In the past week I’ve started reading The Church of Christ by James Bannerman (1807-68). If you aren’t familiar with the work, you should be. It is a classic treatment of Reformed ecclessiology. With almost a thousand pages in two volumes, there isn’t much Bannerman doesn’t cover. Chapter 7 deals with “the church in its relation to the world.” The chapter sounds remarkably contemporary. I’ll probably say more about the book and this chapter later, but it’s worth highlighting the main points here.

It is deeply interesting, then, to inquire into the place and office assigned to the Church of Christ in the world. What is the peculiar and important work given to the Christian Church to do upon earth. . . .What, then, I ask, is the mission of the Church on the earth, and its office in relation to the world?

Bannerman then makes and expound three statements.

  • “In the first place, the Christian Church, in reference to the world in which it is found, is designed and fitted to be a witness for Christ, and not a substitute for Christ.”
  • “In the second place, the Christian Church in the world is an outward ordinance of God, fitted and designed to be the instrument of the Spirit, but not the substitute of the Spirit.” He explains that church fulfills the outward ordinance of God through Word and Sacrament and its own government.
  • “In the third place, the Christian Church in the world is fitted and designed to serve as a means for effecting the communion of Christians with each other—not to be a substitute for the communion of Christians with their Savior.”

In the next chapter, Bannerman allows that the church may work for the betterment of society as a “secondary object,” but this, he argues, is not the primary aim.

The bottom line: Christ works out his purposes on earth by his Spirit and by his Church, and that purpose or mission is “His great work in the conversion and sanctification of His people.” This is the “mighty and mysterious task entrusted” to the Church.