The Church — The Body of Christ
There is a saying that goes something like this: “To dwell above with saints we love, oh, that will be glory; but to live below with saints we know, well, that’s another story.” Unfortunately, there is a lot of truth to this. Relationships in a fallen world, even for those who have been redeemed, are often very difficult.
Churches mentioned in the Bible met with varying degrees of success in establishing godly relationships. The Philippians probably had the best record. In the four chapters of the letter Paul wrote to them, the worst problem he had to confront was two women who could not get along. But the Corinthians had the absolute worst record. They struggled with such awful sins as divisiveness, incest, suing one another in a court of law, eating sacrifices offered to idols, abusing the Lord’s Supper and a misguided emphasis on the miraculous gifts. All the other New Testament churches were somewhere in between.
Of course, the modern church fares no better. It is often said now that the choir is the battlefield of the church. Choir members vie for special parts and thereby engender envy and jealousy.
So how do we promote godly relationships within the church? The answer is actually very simple. Each person must exercise his own spiritual gifts within the body of Christ. In fact, this answer is so important that the early church made it an article of faith. We know it today as the “communion of saints.” Now, let’s look to see how Paul develops this doctrine in our text.
The Church is One Body
The first thing we notice is that the apostle answered our question using an illustration. The church, he wrote, resembles a human body. Just as a human body is an individual body with many parts, and each part having its own function, so is the church. This is what Paul wrote in verse 12, where the Lord so closely identifies himself with his people that he calls the church by his own name. After all, Jesus is the head of the church and he bound himself to the church in such a way that his life flows to his members through the ministry of the Word.
Now, we all know how our bodies operate. The fingers go off and do their own thing without any regard for what the knees want or need. The knees do something else altogether. The neck likes to stay home and relax. In other words, what one part of the body does has no effect on the rest of body. Right?
Of course not. The whole idea of the individual parts of the body doing different things is ridiculous. Look how much emphasis Paul puts on the fact that the church is one body. Three times in verse 12 he spoke of one body. Twice in the next verse he mentioned one Spirit, and insisted that it is only by this one Spirit that all believers are incorporated into one body. Then he summarized all of this in verse 20, where he wrote, But now are they many members, yet but one body. You see, if it were true that the various parts of the body could do whatever they wanted without regard for the rest, then it would be impossible to talk about “one body.” There can only be one body if all the parts of that body depend on each another and interrelate with each other. The Lord made the human body this way to teach us how the church of Jesus Christ should operate.
Likewise, there is only church of Jesus Christ. I don’t mean that there is only one denomination — the Reformed Church in the U.S., or the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, or the PCA. Rather, there is only one invisible church. This is the church that Jesus Christ, by the operation of his Holy Spirit and through the ministry of the Word, gathers out of the mass of fallen humanity, unites to himself in true faith and preserves unto everlasting life (Heid. 54). It is a church that has existed since the beginning of the world and will continue to exist in the world until the Lord Jesus Christ comes again. It includes men, women and children. It knows no ethnic or racial barriers. It’s not limited by a person’s age or intelligence. This church includes everyone who has ever believed and will ever believe in the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation.
As we think about this, it’s important to remember that Christ alone builds this church, not we. According to verse 27, the church is the body of Christ. That is, it belongs to him and it derives its life from him. In fact, every reference in this chapter to Christ building his church shows that the church is passive. The one Spirit baptizes us into one body (v. 13). Baptism is a sign and seal of what God does for us — he cleanses us from our sins through the blood of Christ and unites us with the Savior. It is not a sign of what we do for God. Even our drinking of the Spirit in the same verse is not something that we can do on our own. We drink of the Spirit only causes us to drink of himself. Verse 28 addresses the gifts that Christ gave to the church. Here we find again that God appoints for the church whatever gifts he wants it to have.
Because God sovereignly distributes his gifts within the one body of Christ, it is the duty, calling and privilege of every believer to exercise his gifts in the way that God intended. Christian service is not something that only pastors and elders engage in. Pastors and elders shoulder the responsibility to teach and govern, but Christian ministry extends far beyond teaching and governing. If any church wants to grow and prosper, all the members must work together to make it so.
There is no such thing as a true believer who has not been gifted to some particular work in the body of Christ. New believers might not see how they fit in right away. They’ll need time to mature, to test their gifts and be observed by others. But if a person has been in the faith for more than a few months, he should have some idea of what his gifts are. And the gifts of older believers continue to increase so that in time they are able to take on new responsibilities.
The use of our gifts, therefore, is not an option. It’s a divinely-given imperative. Misusing and wasting the gifts of God are grievous sins.
Feelings of Inadequacy
As Paul explained these things to the Corinthians, he noted that he had heard of two problems in the church. One problem was a feeling of inadequacy. Because certain people did not have prominent gifts that were seen by others, they came to believe that their gifts were not really necessary for the body of Christ. The second problem was exactly the opposite: a feeling of absolute independence. The gifts of some people were so prominent that it seemed they did not need the gifts of others. Paul wrote that both groups were mistaken.
Let’s begin with the feeling of inadequacy. The apostle evaluates this way of thinking in verses 15 and 16: If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? But why would anyone want to be a foot or an ear? A foot is walked on all the time. It bears the weight of the whole body. At the end of a long work-day, the foot is often more tired and sore than any other part of the body. Being a foot is no fun. Being an ear is no fun either. All day long it hears nothing but the noise of screeching tires, blaring sirens, loud children, complaining workers and bad news. It never enjoys the richness and beauty of the visual world. Perceiving shades of color and texture are not among its skills. Ears miss so much.
But, you see, this kind of thinking completely misses the point, doesn’t it? Bodies need many different parts to perform many different functions. While it’s true that eyes see a variety of colors, they cannot do it alone. They need feet to take them to the mountains to see landscapes or to the ocean to discover its endless waves. And what good are hands if the ears do not warn them of impending danger? The lowliest, unseen organs — livers, kidneys, and gall bladders — provide functions without which no other part of the body could survive. So, what part of the body can we do without? Where’s the unnecessary part? The answer is that there is none. All the parts are needed.
Those who raised this objection in the church at Corinth assumed that unseen is the same as unnecessary. A church janitor is unseen, but is he unnecessary? Let him forget to sweep the carpet and we’ll see how unnecessary he is. We’ll take our complaints to the very throne-room of God, but how often do we thank him when he does his job well?
Imagine what it would be like if God did not give the church a variety of gifts. Each of you would literally have to do everything for himself. You would have a square of lawn to cut, a shrub to prune, a sprinkler to turn on, and so many square feet of building to clean. When you come to church on Sunday, you would have to type your own bulletin, find your own hymns to sing, prepare your own Bible message, and encourage every other member. If someone strays, it would be your job to try to win him back. If an elderly member needs attention, it would be your job to be there. How much work do you think would actually get done with this kind of arrangement? I’ll tell you how much: None at all! Why? Because there is no one individual in the church, except our Lord Jesus Christ, who has all the gifts. Why, then, would we covet the gifts of another? Every part is necessary for the whole.
Now, you might think that your problem is not a feeling of inadequacy. You might say that you’re not jealous of the gift God has given to someone else. Hopefully, that’s true. But it’s a bigger problem than many people realize. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard Christians says things like “I don’t have a spiritual gift” or “I don’t know what my gift is.” But, you see, this is exactly the same problem. What you’re saying is that your gift is not prominent. In fact, it’s so hidden that you don’t even know what it is. You want something better, something more visible.
But do you know what? It isn’t important that you know what your gift is. The fact that you don’t know what it is probably means that it’s working perfectly. It might mean that you’re so generous in giving to the Lord’s work that you can’t even think about not being generous. Or it could be that you’re so good at encouraging the downtrodden that it just seems like a natural part of your life. Or perhaps your gift is prayer. Could it be that you spend more time holding your brothers and sisters before the Lord than anyone else in the church? That’s something only the Lord can know, but it might be your spiritual gift.
One thing that has impressed me in the time I’ve been in the ministry is how much goes on behind the scenes. Most of those who do quiet work in the church don’t expect to be thanked, but sometimes they wonder nonetheless if their work has any real value. Let me assure you that it does. The church needs the gifts of all of its members; if this were not so, God would not have given you your particular gift. Rather, he gave you your gift because that was something that was needed for the work of the ministry.
Beloved, don’t ever despise the gift that God has given you!
Feelings of Superiority
If the first problem is despising one’s own spiritual gifts, then the second problem is despising the gifts of others. This comes from an attitude of superiority. The gifts of some people are so obvious and important that they come to think they can do everything by themselves. They don’t need the rest of the body. Verse 21 challenges their way of thinking: And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you.
Taking the body as our starting point again, think how ridiculous it would be for an organ to separate itself from the rest of the body. How long could a hand survive without a heart to supply it with blood and oxygen, a brain to sense hot and cold, a kidney system to remove toxins, and feet to move it from place to place?
Is there anyone in the church who doesn’t need others? Pastors need congregations, as much as congregations need pastors. Deacons need the elderly, the poor and the widows. Sunday school teachers need students, and students need teachers. Choir directors need a choir, and choirs require directors. The individualism that has so pervaded our culture has no place in the church of Jesus Christ
Yet, some members of Christ think they can live without other believers. In my experience, this has been a common problem with Christians who think they know their theology better than they actually do. Their response is, “Why do I need a pastor? I already know everything I need to know.” Or pastors sometimes fail to involve others in the ministry because they don’t need them. But the truth is that sometimes other members can do what a pastor cannot do. Another woman is often a better counselor for a woman than the pastor is. Someone who has struggled with poverty might be more helpful to a man who just lost his job. Even pastors and elders cannot do everything. All the gifts that Christ gives to his church are necessary for the welfare of the whole body.
The first thing I say to such people is that their attitude is sinful. Why? Because the Bible nowhere says that any one individual, except the Lord Jesus Christ, is so superabundantly gifted that he needs no one else. Scripture exhorts us to be members one of another. So, individuals who think they have it all are claiming for themselves more than the Bible promises. What they need is not to be on their own, but to heed the rebuke of godly pastors and elders. They need others in the church to teach them hospitality and mutual care. Further, this shows that there is at least one doctrine that they do not understand: the doctrine of the church. They have failed to grasp the communion of the saints.
Beloved, the exhortation here is that we must never despise the gifts that God has given others! To the contrary, we must encourage all our brothers and sisters in Christ to use their gifts just as Scripture admonishes us to use our own.
In conclusion this morning, I would like to quote a few sentences from John Calvin’s commentary on Zechariah 8:23. The Lord says, In those days it shall come to pass, that ten men shall take hold out of all languages of the nations, even shall take hold of the skirt of him that is a Jew, saying, We will go with you: for we have heard that God is with you. Calvin remarks as follows,
Whoever tears asunder the Church of God, disunites himself from Christ who is the Head, and who would have all His members to be united together.… We thus understand that God ought to be sought in order to be rightly worshipped by us; and also that He ought to be thus sought, not that each may have his own peculiar religion, but that we may be united together, and that everyone who sees his brethren going before, and excelling in gifts, may be able to follow them, and to seek benefit from their labours. It is indeed true that we ought to disregard the whole world, and to embrace only the truth of God; for it is a hundred times better to renounce the society of all mortals, and union with them, than to withdraw ourselves from God; but when God shows Himself our leader, the prophet teaches us that we ought mutually to stretch forth our hand, and unitedly to follow Him.
It is only when we understand the organic unity of the church, that we are bound together with Christ as our head, that we can have a sense of our calling to serve Christ in his sacred body. May he give us this glorious vision! Amen.