Christ’s Vision for the Church (10)
Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually. 1 Corinthians 12.27
Hence what has been said respecting the nature and condition of the human body must be applied to us; for we are not a mere civil society, but, being ingrafted into Christ's body, are truly members one of another. Whatever, therefore, any one of us has, let him know that it has been given him for the edification of his brethren in common; and let him, accordingly, bring it forward, and not keep it back ― buried, as it were, within himself, or make use of it as his own.
- John Calvin, comment on 1 Corinthians 12.27
Connected to serve
On occasion, speaking to church groups, I have asked the question, “If Jesus were to appear bodily in our community, how would we know it was He? What would He be doing?”
The answers are predictable, right out of the Gospels: Jesus would be doing all kinds of good works for the poor, the sick, and the outcast. He would preach in the open air and in any place of worship that would receive Him. He would gather a few folks around Him for more intensive training in discipleship. He would commend acts of beauty and condemn the foolish ways of the lofty and powerful. And He would attract people to Himself in large numbers.
Which then prompts me to ask: Aren’t local churches in a community the Body of Christ? And are we doing, as Jesus’ Body, what He would do if He were among us bodily?
The Church as the Body of Christ, and each church member as a member of that Body, is a favorite image of the apostle Paul, given to him by inspiration from the Lord Jesus. It speaks to us of connection and care, service and witness, and the lived presence of Jesus in the world. It is a vision that challenges our practice in the local church in many ways, and that calls us, along with all the other aspects of Christ’s vision for His Church, to rethink our approach to building Jesus’ Church.
Let’s consider just these three aspects of this vision of the Church as Body and members: connection and care, service and witness, and presence of Christ.
Connection and care
1 Corinthians 12 is the locus classicusfor talking about the Church as the Body of Christ. We cannot unpack this teaching in its entirety, so let’s focus on points that seem most to challenge our vision of the church today.
The Church in Corinth was a single congregation subdivided into smaller groups, which were themselves churches. These house churches were true churches, and the combined house churches were one Church in Corinth.
This appears to have been the practice in New Testament churches. Any town or city might have many churches, typically comprised of near neighbors meeting in one another’s homes under acknowledged shepherds; at the same time, all those churches regarded themselves as members of the larger Church in the city, and so met together as one Church for worship and other Kingdom-seeking activities.
Within the house churches, each member was connected to and taught to care for every other member. They prayed for one another, shared lives and resources, studied together in each other’s homes, and did whatever they could to encourage one another in the life of faith. When necessary, members of house churches, operating through the larger Church in the community, would connect with and care for members of other house churches. Acts 6.1-6 provides an instance of what this may have looked like throughout the Roman world.
In each community, the Church was one Body comprised through house churches of many members, all connected with and caring for one another in a variety of ways, employing spiritual gifts and personal resources to build one another up in the Lord, provide for temporal needs, and grow the entire Church in unity and maturity as the one Body of Christ.
Those community churches, in turn, were connected with churches everywhere for the purposes of encouraging growth and mission and providing for needs. The Body of Christ was one Church, comprised of many churches in many communities of churches, found wherever the Gospel took root.
Service and witness
From connecting with and caring for one another within the Body of Christ, it was but a short step to begin serving and bearing witness to unbelieving neighbors, and to sending church members off in mission to other parts of the Roman world.
Each member of the Body of Christ was connected – by family, occupation, or place of dwelling – to other members of the community. As believers grew in the love of Christ, they offered their bodies – individually and as congregations – in service to the needs of their communities, just as Jesus did when He walked among us. This frequently entailed sacrifice and risk, as when plague came into a community, and only the Christians stuck around to care for their sick neighbors.
At the same time, by serving their neighbors in various ways, Christians created opportunities to bear witness about the Gospel, sharing their own experiences of knowing Jesus and calling their neighbors and co-workers to repent and believe the Gospel with them. New believers were quickly incorporated into the Body of Christ and set on a course of preparation for baptism, during which time they would be helped to prove the work of Jesus in their lives through worship, laying aside their sinful ways, learning the basics of the Gospel, and finding their place as a member of Christ’s Body. When at length, new believers came to be baptized, their changed lives bore out the truth of their public testimonies concerning how, through the witness of works and words by their fellow believers, they had come to know Jesus as Savior and Lord as well.
This process is what Roland Allen refers to as “the spontaneous expansion of the Church.” When conditions of service and witness by the members of Christ’s Body were sincere and sustained, people believed and united with the Church to join in its work of being witnesses and making disciples.
The presence of Jesus
By these means, the churches in cities throughout the Roman world manifested the living presence of Jesus within their communities. So pronounced and palpable was this presence in Antioch, for example, that the believers there came to be called the “Christ-Ones” by their neighbors. They were the people who embodied the resurrection life of Jesus, as members and a Body, and who urged others to consider and believe in Him.
To the extent that this Body vision of the Church exists at all in churches today, it is parochial, exclusive, organizational and programmatic, tolerant of pounds of dead weight – and far too many nonfunctioning members – and largely ineffectual at showing Jesus to the world.
As with all the other aspects of Christ’s vision for His Church, the vision of the Church as the Body of Christ must come to play a more decisive role in how we do church in our day.
“We are not individual members who elect to join together to form a whole but rather organic members of a wider whole, which is the whole body.”
- Severian of Gabala (fl. ca. 400 AD), Pauline Commentary from the Greek Church
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T. M. Moore
Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, quotes from Church fathers are from The Ancient Christian Commentary Series (InterVarsity Press).