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The Body of Christ (Why We Need the Church, Part 2)

Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually. 1 Corinthians 12.27

Four levels of “church”

In the New Testament the term “church” is applied at four levels among the community of believers.

The first level consists of the house churches, gatherings of believers, perhaps within walking distance of one another, who joined together regularly for worship, prayer, sacraments, and the ministry of the Word. These house churches, mentioned in various places in Paul’s epistles, seem to have been the most basic cellular units of the Body of Christ, having all the identity, privileges, and responsibilities of all other churches.

We are perhaps most familiar with the second way that the idea of “church” is expressed in the New Testament, that of the whole church within a city – as in Corinth, Ephesus, and so forth. These city-wide churches were comprised of the various house churches which appear to have joined together regularly as larger communities for worship and other duties, including the exercise of church discipline, sharing in one another’s lives and needs, and generating resources for missions and the relief of other Christian communities.

The house churches met regularly and so did the city churches, and both levels of the Church were equally the Body of Christ.

The third sense in which the word “church” is used in the New Testament is in a regional sense, the Church within a particular geographic area: as in the “church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria”, which “had peace and was being built up” in the early days of the Christian movement (Acts 9.31). Paul seems to have regarded the “churches in Galatia” in the same manner, addressing one letter to them all in order to clarify some doctrinal issues and instruct the Church in Galatia in matters of Christian practice.

Peter seems to be doing the same in his first epistle. Some commentators have also argued that the seven churches to which Christ wrote in Revelation 2 and 3 were regarded as one regional expression of the Church, since their geographic locations formed a kind of circle in that part of Asia Minor.

During the first Christian centuries, as house churches and city churches continued to multiply, city churches organized by geographic area as “synods” in which bishops and pastors met frequently to consider matters of importance affecting all the churches within their area.

Finally, of course, “church” is applied to the whole worldwide body of Christians in every place. This is the Church that represents Christ in His fullness as He is working to fill all things with the knowledge of God and His glory. That application may also be extended to the Church universal, in every age and place (cf. Heb. 12.22-24).

The church at every level

All these expressions of the Body of Christ are important, and if we fail to maintain any of these in our day, then we must provide good reasons for setting aside the counsel of Scripture and the practice of the early Church for whatever may be our preferred way of thinking about “church.”

Believers are members of the Body of Christ at all levels – in your local church (which today has replaced the house church), the Church within your community (which in most of our communities doesn’t really exist), the churches which make up the Body of Christ in your geographic and cultural region (these do not exist either, except in certain denominations), and the worldwide Church of the Lord. Since the Church at each of these levels is the Body of Christ, we should expect that here, by our participation in each of these expressions of the Body of Christ, is where we may hope most to experience the reality of the risen Christ as well as to express Him through our individual and collective gifts and callings.

Believers are members of the Body of Christ. We cannot possibly hope to fulfill the unique demands and opportunities of our individual “membership” unless we are vitally connected to the other members of Christ’s Body in meaningful and significant ways.

If in any way we and our churches are not working to achieve expression of the Body of Christ at all the levels indicated in the New Testament, then we are compromising our reason for being and frustrating our mission and calling to fill all things with the knowledge of Christ by making disciples of all nations.

And since this is the case with almost every church and every member of every church, it is not surprising to see the Church so compromised and lacking in this four-depth power to turn our world rightside-up for Jesus Christ.

Next steps

Is your church vitally connected to any other churches? At all the levels at which the New Testament uses the idea of “church”? Talk with some church leaders about this. If your church is not connected, beginning locally, why not? Does your church sponsor house churches? If your church’s connections are limited to a single denomination, why? On what grounds? What kinds of things might churches begin to do more of in expressing the reality of Jesus Christ, if they practiced more vital connections with one another?

Additional Resources

Download this week's study, Why We Need the Church.

Sign up for ViewPoint Leaders Training and start your own ViewPoint discussion group.

The Church is the flash point for revival, but only if we prepare for it as we should. Order a copy of T. M.’s book, Preparing Your Church for Revival, from our online store.

And men, download our free brief paper, “Men of the Church: A Solemn Warning,” by clicking here.

Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
Books by T. M. Moore

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