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IN THE INTRODUCTION I made the bold assertion that we live in a moment of history when the ministry is being returned to the people of God. This assertion is undergirded by the eight movements in the church over the last forty years that have been largely driven by the emergence of the ministry of the whole people of God. Yet the return of the ministry to all of God's people can only become a reality if we understand and experience the fundamental biblical vision of the church as a living organism. The church is emerging from its cocoon of institutional entrapment to the liberty of organism life. We are in the midst of a paradigm shift.
What do I mean by organism? The church in its most fundamental essence is nothing less than an interdependent, life-pulsating people who are indwelled by the presence of a resurrected and reigning Christ. A host of biblical images for the church point to this reality. In the New Testament the church is variously described as the household of God, the people of God, the bride of Christ, and a fellowship of the Holy Spirit. In fact, ninety-six word pictures of the church have been identified. Yet the image that permeates the New Testament understanding of the church and serves as an umbrella for all these metaphors is that of the church as the body of Christ.
I have never heard a better summary of the interdependent nature of the church as the body of Christ than the words of one of the leaders at my former church. Speaking at our annual adult retreat, Mike said that we tend to put inordinate pressure on ourselves to be complete, multitalented, thoroughly well-rounded individuals. The trouble comes when we compare the ideal of what we think we should be to our real selves with all our deficiencies in character and limitations in talent. Fortunately, he said, his self-flagellation led to a breakthrough. It dawned on him that we were never intended by God to be paragons of self-sufficiency: We don't have it all together, but together we have it all.
Mike has given us the backdrop against which to explore three questions that are implicit in the phrase "body of Christ":
1. What is Christ's relationship to the church?
2. How does the church as the body of Christ become a living
3. What undermines the living reality of the church as the
body of Christ?
Our responses to these questions provide the biblical vision for the church as a ministering community. To address these questions we turn to the locus classicus for the image of the church as the body of Christ-1 Corinthians 12-though we will not be restricted to it.
WHAT IS CHRIST'S RELATIONSHIP TO THE CHURCH?
The apostle Paul addresses Christ's relationship to the church by using the human body as an analogy: "For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ" (1 Cor. 12:12). Two repeated words stand out: one and many.
The image of the body conveys the two poles on which Paul builds his understanding of a healthy church-oneness and "manyness," unity and diversity, individuality and corporateness. These poles are inseparable. The human body could not be a better picture of diversity within unity.
First, the body displays oneness or unity. At first glance, one is impressed with the functional integration of all the parts of the body into one. Under the central control of the head, all the body parts work together for the health of the whole body. Each part does not have a will of its own. The hand doesn't say to itself, "I don't care what the head says, I am going to do as I please." Can you imagine being picked up for shoplifting in a department store and using as your defense: "Your honor, I am innocent. My head said not to steal that leather jacket, but I just couldn't get my hand to go along." The body is healthy when the parts respond in oneness to the coordinating impulses of the head.
Second, the body is a perfect expression of diversity. Upon closer examination of the body, one is impressed with the unique function of the individual parts and the necessity of each part for the health of the whole. The hands serve a very different function from the feet, the eye does what the ear cannot, and vice versa. For the body to thrive, every part must operate according to its design. We know all too well that when our bodily parts cease to function in the way they were supposed to our health is impaired. The same is true in the church.
Paul affirms that a balance of oneness and "manyness" is what the body of Christ is to be.
Metaphor or Literal
Yet is Paul's choice of the human body simply to be a nice analogy for the way the church is to function? Is Paul only saying that just as the body is an organic picture of interdependence, so the church is supposed to be? Or is there something deeper than metaphor that Paul has in mind? Paul does not stop at the level of metaphor but points us to a deeper mystical reality. What is the difference between metaphor and literalness? A metaphor is a symbol that points to a deeper reality, but the symbol is not the same as the reality. For example, when Jesus held up the bread at the Passover meal before his disciples and said, "This is my body broken for you," we Protestants do not believe Jesus was speaking literally. The bread was not in actuality his body, but it was a symbol that pointed to his broken body. However, in contrast, when it comes to referring to the church as the body of Christ, I believe Paul is intending more than just an appropriate word picture.
How does Paul conclude 1 Corinthians 12:12, and how does that differ from what we might expect? "For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with the church." What is wrong with that? What I have highlighted is the way we expect Paul to conclude this sentence. I had read this verse perhaps a hundred times before I realized that this was not Paul's actual phrasing. I read church into the text because this is what I expected, since the church is Paul's subject. But this is not Paul's concluding phrase. He says, "so it is with Christ," not the church. By interchanging Christ with the church, Paul is telling us that the church is nothing less than the living extension of Jesus here on earth. The church and the resurrected, reigning, and living Jesus are inseparable. Jesus mediates his life through the church. Is the "body of Christ" metaphor or reality? "The body is a reality," writes Arnold Bittlinger. "Christians are not like members of any body but are according to their very nature members of a specific body, the body of Christ."
The church is not a human organization that has contracted by common consent to keep alive the memory of a great man, Jesus Christ. On the contrary, the church is a divine organism mystically fused to the living and reigning Christ, who continues to reveal himself in a people whom he has drawn to himself. Ray Stedman puts it this way in his book Body Life: "The life of Jesus is still being manifest among people, but now no longer through an individual physical body, limited to one place on earth, but through a complex, corporate body called the church."
Where did Paul get such a radical notion as to associate the church as the people in whom Christ dwells? I believe he understood it from the moment of his first encounter with Jesus. Before he was Paul, an apostle, he was Saul, a Pharisee, who expressed his loyalty to the God of Israel by persecuting the church. Saul had received authority from the Sanhedrin to arrest Christians in Damascus. As he and his entourage were making their way to the city, Saul was stopped in his tracks. Suddenly a light flashed from heaven, and Saul was knocked on his backside. While on the ground, he heard a voice, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?" Knowing that he was in the presence of a power far greater than himself, Saul replied, "Who are you, Lord?" Note the response, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting" (Acts 9:4-5). Now, wait a minute. Saul isn't persecuting Jesus, he is persecuting the disciples of Jesus. Yet here is the truth that sank into Saul's consciousness from the beginning. If you touch Christians, you are touching Christ. There is such a close identification between Jesus and his followers that to touch them is to touch him. You could go so far as to say that Jesus continues his incarnation through his people. True, he sits at the right hand of the Father in power, but through his Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, he indwells his people. Jesus continues to manifest his life through us.
What is the relationship between Jesus and the church? Jesus dwells in them; the church is the aggregate body to whom Jesus has given his life. Christians are a sacramental people. A sacrament is a means of grace; it is a symbol that mysteriously bears the presence of Christ through which believers encounter Christ. It would then be fair to say that the church is a sacramental people who are corporately and individually the conduit of Christ to the world.
The church as the living organism of Christ is further underscored in Paul's cosmic statement in Ephesians about the place of the church in God's eternal scheme. Paul concludes with a flourish: "And he [God] has put all things under his [Jesus'] feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all" (Eph. 1:22-23).
The key interpretational question is: What is the relationship of the phrase "fullness of him" to "his body"? Does Jesus fill the body, or does the body fill out Jesus? The Greek word pleroma (fullness) is most often used in an active sense in the New Testament to mean the content (body) that fills some container (in this case, Jesus). For example, the pieces of the loaves of bread in the feeding of the five thousand are described as filling the baskets (Mark 6:43). In Ephesians 1:23 pleroma taken in the active sense would mean that the body fills Christ. In other words, the church as the body of Christ fills out, or completes, Christ. Christ is in some way incomplete without the church. Jesus is the head, but a head is no good without a body. Some theologians, such as Armitage Robinson, go so far as to say, "In some mysterious sense the church is that without which Christ is not complete, but with which He is and will be complete. Christ is waiting to find completion in His body."
I believe it is more consistent with the message of the New Testament to interpret fullness in a passive sense: "that which is filled." The church is that which is filled by Christ. The church is the container, and Jesus is the one who fills it with his life. Jesus is the content who indwells the form. Nowhere else in the New Testament are we given the sense that Jesus is incomplete. Jesus' existence and sufficiency do not rely on us for completion. Jesus gives his life to us, not out of an unfulfilled need, but out of his sovereign and gracious freedom. He desires to share his very being with the creatures he has made; he wants us to enjoy the love that overflows from the triune God.
What makes the church different from every other way humans have chosen to relate to each other? It is different because the church is not of human origin but is a divine creation. Thomas Oden has captured this uniqueness:
Christianity is distinctive as a religious faith in that it understands itself to be living as a continuing community through the living Christ.... Its uniqueness lies in its particular relationship with its founder.... It is the resurrected presence of the living Lord that continues to be the sole basis of the present reality of the church. Jesus is not merely the one who founded the community and left it, but rather the one who is present to the community now and in each historical period as the vital essence of the church.
We do not understand the core nature of the church until we grasp the inexpressible truth that Jesus extends his life on earth through a corporate people that can literally be called "the body of Christ." Frank Laubach poignantly summarizes Christ's relationship to the church:
When Christ was here on earth, He was limited to performing His ministry in one place and at one time. He was one man, walking beside one sea in one little corner of the earth. He healed whoever He touched, but His touch was necessarily limited by time and by space. Now, does it make sense that the Father would send His Son for this limited ministry? I don't think that is tenable. He made provision to carry on the work through the Holy Spirit: we are to complete His mission. We are His multiplied hands, His feet, His voice and compassionate heart. Imperfect and partial to be sure, but His healing Body just the same. And it is through the Holy Spirit (Christ's love which is everywhere at once) that we receive the power to carry on the work of the apostles. It is a challenging and sobering thought: when we receive the Holy Spirit into our lives, we receive the same urgent and life-giving force that led our Master.
A friend of mine, Jeff Cotter, a pastor at the time, spins a story that playfully illustrates the organic nature of the church. Jeff provided a seatmate on a plane an unforgettable ride. Returning from a job interview wearing jeans, Jeff was not at all looking the part of a pastor. The man next to him was quite a contrast. He was the image of GQ in his Brooks Brothers suit, designer shirt, and tie. Quite full of himself, he waxed eloquent to Jeff, his captive audience. His business was women's fitness, and he had plans to establish his salons throughout California. Once that territory was conquered, he would expand the empire by going nationwide. His goal of being a millionaire by age thirty, he thought, was quite within reach. After dominating the conversation, the man finally turned to Jeff and, looking askance at Jeff's casual attire, said, "And what is it that you do?"
As only Jeff can, he thought he would have a little fun with this man, while making a point about the nature of the church. "It's interesting that we have similar business interests," said Jeff. "You are in the body-changing business; I'm in the personality-changing business. We apply basic theocratic principles to accomplish indigenous personality modification." Not wanting to appear ignorant, Jeff's companion said, "You know, I've heard of that. But do you have an office here in the city?"
"Oh, we have many offices.
Excerpted from Unfinished Business by Greg Ogden Copyright © 2003 by Zondervan
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.