Anthropocentrism – it’s a big word with a simple meaning: man-centredness. All of us should know that this is a problem with our natural human condition. We want the world to revolve around us. By nature, we find a world with God in the centre difficult to accept. This way of thinking is common enough in non-Christian circles. How sad it is, then, to see this way of thinking also accepted by many who claim the Name above every name. In one of his books, popular author Max Lucado penned the following:
I’ve seen you stalking the malls, walking the aisles, searching for that extra-special gift. Stashing away a few dollars a month to buy him some lizard-skin boots; staring at a thousand rings to find her the best diamond; staying up all Christmas Eve, assembling the new bicycle.
Why do you do it? So her eyes will pop, his jaw will drop. To hear those words of disbelief: “You did this for me?”
And that is why God did it. Next time a sunrise steals your breath or a meadow of flowers leaves you speechless, remain that way.
Say nothing, and listen as heaven whispers, “Do you like it? I did it just for you.”[i]
That sounds nice. It appeals to our emotions. God’s acts of creation and providence exist just for us. Doesn’t that make us feel good? It might make us feel good, but it is not what Scripture teaches. In the Psalms (e.g. 8 and 19), for instance, we find that God’s work in this world is not for us, but for him – for his glory!
God’s work in this world includes the creation and sustenance of a special people consecrated to himself. In other words, God’s work includes the church. Here too, we often find people claiming that the church exists for the sake of man. This is often done with good intentions. There is a desire to stir up mission-mindedness in believers. So, to do so, the claim is made, with reference to certain Scripture passages, that the church has been placed on this earth to serve man. The church is for the world.
So, the question must be asked: for whom is the church? If we read the first chapter of Ephesians, the answer seems to be clear enough. Among other places, we read it in Ephesians 1:11-12, “In him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, that we who first trusted in Christ should be to the praise of his glory.” If we keep in mind that this epistle was written to the church at Ephesus, then the conclusion is easily reached: the church exists for God and for his glory. The church exists so that God will be considered of utmost importance in the universe – that he will be made much of and considered as weighty. Laying aside the more complicated questions of the relationship between election and the church, this conclusion is certainly a valid one. After all, the Westminster Shorter Catechism is certainly correct when it answers the question, “What is the chief end of man?” with the answer “To glorify God and enjoy him forever.” If that is true of individual human beings, how much more true would it not be for the church? So, in the most ultimate sense, the Church exists for the glory of God.
Nevertheless, there are those Scripture passages which seem to indicate that there is at least some sense in which the Church also exists for the world of sinful men. The passage to which reference is most commonly made is Genesis 12:3, where God promises Abraham, “And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” He repeats this promise in Genesis 22:18, “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed…” This does not indicate that Abraham himself was called to be actively involved with missionary work. What it does indicate is that God had a plan for the salvation of all the nations through the seed of Abraham – in other words, through the Church.[ii] God worked with the people of Israel in the Old Testament to eventually bring salvation to people from every corner of the earth. The Lord Jesus himself recognized this when he said in John 4:22, “…salvation is of the Jews.” Today, we would say that salvation has come to us historically through the Church.
The normal pattern is that God’s salvation is mediated through the Church. That’s why we confess in article 28 of the Belgic Confession that “there is no salvation outside of it [the church].” God’s plan for the salvation of sinful men centers on Christ’s work proclaimed through the Church. Though God certainly does not need the Church, she is the means that he has chosen to bring the gospel to the nations.
This perspective is reinforced with Psalm 87. This mission-oriented psalm portrays the beautiful image of Egypt (Rahab), Babylon, Philistia, Tyre, and Ethiopia finding their home in Zion. All of these nations will find a place in God’s holy city. Today, the Jerusalem from above is God’s holy city. Today, through the ministry of the church, men and women from countless nations are finding their true homeland. God’s redemptive work among them centers on Christ and his beloved bride, the church.
Therefore, we may say that there is definitely a sense in which the church today exists for the world. But how do we relate this to what we concluded earlier from Paul’s teaching in Ephesians? As long as we keep our eye on the fact that God is working through the church, the relationship is easily defined. The church ultimately exists for the glory of God. The church also exists for the salvation of man, just as the ark existed for the salvation of Noah and his family. When the church fulfills this secondary purpose for her existence, then she fulfills her primary purpose of giving more glory to God. Therefore, the two are not antithetical. The church is for the world so that she can ultimately lift up God’s Name in ever greater measures.
If we keep this in mind, we avoid the danger of anthropocentrism – man-centredness. If we keep in mind that the glory of God is always our highest end, then we may avoid being ship-wrecked on the rocks of the consumer-oriented seeker-friendly movement. On the other hand, if we remain mindful that the church exists also for those outside, then we avoid an insular isolationism whereby we fail to explicitly reach out to others lost in the darkness with the good news of Christ our Saviour.
In connection with this, there is always the danger that this idea of the church existing for the world will be abused. It could be used to manipulate believers with guilt. Some have spoken of the danger of a new legalism. In other words, if you are not personally involved with organized outreach, then you are not truly spiritual.[iii] Let us be clear that the church is called to mission – individual believers in the church have their own specific life-tasks in which they are called to shine brightly for the Lord Jesus Christ. When a believer works faithfully in all his daily callings and genuinely cares for the lost around him, he need feel no guilt if he is not directly involved with organized mission. Now even though the danger of abuse is there, we may not use that danger as an excuse to ignore a scriptural truth. Thus, it remains for every church as a corporate whole to examine itself: does this church give maximal glory to God through her support or undertaking of mission in our own country and elsewhere? Could we do more?
To conclude, we must answer the question of “For whom is the Church?” with a “both…and.” The church exists for both the world and God. However, we quickly qualify that by adding that the ultimate reason for the church’s existence is for the glory of God. Look to the Lord Jesus Christ, the bridegroom. He came into this world to die for sinners. In Mark 10:45, he tells us why he came: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” In John 11, when the Lord Jesus healed his friend Lazarus, he clearly indicated his ministry was for the glory of God. In this case, what is true of the bridegroom is also true of the bride: they are both there for the salvation of men. But both also exist ultimately for the glory of God. “Now to him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” (Eph. 3:21).