a lot of pastors and a lot of churches who used that type of language. And your book became my first read, I think, when I got here in 2015, to say—what is happening here? And ever since then, I’ve handed it out to people who say, “I’m hearing stuff in my church. It just doesn’t hit me right…like doctrinally, they seem right, but something seems a little off.” And I have them read this book, and the lights come on for them. And they say, “no, that’s exactly it—the things that I’m not hearing anymore, that I used to hear, the things that I am hearing.” Where do you think this came from? Any theological trajectories in particular? Or specific theologians?
Greg Gilbert (10:17):
It’s really interesting. And somebody needs to, if they haven’t already, write a PhD dissertation on this. And it seems to me, looking through history, that when Reformed Theology sort of catches on, and there’s a movement, and it’s not really having to argue anymore against Arminianism, but it sort of wins the day. One of the very first things that it will do, is move toward a kind of Abraham Kuyperian, Christ Transforming Culture sort of understanding. And I’m not exactly sure what the, you know, what the theological things are in there that are causing that to happen. But I think in the Reformed movement of the last 20 years or so, you could definitely see those kinds of things…you know, solid soteriology, but then a movement toward a Christ Transforming Culture insistence. Like, you know, treating that as if it’s a promise in Scripture. When I…I don’t think a transformed culture is, in fact, promised in Scripture. Until the end, right? Now at the new heavens and new earth—yes, absolutely. But until that point, I would just argue—no, not really.
Brian Arnold (11:28):
Okay. I want to come back to that. But I want to echo your call for anybody listening who might be going into a PhD program, interested in these topics. Greg, I’ve had students over the last five or six years, as I worked through this in my classes, even on church history, using Niebuhr’s approach of Christ and Culture, of those five kind of paradigms, through which we understand Christ culture. You mentioned one of them, of transformationalism, and trying to figure out where this really came from. Because I think you’re right. Once Calvinism has kind of—if you will—won the day, this is the way it turns…and I want to say morphs, even. We think about like the Neo-Calvinism through the Lausanne Covenant, that really begins to explicate this type of thing and take deeper root.
Brian Arnold (12:14):
But I’m going to go back to even that kind of transformational piece, as maybe the key difference between where you and DeYoung and myself are at, versus where some of these other pastors are today. Especially because the fuse has been lit in the last three or four years over gender issues and racial issues. Especially racial issues, I think, and what the call of the church is for social justice in this world. And this is a major dividing point. And here you are, in Louisville, Kentucky, which was one of the cities most caught up in this turmoil. So how do you help, even as a pastor, your church understand these things? And what would you say to a pastor who sees part of the church’s mission to be a social justice agent in the world?
Greg Gilbert (13:04):
Yeah, well, I…you know, what I would say is that I think the Christian worldview and the gospel has all the medication that is necessary to bring about racial reconciliation. I think that’s what Paul is doing in Ephesians 2, right? Lays out the gospel in the first 10 verses of that chapter, and then turns immediately to racial reconciliation. You know, in his context it’s between Jews and Gentiles. So, you know…I mean, my kind of intellectual, architectural structure of the whole thing would be that when we proclaim the gospel, that gospel then has a hundred ramifications and implications that flow out of it. And one of the things that will happen as the gospel is preached, and people come into the church, and the gospel is internalized in them, is that reconciliation between all kinds of people, but also between ethnicities, will start to happen.
Brian Arnold (14:08):
Absolutely. I mean, we have a deep desire to see this racial reconciliation. To recognize that one day around the throne, a myriad upon myriad, maybe billions of Christians from every tribe, tongue and nation gathered together, united in Christ, worshiping with one another. So I think there’s a deep desire to see that. It’s just the ways and the mechanisms used today to get there don’t seem to be aligned with Scripture oftentimes.
Greg Gilbert (14:37):
Well, yeah. And you know, it’s an interesting moment, especially the last year and a half or so, how willing Christian leaders have been, even in the Reformed movement, to sort of adopt worldly philosophies, things that were invented by the world and pushed by the world. And I’ve been shocked to see how much Christian leaders have been willing to sort of…it’s almost a substituting of those worldly frameworks and theories and all the rest of it, for the tools that we have in the Christian worldview for accomplishing good in this area. So it’s been surprising to me.
Brian Arnold (15:22):
So let’s talk about some other, because obviously the race one gets tensions really high, pretty quickly, and people don’t just have different views on that—they become very heated on those kinds of issues. But obviously the Bible talks about things like widows and orphans. I’m thinking about “true religion,” in James 1:27, “is to look after widows and orphans.” Or the admonishment throughout Scripture to take care of the poor. And I think about Galatians 2:10, where Paul says, “you asked us to remember the poor, the very thing we were eager to do.” You know, surrounded by all this debate that he’s having with the church of Galatia on the gospel itself. So what is the church’s role in overcoming things like poverty, or at least engaging in those areas? And so, how would you help us understand maybe the difference between the individual believer’s role versus the mission of the church?
Greg Gilbert (16:15):
Yeah, well…I mean, those are two huge questions. So there is very much a difference between the organized church and a Christian. Or even a group of Christians. So, you know, Christians may have a deployment from the Lord, and, you know—you use the word calling if you want to—to do all kinds of good stuff in the world, right? And that would be, you know, digging clean water wells in countries that don’t have them, or ending sex trafficking, or pushing back against…I mean, just any number of things that you could identify. And any individual Christian, or group of Christians who organize for that purpose, can and should go after those things and do good in those areas. A church, though, is different. Like, you know, the church’s mission is given to it by the king.
Greg Gilbert (17:05):
And like we said at the beginning, it’s to proclaim the gospel and make disciples. Now the church can decide, I think, that, you know, we’re going to do some of these other good things, but I think the difference has to be that it can never say—that’s our mission. It’s not…the church can never say, “it’s our mission to have so many, you know, clean water wells in a particular country.” It can do those things. It’s just that those good things need to be in service to the great golden mission of proclaiming the gospel and making disciples. So, you know, the question about good works is I…you know, Kevin and…one of the things…you asked about criticisms, one of the things that the book gets dinged for a lot is a kind of charge that Kevin and I are downplaying the importance of good works.
Greg Gilbert (17:51):
We’re not, though. Good works are important. The question we’re raising with the book is—what, biblically speaking, is the purpose of those good works? Do they serve in the Bible, do those good works that Christians are to do, that the church is told to do at times, do they serve as an end in themselves? Or do they serve to confirm and adorn and affirm this gospel that we’re preaching? And, you know, we would argue very much, the latter. We don’t do good works just as an end in themselves. And the way the Bible talks about good works is not that you’re going to wrap your city in shalom and eradicate poverty. Jesus is really clear about that, actually—the poor you will always have with you, right? So he puts a nail in that one. The purpose of them is to adorn and confirm this gospel that we’re preaching.
Brian Arnold (18:46):
So I might be playing devil’s advocate here a little bit, but let’s go back to digging wells in countries without clean water, and a group of Christians saying, “look, even if they don’t give their lives to Christ, isn’t this still a good work that’s being done for fellow image bearers that we’re showing the love of Christ?” They may not come. Or do we have to have the goal of planting a church there and seeing disciples made? How would you work somebody through that?
Greg Gilbert (19:17):
Yeah, well, I mean, if you’re just a group of Christians who haven’t sort of taken on yourself, the, you know, the name of a church, right? You haven’t organized as an embassy of the king. If you’re just a group of Christians, yeah. By all means, go do it. You know? You do it because it’s good. You do it because, you know, people have a need for clean water, right? If you’re a church, on the other hand, you know, your goal in everything that you do has been given to you by the king, and you don’t have authority to change that. So, you know, you can do any number of good things—engage, you know, an elementary school in your town and buy a bunch of computers for them. But the goal beyond that needs to be…what we’re trying to do is win capital, you know. Win a hearing with people, by doing good things, so that we can preach the gospel to them. So that we can tell them the gospel.
Brian Arnold (20:10):
It’s kind of a greater-lesser thing. I’ve been thinking about, like Mark 2, with the paralytic getting dropped down through the roof in front of Jesus. Here he is, wanting to be saved. He wants his physical needs met. And Jesus just says to him, “your sins are forgiven.” And that’s actually the bigger thing. And Jesus makes that point with the Pharisees, right? Then the bigger thing is that his sins will be healed, so that you know, that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins, I say to you rise up, take your mat and walk. And so he, you know, going to these different places, recognizing the souls of people are eternal, and yes, we need to meet these physical needs. And we need to love people in these ways. But the greater thing is that they’re going to stand before God one day.
Greg Gilbert (20:49):
And imagine how much more those people who were healed by Jesus were ready to listen to him, after he healed them. Right? He was, in that, not just doing it as an end in itself. He was doing it, so that the gospel he was preaching would be adorned and confirmed.
Brian Arnold (21:04):
So I want to be sure it’s clear for everyone who’s listening—good works do play an important part. And I think I can speak for you, Greg—you can confirm or deny this in a minute—but even out of the Reformed tradition, it is always that you are saved for good works. Good works do not save you, but as you are saved you will bear fruit in your life that are even demonstrated in the types of works that you do out of love for Christ. And so to recognize, I think one of the key points you’re making today, is there’s a difference between the individual Christian and the church collective. And the individual Christian may find themselves, like William Wilberforce, engaging in the end of the slave trafficking in the 18th century. But that may not have been the express purpose of his church, which is to evangelize and make disciples. But as a disciple of Jesus, in his realm of influence, he is bringing good to the world.
Greg Gilbert (21:58):
Yeah. And, you know, there were even churches that got involved in that push with him. Like as an organized group of people, not just as individual Christians. But, you know, they put organized money, and influence, and all the rest behind that. And that’s good. It’s just that when they do that, you know, the ultimate purpose of that good work that they’re doing needs to be to proclaim the gospel and make disciples.
Brian Arnold (22:24):
So if there’s other pastors even listening today, how do you, as an experienced pastor, somebody who’s reflected on this a lot, how do you lead your church through thinking through these issues? I mean, what does this even look like, week by week?
Greg Gilbert (22:37):
Yeah, well, some of the conversation gets narrowed down and simplified by the fact that our resources to do things as a church are not unlimited. You know, so a group of elders is going to have to make decisions about…you know, we’ve got 200,000 unused dollars here, right? And we want to start a new ministry initiative. What do we want to do with that? Well, you can’t do everything with $200,000, and you’ve got a lot of options on the table, you know? So, you know, let’s say you’ve got some options on the table that are highly indirectly related to the mission of the church. And then you’ve got other things on the table that are highly directly correlated with it. Well, you know, your circumstances may lead you to something that’s a little less directly correlated with the mission of the church, but that gets there, and you just needed to, you know, win that hearing with your community or whatever. But I think the general rule is that a group of elders—again, in general—should shy toward those ministry which are more directly related and supportive of the great mission of proclaiming the gospel and making disciples. Now wisdom will step in at various times and say, “you know, no, we’re going to do this one because, you know, we think eventually there’ll be more good to come out of it in terms of the mission.” But I think generally more directly, rather than less directly,
Brian Arnold (24:08):
Well, Greg, this is a conversation I’ve been looking forward to for six years. And I mean that. Your book has had a profound influence on my thinking. It’s even trickling down to the students that I’m able to teach, to remind them that Jesus Christ died to save his bride. We see in Ephesians 5, he is giving his life for the church, and by giving his life for the church, he has set us on mission. And the mission of the church to be proclaiming the gospel and discipling believers. And many of those believers who will go out and affect many of these changes, but for the church to keep its focus on proclamation and discipleship-making. That’s really helpful for me. I hope it’s really helpful for a lot of people listening. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Greg Gilbert (24:51):
You’re welcome. Great to be with you.
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