MESSAGE FOR FEBRUARY 10, 2001

(16th in a series on Christ’s church)

           

            This week, we continue our series of messages on Christ’s church and will once again be focusing on a biblical designation for the church that helps us answer the question, “In what manner does the church accomplish her mission?”  The designation for the church under investigation this week is one of the more commonly used terms for the church today in spite of the fact that only one biblical author ever uses this designation.  Only the apostle Paul uses the term “the body of Christ” and we want to spend some time seeing the connection between how being the body of Christ dictates how we accomplish our mission.  What does the biblical designation “Christ’s body” or “the body of Christ” say to us about how we are to accomplish our mission?  The basic answer to that question is the church accomplishes her mission as a diverse group of people serving together in the unity that comes from our common, supernatural bond in Christ.  Christianity is not only a personal, individual faith, though there are certainly significant elements of our walk with God that are personal and individual.  Every believer relates to God on an individual level—we are saved as individuals not as a group.  But the New Testament teaches a truth about the church that is almost universally under-appreciated in the West.  That is, we must think of ourselves not only as individuals before God, we must also and just as importantly view ourselves as a part of a Christ’s body.

            By this, I do not mean that we are able to readily tell others that we are part of a local church or even that we are part of the universal body of Christ worldwide.  I trust all believers can do that.  This is not about having a superficial understanding that the church is a corporate group of people.  It’s MUCH more than that!  This is about how we think of ourselves as it relates to Christ’s body.  When we think about ourselves God as followers of Christ, how does this truth that we are part of a larger body influence how we conceive of ourselves?  A good question to test ourselves on this is:  When we pray to God, do we see ourselves as coming to Him from out of the midst of a group [that’s what we do] or is the context of our relationship with God almost exclusively personal and private?  This understanding of who we are as a part of Christ’s body is a big part of how we should see ourselves in Christ and in the West this is almost unheard of today.  We must ask the question: is a large part of my identity in Christ found in being part of a body of believers?

            My strong suspicion is for most of us, the answer is no.  The reason for this is not because the Bible doesn’t teach this, as we will see.  One of the most subtle and yet pervasive ways the believer is greatly influenced by American culture is its exaltation of “rugged individualism.”  The very term “rugged individualism” even though it is utterly contrary to God’s call on us has a very romantic, positive flavor for most of us.  We live in a society where individual achievement is much more admired than group achievement.  Last week, at the beginning of the Super Bowl the New England Patriots did something that was considered to be quite novel.  They were introduced as a team rather than as individuals.  One reason why it was novel for a team to actually be introduced as a team (go figure) is because embedded deeply in our culture is the value of personal achievement and personal recognition.  One of the economic strengths of capitalism is it gives the individual the opportunity to succeed beyond his or her peers.

            The founding principles of our republic flow out of the belief in individual freedom and liberty.  The right to private property (as that is understood today) is unheard of in the Bible where God repeatedly proclaims, “the land is MINE,” is held today as a person’s divine right in our culture.  Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with many of these things and our culture does in a very few contexts (like the military) still exalt the needs of the group over the needs of the individual.  But this prevailing cultural value of individualism and individuality has subtly distorted for most of us the biblical truth that we exist in Christ not only as individuals, but also just as importantly, we exist as part of a group--the body of Christ. 

            One dramatic symptom of this over-stress on individualism is seen in this quote from George Barna.  He surveys the landscape of the church in the next decade and says, “As the decade evolves, expect more people to rely upon the Internet for all of their spiritual input and output; we’re projecting that the Internet will encompass the aggregate spiritual expression of 10-20 percent of the population by 2010.  You will find worshiping communities…that exist entirely through digital communication.” This clearly shows just how much the culture has distorted a biblical understanding of body-life and community when there are people who believe you can have a “worshipping community” where there is no personal contact between the members.

            This drift away from seeing ourselves as part of a group is also seen in the fact that no longer do most believers truly conceive of themselves as existing in part for the good of the church.  That is, we don’t really believe that a big part of why we were placed on earth is to serve the church of Christ.  Where the rubber meets the road, today, more and more people believe the church exists for them.  And they will align themselves only with the local church that can do the most for them and if there is a problem or weakness in the church, it’s just no big deal to go find another one.  There is a rampant consumer mentality in the church today and instead of being taught how to correct that self-centered consumerism, the so-called church growth experts are teaching pastors how to “tap into” that attitude.  Pastors are taught to cater to that attitude by doing their best to be a “full service church” offering something for every member of the family.  That is a thoroughly self-centered approach to ministry and those attitudes are produced in part by having a biblically imbalanced view of the importance of the individual as over against the importance of the group. A church will never be close to healthy until we not only think of ourselves but also live out our lives in ways that express the belief we exist in Christ as part of a larger group.

            The main truth we want to express this morning is, we must see ourselves and live not only as individual believers but also as part of Christ’s corporate body.   In light of all these influences that pull us away from doing this the question is, “How do we do that?”  Let’s look at three truths we must know and internalize that come out of Paul’s designation for the church, the body of Christ.  First, we must know when God saved us; he saved us in part to be placed in a body and gave us gifts to minister to that body.  First Corinthians 12:13 says, “For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body…”  This is a remarkable statement Paul makes here.  Jesus, who baptizes with the Holy Spirit, baptizes us into a body.  The baptism of the Spirit, which gives us new birth in Christ, is a baptism into something—into a body.  Do we hear the airtight connection Paul makes between being converted and being brought into the body of Christ?  There is no division for him here between being saved and being part of Christ’s body.  We are saved to be part of a body.  Do we think about this truth that when we were saved, though God saved us as individuals, he immediately placed us into a body?  We were placed into the body, we grow within the body, and we minister as part of, and within the body. 

The instant we were converted, God placed us in Christ’s body. We weren’t only saved to have our sins forgiven and begin our journey to heaven.  We were also saved to be part of Christ’s body on earth.  Do we think that way?  What difference is this truth making in our lives?  Do we hear how little stress Paul is placing on the individual element of our salvation here?  This cuts against the grain of all that individualism our culture is constantly propagating.  For Paul, being saved and being part of Christ’s body are so tightly connected that they are inseparable in this text.  Shouldn’t this be having a significant impact on how we view who we are within Christ’s church, both the local expression of it here as well as the universal church? 

Beyond that, God has gifted each of us in many ways. He has given us talents and at conversion he has given us supernatural, spiritual gifts that may or may not coincide with those talents.  Why did he give us those supernatural gifts?  He did not give them to us so we could feel significant, so we could express ourselves or so we could feel appreciated.  Those are all self-centered and though I’m sure none of our motives are ever completely pure, if we find we are ministering in a certain area fundamentally for any of those kinds of self-centered reasons, we need to repent and perhaps even give up the ministry for a season until God changes our hearts.  God has not given us spiritual gifts for any of those reasons.  He says in First Corinthians 12:7, “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit [spiritual gifts] is given for the common good.”  Spiritual gifts aren’t given primarily for the benefit of the one possessing them, but for the body—“the common good.”  The underlying assumption here is that people use their gifts for the good of the body of Christ.  That’s why Jesus gives them to believers.

In chapter 14, Paul says the reason “the one who prophecies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues” is because, whereas the tongues-speaker utters mysteries no one else can benefit from, Paul says in verse three, “everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort.  He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophecies edifies the church.  I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy.  He who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be edified.”  Neither Paul’s point nor mine is to argue whether these gifts are for today and if so, how are they to be practiced.    Paul’s point is far more important than that issue and is simply, the ranking Paul gives to the importance of the gift is directly related to the ministry that gift has to the body of Christ.  Paul says uninterpreted tongues is personal and individual whereas prophecy is for the good of the body.  That means prophecy well outranks tongues in importance.  In relation to this he says in 14:12, “So it is with you.  Since you are eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church.”

We see this connection between gifts and the body in Ephesians chapter four.  Here the gifts described are not spiritual gifts like tongues or prophecy, but are the offices Christ has given to the church.  Chapter 4:11-12 says of Christ, “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.”  These equipping offices were given by Christ to the church for the building up of the body.  There is a church-centeredness here in terms of their functional purpose.  Pastor-teachers are gifts God has given to the body not to be placed on a pedestal, not so they can earn a living, but so they can be used to strengthen the body of Christ. 

This is one of many reasons why it is so wicked to be proud about our giftedness.  The reason God gave us the gifts is not so we could use them as a vehicle for our own self-aggrandizement, but so we could selflessly pour them out in ministry to the body of Christ.  When we are proud because God has given us certain gifts, that turns God’s purpose for giving them to us on its head.  It’s not about us or what we have been given; it’s about tirelessly using those gifts for the building up of the body of Christ. We must see that when God saved us; he saved us to be placed in a body and gave us gifts so we can minister to that body.  Do we hear how central the body and the health of the body is to our purpose as followers of Christ?  If that sounds a bit strange to us or if we are not living out that truth, then we are influenced more by our culture than the New Testament.

A second truth for us to know and internalize along these lines is our personal maturity and growth in Christ is not separated from the maturity of the rest of the body of Christ.  Again, we view our spiritual progress, our maturation process in Christ, our spiritual growth in a vacuum.  We don’t tend to think about how our maturity and growth in Christ is affecting the rest of the church.  We all tend to think of ourselves and our spiritual growth as if we lived in separate, self-enclosed bubbles.  When we cry out to God, “Make me more like Jesus,” we probably aren’t motivated to want that and to pray because of the impact our maturity in Christ will have on the church—it’s a personal issue. “It’s my growth, my progress, my maturation process.  Oh sure, I suppose there may be some sort of peripheral effect on the local church, but my growth is about me and who I am in Christ—not about the church.  That’s simply not true.  This same text in Ephesians helps us see the relationship between an individual believer’s spiritual maturity and the maturity of the body.  The NASB is more helpful here because it is more literal and it says, beginning in verse 15, “But speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, begin fitted and held together by that which every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.”

Now let’s just take a moment to labor to unpack the logical components of Paul’s argument here.  First, in verse 15a he says in effect the catalyst for growth in the body is truth spoken in love, speaking the truth in love.”  Second, this growth is defined by Christ-likeness—we “grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head.”  That is, this growth is measured in terms of how much more like Jesus we as a body are becoming.  Third, v.16--Christ works along with the whole body to cause the growth of the body.  In the first half of verse 16 it’s clear that Christ causes growth, but the “whole body” also causes the growth of the body from the last part of verse 16.  Notice the subject of the clause in verse 16 is “the whole body” and the verb is “causes.”  Paul is saying that in cooperation with Christ, it is the whole body that causes spiritual growth.  Fourth, in the middle part of verse 16 he tells us the church causes this growth as each individual part works properly, “according to the proper working of each individual part.”  Fifth, the purpose of this growth in the body is so the body can “build itself up in love.”  Paul’s ultimate goal is always love—love for God and love for each other. “Love is the fulfillment of the Law”(Rom. 13:10).  That goal is seen in the final words of verse 16.  Do you follow that?  Now that we’ve unpacked the component parts, let’s draw some logical conclusions.

Do we hear what that means?  If the growth of the body of Christ is in part caused by the whole body and that growth is dependent upon each individual part working properly, then what I do or don’t do to work for my personal maturity in Christ and what you do or don’t do to work for your personal maturity in Christ effects the whole body because Christ brings maturity to the body of Christ as each part works properly.  Now remember, within the context the catalyst for growth the whole body is supposed to do is “speaking the truth in love.”  So as I mature in Christ and more and more speak the truth in love to you and others and as you grow in Christ and you more and more speak the truth in love, the body is built up.  But when I fail to speak the truth in love and you fail to speak the truth in love that doesn’t just mean we have personally failed and need to confess our sin of disobedience.  There is more involved in this that our personal faithfulness or sin.  This means that our disobedience undermines the growth of the body of Christ.  As I mature and more and more speak the truth in love and as you do likewise, that causes the growth of the body.  But as I fail and you fail, that undermines growth.  (This is a great place for a plug for small groups because often the best place for this kind of truth speaking in love is in small groups.  Small groups are utterly essential for maturity of the body.)

The point is--if I am diligent in truth-speaking in love (and truth speaking in love doesn’t happen unless I am in the word and in prayer and practicing other spiritual disciplines,) my obedience to God is not in a vacuum.  My personal obedience affects the rest of the body.  Conversely, if I am lazy and not in the word and prayer and other disciplines and because of that I am not filled with the grace necessary to speak the truth in love, my disobedience to God doesn’t just affect me.  My sin and your sin affect the growth of the whole body and that leads us to our third point.  A third truth we must know and internalize so we can see ourselves more and more as part of the body and not just as individuals is what happens to one part of the body has an effect on all parts of the body.  This speaks not only to the effect our personal maturity has on the body, but reaches beyond that.

In First Corinthians 12:26 Paul makes another remarkable statement. Paul is speaking about the body and he says, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part is honored.”  I’m not sure of all of what Paul means here, but what it means broadly is what effects one part of the body effects others.  One way this is true is seen in the ministry of prayer.  One member of the body is in pain and God burdens others to pray for him or her, perhaps at a time of great crisis.  The person is suffering, but they are not suffering in a vacuum, others enter into their suffering through prayer.  When someone is in deep pain and we are there to minister to them, we enter into their pain and to whatever level the Lord allows, we feel their pain and like Jesus, are moved with compassion.  Likewise when someone in the body of Christ is blessed or is delivered from a bad situation, their testimony encourages us even though the experience of God working belonged to them.  The point is, what happens to one part of the body effects the others as well.

This is only common sense when you think about it.  The church as the body of Christ is not an organization it is a living organism.  It is hopefully organized, but it is much more than an organization.  In an organism, what happens to one part of the organism affects the other parts.  If I pull a muscle, that will affect not only the muscle that has been injured, but other muscle groups which are called upon to compensate for that weakness.  This dynamic is also seen in the church in the case of a person’s sin.  In the Corinthian church, there was terrible immorality. One case involved a man who was sleeping with his stepmother and was unrepentant about it.  The Corinthians had done nothing to discipline this unrepentant man, but instead actually boasted that they were a tolerant group of people.  In response to that sin and the church’s godless response, Paul says in First Corinthians 5:6, “Your boasting is not good.  Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough?” 

Paul’s point is, “don’t you realize that your failure to bring church discipline to this member and excommunicate him—separate him from your body is like allowing yeast to remain in dough—it will work through the entire loaf—this sin will spread throughout the body.”  The fact that the church had allowed this sin to remain in their midst meant that the sin would spread and soon dominate the church.  If the leadership of the church sees unrepentant sin and chooses to do nothing about it, they are allowing the door to be swung wide open for more sin because the body is an organism and if a bacteria is allowed to grow and fester without any interference, it will take over and destroy the host.  The same point is made in Galatians 5:9.  The church had allowed false teaching through the Judaizers to come in and Paul asks them in verse 7, “You were running a good race.  Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth?  That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you.  A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.”  Paul uses the same illustration to show the virulent spread of unchecked, unrepentant sin in a body.  In the Old Testament, we repeatedly see that sin is forbidden because it defiles not only the sinning person, but the entire camp.

The application for us is not difficult to determine.  That is, not only does our growth in spiritual maturity help to build up the body, but if we have unrepentant sin in our lives, that may very well be bringing harm not only to us and our families, but also to our brothers and sisters in Christ.   If we are not growing in Christ or if we have unrepentant sin in our lives, we are not only failing to bless each other, but we are actually injuring our brothers and sisters in Christ in some way. We don’t exist in a vacuum; we are connected in profound ways to one another in Christ.  We must see ourselves as part of a body and not just as an individual who happens to attend or belong to a local church.  That is not only horribly superficial it is just plain wrong.  As we see this more and more clearly, as we see that we were baptized into a body and given gifts for the good of the body—as we see how our maturity or lack of maturity and our sin’s effect not only us, but others in the body of Christ, those are the first necessary steps to begin entering into the sweet fellowship with one another God provides for us in the church of Christ. May God give us the grace to see ourselves as part of Christ’s body and may that profoundly influence how we live our lives.

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