I try to never work out. I think I am allergic to physical activity. Anytime I exert energy, I break out in sweat and my heart starts racing, not to mention I feel out of breath. Afterwards, the next day, my muscles feel sore. Recently, however, I got my hands on some professional jump ropes and even more recently I got a used weight bar from a fellow missionary. I’m looking forward to considering using them at some point in the near or distant future, probably for a New Year’s resolution, if not as decoration for my shed.
Even though I’ve never been disciplined myself when it comes to working out, I know for certain that taking care of oneself physically has long term health benefits for my entire body.
Recently while spending time in the Scripture, something jumped out at me that I had not spent much time thinking about before: one of the biggest themes of the New Testament epistles, the key to overall long term health benefits within the body of Christ.
It is the theme of “body life” in the New Testament or rather, what life within the church should look like. More specifically it deals with the interpersonal relationships that make up the body of Christ, how believers interact with each other. In fact, it is the function of the body of Christ within itself that seems to be one of the marks of what is considered a mature church versus an immature church.
This surprised me. I always knew that God cared about how we got along with each other, but to me it seemed more of a side issue to the real commands of serving Him by participation in seeing people come to know Christ. In other words, I saw that our individual work for Christ was more important than our corporate function in the body of Christ. I am learning that this individualistic mentality couldn’t be further from the truth!
God cares a great deal about how we get along with each other in the body. Really, its about more than just getting along- its about having thriving, growing relationships and serving each other. Would you say this characterizes your experience in your church? If so, that’s awesome! But perhaps you’ve experienced more frustration than blessing when it comes to relating with other people in the body of Christ (or maybe just certain people). Hopefully this blog can give you some hope and direction as to how the Bible approaches the subject.
What is “the Church?”
The universal (worldwide) body of Christ is made up of all who have placed there faith in Jesus Christ and have been born again by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13). Local churches are simply a grouping of these people who physically meet together for worship, fellowship, teaching, etc. For example, believers in the United States and Papua New Guinea are part of the universal body of Christ. However, in the United States there are many local churches, such as our home church, Grace Point Evangelical Free Church in Michigan. Sometimes local churches don’t have names, like the group of believers that meets here on our island in the Tigak language group, who study the Word together, pray, share and sing together. However, they all make up the universal body of Christ.
Paul points out some things that all believers have in common in his letter to the Ephesians, “There is one body [of Christ], and one Spirit [the Holy Spirit], just as you were called in one hope of your calling, one Lord [Jesus Christ], one faith [in Jesus Christ], one baptism [into the body of Christ], one God the Father who is over all, in all and through all.” (4:4-6)
That’s a lot to have in common. Its amazing being within a local body of believers and observing the range of diversity it represents and yet still have those things in common. This has never been more true in our lives until recently. Currently, we worship with the Tigak believers, which of course is completely cross-cultural from what we grew up in. It is the most wonderful thing to sing praises to God with other brothers and sisters in Christ from another culture! I am regularly encouraged by something one of our believers shares with me, and I praise God that I have had opportunities to encourage them. Even though we are world’s apart in the ways we were raised and the environments we grew up in, we now share a closer bond with each other than either of us feels to many people in our home culture. My Tigak believing friends are much closer to me than many of my American believing friends. I feel more relationally at home with them as we walk with the Lord in our lives together and experience new trials and victories than I have had with many others in my life. That is the power of the good news and the joy of what it means to be a part of the universal body of Christ. That is not to say that back home I don’t have those kinds of friendships. My best friend Jeff Schaap is someone I would say I experience deep spiritual closeness with when we are together and even apart. I am challenged and encouraged by him in the Lord and hopefully the feelings are mutual. 🙂
Which brings me to the next point. Just because we are a part of the body of Christ by new birth into it, does not mean that we are automatically experiencing all that God wants us to in our fellowship with other believers. The New Testament contains verse after verse after verse about how we should be living in the body of Christ. This instruction in itself shows that it does not come automatically or naturally once we are believers. It is something we need to continue to proactively engage in for the rest our lives.
Many passages of Scripture that speak on our interpersonal relationships (often referred to as the “one-another” passages) within the body of Christ. Check out a few of the following and consider what this means for you personally:
- For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. (Galatians 5:13)
- Therefore, encourage one another, and build up one another, just as you also are doing. (1 Thessalonians 5:11)
- Let the Word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another.” (Colossians 3:16)
- Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. (James 5:16)
- And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. (Ephesians 4:32)
- …with all humility, and gentleness, with patience, showing forbearance to one another in love (Ephesians 4:2)
- Therefore, accept each other just as Christ has accepted you so that God will be given glory. (Romans 12:16)
- Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. (Romans 12:16)
- Bear one another’s burdens, and thus fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2)
- Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. (Romans 12:10)
- Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love for the brethren, fervently love one another form the heart. (1 Peter 1:22)
There are a lot more verses that speak to our interpersonal relationships within the body of Christ. If you’re interested, take some time to study the practical application passages of Romans (12-16) and Ephesians (4-6) and ask “What is being said about how we should relate with other believers?”, and you will compile quite a list of directives for how to live within the body of Christ in relation to other believers. Of course, you can keep going through the New Testament and you will find that it is a major theme of the apostles in their letters to the churches. To me, this has been a fascinating study and has really changed how I look at church.
If we take a step back and look at all that is being said, it could be summed up by the following: life within the body of Christ is about growth out of self-centeredness into a life of others-centeredness and serving love. We can see that a large portion of directives in the New Testament are about moving out of selfishness and into serving love. This should be no surprise since the life of our Lord Jesus Christ was marked by humility and selfless love towards others (Phil. 2:5-11). This is God’s goal in conforming us to the image of Christ.
Some of the attitudes and actions that are counter to this include: pride (Rom. 12:16), lack of care or concern for others (Rom. 14:15-21), comparing yourself with others (2 Cor. 10:12), quarreling, jealousy, selfishness, slander, gossip, arrogance, disorderly behavior (2 Cor. 12:20-21), destroying, biting and devouring each other (Gal. 5:15), trying to impress other (Phil. 2:3) and the lists goes on. All of these stand in stark contrast to what God’s desire is for how we relate with each other in the body of Christ.
We have a problem because by nature we are self-centered. Moving from self-centeredness towards others-centeredness may seem like nothing short of a miracle; and in a lot of ways it is. If this weren’t the case, there would be no need for so many directions. Why give us instruction in areas that we will naturally fulfill? No, we are incapable of naturally succeeding in our interpersonal relationships in the body of Christ.
However, because of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection from the dead we who have trusted in His work on the cross as payment for our sins are said to have died with Him, and risen to new life in Him (Rom. 6). “Since we have been united with Him in His death, we will also be raised to life as He was. We know that our old sinful selves were crucified with Christ so that sin might lose its power in our lives. We are no longer slaves to sin. For when we died with Christ we were set free from the power of sin.” (Rom. 6:5-7)
The believer in Christ is now free from sin and self’s control and is able, through the indwelling Holy Spirit, to walk in freedom to serve others (Rom. 8). “Therefore, brothers and sisters you have no obligation to do what your sinful nature urges you to do. For if you live by its dictates, you will die. But if through the power of the Spirit you put to death the deeds of your sinful nature, you will live.” (Rom. 8:12-13) So, really it is miraculous! It is a freedom that has been purchased by the blood of Jesus Christ! We are free to love others. We are free to die to ourselves and to live a life of serving love. This is what God desires in our spiritual growth towards maturity.
How awesome would it be to have this kind of fellowship within a group of people? Everyone serving each other, looking out for each other’s needs, taking on a community identity as opposed to an individualistic identity. No back-biting or inflated egos dominating the group. It would be a powerhouse of sacrificial love and service! Personally, I have been a part of a group of believers who I think functioned closer to this and it was pretty awesome. To be sure, it wasn’t perfect. We are all works in progress and there were tense times, but even the tense times eventually built stronger bonds in those of us committed to the growth of the group towards Christlikeness. I think many of us have experienced this in a small group or Bible study group setting because it tends to be more intimate. In any case, contrary to what it would seem, its definitely not impossible to experience this within a group of believers if everyone is committed to the same ideal.
On the flip side, I think we have all seen how ugly relationships in the body of Christ can get at times. Because Christians are still human beings with a flesh, the capacity to live selfishly, even within the body of Christ, is still there. Even though many of us are good at keeping our self-centeredness at bay on the outside, our thought lives and attitudes towards others reveal much more about where our loyalty lies and those thoughts and attitudes eventually come leaking out if they are off base. I’ve found that being around these kinds of people or in this kind of group is not life-giving, but rather spiritually draining and stressful. Here are a few ways that believers hinder the body of Christ through their attitudes and actions.
1. Disrupting the Body
Jerry Bridges, in his book Respectable Sins: Confronting the Sins we Tolerate lists common attitude problems that many Christians carry around with little or no regard for the fact that the Bible calls them sin. These “little sins” not only disrupt the believers fellowship with God, but they can also disrupt fellowship within the body of Christ. For example, take worry. God tells us in Paul’s letter to the Philippians to “be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your request be made know to God.” (4:6) Have you ever known a worrier? I have. Sometimes their anxiety is so intense that it disrupts the sense and peace that we can have in trusting God. In this way, someone who is being controlled by their anxiety can let that spill out into the body of Christ and negatively impact others by taking the focus off of trusting God in everything and letting His peace guard our hearts. What about “venting?” Have you ever gone to church, found your best friend and just wanted to “vent?” Does spreading our frustration actually help or hinder the body of Christ? It feels like it helps, but it is actually sin. Not only does the Scriptures tell us to “do all things without grumbling or complaining,” (Phil. 2:14) but it also tells us to “Let no unwholesome word proceed out of [our] mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification [building up] according to the need of the moment…” (Eph. 4:29)
There are many more examples that can be given, but suffice to say, we have a lot to think about when it comes to the ways we personally let our attitudes and actions affect others in the body of Christ, disrupting the potential for powerful fellowship and unity based on truth and holiness. [As a side note, its interesting to note that many of passages specifically relate to the use of the tongue, i.e. our communication, as something that can easily build up the body or tear down the body.]
Unity within the body of Christ is a huge theme in the New Testament. Christ prayed for unity of his disciples and those to come (John 17:20-24), Paul continually challenged churches in their unity with one another (a couple examples: Eph. 4:13; Phil. 1:27; 2:2, 2, etc.), and even John says that believers united front stands as a major testimony before the eyes of the unbelieving world. (John 13:34-35, 17:23) If unity is so powerful, than disunity, or division, may be equally devastating for the cause of Christ.
A few years ago I picked up a handbook on Christian denominations in the United States. It was amazing how many denominations there are just in the United States alone. Not to go into how these denominations were formed or why, anyone who has read any book on church history can find that many denominations were basically church/denomination splits, some over splitting theological hairs or over certain forms of expression. Personally, I agree with some of those splits, especially when it comes to major points of Bible doctrine, but nevertheless each marked another division in the overall unity of the universal body of Christ. After sharing with someone that I received the book, they commented, “Well, that’s depressing. How would you like to spend your whole life devoted to cataloging all the divisions within the body of Christ?” Sad, but true.
While there are a number of things that can divide the body, like “selfishness… empty conceit… look[ing] out for your own personal interests” (Phil. 2), one of the main things I have personally witnessed in my limited experience is the rising up of people within a church who seem bent on steering people in the church towards a certain kind of teaching or even developing a “cult of personality” for their favorite Bible teacher or pastor. There is nothing wrong with steering people towards truth, of course, but sometimes people think that their pet theological idea should be the dominating influence that drives a church, and usually to get to that point an imbalance has been reached in their thought life and study habits that it becomes hard for them to see anything outside of it.
As for the “cult of personality” the Bible warns us not to lift people up in such a way, “So then let no one boast in men. For all things belong to you, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or things present or things to come; all things belong to you, and you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God.” (1 Cor. 3:21-22)
That’s why it is important for each of us as believers to know the Word for ourselves, study it for ourselves and be humble and teachable, at all times seeking among the church to “preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Eph. 4:3)
How is this accomplished? Read Paul’s instruction to his disciple Timothy:
“…solemnly charge them in the presence of God not to wrangle about words, which is useless and leads to the ruin of the hearers. Be diligent to present yourself approved unto God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth. But avoid worldly and empty chatter, for it will lead to further ungodliness and their talk will spread like gangrene… refuse foolish and ignorant speculations, knowing that they produce quarrels.” (2 Timothy 2:14-17a, 23)
Personally these verses are convicting for me, as someone who has wasted more time than I’d like to admit getting into heated arguments over topics such as predestination or election. Our time would be much better spent actually reaching the lost in space and time, than debating what God predestinated before space and time. Most of those debates are useless speculation that lead to quarrels and wrangling of words. Its a waste of time.
At the same time, some teaching is flat out wrong and should be divided over. Specifically in the early church, there was a group of false teachers who dominated the areas of the New Testament world. They were called Judaizers and are always viewed and talked about in the negative (Phil. 3:2 for example). They were basically trying to enslave people by perverting the gospel into a salvation by works, as opposed to salvation by grace through faith alone in Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:8-9). These kind of people still exist today, though the context is different, and they should be considered the enemy of the church (Gal. 1:6-10). Errors such as this should be divided over.
God’s desire is for unity based on truth in the body of Christ.
3. Avoiding the Body
Have you ever known believers who quit going to church? The author of Hebrews directs believers to, “not [forsake] assembling together.” Why would God says this? Because God’s ideal for us is active growth towards Christ-like, others-centeredness within the body. According to the context of Hebrews, when we gather together as believers we can “consider how to stimulate one another towards love and good deeds [and]… [encourage] one another…” (10:24-25)
Think about the verse in Proverbs, “Iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” (27:17) This is why we need each other in the body of Christ. We encourage each other and challenge each other towards growth and maturity in Him. To neglect other believers in the body of Christ is to willingly forgo this means of growth! I think it is also an invitation for potential disaster in your spiritual life, because God often uses other believers in our lives to communicate and convey His truth to us. Stepping away from community is to remove yourself from one avenue that God uses to teach us, remind us and keep us in His truth. In this same vein, I’ve also found that it helps us from getting theologically weird, because there are enough people reading and studying the Bible that they help each other stay on track.
Personally, I have had many an occasion where I have been both encouraged and challenged by other believers. Some of the most profound growth I have experienced this past year has come through people being faithful enough with me on a couple of occasions to rebuke improper thinking in a few areas of my attitude towards others. It was hard and painful at the time, but it has been the best thing for me spiritually as I have grown through it.
I know its hard to get deep and personal with people, and to let them see the real you and to be open and teachable to let people give input into your life or areas that you are failing. It can be painful, but it is the best kind of pain that brings healing. This might be an area where we need to entrust our care into the hands of God and jump fully into what God intended life within the church to be.
There’s another down side to neglecting the body that is of a more communal nature. Because of the fact that every believer has been given a spiritual gift to use towards the equipping of the body for service to God (1 Cor. 12:7), when one person is not participating in the life of the body, the church as a whole suffers. Imagine a church where every single person is connected and serving! I can’t even imagine what it could look like, but I bet it would have an amazing testimony before the eyes of the world! Instead, in many churches even among the people who attend, there are only a handful of people serving, and statistically its mostly women.
Of course, these same things apply to those who church hop, those who treat churches like revolving doors. I know a few people who always seem to be “in-between churches right now.” This is sad because they usually spend enough time in the church to see how well people are going to serve them or value how awesome they are, and once the church fails to serve them perfectly, they bail, and say things like, “It wasn’t meeting my needs.” I always want to say “Church isn’t about getting your needs met, its about serving others!”
Well, much more could be said about each of these areas, but hopefully you can see the potential for suffering within the body of Christ where individuals are not committed to Christ-reflecting, others-centeredness that expresses itself in serving love.
Getting Back into “Body-Building”
Overall, there are three benefits we can expect to receive from functioning within the body of Christ the way God intended. First, we get cared for in ways we wouldn’t if we were not functioning as we should. Second, we get to play a valuable part in caring for others and building up the body of Christ. Third, God gets the glory in the world through the testimony of the church we are functioning in. Its a win win situation all around.
If you’ve made it this far in the blog, you might be asking, “So what do I actually do to foster this in my life and the life of my church?” Here are a few tips I can give:
1) Make sure you are a part of Bible believing church that is committed to the Scriptures in all areas.
2) Commit yourself to studying God’s word and drawing “body life” principles from it. Start with Romans and Ephesians.
3) Ask God to help you in your growth towards understanding what the life of the church should look like and share with others what you find.
4) Commit yourself to being a part of the solution of Christ-likeness and others-centeredness in the body as opposed to being a part of the problem. What I mean is, take the directives in the New Testament and start applying them to your life. It won’t be easy, but God’s Spirit lives within you and He will help you.
5) If there is someone in the body you need to reconcile with, do it.
6) Serve within the body somehow. You may not know exactly how God wired you for service, but get involved. Trying to serve in different ways is the only way you will figure out where you fit!
7) Protect the body from those who wish to tear it down. Be bold in calling it was it is: sin.
Personally, in my life since I really starting to think about these things, I have seen my perspective change towards other believers, specifically the ones I am currently engaged in limited discipleship with (because of language study). If maturity is marked by others-centeredness and a large portion of the New Testament is focused on interpersonal relationships within the body, than those are areas that I should be encouraging in their lives and modeling in my own. I have shifted my own focus from trying to get them to do certain things or engage in certain activities, to encouraging them to be a certain kind of people; that is people reflecting the person of Jesus Christ in their lives and seeking it in their church. People who care about godly character and are committed to serving one another for the glory of God. For certain it will take discipline in all of our lives, just like physical exercise, but like physical exercise, there are long term health benefits for the body of Christ overall.