Thursday, October 15, 2015

“In the Church” and In the Body

The church meeting is not the church.

Let me say that again: the church meeting is not the church.

You would think that Christians who have already succeeded in grasping the biblical distinction between “church” and “church building” would grasp this further distinction intuitively, and it may be that on some level we get it. But if we measure knowledge of any truth by the number of Christians who are living it out daily in a practical way, my suspicion is that some of us have missed the boat.

First Principles

We believe and teach that the church is not a building but a living spiritual organism, a “body”, of which Jesus Christ is head. This image is referenced in Colossians and Ephesians. The operation of this mystical “body” is sketched out in Romans and most fully developed in 1 Corinthians: that we are “individually members of one another” and that the Body is operating correctly and healthily when we serve one another with the individual spiritual gifts given each of us by the Holy Spirit at the new birth. We are told that these gifts differ from one another just as the parts of the human body differ — hands, eyes and ears — and that all members of the Body are therefore necessary to the others. Body life is further reflected in our corporate worship, in which we all “participate in the body of Christ”.

The Universal Body

All those the world over who exercise faith in the Lord Jesus and confess his name publicly, from that first century Pentecostal gathering in Jerusalem at which the Holy Spirit was given right up until the day the Lord returns for his people, are an indivisible spiritual unity. Like it or not. Recognize it or not. These are first principles of church life. They are not optional. We do not choose to be members of the Body, and we do not choose how we have been gifted.

We can, of course, elect not to participate in the life of the Body, or to participate less than we should. We can even participate in a way that is destructive and damaging to the faith of others. To the extent that the members of the Body do this, it has an effect similar to atrophy or disease in a human body.

In one sense, all members of the Body potentially serve one another, though our connections may be unseen. Because I am organically linked to the apostle Paul in the Body of Christ, I receive what he wrote down and I come to understand it via the work of the Holy Spirit in my heart and mind. So in that sense Paul continues to serve me as one member of my body serves another when I tie my shoes or put on my glasses. Every discovery of truth in scripture by every member of the Body that is conveyed to me — be they Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, John Calvin, the guy who preached at my church on Sunday or Joe Blow at the Stand to Reason blog — serves the members of the Body. Every act performed in the name of Christ for a fellow member of the Body serves the Body and ministers to it.

We might call this “Body life at the universal level”. In one sense, all genuine service for Christ can be said to occur “in the Body”.

The Local Body

But the practical reality is that much of my service to others and the things that affect me the most profoundly in my Christian development will normally be a result of Body life at the local level, rather than the universal level; that is to say, by serving others who belong to the church we attend. It is at this level that we experience corporate worship, fellowship, much of the teaching and encouragement by which we are built up, and most of our opportunities to serve most directly and effectively.

Most of these opportunities do not take place in church meetings. Really.

Examining the Early Church

We see this in the book of Acts. The situation is that the early church, now numbering thousands, is meeting daily in Solomon’s Portico at the temple in Jerusalem and gathering in smaller groups in homes for worship, fellowship and common meals, when it is brought to the attention of the apostles that certain widows are being neglected in the daily distribution of food.

Here it is evident that the functioning of the body of Christ, being organic rather than organizational, is not restricted to a particular setting a few times a week for which Christians gather and disperse, but affects and involves believers every moment of every day. It should be obvious that those who were chosen by the church in Jerusalem to solve the food distribution problem did not solve it while drinking coffee between church meetings. Whatever arrangements were made for the widows of Hellenic Jews, they were surely worked out somewhere other than Solomon’s Portico. Perhaps a number of able-bodied believers under the direction of Philip, Stephen or Timon volunteered to deliver food to the widows’ homes. Perhaps they were handed an allowance to buy their own. We are not told, and it doesn’t really matter.

What matters is that spiritual gifts were being exercised. Members of the Body of Christ were being served and cared for by other members. Body life was going on outside the church meeting or meetings.

What About Today?

Obvious, no? So obvious it almost shouldn’t bear repeating.

And yet we have believers today whose only experience of Body life is a weekly Sunday morning visit to a building. We have believers whose only regular use of their gift of service is pointing visitors to padded seats or putting a cold glass of water on the pulpit for the speaker. Who think that the use of the teaching gift means years of seminary followed by standing on platforms or broadcasting live video to satellite churches. Who think that the gift of an evangelist is exercised from the pulpit. Who think that every use of gift in the Body of Christ must be initiated, facilitated or sanctioned by church leadership; that is, assuming they think about their responsibility to use their gift at all, or even know they have one.

When we rightly understand the Body metaphor, these assumptions ought to look ridiculous to us. Appallingly trivial, in fact. Body life is a 24/7 experience.

Living It Out 24/7

When, on Wednesday, you picked up that old lady who goes to your church because she doesn’t own a car and drove her to the doctor’s office, you were ministering to the Body. On Thursday, when you invited that new couple over to share a meal and talk about the things of God, you were serving the Body of Christ, quite probably to the delight of (and at the direction of) its Head. When you shared the truth on the phone with a fellow believer during your lunch break at work on Tuesday, you may have been exercising a gift of exhortation or you may have been teaching, but you were certainly serving the Body. When you visited that believer with cancer in the hospital on Monday and dropped off a casserole for his wife and family, it may have been the activity of the Holy Spirit in the gift of mercy. When you sang together with fellow believers in your basement around piano or guitar Friday night, you may well have been ministering to them or teaching them.

Unless, of course, you didn’t do any of these things and you never do.

In which case, I’m sorry to say, your experience of Body life is going to be shallow and unrewarding, as is the experience of those in the Body with whom you come in contact. The church meeting is not the church.

See you Sunday. Or hopefully a little before that.

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