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The Church, Which Is His Body

Mark Best

This expression, found in Ephesians chapter 1 verses 22 and 23, tells us what the church is. It is a picture maybe, but nonetheless, the term 'body' is more than just a figure of speech, as has been claimed. That the church is the body of Christ is of profound significance, and cannot be dismissed as a picture only, or overlooked as merely a figure. Again, it may well be (as is indeed taught) that the body is spiritual and that the truths related to it are positional. However, it is for this very fact that it conveys immense practical teaching for every believer, and has a direct bearing on their church-life not to mention its implication for every aspect of Christian living.

Christ Pre-eminent

The only New Testament writer who refers to the church as the body of Christ is the Apostle Paul. Indeed, there is no mention of the church as such in the Old Testament. The truth of the body of Christ was not revealed until after Paul's conversion. It is interesting to note that the first dealing this apostle had was with a glorified Christ. The Twelve had known Him in His life on earth from John the Baptist's ministry up to the cross, and were witnesses of His (bodily) resurrection (Acts 1:21­26), but Paul's first contact is with Him was by means of (1) a light out of heaven and (2) hearing His voice speaking from the glory (Acts 9:3&4). It was not until the Lord Jesus was rejected in His glory by the Jews as He had been already in His humiliation (Luke 19:14) that the time was set for God to reveal the mystery of Christ and the Church. That is, from the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:54-60), God's dealings with Israel as such are for the time being suspended. His promises to the nation, which are earthly privileges, will be fulfilled in due course (Acts 15:13-16; Rom. 11; etc). In the meanwhile, He deals with all men from a basis of no difference in their moral condition as derived from Adam (Rom. 3:23). The cross deals with Adam and his race, and Christ in resurrection becomes Head of a new race, but it is from His ascended place in glory that He becomes the measure of the believers' calling.

The point is that the church derives its character from a glorified Christ. Those who compose the church are calle to glory with Christ. The church was formed by the descent of the Holy pirit at Pentecost after the Lord Jesus had not only ascended but also been glorified at the Father's right hand (Acts 2). Christ must first be supreme that in all things He might have the pre-eminence. There had to be a Head in heaven before there could be a body on Earth (Co1:17&18). The apostle was to be the one who would unfold the import of that which happened at Pentecost, that not only was God dwelling by His Spirit in the Church, but also that all believers from Pentecost to the Rapture were united by the Spirit to one another and to Christ in glory as members of His (mystical) body (Eph 3). Therefore, as Christ I limself is glorified in heaven, believers today are to share with Him in His glory there. There is another aspect, however, in that Christ is rejected here and His own must therefore accept their share in His rejection.

In Colossians 1, Paul refers to his two-fold ministry: that is, his ministry of the Gospel and his ministry of the church (v. 23-25). This seems to be in keeping with the character of events at his conversion. There were two things: the light and the voice. The light gives character to Paul's gospel - the radiancy of the glad tidings of the Christ (2 Cor. 4:4), - and the voice to the nature of the church -'Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me" That is, the believers on earth were a part of Himself, members of His body (Eph. 5:30). While both ministries are distinct, they nevertheless are connected, and cannot be separated from each other without harming both. The gospel leads to the church. The teaching of believers that they should be established in the Gospel (rather than their new birth merely) is also that they may understand something of the Church. Thus in Ephesians 4, the gift of the evangelist is in relation to the whole body of Christ and not simply a church. This is true of all the gifts, including apostles, prophets, pastors and teachers.

Christian Preparation

Now, the fact of the one body carries with it more than the idea of the oneness of all true believers or church unity. It is the body of Christ. The Church is His body. Hence, the divine work so necessary in the soul for salvation is not only to make believers fit for heaven when they die but also suited for attachment to Christ as members of His body now. They must be as He is (see also 1 John 4:17). Thus, the Roman epistle does not finish with forgiveness of sins at the cross (which is where many would stop) but goes on to declare a justification in a risen Christ (Rom. 4:25). Not only is the risen Christ presented as the living object for faith, but the subjective change in the believer is unfolded. The sinful life that characterised the unconverted man has been ended for believers in the death of Christ, and the new life that is characteristic of a Christian is the life of the risen Christ lived out in the power of the Holy Spirit. This is 'justification of life' (Rom. 5:18)[1].

These two aspects of the truth - the objective and subjective - are simultaneous on the divine side, but are usually learnt consecutively by believers. Indeed, they may be separated by many years in a believer's experience because of disobedience or never learnt at all through lack of teaching. Objective truth (i.e., the work that Christ has done for the believer and what He is to them) and subjective truth (i.e., the Spirit's work in believers) should both run concurrently. It has been rightly said that Christ the Second Man is the pattern man and the Holy Spirit works according to that pattern. A believer's attention should be fixed on the Lord's glory so as to be transformed into His image (2 Cor. 3:18).

A first principle in this respect is that the Christian has been transferred from Adam to Christ. These two men give character to everyone of those identified with them. They stand as head to their respective races. All that attached to Adam has been judged at the cross. God has condemned that first man, and according to His purpose, has set Christ, the Second Man to supersede him. Unbelievers stand condemned with Adam. Believers, in Christ are justified (Rom. 8:1). They derive their constitution from Christ as Head. Christians have a standing beyond condemnation, since it was borne for them by their Substitute on the cross. Read Romans 5:12-21.

More is implied in this change of race from Adam to Christ than that believers' sins only have gone: the man who did them has gone too. This is our 'old man' who was condemned in the death of Christ, and put off at conversion (Col. 3:9). The old man took his character from Adam. The principle which governed him was 'sin' and his moral constitution is called 'flesh' (Rom. 7:17 & 18)[2]. While believers still have the flesh in them, they are no longer in the flesh as to the basis of God's dealings with them (Rom. 7:5 & 8:9). Christians have put on the 'new man' who has the moral character of Christ (Eph. 4:24 JND). This was done when they were converted. God takes account of them therefore as having the life of Christ and power for expressing that life by the indwelling Spirit of Christ (Rom. 8:9). This has been a characteristic feature of every true believer since Pentecost. God's dealings with believers is on the basis of being `in the Spirit.' This is the Christian state. The Spirit's work is to form Christ in Christians (Gal. 4:19) and so reproduce the features of Christ in them.

Church Principles

This subjective side of the truth must be appreciated to understand the church as the body of Christ. Only that which is of Christ's order can have any part in His body. See also Heb. 2:11. Everything of Adam that can be attributed to his fallen condition must of necessity be excluded[3]. There cannot be anything of the flesh, as viewed morally in Romans, in the body of Christ any more than in Him personally.- Hence every member of His body has left Adam to be in Christ and is out of the flesh and in the Spirit. So that when speaking of the Church as the body of Christ there is more to it than simply unity. The Church is in its nature one with Christ Himself.

Now, it should be seen how the Roman epistle, which is to establish believers in the gospel (ch. 1:11), prepares them to take up church truth and behave accordingly as members of the body of Christ. Admittedly, Romans only goes as far as to mention the fact of the one body (ch. 12:4&5), but nonetheless, the ground has been laid for believers to understand that it is in Christ that they are one body. In this epistle, that they are members one of another is a matter for Christian responsibility.

First Corinthians develops the idea of the one body into its nature as Christ's body (although the emphasis is on the body). Its formation here on Earth, described in the Acts, is now explained, emphasising the point that all believers have been baptised by the one Spirit into one body (I Cor. 12:13). This baptism of the Spirit not only links believers together to form the one body, but as coming from a glorified Christ, it forms them according to Him. The whole - Christ in heaven and His members on earth - are designated as `the Christ' (ch. 12:12). This means that the church on earth is an anointed vessel. It is to be here as Jesus once was. His body was the vessel in which He carried out the will of God (Heb. 10:5&7). God was well pleased with Him as indicated when He was anointed with the Holy Spirit and with power (Acts 10:38). God's approval of Him was demonstrated in the miracles and wonders and signs which He did in the power of the Spirit (Acts 2:22). God was glorified and there was blessing to those around. Now the church as 'body of Christ' is His testimony in the world. Thus spiritual manifestations, and in particular, sign gifts are emphasised in the Corinthian epistle. It is the vessel in which the Spirit is to manifest the power of God.

Therefore, in First Corinthians, the church is in the public eye. The human body is referred to by way of illustration. As a human body expresses whatever a person has in mind, so the church is to communicate Christ. The Christians at Corinth were Christ's body locally (1 Cor. 12:27). They were to apply the idea to realise their part as members of the one body[4].- If gifts were exercised under the Lord's administration by the power of the Spirit in an atmosphere of love, the church would be edified and outsiders would admit that God was among them (1 Cor. 14:23-25).

This is in contrast with Ephesians where the gifts from the ascended Head are for the well-being of the church (Eph. 4:7-16). There it is what the church is for Christ and how He cares for it and supplies for the growth of His body. The church is in Christ, and the saints have every blessing in Him there. In Ephesians 1, the church is seen as it subsists in the mind of God - what may be called its absolute sense. There every believer is viewed abstractly in heavenly places in Christ according to every perfection commensurate with God's purpose.

In Ephesians, the truth is for the understanding of those who are in the church. The secret is between divine persons and those who compose the body - that is, those initiated to appreciate the mystery - Christ and the church (Eph. 3). God's purposes from eternity with regard to mankind are to be established in the Second Man and not the first. It is He (and not Adam) who is to be Head over all (Eph. 1:10). However, it is not good that the Man should be alone (Gen. 2:20-24). Typical teaching from God's ways with the first man may be found in the formation of woman, but the church is to have more than a place typified by the woman, for all in it are also members of His body. As woman came out of man, so the church has derived its formation from Christ in His death, but is according- to Him in resurrection (Eph. 5:32). For the church in this aspect, there is the union of two, and He has not only a bride for His affection, but a wife to administrate His affairs. In this relationship, He is the Head of the church (Eph. 5:23). In contrast, as Head to the church (Eph. 1:22), the church is one with Christ as His body, and as such, His fullness. In this relation, the church is, both now and eternally, a vessel for the display of the wisdom of God (Eph. 3:21).

In Colossians, the church is viewed in its entirety on Earth, but risen with Christ (Col. 3:1 ). The body is complete at every interval of time from Pentecost to the rapture. He is Head of the body, the church (ch 1:18). Christ is to the church as origin and source. Nothing is found for its sustenance besides that which is supplied from the Head (Col. 2:19, and also vs. 9 & 10). The Colossians had been informed of the mystery but were not in the good of it practically. They were allowing the philosophies of men to spoil them. They needed to be reminded of the work of Christ at the cross in dealing with such things. Flesh might be enticed into the employment of worldly elements in Christianity, but the Colossian believers were dead with Christ. In the cross, flesh was cut off, the antitype of circumcision. Rather than appeal to fleshly religion for a contribution, the Colossians as risen with Christ, were to look to Him as being shut up entirely to His life as theirs.

Whereas in Ephesians, the saints are in the heavenlies in Christ, in Colossians, He is in the saints on Earth (Col. 1:27). Although hidden in Heaven, He is their life (ch. 3:3). Christ is to be displayed in the members of His body on Earth during His absence until He Himself appears. They will appear with Him in glory then (v. 4). Meanwhile, He is in them, the hope of glory now. Thus, the life of Christ is to mark the Christian company as they are in touch with Him as His body here. This can only be inasmuch as they hold the Head. The body is descriptive of the Head. Christ, although cast out here and now therefore in Heaven, is nevertheless to be represented on earth.

[1] An expression accurately, expressed in the Authorised Version and the Darbv New Translation but incorrectly in warty modern ones through paraphrasing chat is little understood.

[2] The Apostle Paul uses the term 'flesh' with a moral connotation in his epistle to the Romans. He writes. 'I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, good does not dwell ...sin dwells in me.                              (Rom 7:18-20 N Tr). However John in his writings, uses the word flesh to show' the full and real manhood of the Lord Jesus Christ. 'the word became flesh' (Jn 1:14 N.Tr.). and 'Every spirit which confesses Jesus Christ come in flesh is of God (1 Jn 4:2). And in Him sin is not' (1 Jn 3.'5).

[3] The background to the writing of this article is a concern over the matter of reception. Now it is to be emphasized that a Christian's daily walk should be that of Christ expressed in the power of the Holy Spirit. However, the point being made here is that the reception of those who are characterised by whatever pertains to the first man is an attempt to bring onto the ground of the one body, that which cannot really belong to it. This means that they cannot be received as such on the pretext that nevertheless they are members of the one body. By way of comparison, no one would say that an Israelite who had been defiled by a dead body had ceased to be an Israelite. However, in such a condition they were rendered unfit for fellowship among the people generally, and certainly, could not participate in the holy service of Jehovah.

[4] Scripture shows this entity is universal not simply local.

Christian Partnership

Now, it would be a dangerous principle to attribute to all the Christians on earth what they are as seated in the heavenlies in Christ, presented in absolute terms in Ephesians 1. In this respect, it is important to distinguish between Christian state and the state of a Christian. There is still flesh in believers. The Corinthians were allowing flesh to act among themselves (I Cor. 1:12&13). Thus, the emphasis on the cross in chapter 1 is to shut out the flesh and make way for the Spirit so that they could appreciate divine truth. They had the mind of Christ, yet, their carnal condition, by definition, resulted in their being characterised by the activity of the flesh (ch. 3:1). They were, therefore, not spiritual, and so their practical state was not in accord with their absolute standing in the grace of God. Things contrary to the Lord's mind were getting in among the Christian company. There was the need to act in His name (ch. 5:4).

That the church on earth is one body involves corporate action universally. This touches an important principle of Christian fellowship. Those forming the church in Corinth were called to the fellowship of God's Son, Jesus Christ our Lord (ch. 1:9). That there are many worldwide who profess subjection to the same Lord, Christian fellowship is, in principle, one universally wherever His name is confessed. As responsibility to administer the Lord's affairs is attached to the church in each locality, every act in His name has a universal consequence, and local churches everywhere are bound by it. See ch. 1:1&2.

The nature of all Church activity ought to be in keeping with the Lord's name. That is, nothing to which He may not give His approval should be allowed. If flesh has been operative it must be judged accordingly. Preferably, there should be self-judgment, but unjudged sin could bring the Lord's name into disrepute if exposed so there is a responsibility for a local church to deal with such matters in His name. Since any action performed in the Lord's name carries His authority, to ignore such an action elsewhere would present an anomaly; it would be tantamount to insubjection to Him. Read also Matt. 18:15-20.

The public act of putting someone out of fellowship does not affect the unity of the body as God sees it. The soul relationship with God of one excluded is not called into question, since certainty as to all the members ultimately rests with Him. The point is, that if one called a brother acts like a sinner, then he must be put out where sinners belong, and that is outside in the world. He cannot be regarded as fit for Christian fellowship. It would be to deny the oneness of fellowship universally to imagine that someone out as unfit in one place could share its privileges elsewhere. The responsibilities of Christian fellowship have to be taken up in the name of Him whose fellowship it is. All in every place who call on the Lord's name share a joint accountability to Him. Independency therefore contradicts both the principles of Christian fellowship and the truth of the one body so the latter cannot be used to overrule administration aspect of the church, the law of the house (cf. Ezek. 43:12).

In keeping with the church in testimony, the Lord's Supper proclaims His death until He comes (1 Cor. 11:20-26). The fact the institution of the supper was given directly to the apostle from the Lord in glory confirms the church's heavenly calling while simultaneously declaring its identification with a rejected Christ here. In His death, any links the Lord may have had with this world were severed, and this implies that the Christian is to be no longer identified with it. The Lord's death is the basis of Christian fellowship (ch. 10:16-17). The church is morally separate from the world, and therefore, fellowship at the Lord's Table cannot be compromised by any link with Judaism or heathen idolatry. While the unity of the church, as expressed by Christians partaking of one loaf, embraces all the members of the body of Christ on earth (v. 17), it is exclusive of all else (v. 18-22).

The one loaf from which Christians partake is emblematic of the body of Christ. In partaking of it, Christians indicate not only that they are one, but also one with Him in His manhood. They are in moral conformity to Christ and derive their constitution from Him. On the cross, the Lord bore the judgment that was on the man under condemnation, and in His death, closed his history morally before God. While, in resurrection, the Person is the same (Lk. 24:39), nevertheless in Him, man has entered a new state according to God's counsels (John 16:20-22), forever beyond death and judgment. That Christians are linked with a Christ in resurrection, that is, as He is now, implies they must be in accord with the One who so died. The act of partaking of the one loaf expresses not only the church's unity but also the nature of the church.

Practical Considerations

At the present time of public ruin in the church, those who would celebrate the Lord's Supper according to Scripture will bear in mind the unity of body on one hand, but will have separated themselves from everything which is dishonouring to the Lord's name on the other. A company of Christians, having gone through the exercises delineated in 2 Timothy 2, will not seek to again defile themselves by allowing back into their midst the very things from which they have escaped. Far from starting a new church with a narrower basis than the whole church of God, they will recognise they have attained no special distinction over any other Christians. As one has earlier advised, they would be 'as an available mount for every consistent Christian.'

Much hangs on the word 'consistent.' In gathering on the ground of the one body, it is important to appreciate that, while in the abstract receiving all Christians, anything out of keeping with the truth as it is in Jesus must be excluded. To receive Christians characterised by unjudged flesh would be to allow that which is really foreign to the body of Christ. It would be to let in a moral condition that the cross shuts out (1 Cor. 1:29). Such must be kept back until clear in the matter (2 Cor. 7:11). It is not a question of forming a gathering narrower than one which embraces the whole body, but of being also morally suited to it as Christ's body, and hence, spiritually in accord with Him its Head.

Indeed, to be truly gathered to the Lord's name there must be the right conditions suited to His presence (Matt 18:20: ` ... in the midst of them'). Although not demanding a thorough insight into every aspect of church truth, it would be expected that there would be an adherence to the truth of Christ, both in doctrine and practice. It may be that some taught little beyond what is sufficient for their soul's salvation have not had opportunity to be corrupted with error.

In a situation in which there are numerous companies of Christians, the question may be raised as to which have what is characteristic of the Lord's Table. A table spread on a basis that embraces a company either smaller or greater than the body of Christ cannot really have the character of the Lord's Table. Neither is the table of an independent church the Lord's Table. It is not a matter of whether or not those around it are Christians and only Christians. The table must be spread with due recognition of the unity of the one body. The question is, `How is it in relation to the whole body?' 1 Corinthians 10:16, 17 must be properly recognised in the matter of giving adequate expression to the truth of the one body of Christ on earth.

While certain lines of evangelistic work may have the appearance of Christians working together in the spirit of the one body, it is not really so because each of the Christian groups represented have their own tables around which they celebrate communion in some way or other. While the Lord is sovereign and uses what means He deems fit in the building of His church, this is in no way is an endorsement for those who do know the truth as to the church and Christian fellowship to engage in those things which they know are contrary to the truth. If one would ask concerning others apparently doing a good work, but not in relation to scriptural principles of gathering, it is felt the Lord would say, 'What is that to thee? follow thou me' (John 21:21).

It is a mistake to show charity by partaking of tables which are not in keeping with a practical expression of the one body. To do so is really to act contrary to the truth of Christian fellowship. Ecumenism may have an appearance of expressing Christian unity, but it is a movement to amalgamate churches. The sum of all such 'churches' in fact includes an excess membership to that of the body of Christ, since many such churches include unbelievers, some blatantly infidel, not to mention that the one body is not made up of churches, but rather, consists of individual believers linked by the one Spirit to Christ in glory (1 Cor. 12:12&13 and Eph. 5:30). The ecumenical movement, in its constitution, is defiled by a morass of Christ-dishonouring doctrines and practices.

To be gathered to the name of the Lord Jesus Christ implies, on the one hand, that the spiritual condition of those so gathered is in moral suitability to the Lord's name (that is, they are separate from evil), and on the other, that there will be a concern for His interest which includes the unity of His body. The fact that the vast majority of the members of the body of Christ are not among them does not lessen its truth, although its expression publicly is very weak. Jeremiah was instructed with regard to Israel in his day, when he stood for the truth of Jehovah, that he was not to return to those who would not separate themselves from the idolatrous nation; they were to return to him (Jer. 15:19). The principle today is the same: it is for others to step outside the confusions of the Christian profession (though not the profession itself) rather than for those who profess to be true to the Lord's interest go back the systems they have left.

Those companies of Christians professedly gathered to the Lord's name in various localities on the ground of the unity of His body throughout the world should give corporate expression to it. There should be unity of action among themselves (1 Cor. 1:2; 4:17; 7:17; 11:16; 16:1). That they profess to have that which is in character the Lord's Table in their midst means that they cannot act independently from one another, since they are all gathered to the name of the same Lord and have fellowship at the same table. Indeed, it is from one loaf (morally the same in every locality) that every believer is to partake to express the fact of the one body and thereby act on the basis of a universal Christian fellowship.

While on the one hand, there should be care in reception, equally on the other, there should be care in seeking communion to establish the nature of the fellowship that the table stands for. It is surprising how many Christians will partake of a table without realising that in breaking bread they are committing themselves to a fellowship. The partaking of the loaf implies a commitment to the fellowship that the act expresses. Few Christians seem to have due regard for the character of Christian fellowship as expressed in breaking bread. To partake of a table which is not really based on the unity of Christ's body on earth as the ground of fellowship is to commit oneself to a communion which Scripture does not contemplate. There is little in the idea merely that a fellowship of Christians must ipso facto be Christian fellowship.

Questions should be raised therefore before taking one's place at a table as to its basis. There are two points to be considered:

(1) are only those whom the Lord can approve received at the table?

(2) does the table give expression to the unity of the one body on earth, and in consequence, the universal character of Christian fellowship?

In summary, although heavenly in its concept and destiny, the church is at present one body on earth, and in its nature, it is Christ's body. To claim that the body is spiritual and the truths related to it are positional does not in any degree lessen the practical issues that flow from it. It means, that among the members of the body of Christ, there should be in practice conditions which comply spiritually and morally with the Head. Whether or not the term 'body' is to be considered as a figure does not excuse Christians from setting aside their responsibility with respect to it. The point is, that Christian conduct and church-life are to be in accord with the truth that is presented.

The apostle beseeches the faithful in Christ Jesus (Eph. 1:1) that they 'walk worthy of the calling ... using diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the uniting bond of peace' (ch 4:1-3 JND). Christians are not asked to keep the unity of the body. That is the divine side of the matter. Rather, it is a question of the unity of the Spirit. It cannot for a moment be imagined that the Spirit would gather believers together irrespective of the truth of Christ or in a way which ignores proper Christian unity.

Matters for consideration regarding fellowship with a company of Christians ought to be:­

1. do they recognise the unity of the body in both doctrine and practice, and;

2. are they set for the truth concerning Christ, the Head of the church?

Without these, there is no real ground for assuming a company to be gathered on the ground of the One Body or to be expressing properly Christian fellowship.