The Term: ἐκκλησίᾳ (ekkleisía)
This Greek word so often translated church in the New Testament, is a word that means “called out ones.” It is derived from the verb καλέω (kaléh-o), which means, “to call,” and from the prefix/preposition ἐκ (ek), which means “out of.” Hence, the term comes to mean an assembly of called out ones. W. E. Vines notes that it was “used among the Greeks of a body of citizens gathered to discuss the affairs of State.”1 Such an assembly is mentioned in Acts 19:39. “In the Septuagint, it is used to designate the gathering of Israel, summoned for any definite purpose, or a gathering regarded as representative of the whole nation.”2
The term speaks of an assembly of called out ones, but it says NOTHING about the nature of the call, the identity of those called, or to what purpose they have been called. The context must determine what KIND of an assembly is meant. In Acts 7:38, the term refers to the congregation of Israel in the wilderness. In Heb.2:12, it is used of a congregation of Jews. In Acts 19:32, it referred to an angry and confused gentile mob. In Acts 19:39, it referred to a legal, political assembly. It is sometimes used of the universal Body of Christ (Eph.1:22), and on other occasions, it is used of a local church (I Cor.1:2). In the New Testament, the term is used most often in a context of the local church.
The first occurrence of the term in the New Testament comes from the mouth of the Lord Jesus in Matthew 16:18. In Matthew, the Lord is presented as the King of Israel who came to announce to the Jewish people that their kingdom was at hand (4:17). If they had repented, He would have established that Kingdom. However, it became obvious as His ministry progressed that Israel would NOT repent. They would NOT receive Christ as their King. Jesus rebuked the nation corporately for their unbelief in chapter eleven (vs.16-27), and then turned to individuals in the nation to come to Him in simple faith (11:28). The nation’s leaders accused Christ of ministering in the power of the Devil (12:24). The tone and direction of the Lord’s ministry changed from that point on. In chapter sixteen, the Lord began to “shew unto his disciples how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day” (16:21). In that context, the Lord first used the word ἐκκλησίᾳ (ekkleisía). In light of the obvious rejection of His ministry by the nation of Israel, He said, “I will build my church.” The Lord never explained what He meant by church, [ἐκκλησίᾳ (ekkleisía)] and the disciples had no way of understanding. The full disclosure of this mystery must wait until after His death, resurrection, and ascension.
Although the term ἐκκλησίᾳ (ekkleisía) is used in different ways in the book of Acts, it begins to take on a specialized, technical meaning in the progress of revelation. Although the early church met in the Temple area (Acts 2:46), they became known as a distinct entity, the church (vs.47). This new “assembly” was distinct from the “untoward generation” of Jews (2:40). In time, the congregation/assembly of Israel began persecuting this new congregation/assembly, the church (7:54-59; 8:1-4; 9:1). In the epistles the term is used almost exclusively in this new technical sense, referring to the assembly of believers in the Risen and Glorified Savior. Paul reveals that the ἐκκλησίᾳ (ekkleisía) is Christ’s Body (Eph.1:22-23). In the New Testament, the term church becomes a synonym for the Body of Christ, either local or universal.
Our English word church means many things to many people. Unfortunately, the English term was not derived from the Greek word ἐκκλησίᾳ (ekkleisía). “The English word church is related to the Scottish word kirk and the German designation kirche, and all of these terms are derived from the Greek kuriakon, the neuter adjective of kurios (Lord), meaning, belonging to the Lord.”3 Perhaps some of this confusion would have been avoided if the word ecclesia had been consistently translated assembly, rather than church.
The Church as a Called Out Assembly
The church then is an assembly of believers in the Risen Lord Jesus Christ who have been called OUT OF the world system (Gal.1:4). Believers are not of the world, but have been chosen “out of the world” (John 15:19). The Father gave believers as a gift to the Son. The church consists of men given to the Son “out of the world” (John 17:6). Not only has the Christian believer been called out of the world system, but, (by virtue of his union with Christ on the cross) has also been crucified to the world (Gal.6:14). The church is an assembly of believers who no longer belong to this world system. Our union with Christ has separated us from this world. Peter says that we have been called out of the darkness of this world (I Pet.2:9). Physically, the church still lives and functions in this present world (Titus 2:12), but spiritually, it has been raised up into heavenly places in Christ (Eph.2:6; Col.3:1-3). This assembly of believers has been called out of the world. This world is not our home.
The church is an assembly of believers in the Risen Savior, which has been called OUT OF the old relationship to Adam, his sin and condemnation. In Adam all die (I Cor.15:22). Those in Adam share in his sin, condemnation, and death (Rom.3:23; 5:12,17,18). Our old man and his Adamic nature (positioned in Adam) were not forgiven, they were condemned to death (Rom.6:6; 8:3; II Cor.5:21). Co-crucifixion with Christ on the cross separates the believer in Christ from Adam.
The church is an assembly of believers in the Risen Savior who have been called out of slavery to the god of this world. (II Cor.4:3-4; I John 5:19). The church saints have been called out of a course masterminded and empowered by the “prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience” (Eph.2:2-3). We have been called out of that manner of life (Eph.2:3; I Pet.1:18). Thus, the Christian believer has been CALLED OUT of his former earthly relationship to Adam, the world, and the world’s god, Satan.
The church has been CALLED UNTO a new position entirely. The church is an assembly of believers united to the Risen Savior, who have been called INTO ONE BODY. “And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to the which also ye are called in one body; and be ye thankful” (Col.3:15). This Body is Christ (I Cor.12:12-13). The church is an assembly, which has been called OUT OF the old relationship to Adam, and INTO a new relationship to Christ, the Second Adam. Thus, every member of the church is said to be IN CHRIST (Eph.1: 1,3,4,6,7,11,13). The believer enters this new relationship to Christ by means of Spirit baptism (I Cor.12:12-13). This is an entirely new position and a new relationship to Christ never before experienced by saints of old. The glorified Christ in heaven is the Head of the Body. The church corporately is His spiritual Body on earth. Each individual believer is a member of that Body (I Cor.12:27).
As in our old relationship to Adam, all share in Adam’s sin and condemnation, so too in this new relationship to Christ, all share in Christ’s life and righteousness (Rom.5:15-21). The church, accepted in the Beloved Christ, shares in all that Christ is (I Cor.1:30-31; II Cor.5:21). In Him is life (John 1:4). In Him the believer is complete (Col.2:10). By grace, God has chosen the base things of the world, and placed them in His Son. “But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption” (I Cor.1:30). He is all we need!
The church has been called into a new position of heavenly glory with Christ! Every believer of this age now has an entirely new position in Christ. This is not a relationship to Christ such as the disciples enjoyed during His earthly ministry in the days of His humiliation. The apostles knew Christ in a Master/disciple relationship. They saw Him, spoke with Him, and followed Him from city to city (I John 1:1-3). The apostle John knew the Lord Jesus in His earthly ministry, and even saw Him on the Mount of Transfiguration. But when He saw the Risen and Glorified Savior, he fell down at his feet as dead (Rev.1:13-17). Church saints do not know Christ in His earthly ministry (II Cor.5:16). We are related to Christ in His heavenly, glorified, exalted condition seated at the right hand of the Father. We are no longer in an earthly Adam, but in the heavenly Christ. We are in Him who has been exalted above all principality and power (Eph.1:20-23)! We are related to the Man in Glory! We share in His heavenly position. We are in fact, citizens of heaven (Phil.3:20). Our calling is UNTO His eternal glory. “But the God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you” (I Pet.5:10). The church is an assembly of believers who have been called out of an earthly relationship to the old Adam, and UNTO a position of heavenly glory in Christ! All of this was part of God’s eternal plan for the church. “Who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began” (II Tim.1:9). John Darby wrote, “It is in occupying herself with these subjects, full of hope by the Spirit, that the Church will be detached from the world, and will clothe herself with the character which becomes her as the affianced bride of Christ, to whom she owes all her heart and all her thoughts.”4
To summarize, the ἐκκλησίᾳ (ekkleisía) is an assembly of believers in Christ, from Pentecost to the Rapture, which has been called OUT OF its former earthly relationships (in Adam & in the world), and has been called INTO a new, heavenly relationship to the Risen, glorified Savior, (in Christ & in the heavenlies). The church is a spiritual Body, (of which Christ is the Head and the Life), and every believer is a member.
Entrance into the Body: Spirit Baptism
That which distinguishes the church, the Body of Christ, from other dispensations is Spirit Baptism. It is by means of Spirit baptism that believers of this age are placed INTO the Body of Christ. There is no other way to enter. According to Vine, baptism is the “process of immersion, submersion, and emergence.”5; The New Testament teaches that in this dispensation, at the moment of saving faith, every true believer is immersed/placed INTO the Body of Christ by the Spirit of God (I Cor.12:12-13). Because we have been baptized into Christ, it can be said that every believer has “put on Christ” as a garment. We are IN Him and IN His Body (Gal.3:27-28). Every true believer of this age is baptized into this union in the Body, regardless or race, nationality, gender, age, or social status.
Like believers in this and every age, Old Testament saints were justified by faith (Gen.15:6). They were true believers rightly related to God. However, even though they believed God and were just before Him (II Pet.2:7), they were NOT baptized into the Body of Christ. The Holy Spirit came upon Old Testament saints and empowered them for special ministries on occasion (Ex.31:1-3; Num.11:17-29), but the Holy Spirit never baptized them into the Body of Christ. Even in the future Kingdom age, the Holy Spirit will have many ministries. He will be poured out upon and empower men and women (Joel 2:28-29). He will convict hearts and illuminate minds (Zech.12:10-14). He will even indwell believers (Ezek.36:26-27). But He will baptize none of them into the Body of Christ. That is one ministry of the Spirit that is absolutely unique to this age.
The Lord Jesus spoke of Spirit baptism as a FUTURE event in Acts 1:5. It began on the day of Pentecost in Acts chapter two. When the fullness of the gentiles be come in (Rom.11:25), when the last person has been placed into the Body of Christ, then Spirit Baptism will cease forever. Spirit baptism places believers of this age into the Body of Christ, where there is NO distinction between Jew or Gentile (Gal.3:27-28; Eph.2:14-16; 3:6). Such distinctions DID exist throughout the Old Testament, and will continue to exist in the coming Kingdom age. Spirit baptism is unique to this dispensation.
EVERY true believer of this age has been baptized into the Body of Christ (I Cor.12:13). Paul states clearly that by one Spirit were we ALL baptized. Even the carnal Corinthian believers had experienced Spirit Baptism. Spirit baptism is not for a special group of the spiritually elite, nor is it reserved for those who pray or tarry for the baptism. In this age, every believer has already been baptized by the Spirit into the Body of Christ, whether he understands this truth or not. Spirit baptism is to be distinguished from the filling of the Spirit. Believers are exhorted to be filled with a holy life by means of the Spirit (Eph.5:18) because NOT every believer is continually filled by means of the Spirit. However, there are NO exhortations to be baptized by the Spirit. That is God’s work. God’s Spirit baptizes (places) every believer of this age in Christ’s Body at the moment of saving faith. There is no such thing as a believer who is not baptized by the Spirit. There is no such thing as a believer in this age who is NOT a member of the universal Body of Christ. “For by one Spirit were we ALL baptized into one body…” (I Cor.12:13a).
Technically speaking, it is not saving faith that places us in Christ. Saving faith brings justification (Rom.5:1) and regeneration. But Old Testament saints believed God and were justified too (Gen.15:6). However, they did NOT experience Spirit Baptism. They were therefore NOT members of the church, Body of Christ. In this age, since Pentecost, regeneration, justification and Spirit Baptism occur simultaneously at the moment of saving faith, but they are different transactions. Regeneration places God’s life in the believer. Spirit baptism places the believer in the Body of Christ. Many wonderful things happen to a believer at the moment of saving faith. Many people on the Day of Pentecost were justified, redeemed, reconciled, born again, sealed, indwelt, filled with the Spirit, baptized into the Body, and seated in heavenly places all at once! It would be years before these marvelous transactions would be understood by them. Though interrelated and occurring simultaneously, for theological purposes, those different transactions must be “rightly divided”. While Old Testament and Kingdom age saints experience redemption and justification (etc.) they do NOT experience Spirit Baptism. This ministry is what makes the church distinct from all other ages.
As a result of Spirit Baptism, the believer of this age placed “in Christ” and is thus identified with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection (Rom.6:3-6). Spirit Baptism calls the believer OUT OF Adam and the world, and places him in a new sphere: in Christ. The significance and results of this baptism are summed up well by L.S. Chafer:
“A sphere is that which surrounds an object on every side, and may even penetrate that object. To be within a sphere is to partake of all that it is and all that it imparts. Thus, the bird is in the air, and the air is in the bird; the fish is in the water and the water is in the fish; the iron is in the fire and the fire is in the iron. Likewise, in the spiritual realm, Christ is the sphere of the believer’s position. He encompasses, surrounds, encloses, and indwells the believer. The believer is in Christ and Christ is in the believer. Through the baptism of the Spirit, the Christian has become as much an organic part of Christ as the branch is a part of the vine, or the member is a part of the body. Being thus conjoined to Christ, the Father sees the saved one only IN CHRIST, or as a living part of His own Son, and loves him as He loves His Son (Eph.1:6; John 17:23).”6
Union With Christ: Entrance Into a New Realm
By virtue of Spirit Baptism, which places believers in the Body of Christ at the moment of saving faith, the Christian enjoys a new relationship to Christ, never before experienced by saints of old. As part of Christ’s Body, he is united with Christ in His death, resurrection, and ascension into glory. “That Christ arose into a new sphere of reality which incorporates His glorified human body, that He became a type of Being that had not existed before, and that He became the image of that which glorified saints will be in heaven, are apparently themes which are little recognized by theologians of the past. There is sufficient reason for this neglect. It lies in the fact that the whole meaning of the resurrection is embodied in the doctrine of the New Creation; and the fact that theology, almost without exception, has considered the Church to have been in existence throughout the period covered by the Old Testament, and continuing without appreciable change into the New Testament. Under such a conception, there is no occasion for a new federal Headship.”7 Only dispensational theology acknowledges the significance of the resurrection and ascension of Christ to the believer. The Christian shares in Christ’s death AND resurrection. It is our share in His resurrection and ascension into glory that explains our heavenly position. It is also that which makes the church unique. Members of the church are no longer positioned in Adam and in his fallen race, but are now part of a New Man (Eph.2:15), a new humanity. The believer of this age is a new creature IN CHRIST (II Cor.5:17), part of God’s new creation. His old position in Adam and former, earthly relationships have passed away. The old man (the former unregenerate person we used to be before regeneration) has been “put off” and a new man has been “put on” (Eph.4:21-24; Col.3:9-10). This is because of our union with Christ in His death and resurrection (Rom.6:2-6). Our old man (that unregenerate person) was crucified with Christ. He has been “put off” once and for all, although his old nature and its fruit abide with us, and, on occasion, still rear their ugly heads (Rom.7:14-25; Col.3:5-10). This new creation is God’s “workmanship” (Eph.2:10). Co-crucifixion with Christ put an end to the old man. Co-resurrection with Christ brings the believer into a new sphere altogether – into the heavenly realm (Eph.2:5-6; Rom. 6:4). Thus, the church age believer is united to the Man in Glory – the Head of this new race of humanity, the new creation. Believers of the church age share in His heavenly glory and position. God has made us “fit” for this new position too. “Giving thanks unto the Father, who hath made us fit to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light” (Col. 1:12). The author of Hebrews encourages us to “come boldly unto the throne of grace” (4:16) and “to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way.” (Heb.10:19b-20a).
Our union with Christ in His heavenly position ASSURES every true believer that ultimately, he will be like the Lord. From eternity’s perspective, justification always results in sanctification for the Christian. Justification begins a NEW LIFE which ends in glorification (Rom.5:18; 8:28-30). Regeneration completely changes the believer. He is a new creation and as such, it is impossible for him to continue in sin (Rom.6:1-4,14). The miracle of the new birth and possession of a new nature make it impossible for one united to Christ to continue in sin indefinitely (I John 3:9-10). He is no longer in Adam, but in Christ and positioned in the heavenlies. As part of the new creation, he has been “created in righteousness and true holiness. (Eph.4:24). This new man has been “renewed in knowledge after the image of Him that created him” (Col.3:10). Having entered into this new sphere, the Lord begins an irreversible work of transforming that believer into “the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord” (II Cor.3:18). Ultimately, every member of the church will be conformed to the image of His Son (Rom.8:28). God never quits half way through the process (Phil.1:6).
Union with Christ puts our old man to death, but unfortunately, it does not bring to an end the sinful nature of that old man.8 The old nature still exists, even in one who is part of this new humanity. The old nature CAN temporarily interrupt or hinder the work of transformation God intends. (I Cor.3:1-3; Gal.3:1-3; 5:16-25; Heb.5:11-14). Believers who start off well, may get sidetracked in false doctrine, immorality or worldliness for a time. They may experience periods of unfruitfulness in their earthly sojourn. The length of that period may be short (Acts 5:1-11; 15:39; II Tim.4:11) or it may be quite long (Heb.5:11-14). On rare occasions, God may even take the life of a believer who lives in sin (I Cor.5:5; 11:30; Acts 5:1-11). Yet, the Lord God has a plan to bring His sons unto glory (Heb.2:10). He devised this plan before the foundation of the world (Eph.1:4-5). Nothing will ultimately thwart God’s plan – even our sin nature. One thing is clear in Scripture: all those in Christ have been brought into a union with Him which assures each one a share in Christ’s heavenly and eternal glory. While the progress and fruitfulness will vary from person to person (Matt.13:23), every man in Christ shall one day have praise of God (I Cor.4:5). The believer in this age shares in that heavenly and glorious position in Christ, is presently being transformed from one level of glory to the next (II Cor.3:18), and will ultimately be brought into that glory forever (Rom.8:28-30).
It was through Christ’s resurrection and ascension into the glorified state that He became the Head of this new humanity. All evangelicals acknowledge that Jesus died and rose again for us. Not all acknowledge the significance of the fact that we died and rose with Him (Rom.6:1-11; Col.3:1-3). Only the dispensationalist sees any great significance to our relationship to Christ in His resurrection. Christ was the first Person ever to be resurrected from the dead. Others were raised or restored to their former mortal, earthly existence. But the Lord Jesus was the firstfruits of the resurrection (I Cor.15:23). He was the first ever to be raised into the glorified state! As the firstfruit of the resurrection, His resurrection guarantees that there will be many more to follow Him into glory (Heb.2:10). By virtue of Spirit Baptism, which unites us into a living, organic relationship to Christ in His death and resurrection, the believer of this age is RAISED with Christ into a heavenly sphere. This is a new position and a new relationship to Christ as Head of the New Creation. It is a privileged position far above what saints in past dispensations experienced. It is BECAUSE the believer has been united with Christ in His resurrection that he is able to enter into and partake of all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ (Eph.1:3). It is BECAUSE the believer has been united with Christ in His resurrection that we are able to walk in newness of life (Rom.6:4-5) and experience the resurrection power in daily living (Eph.1:18-20; Phil.3:10). Union with the resurrected God-Man in glory makes available to church age saints a unique position, power, and privilege!
Paul prays that believers might understand, appreciate, and act upon this truth which concerns our high calling into a heavenly position in Christ (Eph.1:17-18). The darkened, natural mind does not think along these lines. Paul prays that GOD might give each believer the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him and he prays for Divine enlightenment concerning such exalted truths. In the epistles, exhortations to a holy walk are based upon an understanding our union with Christ in His death and resurrection. We are to know it (Rom.6:6), reckon it to be so (Rom.6:11), walk in the light of this truth by faith (Rom.6:12-13; Eph.4:1; Col.3:1-17), and practice it in our daily lives (Rom.6:13; 12:1-2; Eph.4:20-32).
ILLUSTRATIONS WHICH speak of the nature of the church
Relationship to Christ
Relationship to Christ is the preeminent truth emphasized in most of the metaphors used of the church in the New Testament. For example, the church is likened to a flock with Christ as its Shepherd (Acts 20:28; I Pet.5:4). This speaks of the care and protection the Shepherd provides for His flock. A shepherd feeds the flock and repels any wolves that may attempt to destroy the flock. This Shepherd even gave His life for the flock (John 10:1-18). The shepherd/flock illustration speaks of Christ as the Leader of the flock. The Shepherd knows His flock, and they know and follow His leading (John 10:26-28).
The church is likened to a building of which Christ is the chief cornerstone (Eph.2:20). The church is built upon the Person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ (Matt.16:15-18). Christ is a SURE foundation for the church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Each member of the church is built upon this foundation and is thus, eternally secure. No storm of life will cause those built on such a foundation to fall.
The church is also likened to a Bride (Eph.5:22-33). This speaks of a relationship of submission and love. The church is to submit to and obey her Husband. This obedience is not the kind of obedience expected of a mere slave, but is a much higher form of submission – one that stems from love, not law (Rom.7:1-6). It is a fruitful relationship as well (Rom.7:4).
The church is likened to a priesthood with Christ as the High Priest (I Pet.2:5,9; Heb.3:1; 4:14). Once again, Christ is seen as the Leader of the priesthood, the church. It also speaks of the nature of the church as priesthood designed to offer up spiritual sacrifices of praise and worship (I Pet.2:5). Each believer as a priest is to serve God under the direction of Christ, our High Priest after the order of Melchisedek who is seated in the heavenlies.
The church is a Body and Christ is its Head (Eph.1:22-23; Col.1:18). The main emphases from this picture are leadership/headship and preeminence. Just as the head gives direction to the entire body, so, from heaven, Christ directs the church, His Body. As Head, it is His will that is to be carried out on earth by the church. His will is revealed in His Word. The world cannot see Christ, the Risen Head in Heaven. However, when Christ and His Word have the preeminence in His Body (the churches), the world learns of Him.
The church is related to Christ as branches are related to a vine (John 15:1-6). The main emphasis in this illustration is that of “source of life.” In this metaphor, Christ is the Vine and believers rightly related to Him (both positionally and conditionally) are the branches. Christ’s life, power, love, holiness, joy, and grace flow through individual members of the church (when abiding in Him) as the life, nourishment, nutrients, and juices of a vine flow from the vine to each branch. When the branch is rightly related to the vine, all that the vine is and has is made available to the branch. This illustrates the individual believer’s relationship to Christ and his total dependency upon Him to produce fruit. Without Christ, we can do nothing (John 15:5). According to this illustration, believers in the church are expected to bear fruit unto the glory of God. Only that which is borne out of a relationship to the vine is fruit. Anything the branch produces on its own is good for nothing but burning (John 15:5-6).
Relationship to other believers
While the illustration of the Vine and branches demonstrates clearly the relationship of the believer to Christ, it says nothing about the relationship of believers to each other. The Vine/branch metaphor seems to be a favorite in many “deeper life” circles, which may account for their failure (in some cases) to emphasize the importance of the local church. There is much emphasis (and rightly so) on the believer’s relationship to Christ, but precious little emphasis on God’s plan for this age, the church.
The context of the Vine/branches illustration helps explain why nothing is said of the believers’ relationship to each other, as is so clearly revealed in the Body illustration. In John chapters thirteen and fourteen, Jesus began to teach His disciples that He would be betrayed, killed, and would ascend to heaven. (John 13:31-36; 14:1-3,12,28). After His departure He was going to send many men out all over the world to carry on His work in His absence. The figure of the vine and branches was designed to teach one simple, basic lesson. He would no longer be with them physically in a Master/disciple relationship. But, He would still “make His abode with them” in a spiritual sense as they walked in faith and obeyed His Word (John 14:23-24). When it comes to doing His work (John 14:12) in His absence, the fruitfulness of their efforts was totally dependent upon their spiritual relationship to Him. If they would abide in Him (communion) they would be fruitful. If they attempted to serve Him on their own (in the flesh), they would produce nothing but wood, hay, and stubble (John 14:4-6; Rom.7:18). Jesus revealed to them a NEW kind of relationship to Him during the period of His physical absence, but He did not reveal the nature of the church, which was still a mystery. John chapter fifteen speaks of a spiritual relationship to Christ, but says nothing about the believer’s relationship to other believers. That truth, so pertinent to the nature and function of the church, would be reserved until the “Body truth” was later revealed to Paul. By over-emphasizing the Vine metaphor, it is possible to minimize the significance of the local church. Of course our relationship to Christ is preeminent, but believers need the ministry of other believers in the local church as well.
Two other illustrations express clearly the relationship among believers in the church. The church as a “temple/building” makes such an emphasis. (Eph.2:20-21). Each individual believer is a “living stone” in that house (I Pet.2:5). Each stone is cut to a precise shape and fits together in an exact location in the building. The pieces are related to the foundation and chief cornerstone. They are also, of necessity, related to one another. A building is fitly framed together (Eph.2:21-22). Stones in such a temple are placed close to other stones. If a stone is crooked and doesn’t fit properly to the stone next to it, that “crookedness” is corrected with a chisel. Stones must fit in their proper place in the building. Stones that do not (refuse to) “fit” with other stones must be chiseled and corrected or rejected (III John 9; I Cor.5:1-7; I Tim.1:20; Phil.4:2; etc). If that does not take place, the entire structure is weakened. Thus, Paul speaks of the importance of the relationship of believers to each other and to the “building” as a whole.
The metaphor which most clearly demonstrates the relationship between individual members of the church is that of a “body” (Eph.1:22-23; Col.1:18; 2:19; I Cor.12:4-31; Rom.12:3-8). In a body, every member is related to the head, but is also related to every other member. Just as the building is “fitly framed together (Eph.2:21), so too the members of the body are “fitly joined together” (Eph.4:16a; Col.2:19). A building is more than a pile of building materials. A body is MUCH more than a pile of body parts!
- The body is a union of various members (Rom.12:5-8; I Cor.12:14,20).
- The body is a unity of functions (I Cor.12:7-11).
- The individual members of the body are dependent upon one another (Rom.12: 5; I Cor.12:14-24).
- The individual members cannot function properly apart from the body (I Cor.12:16-19; Eph.4:11-16).
- The body corporately is dependent upon each of its members (I Cor.12: 21,26).
Members of the Body need each other. Paul describes the church as a growing organism. The body makes increase of the body by means of each member functioning together in love (Eph.4:16). Increase is of the Lord, but the Lord has designed the Body in such a way that His life, power, love, and grace is manifested in the body through yielded members, and that in turn, increases the Body. Teachers teach, helpers help, exhorters exhort, evangelists evangelize, and the Body is edified. This is GOD working in each member both to will and to do of His good pleasure (Phil.2:13). This is God’s design for the edification of the Body corporately and for the individual believer. For a believer to bypass the local church is to bypass God’s plan for his own spiritual edification. Both the body (I Cor.12:7) and the individual member will suffer (Eph.4:11-14).
The Body is much more than the sum total of its individual parts. It is a union that consists of many units functioning together in harmony. It is a living organism which (when functioning properly) carries out the will of the Head. A member of the Body of Christ attempting to function independently of a local church is not functioning according to God’s purpose or design (I Cor.12:15-18, 25-26). The illustration of the church as the Body of Christ demonstrates unity, interrelationship, interdependency, function, purpose, and life.
Each of the metaphors of the church speaks of life. Even when speaking of the church as a building or temple made of stones, the writer makes it clear that he is speaking of “living stones” (I Pet.2:5). The Temple itself is living and “growing” (Eph.2:21) and is indwelt by the living God (Eph.2:22; I Cor.3:16-17).
The church is a family which shares the life of God the Father (Eph.3:15). Each and every member of the church (in contrast to the nation of Israel) is a regenerated child of God and possesses the life of God (John 10:28-29).
The church is a flock (Acts 20:28) of living sheep. The church members are like branches of a vine, which share the life of the Vine (John 15:1-6). The church is a Bride and shares together in the life of the Bridegroom (Eph.5:25-33). The church is a priesthood, consisting of living priests who offer spiritual sacrifices to their High Priest (I Pet.2: 5,9). The church is a cultivated field (I Cor.3:9) which speaks of living, growing fruit.
Each of these illustrations denotes life, but it is the Body illustration that depicts this truth preeminently. More than anything else, the Body is a vehicle for the manifestation of the LIFE of its Head. The church is described as a living, functioning body, and not a corpse! What is it that makes a church a church? It is far more than an assembly of people functioning together organizationally. That which makes a church a church is the indwelling life of God! The church is the manifestation of God (I Tim.3:15-16). The church is the habitation of God (Eph.2:22). The church is indwelt by God the Holy Spirit (I Cor.3:16-17). The church is the Body of Christ and possesses His resurrection life (Eph.1:22 – 2:6). As stated previously, a body is more than a pile of body parts – even if each of those parts is whole and able to function on its own. Modern science is able to keep transplant organs “alive and functioning” for quite some time before they are transplanted into a new “body.” However, sometimes men waiting for a transplant die before they ever receive that new organ. Once the life is gone, adding a healthy organ will not help. There is no LIFE present! The body may then have all of the necessary “parts”, but it is missing something quite vital: life! A living body is much more than the sum total of its parts. The difference is the LIFE of the person! If the life of the head is not present, that body is a corpse, even if its heart is still beating by artificial means. In a similar fashion, it is possible for a church organization on earth to be “active” and to function organizationally, and yet NOT possess God’s indwelling life (Rev.2:4-5; 3:1,14-20). A church is NOTHING if it is not a yielded vessel in which the life and fullness of Christ is present and is manifested unto the glory of God. This is the nature of the church: the indwelling LIFE of Christ manifested through a yielded assembly of believers, carrying out His will on earth. The metaphor of the church as the Body of Christ reveals and illustrates this truth most clearly. It generates countless practical applications.
1W.E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, Nashville, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1984, pp.75-76.
3Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology, Chicago, Moody Press, 1989, p. 347.
4John Nelson Darby, Hopes of the Church of God, Addison, Bible Truth Publishers, 1991, p. 25.
5Ibid; pp. 88-89.
6Lewis Sperry Chafer, Grace, Philadelphia, The Sunday School Times Company, 1922, pp. 307-308.
7Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, Dallas, Dallas Seminary Press, 1974, Vol. IV., chapter V, pp. 79-80.
8For an excellent discussion of the distinction between the old man and the old nature, see Renald Shower’s The New Nature, Neptune, Loizeauz Brothers, 1986, chapter 6.