The Structure of the Body of Christ
by John Okulski
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“The whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” (Ephesians 4:16) From this passage, we see that the church, the ‘body’ referred to in the verse, needs an organization and a structure to provide the synergy commanded in the scripture. When Paul compared the church to a human body, he, in words breathed by the Holy Spirit (2 Ti 3:16), served notice regarding its complexity, for the human body consists of “billions of microscopic parts, each with its own identity, working together in an organized manner for the benefit of the total being.” (SEER) The New Testament speaks of the body of Christ in similar terms when it says that different gifts and positions within the body were given for the common good. (1 Cor 12:7, 14) Indeed, the epistles of the New Testament, typically written in response to some trouble from either within the church organism itself or arising from outside its boundaries, also show how the experiences of the early church shaped, strengthened, and grounded the church, both in the solidity of its teaching and the roots of joy in which the church was founded (Heb 12:2) and through which it grew. (Philippians 1:18) These letters present a picture of how the apostles and other leaders, through the Holy Spirit, helped organize, position, and establish the members of the body of Christ for the benefit of the entire being and for the glorification of the head (Christ).
The analogy used by the apostle Paul showing Christ as the head of the body, the church, gives the primary organization of believers as a group gathered together under one head, Jesus Christ. In the organization of the human body, the head, among other functions, serves as the receptacle of the brain, the key component of the human nervous system. The nervous system, in turn, serves as “the major controlling, regulatory, and communicating system in the body.” (SEER) One may interpret, then, the relationship between the head and body as hierarchical, with the head clearly exalted over the body for it serves as the major control system in the human body. Ephesians makes the exaltation of Christ as the head clear when it states that “God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church.” (Ephesians 1:22) The apostle Paul also makes the same point in Colossians, when he says that “he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.” (Colossians 1:17) Indeed, the theme of Colossians is the “fullness and pre-eminence of Christ and the completeness, the fullness of life for all believers in Him” (Study Guide, p.9) , a theme that, although perhaps less explicit in other Scriptures, is plain throughout the New Testament. For example, in Philippians, Christ is mentioned “seventy times in four brief chapters.” (Study Guide, p. 7) Christ is also described as the subject of apostolic preaching (Study Guide), and the prize compared to which all else is rubbish. (Philippians 3:7) Also, the phrase “In Christ” is central to the epistle most concerned with the church, Ephesians, thereby indicating that if one takes “Christ” out of the Christian, he is nothing. (Study Guide, p. 5) Thus, Scriptures confirms that Christ is central to the church, for if one separates the body from the head, the body dies, and the body (the church) is first of all organized under the head (Christ).
Though Christ is exalted over the church and serves as both king and Lord over it, he does not remain aloof in his lofty position. Rather, much as the head does not remain aloof from the body but serves as the major communicating center of the human body, so Christ remains always in communication with his church (Hebrews 7:25). Jesus promised his disciples that he would not leave them as orphans (John 14:18), but would send the Holy Spirit to “teach them all things.” (John 14:26, 16:7) Scripture reveals that the Holy Spirits serves as the means by which the apostles preached the gospel (1 Peter 1:12), the originator of prophecy (2 Peter 1:21), the giver of various gifts (Hebrews 2:4), a giver of joy (1 Thessalonians 1:16), and a living being who dwells within us. Because Christ is identified with the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:9) and Scripture identifies us not simply as living in Christ, but he in us(Galatians 2:20), then one may infer that, in essence, Christ is performing the same functions as the Holy Spirit, and, indeed, more than those listed, for the Spirit of God and of Christ works so powerfully within that Paul could say that he longed for the recipients of the letter to Philippians with the very affection of Christ. (Philippians 1:8) For example, we see the Holy Spirit (and, therefore, Christ) catapulting the church into existence on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:4), sending Barnabas and Saul off on their first missionary journey (Acts 13:2) , the Spirit of Jesus preventing Paul and his companions from traveling to Asia (Acts 16:6-7), an aid to us in our prayers (Romans 8:26), the object of our prayers (Ephesians 3:16), and something like the venue in which our prayers take place. (Jude 1:20, Ephesians 6:18)
Indeed, then, one might say that the body of Christ is to remain always in communication with its head, Christ, through the Holy Spirit. Jesus spoke of this to his disciples on the night he was arrested, saying “If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5) Likewise, Paul urged believers to “pray continually” (Thessalonians 5:17), the first disciples spent their time devoted to prayer (Acts 2:42), and prayer in the Spirit was one of the key instruments of spiritual warfare, one which the church was called to execute on all occasions (Ephesians 6:18) Thus, one might conclude from the above discussion that Christ is the primary communicator and the Holy Spirit, with whom He and the Father (Philippians 3:3) are so closely identified, is the lifeblood of the church, coursing through the body, relaying messages (John 15:26), providing life (2 Corinthians 3:6), and the very object without which we die. Not only does the body die if it is severed from the head, but individual parts within the body may die from lack of blood supply. (Healthline) Jesus used a similar parable when speaking about the effects of losing communication with Him, saying “If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.” (John 15:6) Gangrene functions similarly, and often results in the removal of the affected body part from the body to prevent the spread of disease from one part of the body to the other. The body, therefore, is to remain to remain in constant communication with Christ, the head, through the Holy Spirit, the lifeblood of the body.
In this way, the primary organization of the body is clear, for it consists one body, the church, consisting of various parts, belonging to one head, Christ, and communicating with Him through the lifeblood of the body, the Holy Spirit. If the principle lifeline of the organism, the communication of the church with Christ through the Holy Spirit, is severed, the body dies. Yet. even with the lifeline to the head intact, and Christ communicating with his body through the Holy Spirit, the complete sustenance (1 Thessalonians 5:11) of each body part also requires proper communication between its various parts. Communication among the parts of the body may be antagonistic or awry, as in the case of necrosis, where cells that die by the necrotic mechanism may in the process damage other cells. (Wilkipedia) By contrast, cooperative communication among cells through various beneficial local transmitters can have a salutatory effect on neighboring parts.
Similar principles apply to the interaction among the parts of the body of Christ. The primary principle of interaction for beneficial communication among the church body is given by Jesus in the simple command to “Love one another.” (John 13:34) In that one command, the basis of communication among members of the body is established. Paul reiterated that principle when he wrote concerning the church that, “The whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” (Ephesians 4:16) With that one statement, the apostle stated that both the nutrient the body needs for growth is love, and the general milieu in which body operates must also be love. Paul also indicates, as developed further in 1 Corinthians 12, that the body of Christ consists of many parts, none of which are the same, but whose proper functioning the entire body needs for optimal growth. In other words, only when each ‘supporting ligament’ performs its work is the body completely healthy. As Paul noted in 1 Corinthians, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” (1 Corinthians 12:26) Each part of the body forms a specific function, and without any one part performing its function, the whole body loses out for the lack of that function. (1 Corinthians 12:15-19)
Therefore, the general picture of the church is one body under one head, with the body always in communication with the head, yet also interacting among its various parts in a milieu of love for the betterment of the entire body. Scripture affirms (1 Corinthians 12:11,18) that God Himself is responsible for placing the parts of the body in the position he wants and distributing gifts to his body as he deems fit, yet clearly God acts through human agents who must make decisions based on the wisdom God gives them (Acts 15:28). The same epistle that says, “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20), also says that believers must “walk by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16). So, though the Spirit empowers, imparts, and enables, humans have decisions to make in light of the wisdom the Spirit brings. Hence, when the church leaders at the Council in Jerusalem said, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28), they were not usurping the place of God in their decisions, nor were they placing the value of their judgment alongside that of the Holy Spirit as equal, but were affirming that the judgment made by James (Acts 15:19) with the wisdom God gave him as leader of His people in Jerusalem and agreed to by the Council was in concordance with the Holy Spirit.
With Scripture, as noted in the Study Guide (p. 18), and attested to by the apostle Peter (2 Peter 1:21) one may conclude that God Himself is the author and the teaching contained therein is the word of God. Yet, Scripture did not arise in a vacuum, but almost invariably the passages of what we now call the Bible were written in response to specific temporal events. In that way, the eternal (e.g., Mark 13:31) has arisen from the temporal, or, more accurately, the eternal has been revealed in light of the temporal. It behooves us, to the extent that is possible, to bear in mind the temporal context in which God chose to reveal the eternal. For example, the decision (Acts 15:20) made by the Council in Jerusalem arose from a temporal context in which Jews were wrestling with the integration of Mosaic law and their new faith in Christ, together with how Gentiles ought to behave in light of that new faith and Jewish history. While the full basis for the decision made by James and the apostles is beyond the scope of this paper, one may make several conclusions. First, the decision was guided by the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:28). Second, the judgment of the Council inspired negative (Titus 1:10) reactions as well as positive (Acts 15:31) , but both the negative and the positive impacted church history in a profound way. Third, the decision arose out of love in the Spirit, for the stated motive was to not make it difficult for the Gentiles to adhere to the faith they had already received (Acts 15:19). Also, one may conclude that the pronouncement of the Council worked to make it easier for the Jews who were calling for circumcision to accept the new Gentile believers, for their recommendations came with the encouragement that “the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath” (Acts 15:21) and the recommendations effectively proscribed behaviors that were perhaps most offensive to Jewish believers.
Yet, though the recommendations were made in congruence with the Holy Spirit and arose from a spirit of love, the decision of the Council is not immutable law. While the call to flee from sexual immorality is universally upheld in Scripture (e.g., 1 Corinthians 6:18), the regulations regarding food passed down by the Council are not. For example, Paul wrote to the Romans that “I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself” (Romans 14:14) and to the Corinthians (chapter 8) he effectively argued that food that is sacrificed to idols is not sacrificed to anything at all and is, therefore, clean of itself. For, as the apostle wrote, “the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 14:17) Paul wrote those words not to instruct believers who believed that certain foods were unclean, but to teach those who felt they need not abstain from any food not to make an issue of food and drink to those who thought such things mattered. For, as Paul wrote, whether one eats or drinks does not matter, but the faith which one applies toward those actions. (Romans 14:22-23) In writing these words, Paul affirmed his words to the Galatians that “the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5:6), thus bolstering the view that the atmosphere within which the church is to act is one of love.
Scripture contains other instances of rules put in place by the apostles that, while guided by the Spirit, are not necessarily unchangeable laws of correct Christian, but which serve to illustrate other principles. For example, the passage in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15 speak of the propriety in worship for women that clearly is not followed in most churches today. Yet, while a careful discussion of this topic is beyond the scope of this paper, a few things may be observed. First, Paul is establishing a positional order (1 Timothy 2:13) that he traces back to Adam and Eve and which he cites elsewhere (Ephesians 5:22-24). Second, the mention Paul makes to the woman being the glory of the man in 1 Corinthians 11:7 is like unto Ephesians 5:27, where the purpose of the husband in marriage is to present his wife as a radiant church, without spot or blemish, thus indicating that the woman, while under the authority of man, is not a debased being but the very glory of the one has authority over her. Third, as noted before, the eternal was unveiled in the light of the temporal. In each passage, Paul harkened to principles explaining the propriety he encouraged, but the principles, one may assume, remain more important than the behavior. If it were not, then most of the church would be in serious error now.
Moreover, the issue primarily at stake in these passages is propriety, the maintaining of an orderly service. In an ever-growing church, establishing rules and regulations was of the utmost importance. Just as with the human body, adequate communication among the various parts could not be achieved without rules regulating that communication, so with the body of Christ, as more parts are added, some regulations are needed to constrain communication among the various parts. As noted above, the primary language used in the communication is love, but just as Paul instructed the church to walk in love (Ephesians 5:1), yet also gave specific instructions to the people (e.g., Ephesians 5:3-4), so the body of Christ must always, within the scope given to each part of the body, give form and substance to that teaching so long as the form adheres to the general principles discussed in this paper, and, more importantly, in Scripture. Out of this need, one sees in Scripture, the decision of the Council in Jerusalem, rules for orderly worship, regulations concerning the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:17-34), advice concerning widows (1 Timothy 5), requirements for the positions of Overseers and Deacons (1 Timothy 3), and the very existence of the position of Deacon, for that matter (Acts 6:1-6).
What we also see in these examples is that the eternal is unveiled in light of the temporal. As mentioned previously, the epistles were written typically in response to trouble arising either from within or outside the boundaries of the church, rather than for the pure purpose of expounding on theological doctrine. For example, the regulations for the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthian 11) arose due to disturbances in the church at Corinth as people used the opportunity for bread and wine to either sate their appetites or to get drunk. Similarly, Jude, while originally intending to write a treatise on salvation (Jude 3), wrote instead one of the “most solemn” (Study Guide, p. 30) books in the word of God regarding the need to persevere in and contend for the faith. Likewise, the epistle to the Galatians came about because of Judaizers who were teaching that “the Gospel of Grace was not sufficient for salvation” (Study Guide, p. 2). Colossians, also, was written to counteract a heresy, as was 2 Peter and 1 John, while the letters to the Thessalonians arose due to some doubts that had arisen with the church regarding the second coming of Christ.
In these examples, and in others one might give, one may conclude that the very forces that threatened to rip the church asunder accomplished the very opposite, for in response to these potentially destructive forces God gave us the very words of life that serve as the foundation of the Christian faith. Of particular importance in this regard is the repeated emphasis that one witnesses in Scripture with regard to loving and praying for the brethren (e.g., Galatians 5:13-14, Ephesians 6:18, Philippians 2:2-4, 1 Thessalonians 4:9, 2 Thessalonians 1:3, Philemon 1:5, James 2:8, 1 Peter 2:17, 1 Peter 4:8, 1 John 3:11, 1 John 3:14 ), suggesting that in the midst of attacks on His body, the Lord desired not only that we hold fast to the truth (reference Scripture) and to one another, as if clinging onto a tenuous thread for dear life, but that as one we might grasp with full confidence the true vine (John 15:4) of God, knowing that, unlike the human head, which is attached to its body through tenuous ligaments and possesses only limited capabilities for saving its body, Christ, the true vine of God and head of the church, is able to sustain and preserve us no matter what hardship the body endures (Jude 1:24, Romans 8). Thus, despite persecution and hardship, the dominant experience of the early church is joy (Study Guide, pg. 8), for our hope in not in our weak vessels of clay, but in the living hope, Christ, to whom all the prophets and apostles point (Acts 3:18), and through whom we receive life both in this age and in the age to come. He is our very sustenance, the true manna of God, and his very words give life as we eat and drink them, especially his final command to love one another, for by this we testify that we belong in Him (1 John 4:12) and will remain in Him.
Gangrene Information on Healthline. Perez, Eric, M.D. 17 July 2006. Healthline. 10 December 2006.
Necrosis-Wilkipedia, the free encyclopedia. Wilkipedia. 15 December 2006.
Introduction to the Human Body/Human Body Structure. U.S. National Cancer Institute's Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results (SEER) Program. 1 November 2006.
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Hi John, just read this article. What a coincidence. I posted a piece titled "Synergy in the body of Christ" a few days ago and while searching for it via google (just to check how easily it could be picked up by the search engine) I came across your article. This is well researched and detailed. It was as if I read it before writing mine. The brain is a powerful, telepathic broadcasting station. Remain blessed.