When it comes to ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church) it is important to make one thing clear from the very start – according to the Bible the church is both a divine and human organism.
This is why Holy Scripture presents the church as a body, having a head and members. The divine dimension of the church is provided by Christ who is the Head of the body and by the Holy Spirit who is the life of the body.
As the apostle Paul says, ‘[Christ] is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the first born from the dead, that in all things he may have the pre-eminence’ (Colossians1:18; cf. Ephesians 4:15).
The human dimension is constituted by saved sinners who are baptised by the Holy Spirit into the body as members. Paul affirms, ‘Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it’ – and that because ‘by one Spirit we were all baptised into one body’ (1 Corinthians 12:13,27).
It is important to see that the body metaphor teaches the headship relation between Christ and believers in an ecclesial, corporate setting. Christ is not the Head of isolated believers or disjointed members but, through the life-giving Spirit, is the source of everything in the body and every member of the body.
The glory and the strength of the church reside in the Head and the Spirit. Its weakness and the frailty reside in the body and its human members. However, there is fortunately a vital relation between the body and the Head. The Head is not without a body and the body is not without a Head.
Yet the Head and the body do not share the same attributes. The Head is divine, infallible and all powerful, while the body and its members are human, fallible and weak. Nevertheless, God the Father has designed the church to exist in a dynamic union between the Head (Jesus Christ) and the body (believers corporately and individually).
Some, however, suggest that since the church is the body of Christ, whatever is true of the Head is equally true of the body – at least in its institutional structures. Such an approach may spawn a sort of triumphalistic institutional ecclesiology, with serious consequences for the church’s practice.
As V. Subilia points out: ‘The great truths of the Bible – in Christ, by Christ and for Christ – have been replaced by in the church, by the church, for the church. In other words, it is easy to think that one’s church has got everything right and so needs no longer to give itself to constant re-examination. That can spell death’ (The Problem of Catholicism (SCM Press, 1964, p.121).
The New Testament analogy of the body makes a clear distinction between the person of Christ and the church. Christ is declared to be the Saviour of the body (Ephesians 5:23). The body receives its nurture and unity from its Head (Colossians 2:19). And the body is to grow and mature in every respect in him who is the Head (Ephesians 4:15).
There are others who think the church is just a voluntary human organisation with religious purposes on a horizontal level – much like Schleiermacher, for instance (The Christian Faith, T&T Clark, 1968, pp. 3-5). This implies that the church is not an essential part of the Christian life. However, the Bible clearly declares that to belong to a local church is not an optional matter.
It is not optional because the metaphor of the body implies a clear vertical dimension to the church. Believers are personally and corporately ‘members of Christ himself’ (1 Corinthians 6:15). The church is related primarily to Jesus Christ.
‘He put all things under [Christ’s] feet, and gave him to be head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fulness of him who fills all in all’ (Ephesians 1:22-23). Moreover, the church is Christ’s instrument in this world. Members serve their Head and the kingdom goes forward. This cannot be overlooked.
The church and evangelism
The understanding of the church as a simultaneous human-divine organism offers a clear perspective on evangelism and provides its motivation. Thus evangelism is not an additional work to the being of the church, but its very mode of being.
The Bible proposes a definite salvific relation between, on the one hand, Christ and the Holy Spirit and, on the other hand, the lost world. If that is true, the presence and purpose of the New Testament church in this world must be evangelistic. The church exists primarily to bring glory to God and lost souls to Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.
When I speak of evangelism and the church, I have in mind that all believers are to be witnesses to Christ’s power to save. On the other hand, there are those specially gifted in the ministry of evangelism – called to be evangelists and reapers.
In both senses of the word, the evangelist is not and cannot be isolated from the body in his or her private relationship with Christ. The entire church is to be involved in the grand task of evangelism – by witnessing, praying, supporting and sending out the emissaries of Christ.
Only thus can individual evangelists or missionaries fulfil their role in taking the Word of God beyond the body of the church and to the whole world