Transition Zone: God’s Purpose in Creation and the Church


We are  seeking to develop a theology of evangelism for the “the transition zone,” (what I am calling that period of human history in which we currently reside that rest between the cultural paradigm of “modernity” and that which will follow, which many call  “post modernity” or “the emerging culture”). 

My thesis is that the church of the “transition zone” may find direction through this paradigm shift by looking back 500 or so years into the last major cultural upheaval (the “transition zone” between pre-modernity and the birth of modernity).  In that transition, a radical or free-church ecclesiological tradition was born known as Anabaptism.  Early blogs discussed what has been happening in “the transition zone.”  Recent blogs introduced Anabaptism.  This blog continues the introduction by delving a bit further into the its ecclesiology (doctrine of the church).  The aim is to build a foundation for a theological framework for evangelism in “the transition zone.”

Continuing from the last blog, we begin today exploring…

God’s Purpose in Creation and Human History 

 What was God’s purpose in establishing the created order?  The biblical writers seem quite clear on this point.  God’s intention for creation was that it serve as a witness to the glory and majesty of God.  Psalms 19:1 declares:  “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”  Likewise human beings, as an integral part of creation, were also created to bring glory to God.  According to Jürgen Moltmann, however, human beings have a special two-fold vocation in the created order.  First, they are commissioned to represent God to creation as God’s appointed stewards.  Second, they are to give all creation a voice in the praising and glorification of God.  Moltmann writes:

As God’s image, human beings are God’s proxy in his creation and represent him.  As God’s image, human beings are for God himself a counterpart, in whom he desires to see himself as if in a mirror.  As God’s image, finally, human beings are created…to reflect and praise the glory of God which enters into creation, and takes up its dwelling there.[i]

Unfortunately humankind has not lived up to its created purpose. The presence of sin has prevented humankind from adequately glorifying God.  What is sin?  Sin is a rebellion against and rejection of God’s purpose for our lives and the created order.  “We demonstrate human sinfulness in our unwillingness to acknowledge God’s authority and in our selfish and irresponsible disregard for our ecological environment and our fellow creatures, both animal and human.”[ii]As such, sin not only affects the human condition, it also affects the entire universe.  All creation now suffers as a result of human sinfulness—as affirmed by the Apostle Paul who wrote:

The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed.

For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.  (Romans 8:19-22)

The discussion about the human condition, however, does not end with sin.  Since God’s glory is not being expressed in creation, God decides to remedy the problem.  What is God remedy?  God’s remedy is grace.  Grenz writes:

As recipients of God’s grace in Christ, we are the people whom God purchased for the sake of God’s glory.  Paul clarified that this was the goal of God’s action in extending grace to sinful humans:  God predestined us to be adopted into his family “to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves” (Ephesians 1:5-6).  God has included us “in Christ” so that we might live “for the praise of his glory” (1:11-14).[iii]

God’s Purpose for the Church

 We have said that the church is a covenant community called forth by grace.  We have said that by its present life together in the koinonia of the Spirit, the church serves as a as a sign of God’s eschatological kingdom.   These factors considered it stands to reason that God’s purpose for the church is to bring glory to God.  In a guide to Baptist beliefs and practices, Stanley Grenz declares: 

…we are redeemed in order to glorify God and to be a showcase of the grace of the one who saved us in Christ (Ephesians 1:5-6, 11-14; 2:6-7).  If the purpose of creation as a whole and the purpose of God’s saving activity in history are related to God’s glory, then it would follow that the fundamental purpose of the church is the same, namely, to bring glory to God (Ephesians 3:10-11, 21).[iv]

Obviously the purpose of the church to serve as an instrument to show God’s glory will have a comprehensive affect on its corporate life, structures, polity and disciplines.  Central to this conviction will be the assertion that the primary motivation for all plan, goals, and actions will be the desire to glorify God.

The Church’s Direction

 We have said that God’s purpose for the church is that it bring glorify to God.  Now we must explore another question: How does the church accomplish this purpose?   To answer this question we must again remember the church’s identity as a community of individuals who have placed themselves under the sovereignty of God.  This implies that the only way that the community can properly fulfill its purpose is through obedience to God.  To be specific, the church must obediently seek to fulfill the great mandate entrusted it by its Lord.  As it is faithful to this task, the church does indeed glorify God.[v]

What is the mandate of the church?  In the New Testament writings there are in essence three primary aspects of God’s mandate for the church.  These three aspects are each focused in a different direction.  One aspect of the church’s mandate is God-directed.  Another is community directed.  Still another is directed toward the world.  These three aspects of the church’s mandate are worship, edification, and outreach.[vi]


 The etymological root of the English word worship is “worthship.”[vii]  When the church worships, it is showing God respect. It is attributing worth to God. It is focusing its attention on the one who gathers the church together as a covenant people of grace.  When the church worships it is acknowledging God and the Creator and itself as a creation; it is acknowledging God to be the Giver of all good things and itself to be the recipient of God’s blessings.  In worship the church declares the worth of God to the community of faith.  Ralph Martin defines worship as “the dramatic celebration of God in his supreme worth in such a manner that his ‘worthiness’ becomes the norm and inspiration of human living.”[viii]

Worship, especially in the Anabaptist tradition, is a community act.[ix]  Vernard Eller identifies the church as a caravan walking together toward a common destination.  Its primary concern is the relationship of the people and whether they are heading in the right direction.  Worship then is not the dispensing of blessings, but rather a conversation of all members of the caravan with its leader concerning the “deployment of people and checking the maps.”[x]  Art Gish expresses with this basic premise, writing:

We respond to the light and worship God not as isolated individuals, but as community.  Worship is an expression of the community, the response of the community to what God is doing in the community and in the world.[xi]

What are the various elements of the community’s acts of worship?  Thomas Fingers mentions four:  praise, hymns and confessions, prayers, and offerings.[xii]  In addition to these we would also add the community’s involvement in symbolic acts.[xiii]

Praise  is central to the practice of worship.  The word comes from the Latin word meaning “value” or “price.”  To praise God, then, is to declare God’s value and worth.  This declaration takes many forms including dance (Jeremiah 31:4), the offering of testimonies (Psalm 66:16-17), and silent meditation (Psalm 46:10).  Music, however, is the most commonly recognized form of praise in the church’s worship.

Hymns and Confessions refer to the specific songs and declarations of God value and worth. Hymns and Confessions articulate the community’s corporate response of faith to the saving acts of God. They recite the acts of God on behalf of the covenant community.  Such hymns and confessions are found throughout the New Testament.  They speak about Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection, and exaltation.  They are not merely outbursts of emotion, but thought out and developed declarations of God’s work in Christ.  A prime example of a New Testament confession is the hymn Paul penned to the Philippian church:

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:  Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,  but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross!

 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.  (Philippians 2:5-11)

 Prayer is essentially a dialogue between God and people—especially those who are a part of God’s covenant community.  Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish prayer from hymns, confessions, and other acts of praise.[xiv]  In addition to these, however, prayer also takes on other forms including petition and intercession.  As such, it is a community event.  Though taking place within the heart of the one at prayer, it directs the person toward God who has called the community into being and who promises to take care of the community’s needs. 

Offerings are those tangible expressions of gratitude we extend toward God for the many blessings and provisions we have received through the provisions of divine grace.   They are illustrations of the community’s claim to be a sign of the kingdom of God, a symbolic representation of what life will be like when everyone and all things bow at the feet of Jesus in humble submission.  For this reason, the giving of offerings ought never be considered merely to be the means to finance the church’s activities.  On the contrary, the giving of offerings are a witness to the eventual consummation of the kingdom. 

Symbolic acts are those sacraments (in Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican and Wesleyan traditions) or ordinances (in other Protestant and Anabaptist traditions) that represent some theological conviction held by the community.  Among most Anabaptist traditions there are three primary symbolic acts. The Eucharist serves as a symbolic representation of God’s new covenant of grace offered to all humankind through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Baptism serves as a symbolic representation of the individual’s decision to convert to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and become a witness to the kingdom of God.  The washing of feet points to the work of the Spirit bringing together individuals into a community.  As such, these three symbolic acts point to the church’s identity as a eschatological covenant community. 


 Not only is the church commissioned to attribute worth and glory to God, it is also mandated to edify one another—to care for and build one another up.  Edification consists of church members ministering to one another so that together they all might mature in the faith.[xv] To the church at Rome, Paul wrote: “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification”(c.f. Romans 14:9) To the church at Ephesus he wrote:

It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-13)

These words admonishing the church to edify and build one another up in the faith illustrate an important truth that Anabaptists have historically been able to identify with.  The demands of discipleship are extremely difficult and absolutely demand that mutual support, encouragement, and sometimes correction be found within the community that shares the same vision of what God is doing in the world.  According to Eberhold Arnold, this was the pattern left for the disciples by Jesus.  As Arnold described it,

Just as Jesus wanted His close friends, His disciples, to be always close to Him, so His Spirit urged the early Christians to be close to one another so that together they could live the life of Jesus, so that they could do the same as He had done for them.[xvi]

There are two basic means by which the edification mandate is accomplished.  To begin with there is the process of physically meeting the material needs of others.  As stated earlier, this aspect of community life is of utmost importance to the Anabaptist tradition.  In their attempt to model themselves after the pattern set by the first Christians, the Anabaptists advocated the surrender of one’s personal possessions for the good of the community and edification of the saints.  An example of this advocacy in seen in the writing of early Hutterite leader Ulrich Stadler.  After addressing the need for unity in the church under the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ, Stadler writes:

Now if, then, each member withholds assistance from the other the whole thing must go to pieces.  The eyes won’t see, the hands won’t take hold.  Where, however, each members extends assistance equally to the whole body, it is built up and grows and there is peace and unity, yea, each member takes care for the other. In brief, equal care, sadness and joy, and peace (are) at hand.[xvii]

In addition to caring for each other’s physical needs, edification also involves giving attention to meeting other’s spiritual and psychological needs.  Grenz writes, “The ministries of burden lifting (Galatians 6:1-2), intercessory prayer (James 5:16), and encouragement and admonition (Hebrews 10:24-25) are to be practiced.”[xviii]   There are a number of means by which the church carries out this aspect of the edification mandate.  These include preaching, teaching, counseling, discipleship groups, visitation, and the exercise of church discipline.[xix]


 The third mandate of the church is directed toward the world—toward those not a part of the community.  The assignment of the outreach mandate is twofold.  The first is to serve to the world.  Patterned after the servant example set by Jesus (Luke 4:16-21), the church is mandated to serve humanity.  Obviously such outreach will involve social ministries such as feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, aiding the poor, and caring for the sick and destitute.  In addition, the church’s outreach must also involve social action.  By social action we mean moving beyond the binding of wounds toward the task of being “advocates of the wounded by attempting to foster structural changes in society.”[xx]  As such, addressing issues of unfairness and injustice in society are not beyond the scope of the church.  On the contrary, the church is a sign of the kingdom, it cannot avoid addressing concerns related to social injustice and public immorality.

In addition to service, the outreach mandate of the church also involves the task of evangelism.  Of course evangelism is a hallmark of the Anabaptist tradition.  Milton Rudnick has written:

No Christians of the Reformation era were more committed to and active in evangelism that the Anabaptists.  The Great Commission (see Matthew 28 and its parallels, Mark 16 and Luke 24) became central to their theology, especially their understanding of the church, as well as the agenda for their lives…With great conviction and courage Anabaptist laity as well as leaders proclaimed the Gospel to those around them, and they traveled far and wide with that message.[xxi]


 In the blog posts for this week I have attempted to provide further details about the Anabaptist doctrine of the church. I wrote about the church’s identity, nature, purpose, and mandate—concluding with some very brief comments about evangelism.  Next I will provide a more detailed description of an Anabaptist theology of evangelism. 

[i] Jurgen Moltmann, God in Creation:  A New Theology of Creation and the Spirit of God.  (San Francisco, CA:  Harper & Row, Publishers, 1985), 188.

[ii] C. Norman Kraus, God our Savior:  Theology in a Christological Mode.  (Scottdale, Pennsylvania:  Herald Press, 1991), 130.

[iii] Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 634.

[iv] Stanley J. Grenz, The Baptist Congregation:  A Guide to Baptist Belief and Practice, 20.

[v] Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 638.

[vi] Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 637-664.  Mennonite Theologian Thomas N. Fingers offers almost the same observation identifying the three aspects of the church’s mandate as worship, fellowship, and mission.  See Christian Theology:  An Eschatological Approach, vol. 2, 248.

[vii] Helmut Harder, Guide to Faith.  (Newton, Kansas:  Faith and Life Press, 1992), 106.

[viii] Ralph Martin, The Worship of God. (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1992), 4.

[ix] Art Gish writes:  “It has been said that while Roman Catholics gather to receive the sacraments and Protestants to be instructed from the Bible, those of the believers’ church tradition meet to visit with each other.  Or to put it another way, while Roman Catholics need to see an altar to worship God and Protestants a pulpit, those of the believers’ church need to look into the face of other Christians.”  No doubt this is a rather generalized stereotype, but it is correct in the implication that a particular understanding of the nature of the church will have an effect on the understanding of worship.  For the Anabaptists worship is a community event.  See Gish, Living in Christian Community, 245.

[x] Vernard Eller, In Place of Sacrament.  (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  Eerdmans, 1972), 31.

[xi] Art Gish, Living in Christian Community, 251.

[xii] Thomas N. Fingers, Christian Theology:  An Eschatological Approach, 321-329.

[xiii] Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 644.

[xiv] Thomas Fingers, Christian Theology:  An Eschatological Approach, vol. 2, 327.

[xv] Stanley J. Grenz, The Baptist Congregation:  A Guide to Baptist Belief and Practice, 21.

[xvi] Eberhold Arnold, The Early Christians.  (Rifton, N.Y.:  Plough Publishing House, 1970), 18.

[xvii] Walter Klassen, comp., Anabaptism in Outline, 108.

[xviii] Stanley J. Grenz, The Baptist Congregation:  A Guide to Baptist Belief and Practice, 21.

[xix] Of this list, the Anabaptists are most known for their emphasis on church discipline.  Anabaptist communities hold themselves accountable to the vows and commitments they make as followers of Jesus Christ.  When a member falls at some point, they are disciplined by the community.  The purpose, however, is for the edification of the individual and the community—so that all might mature in their commitments.  See Marlin Jeschke, Discipling in the Church:  Recovering a Ministry of the Gospel.  (Scottdale, Pennsylvania:  Herald Press, 1988). 

[xx] Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 661.

[xxi] Milton L. Rudnick, A History of Evangelism.  (St. Louis:  Concordia Publishing House, 1984), 93.

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