MESSAGE FOR FEBRUARY 17, 2002
(17th in a series on Christ’s church)
Last week, we began looking at the church as the body of Christ and that biblical designation deserves more attention because it is so rich in meaning and because what that designation says to us about how the church of Christ is to carry out her mission is greatly ignored today. We want to blow some of the dust off this aspect of the ministry of Christ’s church and by God’s grace begin to walk in these truths. Last week we emphasized our need to see ourselves not just as individuals but as part of the body of Christ, not just theoretically, but in the day-to-day working out of our lives. We saw that if we are to do this, we must go against the grain of our culture which has greatly stressed the value of individuality and exalts the accomplishments of the individual over the group. We looked at three biblical truths that bring out the importance of the body of Christ as it relates to how we should think about ourselves. We saw first that when we were saved, God placed us into a body. In First Corinthians 12:13 we saw we were baptized into a body. Though we are all saved as individuals, there is a strong corporate aspect to our salvation that sadly has very little effect on most of us. We also saw from 1Corinthians 12 the fundamental reason we are given spiritual gifts is for the common good of the body so that we can be used to build up or edify the church. God’s gifts are given to us, not for our own good, but for the good of the body.
Second, we saw our close connection to the body of Christ in the bible’s teaching that our personal spiritual maturity is not separated from the maturity of the rest of the body of Christ. Ephesians 4:15-16 teaches Christ works along with the entire body of Christ to cause spiritual growth to the body and the body causes spiritual growth to occur in the body as each individual part works properly. That means that the growth of the body of Christ is affected by what I do and you do in our personal walk with God. We do not grow spiritually in a vacuum; there is an impact on the rest of the body. Finally, we saw that in addition to our spiritual growth, other elements in our personal, individual lives affect the entire body. When we suffer as one part, the whole body suffers and “when one part is honored, every part is honored.” We were also reminded from First Corinthians 5 that the body is a living organism, not simply an organization and that means when one part sins, that sin, if left unchecked by loving discipline, can spread throughout the body. This is part of the reason why church discipline is so important—so the leaven of sin will not spread through the entire loaf, which is the body of Christ. This means that no pattern of unrepentant sin in an individual’s life is purely personal and private. Our individual unrepentant sin in some way causes the body of Christ to be injured.
Last week, our focus was largely directed toward moving us from thinking of ourselves not only as individuals but also as part of a body and most of the application was to the local church. Someone pointed out to me this week that there was more to this biblical principle than this. That is: to see the biblical body of Christ, we must also look beyond our local church body further out to other believing churches and even to the global body of Christ. I had to admit the necessity to expand this treatment. You see, our culture’s focus on individualism causes us not only to focus on ourselves to the exclusion of the local church, it just as strongly influences to look at ourselves as an individual church to the exclusion of the Twin Ports larger body of Christ and the national and global church. We must understand that when Paul wrote the texts in First Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4 we looked at last week, he was referring to the body of Christ not only in its local form, but also the universal church. Do we realize that? Have we ever read these texts with that lens? The body of Christ is made up of people all over the world who are genuine, born-again followers of Jesus Christ. These texts stretch us not only to stop focusing on ourselves to the exclusion of this local body. They also stretch us to think about the body of Christ in ways that transcend this local grouping of believers. This week, we’re going to use those texts we studied last week as a basis for looking at the body of Christ outside our local church.
We see the need for this application in many ways. We see this in the parochialism of local churches. A parochial mindset attitude literally means “one which doesn’t look beyond the local parish.” To be parochial in our attitudes about anything is to be “narrow, restricted in scope” and most people in the church of Christ in the west are quite parochial. We often don’t see the body of Christ as anything beyond what is happening in our local church. We know theologically that the body of Christ is made up of believers all over the world, but what impact is that truth having on how we relate as individuals and as a church to other church bodies? Here are some examples of this parochial attitude. When we hear someone say they have been greatly blessed by a book written by John Piper or Leith Anderson is one of your first responses to think, “He’s in our conference, you know.” That is incredibly different than the more biblical attitude, “I’m so blessed to see God use my BROTHER IN CHRIST so powerfully.” That’s so much better because the focus is on our relationship to them within the larger body of Christ and not just our own particular group. If that’s the way we think, we can rejoice over someone’s contribution whether God is using Piper or Anderson or someone in some other group.
Another example of this kind of parochialism is seen when we hear some preacher on the radio or in a public forum and really be blessed by what he is saying and then later we find ourselves feeling strange. The reason for this feeling is because we discover we have been greatly blessed by listening to a Methodist or a Pentecostal or someone other than what we expected. Rather than admit to our narrowness, we may even respond to that internal tension by thinking, “Well, he wasn’t THAT good.” Sometimes we even wonder if maybe we haven’t backslid because we managed to be blessed by some preacher who represents a denomination we haven’t respected. That is a parochial attitude and it betrays a biblical understanding of the larger body of Christ. Underlying that kind of parochial thinking is often the assumption that God resides in a special way in a certain denomination or movement? We must know this: God is no respecter of local churches or denominations or Christian Colleges—he makes his home wherever His people burn with zeal for his glory and his truth is faithfully spoken in love. And that happens in some Baptist General Conference churches, but certainly not all. The same could be said for Presbyterianism or Methodism or Assemblies of God or Covenant or Lutheranism or Alliance or other groups.
No one single church, denomination or movement holds a corner on the truth or how to do church ministry or how to worship or how to evangelize or disciple believers. Church history tells a tale that should cause us to reject such thinking. In the history of the church God has moved among Lutherans and Baptists and Methodists and Pentecostals and Charismatics and countless other groups and has done absolutely wondrous, supernatural, life- changing things. It is just as true to say that within each of those groups there have been utterly shameful periods of spiritual decay and even apostasy. No group that has been around for any length of time has proven immune to the spiritual pitfalls of living in a fallen world. If there are churches or groups in which God is moving mightily today, its only because he has sovereignly chosen to work there and if those groups lose their zeal for God’s name and being faithful to the truth, God will remove his hand from them just as he has done with other groups at certain times.
It’s my understanding that in Germany, the birthplace of that wondrous work of God we call the Protestant Reformation, there are today more registered psychics than clergy. The last I heard, none of the seven churches in the Revelation has a significant gospel witness today. The churches in Ephesus and Smyrna and Thyatira and the rest have been replaced by mosques. The point is, God never shows favoritism—he is not beholden to any particular place or group. Just because He is at work in one part of the body today is no guarantee he will be there tomorrow. If His people lose their zeal for his name and their honor and reverence for truth, he will remove his lamp stand.
We must be careful be biblically balanced. On the one hand, we should avoid this narrow parochialism where we judge according to labels and not according to the heart and teaching of a church. On the other, we must avoid the other extreme of ecumenicalism. Ecumenicalism, as many think of it today, is the idea that we positively MUST embrace anyone who even faintly claims to be a Christian group. People who do that hold that the highest Christian virtue is unity—“we must all be one.” The trouble with that is that in the name of unity, some people are willing to cross all sorts of major doctrinal boundaries that should in no way be crossed. It’s commendable to celebrate unity, but the unity must grow out of our common bond in Christ which is governed by the central truths of Scripture.
For instance, it’s wonderful to be united to other groups in the Lord Jesus Christ, but we must make sure we are talking about the same Lord. My Lord is “God’s only son, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried… who on the third day was raised the dead and ascended to the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead—the second person of the Trinity, the unchanging, fully human, fully God, Savior and Lord of all. That’s the Jesus the Bible teaches. If someone else believes in a different Jesus than that, then we have no basis for unity—for that person, my mission is not to unite with them, but to lovingly correct them.
The term “ecumenical” is derived from a Latin word meaning “household of faith.” It’s a good thing to be ecumenical in the sense that you are anxious to meet with and learn from other people from other traditions who are truly born again by the Spirit into the household of the one true faith taught in the Scriptures. But this “ecumenicalism” that exalts unity at the price of truth is Satanic. We must be careful not to compromise the truth in the name of so-called unity, but we must also NOT allow our suspicions and even paranoia to keep us from living out what it means to be part of the larger body of Christ as Paul writes of it in the New Testament. This requires work, but it is our obligation as Christ’s body.
With that as background, I briefly want to turn to the same truths we saw last week and this week apply them NOT for the purpose of compelling us to think of ourselves as a member of a local body instead of as individuals. This morning, using the same biblical basis from last week we want to broaden the focus to cause us to think of ourselves not only as a local church, but as part of a community of churches and nation of churches and world of churches. The broad truth over which everything from this point will be said is a fair extension of what we said last week from the biblical texts. That is, we must see ourselves within a corporate framework not only as an individual church but as part of Christ’s larger body. That is certainly part of Paul’s meaning in his designation for the church as the body of Christ. The first truth is when God saved us; he saved us in part to be placed into a larger body and gave us gifts to minister to that larger body. Though we must not stretch this particular point too far there are biblical examples where churches can have and should have ministry to other churches.
In the writings of Paul, we see this in at least two ways. First, we see churches ministering to other churches by giving financially to those churches in need. We see this in many of Paul’s letters where he is taking up a collection for the believers being persecuted in the Judean churches. In Romans 15 he says in verse 25-26, “Now, however, I am on my way to Jerusalem in the service of the saints there. For Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem.” Macedonia and Achaia would have included churches in Thessalonica, Berea, and Philippi and Achaia would include church like Corinth and Athens. Those churches in those cities sent money to the poor saints in Jerusalem and that area. There was some sense of a larger community and one church clearly felt a responsibility to minister to other churches with money. We do that through World Missions but do we should also be willing to do it for other churches in our local area when they are in real crisis. I’ll grant you that to do so responsibly would take a lot of effort, but this kind of financial support to other churches is all but unheard of today and there is biblical warrant for doing it.
Beyond the financial area, we see several places in the New Testament where churches served other churches as sources of encouragement by what God was doing in them. In 2 Corinthians 8:1, Paul doesn’t hesitate to encourage the Corinthians by telling them what God was doing in the Macedonian churches. He writes, “And now, brothers, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches.” He then reports the supernatural financial generosity the Macedonians had shown. In First Thessalonians 1:7-8 Paul says to the church in Thessalonica about their joy in the midst of suffering, “And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere.” The same truth is seen in 2 Thessalonians 1:4 where Paul writes, “Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.” It’s clear that the report of what God was doing in this persecuted church in Thessalonica was used as an encouragement to other churches. Do we hear the kind of connectedness these churches had with one another? What God was doing in one church encouraged people in other churches.
How different that can be from our response to what God may be doing in other churches. When we hear about some church that is growing or seemingly being blessed, our first response may not to be encouraged at all. We may think things like, “yes, well if we had a building like that, we’d grow too.” Or, “Well, what do you expect, they have eight staff people.” Do we hear how those attitudes show NOT a love and rejoicing for what God may be doing in other parts of the body, but instead point to attitudes of resentment and jealousy toward other parts of Christ’s body? Paul assumes that by boasting about what God is doing in Thessalonica he will encourage even an arrogant church like Corinth. What does it say about us when we hear about a church being blessed outside our denomination or fellowship or sometimes even inside and rather than rejoice, we turn green and grumble?
Related to this, just as we as individuals are given gifts to minister to the body, God has doubtless given local churches various gifts and those are given, as we saw last week from 1 Corinthians 12, for the common good—to build up the body of Christ. It seems consistent that if a local church is blessed in a particular way, it is a good application of this call to “build the body” to share our individual church’s gifts with other bodies. We have been blessed with wonderful music here and we have in the past taken the flute choir and bell choirs to other churches. That kind of ministry is body life on a larger scale and we should seek to do even more of it. What other gifts has God given us as a church? He expects us to use those gifts not only for ourselves, but for other parts of the body who need building up in those areas. Do we see our church as a servant not only to God, but also to other churches? Doesn’t that sound like what the church of Christ should be about? Whatever our corporate gifts may be, we must use them to build up not only this body but others as well who are not so gifted. Likewise, if other churches are blessed in ways we are not, we should not be hesitant to call on them and, for the good of the larger body, invite them to come and minister to us. This kind of exchange of gifts is rarely done among churches today especially not cross-denominationally, but it is well within the biblical principles we looked at last week regarding the body from First Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4. The fact that these kinds of truths are not practiced widely today does not mean they are not valid applications of the biblical teaching on Christ’s body. It simply means we don’t have any much understanding of how the body is supposed to function on these levels.
A second point made last week and which can be applied beyond the local church level is “our personal maturity and growth in Christ is not separated from the maturity of the rest of the body.” We saw from Ephesians 4:15-16 that what each individual part of the body does affects the maturity of the entire body. This truth also extends to our relationships with other churches. There are countless examples of this but one of the more powerful is seen in Christian parenting. If you’re a parent and you raise your child in a healthy, holy environment and teach them to obey God from a heart of love, that child is far more likely to go out into the world and have an edifying effect on some other part of the body of Christ. If you as a parent in Duluth, Minnesota raise mature believers in Christ, then wherever they go—whether its to Wisconsin or Central Asia, what you do in your home will, by God’s grace, help to build the body of Christ in another part of the world. Do we hear how what we do in the privacy of our homes can build the body worldwide?
Related to this, if a church does a good job modeling what a healthy church is like to its young people, then when those young people leave they will bring those positive influences with them and when they become active in other churches, those positive influences will help build other parts of Christ’s body. God can use them, because of the grace He has poured into them in another local body, to have a godly influence on every other church they ever join. We must hear how these truths about the body we saw last week extend beyond the individual church to the larger body of Christ. Another example of this is if, for instance, there is a church in our community teaching a works righteousness theology, that not only affects the people in that church. One reason is because when people for whatever reason leave that church and move to others across the country or just down the street, they will go and propagate the legalism they learned in their old church in another body. Likewise, if a church teaches a person doesn’t need to repent of their sins to be saved and as a result, baptizes many false converts, those so called “converts” will eventually migrate to other churches over the years and bring their carnal, fallen attitudes and lifestyles to other churches. Do we hear how what happens in one local church can affect the entire body?
On the other hand, if a church is obedient to make mature believers of Jesus Christ and people from that church move from the community or are called to another local church, then what that one church is doing right will strengthen the body in another local group of believers. This is one more reason why we should strive with all we have to allow Christ to build a God-centered, truth-driven, love-producing ministry here at Mount of Olives. We must understand that we do here to glorify God will ripple out to the uttermost parts of the earth.
Finally, we saw last week that sin in one part of a local church has an effect on others in the local body. The same is true for church-to-church relationships. We’ve already seen how bad teaching on discipleship and evangelism can pollute churches beyond the one doing the false teaching. But it happens in other ways as well. When someone in one local church is in unrepentant sin and the church brings biblical church discipline on them, so often today, rather than stay in the local church, receive the discipline and be reconciled to God and to the body, the sinning person simply goes to the church across town. In their minds, that solves the problem. In many cases, the church doesn’t even administer discipline and the unrepentant sinner after defiling that church moves to another church and they spread their sin there as well. As we saw last week from First Corinthians 5:6, “…Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough?”
If an unrepentant sinner goes from one church to another, that doesn’t mean God simply wipes the blackboard clean and allows them to start over. NO! They bring their mess into every church they attend and their sin, as unchecked sin always does, grows and becomes toxic to other parts of Christ’s larger body. This is one more reason why church discipline is so important. We are not free to assume that if an unrepentant sinner leaves our church, the problem is solved. It’s not solved—it’s simply out of our sight, but the body of Christ we are called to love and serve still suffers from that sin. There is a degree of cooperation that must exist between churches when people transfer to them that simply does not exist today in the body. We cannot remain so fixated on what is happening in our local body that we forget that the sin in another body can and will effect what is happening here and vice versa. We as a church should see it as our obligation within the larger body of Christ to communicate to other churches when an unrepentant sinner moves to another church.
This kind of thinking about the body of Christ we’ve been talking about this morning is probably even more out of the box for most of us than what we heard last week. All that shows is that this is area of body life is often neglected in the church of Christ today. In order for this to sink in and have an effect on us, we must ask Christ to give us eyes to see the beauty of his larger body so that we can have his love for her. Jesus loves his bride—the whole bride and so should we. If our lives do not reflect that love and if our church does not, we must repent of our tunnel vision and ask God to take off our parochial blinders to see the wonder of Christ’s body. May God give us the grace to more and more see the body of Christ as the Bible presents her and may we love not only each other here in this place but to other believing churches in a manner that honors the Head of the body, Christ.
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