‘Paul and Timothy, bondservants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ’ (Philippians 1:1-2).
Forgive the pun, but the coin in koinonia (fellowship) has two sides. Last month we saw that the essence of Christian togetherness lies in the believer’s personal relationship to the Godhead — to Jesus Christ and the Father through the Spirit.
But the other side of the coin is that when Paul penned his opening greeting to the Philippians he addressed the church collectively: ‘to all the saints in Christ Jesus’. His readers were ‘in Christ’ together, not just as individuals. There is a corporate dimension to ‘our fellowship … with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ’ (1 John 1:3).
Many members, one body
The individual believer is a ‘temple of the Holy Spirit’, a truth that has profound practical implications for Christian living (1 Corinthians 6:19). But the church collectively (composed as it is of individual ‘living stones’) is also ‘a holy temple in the Lord — in whom you also are being built together for a habitation of God in the Spirit’ (Ephesians 2:21-22; emphasis added). Paul has in mind a building ‘fitly framed together’, not a heap of stones!
Evangelicals have often been guilty of emphasising their personal relationship with Christ to the neglect of this corporate dimension of their union with God. There has been an understandable reaction against the curse of denominationalism — the idea that we become Christians simply by joining ourselves to some particular church (which alone claims possession of the truth).
Evangelicals are right to reject the idea that salvation resides in membership of some confessing church or believing community — an idea that has resurfaced over the last 25 years in the form of ‘the new perspective’ on Paul’s teaching concerning justification, faith and works.
But while insisting that personal faith in Christ is indispensable for justification, we must not forget that being ‘in Christ’ necessarily means being joined to our fellow believers in an organic spiritual union.
Paul puts it thus: ‘we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another’ (Romans 12:5). In Ephesians 4:25 he applies the same truth practically, urging, ‘Therefore … “Let each one of you speak truth with his neighbour” for we are members of one another’ (emphasis added).
Christ the Head
There was another church, this time at Corinth, that badly needed to learn this lesson. Riven by factions and despising those who had lesser gifts, they had forgotten that ‘as the [human] body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ’ (1 Corinthians 1:10-17; 12:12-27).
Paul returns to the same theme in Ephesians 4:7-16. Indeed, almost wherever we look in the New Testament we find the local Christian assembly represented in similar terms. Christ is the Head of the body, that is, the church. Being joined to Christ, every believer is a part of that body. Each part performs its own appointed role but works in concert with the whole.
If the components (‘members’) of the body live in obedience to the Head, then they work together in harmony and the body is healthy. But if the components are forgetful of Christ’s headship and fail to obey his commands (not least the ‘new commandment’ to love one another), disharmony ensues and the body falls sick.
When this occurs, the people concerned no longer understand the nature of their relationship with one another as believers, and consequently fail to prosper in their personal walk with God.
Many Evangelical churches today exhibit signs of this malaise. They are forgetful of Christ’s headship and the relationship between believers it entails. The local church is treated as a convenience store, where Christians go to stock up on their spiritual groceries.
The sermons are mentally applauded, the singing and the bonhomie enjoyed. The doctrine is sound. The Sunday school looks after the children and pastoral counsel helps those who are spiritually out-of-sorts. To all outward appearances, the church is thriving.
Perhaps so, but it is hollow inside. Many who attend have no sense of belonging to the body of Christ, no awareness of being members one of another. There is no sense of family, no organic bond, no spiritual union between these people, no true togetherness.
They are simply customers, and they will take their custom elsewhere if anything displeases them — or if the challenge of the Word to commitment and sacrifice grows too demanding.
Strangely, they see Christ as disembodied — a head without a body, a God without a temple, a groom without a bride. It was a failure to discern the Lord’s body that brought judgement on the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 11:29-32).
In this last reference we normally take ‘body’ to mean the communion bread, but the fault of which the Corinthians stood accused was, in fact, to ‘despise the church of God and shame’ their fellow believers (11:19-22). They simply didn’t recognise the church as the body of Christ.
Just as different parts of a healthy body have different functions, so do the members of a local church. This general truth is highlighted by the appointment of some among them as ‘overseers and deacons’ (v.1).
The church is a living organism rather than an organisation, but no organism can exist without structure. So it is that Scripture delineates a variety of ministries within even the smallest local church.
There are those who teach and must be esteemed ‘very highly in love for their work’s sake’ (1 Thessalonians 5:13). They are to be obeyed, ‘for they watch out for your souls as those who must give account’ (Hebrews 13:17). Leadership — and submission to that leadership — will be important manifestations of togetherness in the church.
Equally, there are those who, as deacons, lead the congregation in the practical ministries necessary for the church’s well-being — providing a multitude of opportunities to demonstrate the togetherness that is theirs in Christ.
Among these practical outworkings of togetherness are finance, administration, care, comfort, transport, maintenance and the logistics of children’s work and evangelistic outreach. Needless to say, none of these are (or should be) individualistic activities.
Beyond this, of course, is the expression by ‘all the saints’ of love for their fellow believers. John reminds us that ‘we know that we have passed from death to life because we love the brethren’ (1 John 3:14). Togetherness is most fully expressed by our love, one for another, and its practical expression in good works.
Grace and peace
The opening salutation in Philippians concludes with the words, ‘grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ’. These simple words are pregnant with the promises of God and the blessings that flow from them.
Such blessings, however, will only be known in their fulness by those who recognise their togetherness with fellow believers in the body of Christ. We must acknowledge ‘all the saints who are in Christ Jesus’ as ‘blood-brothers’ and family members — as joint heirs and fellow labourers of the gospel and kingdom of the Lord.
Everything we have considered here is embraced by the term ‘mutual responsibility’. Whether we like it or not, Christians are joined to their fellow believers in the bonds of Christ and ‘the bundle of life’. This is not a burden to escape but a privilege to enjoy.