Posts Tagged With: Body of Christ

Unity of the Spirit

“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 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 4:1-6, ESV).

While meditating on Ephesians 4:1-16 recently, I realized that the entire passage focuses on Christian unity, which St. Paul here refers to as “unity of the Spirit.” Paul often addressed threats to Christian unity. To this day, the unity is threatened.

Before I proceed, I would like to clear up a major misunderstanding about Christian unity. The unity of the Spirit is not developed by an absolute adherence to common dogma. Some who profess a personal relationship with Jesus Christ will reject those who disagree with them on secondary (or even less important) doctrines. Whether it be eternal security, methods of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, eschatology, etc., these are not issues that allow one Christian to condemn others to hell. None of us has a right to claim that others are not saved, or are somehow second-rate Christians, if they disagree with us. I am not saying that doctrine is completely unimportant; we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8), and doctrine is important insofar as it keeps our eyes on the true Jesus of Scripture (as opposed to a “Jesus” that we make up to suit our own needs). However, doctrine is only useful as a means of fostering our relationship with Christ. A personal relationship with Jesus Christ comes first; doctrine and church practices are tools to foster that relationship.

What is truly important in the “unity of the Spirit” is the personal relationship with Christ. Through that relationship, we are bound to other Christians in the church. Scripture often very appropriately uses the language of family to describe the church: God is our Father, and we are brothers and sisters through our relationship with Him.

In Ephesians and elsewhere (First Corinthians 12, for example), St. Paul refers to the church as “the body of Christ,” which is also a fitting image. We are tempted to view some members of the church (including the pastor, worship leaders, Sunday school teachers, or others with visible roles on Sunday morning) as “more important.” Yet, as 1 Corinthians 12:15-26 shows, the less glamorous or visible members of the body are important too. Some organs seem more important than others, but each one fulfills an important role.

Since we are a body, it is not our job to create spiritual unity. Ephesians 4:3 calls us to maintain the unity of the Spirit. It is already there. Just as my right hand has maintained a connection to the rest of my body since before I was born, so every Christian has a vital spiritual link to other believers. I do not have to buy a right hand and glue it on; I just need to preserve it and care for it, so that it can continue to fulfill its role in my body.

This unity of Christians is multi-faceted. It is a unity of existence: There is one body and one Spirit. We share a unity of purpose: One hope that belongs to our call. We share a unity of Lordship and fellowship: One Lord (Jesus), one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all.

Unity is preserved through the ministry of the church. God has appointed certain people within the church to a role in the fourfold ministry (some sincere believers think it is “fivefold”; the original Greek implies four ministries, but this is a subject for another study): apostles, prophets, evangelists, and shepherd/teachers (the Greek suggests these are the same; the same word can be translated either “shepherd” or “pastor”). Though different ministries, they share a common mission:

… to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood,to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Ephesians 4:12-14).

Unity of the Spirit is something we gain through our spiritual birthright, by being believers in Christ. Unity of the faith and of knowledge is something we grow towards. Perhaps this is something that will not be completed until we get to heaven. As long as we see in a mirror dimly or through a glass darkly (1 Corinthians 13:12), we have room to grow. Nevertheless, those who are called to teach and preach the Word of God to the church are not called to promote division or denominational distinctives, designed to set themselves apart from other Christians. They are called to preach the truth about Jesus Christ: to bring people to knowledge of the Son of God. They are called to bring people to spiritual maturity.

Their mission includes promoting unity through their diversity. Apostles, prophets, evangelists, and shepherd/teachers have different skills, perspectives, and talents. They approach their ministries from different angles. Yet, they work together to carry out a common goal: to bring people to maturity in Christ.

The true measure of success for these ministers is when those within their flock develop their own ministries (Ephesians 4:12). Each of us has a different place of service within the Body of Christ. The church needs those who serve in the fourfold ministry. It also needs the secretary, the prayer warrior, the musician, and the janitor. It needs the person who holds no official title in the church, but is always ready to encourage the downtrodden. The church needs the guy who is willing to drive people to and from church. Whether it is a “spiritual” ministry that demands in-depth Bible training, or serving others with talents one could use in the most secular of businesses, your skills and talents are needed.

Christians are called to work together to glorify Jesus Christ. We are called to grow up into Him: to become more like Christ as we mature. We are called to unity, not uniformity: We build the church and preserve its unity not by forcing everybody into the same mold, but by allowing people to grow in their own gifts, talents, and passions, so that together we can strengthen the church, glorify our Savior, and draw people into relationship with Him.

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Stewardship I: Time

Many people make commitments, at different times, to improve themselves. New Year’s Day brings a new rush of resolutions. Many of us repeat the same resolutions we made the previous year. Many Christians give up something, perhaps a particular comfort food or habit, during the season of Lent, but are no better the following year. Major life transitions may also challenge us to review our priorities and desire to be a better person.

Ironically, most of our resolutions and recommitments are self-centered. They focus on how we can make our own lives better or how we can feel better about ourselves. Few people really think about how they can make the world a better place or truly draw closer to God.

This is the first of a three-part series about stewardship. As you read each part, I challenge you to take a different approach than you may have in the past. Many of us are trying to find way to improve our physical health. Instead, why not commit to improving the health of the body of Christ?

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many” (1 Corinthians 12:12-14, ESV).

Paul goes on to describe how each part has its own distinct function. Different parts need to be connected to the body, and each contributes to its overall health. Likewise, every Christian has a blessing to offer to the body of Christ.  We each have different spiritual gifts, natural abilities, interests and passions that equip us to bless the church in different ways.

In this three-part series, I will encourage you to consider how you can bless God’s Kingdom by giving of your time, talents, and treasures.

The Bible often mentions the importance of giving our first fruits to God. This term comes from the Old Testament, where worshipers were expected to bring the first crops they harvested as an offering to the Lord. The term first fruits expanded to include other “firsts”: the firstborn son was consecrated to the Lord; other first blessings were given over to God.

Many Christians are quick to think of first fruits in terms of finances. True disciples pay tithes as a priority, even if there are other pressing financial needs or wants. However, first fruits is not merely a reference to money: It is a principle that applies to all aspects of Christian stewardship. Giving to God is always a priority item. We do not worship God as an afterthought or give Him our leftovers: We give Him the best we can offer.

English: Sacrifice of Cain and Abel

Image via Wikipedia

The Bible’s first account of sacrificial worship bears this out. When Cain and Abel offered sacrifices, Abel offered the first fruits of his flock, while Cain seems to have haphazardly pulled some of his produce together (see Gen. 4:3-4). God accepted Abel’s sacrifice but not Cain’s. Was it because Abel offered a blood sacrifice and Cain did not? This is a popular explanation, but it is weak.  Many explain God’s displeasure with Cain’s offering by citing Hebrews 9:22: “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” Yet, there is no indication in Genesis 4 that Cain and Abel were seeking forgiveness at that point. Some fellowship and peace offerings in the Old Testament were vegetables and grain. It seems as though the attitude was what mattered: first fruits represented not only the first, but the best. Abel gave his best, while Cain just gave haphazardly.

God wants and deserves our best. He wants worship and fellowship to be a priority. However, many Christians fit corporate worship in when it is convenient. Favorite television shows, hobbies, the children’s weekend sports activities, and other diversions may keep us from church. If we truly love God and are excited about our salvation, we should be eager to give Him our time. Yet, many Christians give the first fruits of their time and energy to the world (their jobs, leisure activities) instead of to God. Some come to church only if nothing else is going on.

Our time at church goes beyond singing a few upbeat songs and listening to an inspiring sermon. True fellowship involves looking for ways to be an encouragement to others: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25). We should seek opportunities to bless others.

We should also bless the body of Christ with our prayers. A serious disciple of our Lord will choose to make time for prayer. Prayer comes before television, not when there is nothing to watch. If we decide to pray “when I get around to it,” we will never commune with God.

My current goal is to pray the four Daily Offices of prayer indicated in the Book of Common Prayer [morning, noon, evening and compline (before bed)]. I usually succeed in praying three of them (I have to confess, I can get lazy around compline time). Getting those prayer times in is not easy: I have to choose to sit down and pray the morning office before work. I have to turn my eyes from my computer at lunch time to pray the noon office. I have to really force myself to pray the evening office. These do not come easily. It starts with a decision that “This is important.” Sure, I can find a TV show to watch or a website to visit, but if I want to pray, I will make the time.

If you are serious about giving God the first fruits of your time, chart your course. How much time will I spend in prayer every day? When will it be? How much of it will be Bible reading, and how much will be prayer? Where will I pray? (This last one is important: You need to find a place where you will not be distracted or interrupted.) Then, based on these decisions, make a commitment to pray. Write it in your planner as an urgent appointment. Eventually, it will become a habit, like eating three meals per day.

It is interesting to note that Paul mentions prayer at the end of his description of the full armor of God in Ephesians 6. He says that we should pray “at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication” (Ephesians 6:18). He urges his readers to pray for him. This should remind us to pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ, especially our spiritual leaders. Your pastor needs your prayers. If your church does not publish a prayer list or notify members about prayer requests, ask you pastor how you can pray for the church. Commit to being a prayer warrior for your church.

If the word of God is the sword of the Spirit (Ephesians 6:17), then prayer is our spiritual missile. It is the weapon that can engage in spiritual warfare across great spans of space and time. Prayer for the church and its members is a vital ministry that all believers, regardless of skills, gifts, or spiritual maturity level, can participate in.

Categories: Bible meditations | Tags: , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Fellowship

“So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls. They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together, and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:41–47, NASB).

Fellowship is one of the church’s most vital functions. However, many Christians are unaware of the meaning or urgency of fellowship.

Some churches have almost no fellowship. People go to church, shake hands with the pastor as they exit the building after service, and go home. They spend little or no time with other church members until the next service.

Other churches enjoy a brief social time after service. They might provide coffee and refreshments in a social hall or other room after the service. Here, people can sit down and talk with their fellow church members. Whereas this is a vast improvement over churches that offer no fellowship, it is still insufficient.

Conversation inside a church building does not necessarily equal fellowship. I can easily discuss sports, television, music, current events, or the weather with people in the church building after service (with the obligatory cup of coffee in hand), but that does not make it fellowship.

The Greek word for fellowship is “koinonia.” It comes from a root word meaning “common,” and elsewhere in the New Testament it is translated as “contribution,” “participation,” or “sharing.” In each case, something is held in common. So, mindless chitchat or casual conversation about the weather and news does not equal fellowship. Fellowship begins when two or more people share their hearts, souls, innermost feelings and ideas, and struggles.

Scripture gives several indications of true fellowship. In Acts 2:44–45 we learn that the early Christians shared their possessions with one another. This practice was so complete that, a few chapters later, we read that there were no needy Christians. The wealthier Christians sold their possessions so that they could give the money to the poor (Acts 4:32–35)! Isn’t it strange that few ministers preach about that passage, especially in churches that proclaim the “prosperity Gospel”?

The basic lesson here is that the church should take care of its members. This care may be material or financial if a person is in need (especially if through no fault of their own), but the church should also provide emotional, social, and spiritual support for its members. The fellowship in a church is often compared to relationships in a natural family or, even more intimately, to the relationship between parts of a physical body. In fact, the church is also called “the family of God” or “the body of Christ.” Romans 12:4–5 says, “For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually, members one of another.”

Every human body has trillions of cells, comprising thousands of organs, muscles, bones, and other parts. Each of these works to help the others: the heart shares its blood with the rest of the body; the digestive tract shares its food with all other cells in the body; and the lungs share oxygen with the rest of the body.

The human body has certain parts that seem more vital, but they need the other parts as well. Paul writes that Christ is the head of his body (Colossians 1:18). One might think of some church leaders as the spinal column and nervous system: bringing messages from the head (Christ) to the entire body. Others are the church’s blood, heart, lungs, eyes, feet, and hands, fulfilling different functions to help the other parts. Just as an entire human body suffers when one of its parts is injured, ill, or destroyed, the entire body of Christ suffers when one member is unable to fulfill his or her role. When separated from the body, that church member suffers much like a severed bodily organ does.

This points to a very important function of fellowship. We gather together to share our spiritual gifts with one another. Every Christian has a unique mixture of spiritual gifts which he or she should use for the “common good” of the church (First Corinthians 12:7) to build it up (First Corinthians 14:12). God does not grant spiritual gifts so that the believer can serve himself, brag, or pretend that he or she is a spiritual giant. Instead, He pours out His gifts so that we can bless those around us. We should all seek the Lord’s guidance, so that we may know the gifts He has given us, and may use them to bless others.

Fellowship also enables us to receive encouragement from one another. Hebrews 10:24–25 shows that we should “consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.”

It is not easy to be a Christian. Sometimes we are tempted to give in to sin. Sometimes friends, family, or coworkers seek to discourage our walk with the Lord. Satan often tempts us with his demonic accusations. All of this happens, in addition to the ordinary problems that all people face. When we fellowship with other believers, we may tap into one another’s strength. The one who has walked through a particular valley before us can guide us along the way. The one who knows your secret sin can pray for you and share his own victories and struggles with you.

A final aspect of fellowship that comes to mind is correction and confrontation. Perhaps this is the reason many Christians do not like real fellowship: when everybody knows you, they know what you are doing wrong! According to the Bible, when we know a Christian is practicing sin, we have an obligation to restore that person (Galatians 6:1), which involves confrontation to encourage repentance (Matthew 18:20).

Fellowship removes Christianity from the realm of abstract ideas and forces it into practical reality. We cannot merely say we love our neighbors; in fellowship, we actually learn to love our neighbors, even though they may not be too lovable. If we are sinning, somebody with whom we fellowship may be aware of it, thus helping us to acknowledge and experience our need for confession, repentance and forgiveness.

Fellowship with other believers gives us a greater glimpse of God. When we confess our sins during private prayer, it is easy to gloss over them and pretend it is a trivial matter that does not affect God or anybody else. However, when we confess our sins to a brother or sister in Christ who loves us, we feel embarrassment about them; we see the hurt or grief of the other person; and we also experience their love, compassion, and forgiveness. God reveals Himself most fully in fellowship. This is why Jesus said, “Where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst” (Matthew 18:20)?

Fellowship does not “just happen.” It is easy for believers to hide in the house of God. We often need to make an effort to cultivate fellowship. It does not happen so much through programs. To achieve fellowship, we need to consciously cultivate relationships with brothers and sisters in Christ. Do not just go to church; bond yourself to other believers with whom you can connect as members of Christ’s body, both on Sunday morning in the house of the Lord, and throughout the week in everyday life.

Categories: Bible meditations, Spiritual disciplines | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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