The Primary Ministry of the Church

September/ October, 1978
Volume 13, Number 5

The 1978 Annual Conference of the Church of the Brethren held at Indianapolis is now history. More than one thousand delegates met to discuss the business of the Brotherhood under the moderatorship of Brother Ira Peters.

Those who attended Conference had an opportunity to participate in a wide variety of experiences including attending Bible Study sessions, viewing exhibits, feeding in on business sessions, doing informal visiting, observing the installation of Robert W. Neff as the new General Secretary of the Church of the Brethren, and noting that for the first time the ballot carried only the names of women for the office of moderator-elect.

Substantive matters such as Human Sexuality (Homosexuality) and Biblical Authority and Inspiration and World Missions With a Primary Objectiue of Saving Souls will become items for decision at next year’s Annual Meeting in Seattle. The Conference this year entered into discussion on items of less significance such as gun control, disarmament, the frequency of Conference, etc. The singing was good; the general spirit of the meeting was good; but the differences between the evangelical and the liberal understandings of the faith were frequently evident.

One can clearly sense that there are two different kinds of faith advocated by the Brethren. There are differences in style and language and approach and presuppositions and affirmations. Some of the differences are disguised because many of the older theological words have been given new and secularized meanings. For example, the grand old word “salvation,” for many, has no eternal, spiritual dimension. “Salvation” is a thisworld-only deliverance in social, economic, and political terms. The word “salvation” now means “God’s intervention in world events which turns world-history into salvation-history by overcoming evil political powers.”

The concern on the part of many members within the Brotherhood, for increased spiritual nurture, apparently has not reached the General Board. The emphasis now is on “Salvation and Justice” which is defined not in biblical terms, but as a call to bring an end to the manufacture of nuclear arms, to promote world disarmament, and to establish a new international economic order. It is disappointing that Annual Conference (which deals with many issues related to human need in today’s world), devotes very little time to promoting programs that share the simple message of the saving Gospel (liberation from sin’s guilt through the blood of Jesus Christ). This is the liberation message that people everywhere need most.



The Primary Ministry of the Church

by Harold S. Martin

The primary mission of the Church is to confront people with the message of salvation. The “message” is the good news that Jesus Christ shed His blood for our sins (Revelation 1:5-6), and that those who respond with “repentance toward God and faith toward Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21) are freed from the guilt of sin and are brought into a right relationship with God. Another important ministry of the Church is the task of nurturing believers in the faith (Ephesians 4:12-14), and teaching them to observe the commandments given in the Scriptures (Matthew 28:18-20).

A new kind of activity has appeared in our generation. The goal of many churchmen today is to bring about a reconstruction of society primarily through political action. Many clergymen and theologians and other persons of good will, seem to be obsessed with the idea that the church should become a base for promoting change in the social institutions, and that if the world were operated by persons who adhered to their ideals, the Millennium would come relatively soon. Wars would be eliminated, troubles would be dissolved, and there would be an abundance for all.

The church’s primary ministry is to share the message of Jesus Christ as the One who was “wounded for our transgressions” and purchased our eternal redemption – but this does not mean that God’s people are anti-socially minded. It is absurd to discuss whether or not the Christian has any social responsibility. Evangelical Christians have always helped alleviate suffering, established educational institutions, and promoted good health and sanitation practices. But these activities fall under the label of “social service,” not “social action.” Social “service” speaks of bringing relief for the victims of war, providing disaster aid, retirement and nursing homes, drug rehabilitation programs, and so forth. Christian love compels us to minister to the whole person – to be concerned with temporal as well as eternal needs. However, sometimes in our denominations, we place priority on “service” projects, whereas they really should be secondary.

On the other hand, social “action” speaks of bringing political reform through the power of the state. It emphasizes antipoverty legislation, laws for open housing, anti-war measures, a reduction in armaments, supporting organized boycotts, and paying legal defense for political revolutionaries. Even some of the “new” evangelicals are saying that the church must become an action group that speaks out on political issues and lobbies for legislative action, in order to bring reform in society. For many church leaders, these enterprises become the primary ministry of the church. They are so preoccupied with civil affairs that there is little time for leading people to a personal faith in Jesus Christ.

Many theological seminaries now teach students how to Analyze bills that are introduced in legislative bodies, and how to lobby for the passage of particular bills. Nearly every mainline denomination maintains lobbyists in our nation’s capitol and in some state capitols. Most denominations issue numerous materials on a vast array of social issues. These materials are often known as “guides to legislation,” and are intended to instruct clergy in the dynamics of planned social change. This activity is fast becoming the primary work of the churches and is consuming an increasing proportion of staff time and of financial resources. The gospel of social revolution is superceding the New Testament Gospel of redemption.

There are some real problems with all this social action activity. Those who say the primary ministry of the church should be in the arena of social and political and economic change – are promoting a cause which often relies upon some basic fallacies.


Throughout His ministry, Jesus placed emphasis on the lone individual. Nicodemus came alone by night, and Jesus talked with him (and the conversation was not about political change either). When Jesus met the woman at Jacob’s Well, He spoke to her about personal morality. Zaccheus, the man in need of salvation, was counseled alone. The rich young ruler came running to Jesus and he was dealt with on an individual basis. Jesus ministered to the centurion (who had a servant that was dying), not as a soldier in the hated Roman army, but as another pathetic individual with a human need. Jesus listened to the cry of the individual. He was not a revolutionary trying to change the system, but a compassionate Saviour ministering to individual persons.

Those who preach the Gospel work personally on a man-to-man and family-to-family basis, and do not urge some far off government agency to do the work for them. Those who engage in political activism deal with the masses of men through the action of the state. But people in our society already are mere numbers, and when the church pursues political action rather than personal evangelism, it becomes just one more agency that depersonalizes people.

In Luke 10:33-37, the Good Samaritan was ,’moved with pity,” and took the wounded man “to the inn.” The Samaritan bound up the man’s wounds; he didn’t push for legislation to make the Jericho road safe for travel. Our Lord’s whole teaching has to do with each person’s relationship to God and to his neighbors, friends, family, and enemies. Christianity teaches a message of personal faith, personal charity, and personal purity.


Every human being is basically at enmity with God. He is separated from God by sin. The problems raging throughout the world are the product of man’s sinful nature.

Social actionists are usually concerned with the symptoms of personal and social disorder, and ignore the cause of man’s distress. The root of our problems is not simply capitalism or bureaucracy. The root of our great social problems is man’s alienation from God. Political revolutions produce new social institutions, but they are without power to change human nature.

What scrap of historical evidence is there to show that the basic quality of life has been radically changed by merely changing the social institutions? We can move people from one part of town to another, and provide better housing for the poor, but they will still be sinners. No miracle is going to take place in a moving van! Men can alter the economy from capitalism to socialism, but corruption and boredom and social ills continue to be rampant even in socialist countries.

We all know that to try and get rid of cavities in the teeth by brushing the teeth vigorously for fifteen minutes before going to the dentist – is fruitless. One can get rid of some surface dirt, but lie doesn’t get to the root of the problem. So it is with those who let political reform take priority over spiritual transformation. Man’s inherent tendencies to do wrong are usually ignored.


The essence of the true Gospel centers around the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (I Corinthians 15:1-4). His death as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world is a key doctrine. The true Gospel affects our relationships with other people. The closing chapters of nearly all the Now Testament Epistles are filled with exhortations concerning Christian conduct in the home, in the church, and in our daily occupation.

Before the writers of the New Testament Epistles begin to apply the Gospel to these practical settings however, they nearly always give a thorough exposition telling what the Gospel is. The social action advocates (by way of contrast) say practically nothing about personal salvation and the morality of the individual. One church leader said that the personal habits of individuals (such as smoking, drinking, gambling, and sleeping with another man’s wife), are not nearly as serious as the great social issues of poverty and racism.

Ilion Jones tells about one seminary professor who was advocating social action and who constantly urged that his students “apply the Gospel to social situations” – when one of the students (a third-year student at the school) said, “But would you please tell us precisely what the Gospel is; just what is this Gospel that we are supposed to apply?”

Jesus did more to improve the conditions under which people live than any other person. He did it not by setting up welfare programs and redistributing money and pressuring legislators, but by regenerating the souls of men and women. In this way, He gave men and women spiritual vision and faith, and made them persons of integrity. He gave them ideals for which to live.


The “Life and Work Conference” held in Sweden in August, 1925 issued a report that defines the issue. The report says that throughout the first eighteen centuries of church history, “the vast majority of pastors and church members regarded religion as dealing with the welfare of men in the next world.” The report says that the dominant question during those years was “What must I do to be saved?” And a customary answer was “Repent, believe the Gospel, receive Christian baptism, and obey the commandments.” The primary concern of Christianity was “a correct belief about God and Jesus Christ and the future life – and living a proper personal life.”

The 1925 document continues, “Beginning however with the middle of the nineteenth century, a change began to take place in the interpretation of Christianity. Emphasis began to be placed on Christianity as having to do with this world … and that the real aim of Jesus was to establish a brotherhood which should transform society, and beget a Kingdom of God on earth.”

J. B. Phillips (translator of the New Testament) is not an evangelical by an y means. But in his preface to Letters to Young Churches he says, “To the writers of the New Testament, this world and this present life were only minor incidents. They refused to conform to this world’s values, remembering they were only temporary residents. Their real citizenship was in the eternal world beyond.”

The “gospel” being advanced by those who stress the social action activity of the church, is a preoccupation with getting a fair deal in this life. They generally say very little about the world to come. Yet the message which the world needs above all is a message that will bring an answer to the ultimate concerns of the human heart:

  • “What is the meaning of life?”
  • “What about this human nature that I must contend with?”
  • “What about the immortality of the soul?”

These are the ultimate concerns that every person faces sometime or other in his life – and none of the programs of social action can answer these basic questions.

According to the New Testament, the Christian Church has a double task. Its first task is to proclaim the Gospel to the world; its second task is to edify and nurture believers. The church has no commission to deal with the economic problems of human society, nor with politics and international affairs.

The whole thrust of Jesus and the Apostles was toward inner change within individuals – a process that would of course ultimately have its effect on institutions, Jesus and the Apostles did not concern themselves with the social structure of Judea, nor with the political structure of the Roman world. They did not attempt a dual ministry, directed partly toward the reform of institutions and partly toward the salvation of souls. The Apostle Paul never organized sit-ins at the Colosseum, but he did preach about morality and personal salvation to Agrippa.

When the church sought political power in the past, it was always disastrous for the faith. During the Middle Ages, the political activism of the church was at its height. Bishops ruled as nobles, and the church had the power to humble kings, No one would contend that these were times for which the church should be proud. If a local congregation forces its will on a city council, or if a national church body is able to dominate a country – the church buys its power by selling its faith.

If the church continues its defection from proclaiming the message of redemption through Jesus Christ, and elects to center its activities on the physical plane – it will rapidly become an increasingly secularized institution, and will more and more lose its power to become a beneficial force in society.