There are a number of designations made in the New Testament for the Lord’s people (e.g., the church, the kingdom of God, the house(hold) of God, the temple of God, the vineyard of God). The designation of God’s people as the body of Christ is the focus of this study. Some scriptures which speak of the church as the body of Christ are briefly discussed. Most of these discussions of the body of Christ in the Bible also discuss miraculous abilities (gifts) given to the saints by the apostles (Acts 6:5 – 6) for the purpose of rapidly spreading the gospel and building up the church until the writing of the New Testament had been completed. Even though miracles are no longer performed, as discussed in this article there are principles in these accounts which are still applicable today. Some practical applications of these principles are discussed based in part on Reference 4 considered within the context of the scriptures examined in this study.
Discussion of the Body of Christ in Ephesians 4:
Ephesians 4: 11 – 16 states:
11 And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers;
12 For the perfecting (equipping – NJKV) of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ:
13 Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ:
14 That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive;
15 But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ:
16 From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which (or joined and knit together by what – NKJV) every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love (or according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love – NKJV)
The body derives vital substance from its head, Christ. Christ is the source of our spiritual life and sustains and nurtures that life through his providential care and his written word. Christ nourishes (rears up, nurtures) and cherishes with tender love and care his body, the church (Eph. 5:29). Christ enables his body, the church, to grow and gives it strength to build itself up in love. The body grows by being nourished by the written word of Christ (I Peter 2:2). So important is the nourishment derived from the head (Christ) that each body part (each individual Christian) is to let the word of Christ dwell in it richly (Col. 3:16).
The doctrine of Christ (the word of Christ) is so essential to the church that in another word picture where the church is described as a building, it is said to be built upon the foundation of the teachings of the apostles and prophets with Jesus Christ being the chief corner stone (Eph. 2:20 – 22)
The body of Christ is pictured as each body part (member) contributing to the growth of the whole by receiving and passing on the life, the vital substance, each has drawn from the head (Christ). Christ is thus the ultimate source of the body’s (the church) growth as it is channeled through each body part working together for the well-being of the whole body. The sphere in which this growth takes place is agapē love (I Cor. 13 gives a full definition of this love).
An example of parts of the body contributing to the growth of the whole is the office of the eldership Christ placed within the local church to feed or shepherd it (the body) (Acts 20:28; I Peter 5:2), and to watch for the souls of each member (Heb. 13:17) as shepherds who are answerable to the chief Shepherd (I Peter 5:4). Christ also placed the offices of preachers and teachers within the local church who are to preach the word, reprove, and exhort the members (II Tim. 4:2), speaking the truth in love (Eph. 4:15).
Some Practical Applications from Ephesians 4
Since the body grows from the nourishment received from the word of Christ (I Peter 2:2), each member must grow in the knowledge of God’s written word in order for each body part to receive proper nutrition. This nourishment from the word of Christ must come from both personal study of the Bible as well as in congregational Bible studies and preaching in worship services.
In order to reflect the holy character of Christ, (1) the word of Christ must dwell richly in each member, (2) each member must become grounded in the truth, and (3) the word of Christ must be allowed to direct all of the actions of each individual member.
As a consequence of being nourished by the word of Christ, each member may learn that certain beliefs they possess or certain behaviors they practice are contrary to the word of God. Upon learning better through the nourishment of the word of Christ from personal study and from the teaching and admonishing of elders, preachers, and teachers, each member must be willing to change as needed to please Christ. (Gal. 6:1 – 2; II Tim. 4:2; Titus 2:15; Heb. 10:24, 12:5, 10; and Rev. 3:19).
The body of Christ builds up itself in love by the members assembling together to worship God and to provoke one another unto love and good works (Heb. 10:24). Faithful attendance is therefore necessary in all of the assemblies in which the church comes together into one place for the purpose of worshipping God and being edified by the teaching of God’s word (Heb. 10:25). I Corinthians 11, 14, and 16 all address problems the church in Corinth was having with some aspect of worship when the church was assembled for that purpose. In correcting the chaotic abuses of the miraculous abilities in the worship assembly that some were doing, five times Paul emphasizes that edifying the church (the body) was to be the purpose of the preaching, the singing, etc. (I Cor. 14:3, 4, 5, 12, and 26) in the worship assembly. When a member forsakes the assembly of the church, that member does not receive the edification which occurs in the assembly, and that member does not participate in edifying the other members present in the assembly.
Discussion of the Body of Christ in Colossians 2:19:
Colossians 2:19 states: “And not holding the Head, from which all the body by joints and bands having nourishment ministered, and knit together, increaseth with the increase of God.” The NJKV and ASV of this verse read as follows:
19 and not holding fast to the Head, from whom all the body, nourished and knit together by joints and ligaments, grows with the increase that is from God. (NKJV)
19 and not holding fast the Head, from whom all the body, being supplied and knit together through the joints and bands, increaseth with the increase of God. (ASV)
The same theme is presented here as in Eph. 4:15 – 16. By holding fast onto the head, the body grows in love into spiritual maturity from the nourishment received from the head (Christ). God gives the increase.
Reference 2 raises an interesting question about Col. 2:19. Could Paul in including “joints” in his metaphor have the crippling effect of arthritis in mind? The body can only function as well as its joints will allow and so further emphasizes that no part of the body of Christ, no member of the local congregation is unimportant or not needed.
Paul’s general point in these verses is that the church, the local congregation, only grows optimally when the body as a whole is functioning well, each member, each body part doing its part of the work. The body will then grow in love (Eph. 4:16) with God giving the increase (Col. 2:19).
Discussion of the Body of Christ in I Corinthians 12 and Romans 12
I Cor. 12:12 – 31 reads as follows with notes and emphasis added:
12 For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ.
Members = melos = a member, limb of the human body.
13 For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.
14 For the body is not one member, but many.
15 If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body?
16 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?
17 If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling?
18 But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him.
19 And if they were all one member, where were the body?
20 But now are they many members, yet but one body.
21 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.
22 Nay, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary:
23 And those members of the body, which we think to be less honourable, upon these we bestow more abundant honour; and our uncomely (indecent, unseemly) parts have more abundant comeliness (External beauty, seemliness, charm or elegance of figure).
24 For our comely (graceful, shapely, comely) parts have no need: but God hath tempered the body together, having given more abundant honour to that part which lacked.
25 That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another.
26 And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it.
27 Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular.
28 And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues.
29 Are all apostles? are all prophets? are all teachers? are all workers of miracles?
30 Have all the gifts of healing? do all speak with tongues? do all interpret?
31 But covet earnestly the best gifts: and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way.
Romans 12:4 – 9 reads as follows with emphasis added:
4 For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office:
5 So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another.
6 Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith;
7 Or ministry, let us wait on our ministering: or he that teacheth, on teaching;
8 Or he that exhorteth, on exhortation: he that giveth, let him do it with simplicity; he that ruleth, with diligence; he that sheweth mercy, with cheerfulness.
9 Let love be without dissimulation. Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good.
Romans 12 and I Corinthians 12 speak of the church as being one body, the body of Christ, within the contexts of the various miraculous abilities (spiritual gifts) that had been given to various members through the laying on of the apostles’ hands (Acts 8:18; Rom. 1:11). Some in the church at Corinth apparently favored certain miraculous abilities such as speaking in foreign languages (I Cor. 14) and therefore also favored the individuals who possessed these favored gifts, while thinking other miraculous abilities were not as important. Paul wrote the first Corinthian letter in part to correct this misunderstanding by explaining that all of these miraculous abilities came from God, not from themselves, and that each gift has a purpose and a value in performing the work that God intended the church to do.
The relevance of this today is that while there are no more miraculous gifts given to members by God, each member of the church has natural abilities which should be developed to serve God. Everyone does not have the same natural abilities nor do all develop their natural abilities at the same rate, but all members of the local congregation need to use and develop their natural abilities for performing the various works that the local congregation is authorized by God to perform.
Elders have God-given qualifications which must be met (I Tim. 3:1 – 7; Titus 1:5- 9) and so do deacons (I Tim. 3:8 – 13). Preachers and teachers have qualifications which must be met (II Tim. 2:2 – As noted in Reference 1, fidelity of message, integrity of the teacher, and ability to convey the truth accurately). Men who desire to work in these capacities must develop themselves to meet these qualifications. Unlike in the first century, there are no longer apostles alive who can miraculously give a man the abilities to perform these functions.
Like parts of a human body (organs and limbs), each has a role to perform and the body does not function properly when all of the organs and limbs do not function properly. The body cannot function properly or survive depending on the organ, if an organ is undependable, working sometimes and others times not working, not being reliable in performing its function. Similarly, an organ or limb cannot survive by itself separated from the body. As members of the church, the body of Christ, we should respect each other’s natural abilities and the part that each plays in the local congregation, and have a proper estimate of our own role in the church, that is do not think more highly of ourselves than we ought to (Rom. 12:3).
Referring to the church as a body also emphasizes the unity, concern, and care that each member (organ or limb) should have for each other. All of the body parts have to work together for the common purpose of keeping the entire body alive. If some or all of the body parts were to start working against each other, the body would not function properly and may die depending on the organ involved. Similarly, the whole body feels and is sympathetic toward any part which is hurting, feels pain, or is not functioning properly. For example, if a person steps on a nail, even though only the foot was injured, the whole body feels the pain and reacts to it. Therefore, we are suffer when one member suffers and rejoice when one member is honored (I Cor. 12:26), rejoice with them that rejoice and weep with them that weep (Rom. 12:15).
Some Practical Applications of I Corinthians 12
One theme of I Corinthians 12 is that of the local church being the body of Christ which consists of various body parts (organs and limbs) working together for the well-being of the whole body. The body of Christ is not one body part, but many (I Cor. 12:14). As an organ or a limb cannot survive detached from the body, so is membership in the local church essential to the spiritual health and well-being of individual Christians (members). The source of our spiritual life and nurture that Christ (the head) gives to each part of his body, the watching over the souls of each body part (member) by the eldership of the local church, are all lost by members who detach themselves from the body by being “members at large” but not a member of a local congregation, or members who frequently forsake the assembling of the church together or who do not participate in the work of the local congregation.
The body cannot function properly and is not healthy if various body parts are not dependable in performing their contribution (work) toward the well-being of the whole body. Similarly, members of the local church who are not dependable, who cannot be relied upon to do any of the work of the church, is analogous to an organ or limb which is unreliable in performance. Sometimes it works and sometimes it does not. The human body cannot live for long if its organs and limbs only performed their designed function from time to time.
Unfortunately, some, like the one talent man, refuse to take advantage of the opportunities which are presented to them; refuse to develop their natural abilities; and refuse to become a functioning part (organ or limb) in the body of Christ. The body is not healthy and cannot function properly if various body parts are not doing their share in contributing (working) towards the well-being of the whole body. Each member must develop their abilities (talents) and use them in service to God. Those members who have not developed themselves, who are not working in the body, should repent and start working to contribute to the well-being of the whole body.
Each body part must work together in unity and harmony with the other body parts so that the entire body can function properly. The body is not healthy and cannot function properly in performing the work which God has given it to do if parts of the body are working against each other. Related to this concept, each body part must be unwilling to disrupt the harmony of operation of the whole body by being easily offended or insisting on its will in matters of judgement.
Each body part must do its part to contribute to the well-being of the whole body so each member must have a sense of mutuality. Included in having a sense of mutuality is bearing each other’s burdens. Helping each body part which is having difficulty is necessary so that the whole body can be healthy and fully-functioning in performing the work which God has given it to do.
The Mission of the Body of Christ on Earth
Jesus said: “For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.” (Luke 19:10). His body, the church, has the same mission. Out of love for the souls of men, out of mercy for their lost condition, and knowing the terror of the Lord, we persuade men, we induce them by sound words to obey the gospel of Christ (II Cor. 5:11).
Isaiah 61:1-2 prophetically summarized the coming Lord’s mission and showed the spirit of mercy and love behind this mission:
“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound; To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn.”
This mission, which was claimed by Christ and was started by him when he was on earth (Luke 4:16 – 30; 7:22), is to be carried on by his spiritual body (the church) until time ends. The body of Christ on earth is to preach the good tidings of victory over the enemy of sin and deliverance from it to the meek. The body of Christ is to bandage the spiritually broken-hearted, proclaim the terms of liberty to the spiritual prisoners of war, the spiritual debtors, and the spiritual slaves.
Some Practical Applications of Isaiah 61 and Luke 4
When we see the true condition of all men as described in Isaiah 61:1-2 and Luke 4:16 – 30, a condition which included all of us before we were saved and added to the body of Christ, each of us as an organ or limb (member) of the body should be moved with mercy to harmoniously work with the other members of the body of Christ to teach the truth to the lost so that they can be spiritually freed, so that they can be spiritually healed. Since spiritual healing and freedom from the captivity of sin is the objective the body of Christ is to have for all men, this objective should dictate the motives and attitudes involved in the teaching and behavior of each member of the body. Motives and attitudes that distract from that objective are to be rejected.
The Body Gives Christ a Face to the World
In referring to the church as the body of Christ (Rom. 12:5; I Cor. 12:27; and Eph. 4:12), it denotes that the body belongs to Christ and that he rules over it. He is the head of the body (Col. 2:19). It also conveys the idea that we as Christians lend Christ a corporeal, bodily, presence on earth. We are the body that gives Christ a face to the world, his voice, his hands, and his feet (Reference 2). As Paul said of himself in Gal. 2:20, when people in the world look at the local body of Christ, they should see Christ living in that local congregation. When people see the love and care that each member of the body has for each other as Christ commands, this will attract some to obey and follow Christ (John 13:34 – 35) because they will see the love of Christ in his body on earth. Evangelism is promoted when the local church reflects the holy character of Christ. Indeed, the only way individual Christians and the local congregation can be in fellowship with Christ its head is by walking in (living in) the light as Christ is in the light (I John 1:3, 6 – 7).
Because the church is the body of Christ, people in the world are to see Christ in his body on earth, and so we are commanded to be imitators of God (Gal. 5:1) and imitators of Christ (I Cor. 11:1). We are to be sharers or partakers of God’s divine nature or character (II Peter 1:4). We as individual members of the body and the body as a whole are to be holy because God is holy (I Peter 1:15 – 16).
Christ is the head and savior of his body (Eph. 5:23). Christ has sanctified and cleansed his body with the washing of water (baptism) by his word (Eph. 5:26). By means of God’s scheme of redemption and each part of the body repenting of and confessing the sins they commit so that they can be cleansed by the blood of Christ (I John 1:7, 9), Christ will be able to present to himself a glorious body, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, and without blemish (Eph. 5:27).
Conversely, if the local congregation does not display the love and moral purity of Christ, if it does not reflect God’s holy character, then God will be blasphemed by those in the world as the Gentiles were said to have done because of the observed wickedness of the Jews who claimed to be people of God (Rom. 2:24). Evangelism will be hurt because people will be turned away from Christ rather than be attracted to him.
Some Practical Applications
Christ’s body on earth, the church, is to have the holy character of Christ. Each body part must therefore develop and possess a Christ-like character in order for the world to see Christ in the local church. Christ’s body should reflect his holy character so each part of his body must:
- be a good influence on others in order to attract the lost to Christ.
- not bring shame and reproach upon the body in order to not turn the lost away from Christ.
- keep itself unspotted from the world (James 1:27).
Since Christ will present to himself a church without spot or blemish (Eph. 5:27), it follows that those members who become spotted by the world and remain so until death, will not be among those members of his body who will be saved.
The adage actions speak louder than words is consistent with the teachings in God’s word. When each member and the local congregation in general reflects the holy character of Christ, its head, the godly way of life being practiced as well as preached will attract some to the gospel. The preaching of the gospel by those who do not practice what they preach and so do not reflect the holy character of Christ drive lost souls away from Christ and cause the way of truth to be evil spoken of (II Peter 2:2) because of the sinful lives of those who claim to be a part of the body of Christ.
Each body part (member) of the Lord’s body is to not be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of its mind by the word of Christ its head (Rom. 12:2). Each member of the body of Christ is to not love the world, neither the things of the world (I John 2:15).
After careful consideration of the word picture used in the New Testament of referring to the church as the body of Christ, it might seem intuitively obvious that the body of a person should possess the character of the person to whom the body belongs. If it is Christ’s body, then we would expect it to behave and have the attitudes of Christ as much as humanly possible. Unfortunately, the behaviors and attitudes of many demonstrate that much more teaching is needed across the brotherhood about the command in the New Testament that each Christian, each part of the body of Christ, is to be an imitator of God (Gal. 5:1), an imitator of Christ (I Cor. 11:1), a sharer or partaker of God’s divine nature or character (II Peter 1:4).
- Wayne Jackson, Before I Die, Paul’s Letters to Timothy and Titus, Christian Courier Publications, Stockton, CA, 2007.
- David J. Williams, Paul’s Metaphors, Their Context and Character, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI, 1999.
- “The Purpose and Duration of Spiritual Gifts”, James Meadows, Studies in Ephesians, The Sixteenth Annual Denton Lectures, Valid Publications, Inc., Denton, TX, pp. 221 – 233, 1997.
- “What are My Responsibilities as a Member to the Local Church?”, Sixteenth Annual Labourers together with God Lectureship, Milestone Church of Christ, 2008
Written by: RHT