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The church and its ministry (part 7)

Gary Deddo

Here is part 7 of an essay from Gary Deddo on the nature of the church and its ministry. For other parts of the essay, click a number: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12. We encourage you to add your thoughts and questions in the “comments” box at the end of each post to get a discussion going. To read the full essay in booklet form, click here. To read the related essay, “Clarifying Our Theological Vision,” click here.

Gary delivered two lectures related to this essay at the recent New Pastors Orientation Conference in Glendora, CA. Videos of the lectures have been posted on YouTube:

  • Click here to watch Reading and Interpreting Scripture with Trinitarian Eyes.
  • Click here to watch GCI Doctrines and How to Teach Them.

A Brief Theology of the Church
(with a view to equipping the saints for the work of ministry)

by Dr. Gary Deddo

Part 7: On Being the Body of Christ

Last time we looked at how the church’s proclamation, in addition to preaching, occurs through its worship and witness. This time we’ll note that though the New Testament does not give a lot of detail concerning how the church is to function, it does specify certain patterns and practices that build off of and are arranged according to the theological insights we already have looked at in this essay.

How is the church to operate?

As the body of Christ, the church is called to live out its life according to whose church it is and how it is related to the one to whom it belongs and from whom it derives its life and vocation. The church is thus to operate in accordance with its God-given nature, whether that operation is specified in general principles or in particular New Testament descriptions of the church’s form and structure. Another way to say this is that the church is to be built up with Christ as its living cornerstone, with its foundation being the written Word of God (Scripture) interpreted in line with the Living Word of God (Jesus Christ).

Come Follow Me by Liz Lemon Swindle
(used with permission)

What, if anything, does the New Testament teach us as being normative for the life of a local church (congregation) in our day? Answering that question requires discernment, taking into account the whole counsel of God regarding how the parts fit into the whole. The greatest potential pitfall in this discernment process is taking a particular event or practice in the church recorded in the New Testament, then assuming it is a principle or norm that should be applied to the whole church in all times and places, including ours.

Descriptions of the early church (with many of them found in the book of Acts) do not automatically serve as prescriptions for how the church universal ought to be. However, some of these descriptions may be expressions of more general patterns that can and should be emulated throughout the church universal. Discerning which is which, requires exploring whether or not there is more explicit teaching in the New Testament that presents such ways of operating as general principles or norms for the whole church.

As we engage in this discernment process, we first acknowledge that many practical details of how a church should function are not specified in the New Testament. That is so because in the New Testament, there is a three-fold assumption at work: 1) that Jesus will remain in living contact with his church through the active ministry of the Holy Spirit, 2) that the church will have the written Word of God to consult, and 3) that the church will have overseers (pastors) and other leaders who, following the Spirit and Scripture, will possess the wisdom, gifts and experience needed to lead the church in the way of Jesus. Thus we understand that not every aspect of the church’s operations needs to be specified in Scripture. God apparently decided that his gifts of the guiding Spirit, the inspired written Word, and anointed leadership are sufficient for Jesus to remain Lord of his body, the church.

What then can we learn from Scripture about the particular form and shape of a local church, built as it is in communion with Christ as its Lord and Savior by the Spirit? This question leads us back to passages in the New Testament that speak directly to the church being the body of Christ. In this section of the essay we’ll consider not so much the vital relationship of the body to its Head, but the dynamic relationship of the members with each other. This issue is addressed in several New Testament passages, particularly in Ephesians 4, Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 11. This time we’ll focus on Ephesians 4.

Many members, one body

The primary dynamic of the life in the body of Christ being highlighted in each of these passages is how there are many members yet one body. The problem being addressed is the fallen human tendency to want to go our own way and thus undo the unity of the church, or for that unity to be regarded in such a way that the distinction of the many is diminished. Though unity and diversity are often at odds with one another, in the body of Christ and by the Spirit they go together, though how they go together takes discernment—it’s not a mindless union, nor does it occur automatically, as Paul makes clear. True unity with diversity is a miracle of the Spirit of Jesus that must be purposefully received and thus shared in.

In Ephesians 4:1-16 Paul describes key elements of life in the body of Christ. He shows that our response to what our Lord has done (and is doing) in building his one church begins by recognizing the worth of Christ and all he has done for us and given to us. As we recognize that worth, we will live in a way that allows us to show forth that we belong to Christ, displaying “humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love,” being “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:2-3).

Out of this center of our relationship with Christ arises our relationship with one another. Our oneness as the body of Christ is the oneness that results from us being bound together to Jesus Christ—the one we worship and the one to whom we are called to bear both direct and indirect witness. Only as these characteristics arise out of our relationship with Christ will the many members of his one body, the church, be able to maintain or act according to the unity given it by Christ himself, for as Paul says,

There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:4-6)

Notice how the indicative of the grace (the gift of oneness we are given in Christ) is the ground (reason or basis) for our living out and thus manifesting that oneness. The gift of oneness thus precedes what we do to live it out in our corporate life. Indeed, each congregation of the body of Christ is called to manifest and so testify to the oneness of Christ. This is also the calling of each denomination (collections or associations of congregations). All members, congregations, and denominations should be concerned to bear witness to the oneness of Christ’s body, the church. Though there are a variety of congregations and denominations, in reality there is but one church. Each “part” of the church ought to recognize, bear witness to, and so maintain that unity as much as possible. To do so is to have what is commonly referred to as an ecumenical spirit (with ecumenical meaning “pertaining to the whole”). Where there are certain divisions that compromise this wholeness, efforts should be made to restore unity.

This does not mean that there cannot be certain kinds of differences between congregations and denominations. Some differences do not betray the essential unity of the body of Christ. Examples would be speaking different languages or meeting in different locations. We must not define the unity of the church in accordance with some idea or ideal of our own invention. Certain notions of unity—namely absolute uniformity in all things at all levels, of every kind—rule out Christ’s kind of unity, a unity that makes room for (and even encourages) certain kinds of diversity.

The church’s identifying “marks”

What then defines the church’s unity? As stated in the Nicene Creed, the one church is identified by four particular “marks” (signs): 1) the church is one, 2) it is holy, 3) it is catholic (meaning universal) and, 4) it is apostolic. During the Reformation these marks were qualified by noting that the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, being built on and sustained by Christ, is regulated by the preaching of the Word of God, the right offering of the sacraments (the Lord’s Supper and baptism), and the maintenance of holy discipline. Thus all four marks of the church, so qualified, direct our focus onto Christ, the one living cornerstone and foundation of his church.

The church’s oneness comes from being joined to Christ, for he is what the members of his body have in common. The church’s holiness is not originally its own—the church shares in Christ’s holiness as a continuing gift of grace. The church’s universality (its catholic nature, its wholeness), is also a gift that has to do with receiving its whole life from Christ through the Holy Spirit. The church’s apostolicity comes from its living under the authoritative word of Christ’s original apostles preserved for us in their authorized writings. Apostolicity also means that the church participates in Christ’s mission—it is sent out as those first apostles were, with the same message to witness in surrounding communities and the world as a whole.

While there are many practical questions that could be explored, we have in these marks a good foundation to fill out a bit the nature of Christ’s church and its unity in him so that we can begin to differentiate between the kinds of “diversity” that cause division or schism, and the kinds that are vital for church health—a diversity that demonstrates the multifaceted flourishing of Christ’s church, his one body. We’ll look at that issue more next time.