Thus far, I have attempted to establish a biblical basis for individual Christian cultural activity, but when Christians gather together as local churches, the picture narrows to a certain degree. This is due to the fact that not everything Scripture commands of Christians as individuals applies in the same way to local churches as institutions. To cite an obvious example that Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert use in their very helpful book on the subject, What is the Mission of the Church?, Christ’s command for a Christian husband to love his wife as his own body does not extend to a church as a whole. DeYoung and Gilbert rightly point out that there is a difference between “the church organic,” that is, Christians living life together within the community, and “the church institutional,” the local gathering of believers who covenant together to fulfill very specific responsibilities given by Christ to local churches. These responsibilities have been given to churches “when you come together” (1 Cor 11); they are responsibilities not given to individual Christians when they are alone or even to groups of Christians who are not gathered together formally as a local church.
Churches as formal, local institutions have been given a very specific, singular mission in this age, best articulated in the Great Commission (Matt 28:19–20). “Make disciples” is the mandate Christ gave to his church—nothing more and nothing less. Churches make disciples by faithfully proclaiming the gospel, by “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” and by “teaching them to observe all that” Christ has commanded. Nowhere does the New Testament command churches to transform or “redeem” culture.
Yes, God intends to restore all things, he intends to unite his redemptive reign with his universal reign, but this is not happening during the present age, and the church has no direct role in such restoration. Instead, the New Testament promises that this age will continue to grow increasingly wicked (2 Ti 3:13), and thus, although individual cultural pursuits are worthy as part of the common kingdom, Scripture never commands churches or even individual Christians to seek for complete societal transformation. Yet this pessimism about the trajectory of the world’s systems in this age is balanced with an optimism in the power of the gospel to change lives and the reality of Christ’s coming again to set up his kingdom on earth. Only he can accomplish societal transformation.
As an institution, the church’s mission is not cultural or societal transformation. The church’s mission is exclusively redemptive: make disciples.