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  • Writer's pictureTim Hemingway

One Body - Many Parts


“Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” 1 Corinthians 12:27

As it stands, Riverside Baptist Church is a group of believers who meet Sunday by Sunday to worship, but the question is, should it be more than that? Should it be defined by a closer, more meaningful covenant commitment? Should it be defined by a group who are committed to a common goal? Should it be defined by a group who are willing to be held accountable, before God, by one another? Should it be defined by a group who are whole-heartedly committed to caring for one another in a way that runs deeper than just Sunday by Sunday attendance? Should it be defined by a group so that there is a distinction between belonging to Riverside Baptist Church and not belonging to it – being outside of it?

These are all ways of saying, should Riverside Baptist Church have a membership?

I will argue it should, if it cares about God’s revealed will for it.

And as I say these things I’m aware there are people who will be wondering to themselves, ‘will I ever be able to be a member of a local church again?’

Or, worse, ‘I simply can’t ever be a member of a local church again’.

Or, perhaps, ‘I don’t see membership anywhere in the bible, so it doesn’t really figure in my thinking’.

I hope and pray this message will serve to show you that membership in a local church is biblical, and crucial – not optional - and designed by God for your good!

If the motive behind this message is numbers then I should stop speaking now. If the motive is to pool people into a place where they can be most easily manipulated, then God is against it and I should stop speaking now. But if the motive behind this message is to show how God has designed membership in the local church as the tool for Christian maturity; as the means for Christian perseverance; as the sphere of Christian care; as the domain for Christian giftedness; as the vehicle of Christian accomplishment; and as the haven of Christian purity, then there are important things to be cherished here.

It’s true, the new testament nowhere explicitly speaks of ‘membership’. There is no verse you can turn to that says, ‘you must become a member of a local church’. But, not only is membership so pervasively implied in the new testament so as to be assumed as normative by the apostles, but we have one particularly explicit passage that is enough in itself to demonstrate the importance of church membership. That passage is 1 Corinthians 12 and it’s where we’re going now.

1 Corinthians 12 makes lots of references to various kinds of Christian gifts, our purpose this morning is not to establish what those gifts are or how they ought to be exercised, but to see how they function in the big picture of the life of the church.

One Spirit

The first thing to notice is that the Holy Spirit is the difference between pagans and blood-bought believer. Verse 2 – as pagans we were led astray by idols. But, verse 3, anybody who can call Jesus ‘Lord’ with all their heart, is one who speaks by the Spirit. That’s what the Corinthians were. They were Spirit indwelt believers in Jesus and they had received him as their Lord.

The second thing to notice, is that the apostle Paul is at pains to tell the Corinthian believers, that even though the spiritual gifts in the church are various and diverse and many, the Spirit who gives those gifts is not many, but is One.

Verse 4, ‘there are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them’.

Verse 5, there are different kinds of services, but the same Lord’.

Verse 6, ‘there are different kinds of working, but…it is the same God at work’.

In verses 7-10 Paul lists no fewer than nine distinct gifts, but in verse 11 he says, ‘all these are the work of one and the same spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines’.

Verses 7-10 are not an exhaustive list of gifts; the point is every believer has a spiritual gift of some kind, those kinds are many and diverse, but there is One Spirit who gives each gift, not many spirits.

Now if One Spirit gives all these gifts, then there is one design behind their diversity; One mind; One purpose; One ‘determination’ (verse 11). What is that purpose?

The answer is in verse 7, ‘now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good’. So two things to note here. First, there are no exceptions when it comes to giftings; ‘each one’ receives a gifting from the Holy Spirit. And secondly, each individual gifting, though different from another’s gifting, is purposed for ‘the common good’. Not the individual good, but the common good.

One Body

Now the next question is, what does that common good look like? Does ‘common good’, mean the good of every human being on earth for example?

Paul doesn’t leave us guessing, he devotes verses 12-31 to showing us what he means by ‘the common good’.

To do that, Paul uses the human body as a metaphor. A body is one thing, but it has many parts; hands, feet, eyes, a head. All those parts make up one body. What’s his point? His point is, that’s what Christ is like; verse 12 ‘so it is with Christ’. What does he mean? He means that every believer was saved in the same way; what he calls, ‘baptised by [the] One Spirit’ and ‘given the One Spirit to drink’. That’s Paul’s way of saying we were all of us, born again.

His point is that even though that is a reality that we all as individual Christians have partaken of, yet we are collectively One body (verse 13).

So, now we have One Spirit who makes individual Christians and gives them individual gifts, but they collectively form a body which also one – even though it has many parts. Each Christian is not a body, they are a part of a body. Like an ear is part of a human body; or an eye; or hand.

Now what is this body? In verse 12 it sounds like Christ has a body and we are the parts. That’s exactly what we find in Ephesians 4:15, ‘instead speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ’.

So, we are the members of a body which has Christ as the head. And Ephesians 5:23 makes it clear what Christ’s body is, ‘For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body’. So, there’s no doubt what Paul is referring to in 1 Corinthians 12; he’s referring to our individual parts making up one whole body which is the church.

But that is not the whole story. If we left it there, we would be missing something more that Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians 12, and it influences how we read all of the verses between 15 and 26. Is there any reason to think Paul has something other in mind than all the Spirit-born believers in the world, past and present and future, when he refers to the body of Christ - that is the church?

I think the answer is yes. Remember this is a letter, from Paul to a group of Christians in a place; in a geographic location; in Corinth. That fact pins verse 27 down. Here it is: ‘Now you [Corinth] are the body of Christ, and each of you is a part of it’.

None of what Paul says between verses 15 and 26 can be effectively accomplished unless we read those verses in light of this verse. This verse is saying that Corinth is a local expression of the reality found in verse 12. Paul is saying, ‘Corinth, you are a little manifestation of the universal church of Jesus Christ – his body - that universal church exists now on earth. And it also exists in heaven, where the souls of those who have already died in Christ are awaiting the full number to join them, and then the resurrection of their bodies (Revelation 6:9) - but you Corinth are a local expression of the universal body here on earth. And you individual believers in Corinth, associated with that church, are parts of it’.

That’s crucial: ‘You belong to that expression of the body’.

Is that idea borne out in other places? Yes, it is. Acts 20:28 Paul tells the Ephesian elders, ‘keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood’. Do you hear the link there? The Holy Spirit, like we have here in 1 Corinthians 12, made the elders in Ephesus overseers of the Ephesian flock; or Paul would say in 1 Corinthians language, ‘body’.

And, where does Paul want Titus to appoint elders? – ‘in every town’. In other words, in ever local expression of the body of Christ.

And in John’s vision in Revelation 2 & 3, seven local churches receive a letter; Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. Each letter is a spiritual health report specific to that individual expression of the local body of Christ. The image there is that of a lampstand. Each local expression is a lampstand in the earth, and the sobering threat to some of the churches is that God will remove them, if they don’t reform their ways.

There are probably hundreds of other texts that support the truth that Jesus’ body comes to expression in localities. The point here is that Paul refers to the individual believers with their unique spiritual giftings, as ‘parts’ of the body that make up the body in a location - in Corinth.

Giving and Receiving

Now what are the implications of this truth?

There are two key implications in verses 15 to 26 that we need to see clearly. One is a giving implication and the other is a receivingimplication. And the fact that there is one of each, underlines Paul’s emphasis that the gifts have been given for the ‘common good’; for the good of the whole local body.

The first is like your hand saying to you, ‘my problem is that I’m no good you see. I’ve been looking at the ear and she’s so good at listening and I’m totally useless at listening – so I think that must mean I’m not a legitimate part of the body’.

Well that would be ridiculous. The unmistakable error is that the hand assumes the function of the ear is somehow superior to that of the hand, when in reality the loss of either would massively impact the whole body. That’s in verses 15-20.

If a person says to themselves, 'I won’t be a member of a local church because I don’t perceive that my gift is as vital, or valuable as the others', that undermines the body metaphor that Paul is using. Paul’s point is, you with your Spirit-chosen giftedness are as vital to Riverside as every other part. To say, my gift is inferior, is to question the wisdom and purpose of the Spirit of God. Riverside needs your Spirit-chosen gift! That’s the giving implication.

The second implication – the receiving one – is like the hand saying to the body, ‘I’m so handy you know; I’ve been thinking about that ear up there, he’s not very handy is he? All he does is listen, but I can do so many things - I don’t think we really need that old ear’. Well that would be ridiculous too! The unmistakable error there is that the hand, no matter how handy it is, can’t hear! Imagine if the hand pretended it was a body and therefore it thought it didn’t need all the other parts. It’s just ridiculous. That’s what Paul is saying in verse 21 to 24.

If a person says to themselves, 'I’m good as a lone ranger Christian; I’ve got God and he’s got me', then they’re missing the fact that the body is made of many parts, each with a unique gift that God has seen fit to give, and therefore each part is what Paul says in verse 22, ‘indispensable’ to you. There is no such thing as an individual believer who is a body. Every individual believer is a unique and indispensable part of a body. Really the only question is: to which individual body do you belong?

Now Paul’s ultimate aim in all this is to show that there is indispensable, mutual benefit to be had for every part, when every part says, ‘I’m vital’ AND every part says, ‘all those other parts are indispensable too'.

Verse 25, ‘there should be no division in the body, but equal concern for each other’ so that, verse 26, we all suffer together and, we all rejoice together.

Here’s the idea: the body functions like a body when, for example, the foot gets a cut and the hand with all its dexterity, helped by the eye with all its observational ability, join together to place a plaster on the foot so it doesn’t get infected and kill the body.

Or, the body functions like a body when, for example, the eye gets something in it, and the feet with all their mobility move the body to the cupboard to get the eye drops, and the hand with all its dexterity lifts the bottle to the eye, and the one good eye with all its observational quality directs the hand to administer the drops. This is how the body stays healthy and alive and it’s how the parts stay healthy and alive.

We as individual parts must have enough care for each other that we know we, and the other parts, are indispensable to one another. What does that look like spiritually? It looks like seeing a brother cast down under the weight of sin and showing him the cross again. It looks like seeing a sister caught in sin and showing her the surpassing worth of the superior promises of God to help her combat it. It looks like being meshed-in with fellow believers enough to know when they need lifting up. It means being tight-knit enough with one another to hold each other accountable for promises we have made. It means deeply connected enough with fellow believers, so that one can point out the failings of the other to them, and know that when they do that, that they have already confided in the other, 10 times more of their own faults, so that pointing this one out doesn’t feel like judgment, it feels like love. And it means a thousand other things too.

Why 'Membership'?

So why do we put this label on it called ‘membership’? It doesn’t really matter what you call it. If you prefer to say I’m ‘a part’ of Riverside Baptist Church, that would be biblical. But whatever we call it, what we mean by the name must embody at least four key things which are all clear and obvious in the new testament. Here they are:

The first is, this group of believers must be committed enough to each other to ensure that everything we have just seen in 1 Corinthians 12 can be honoured. In other words, the commitment must be deep enough to allow for the daily care of one another’s spiritual needs and the daily exercise of our Spirit-chosen gifts.

The second is, this group of believers must be committed enough so that elders know who they are responsible to care for. We’ve already seen that God saw fit to tell elders ‘to keep watch over their flock’. A shepherd knows his flock and he can distinguish between his own sheep and the sheep belonging to another flock. His sheep are a defined group, not nebulous; not an in-out kind of group – but rather, a numbered group. (See also 1 Peter 5:2-3).

Thirdly, this group must be committed enough to submit themselves to the authority of the elders. Hebrews 13:17, ‘Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you’. Submission to the authority of the elders is a normal part of how the body functions, and notice the result of that kind of healthy submission – where elders are functioning biblically – is that you as an individual part, and the body as a whole, will be benefitted. (See also 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13).

Fourthly and lastly, this group must be well defined enough to allow for church discipline, and in extreme cases, expulsion from the body. Jesus, in Matthew 18:15-20 sets out a process for disciplining a part of the body that is sinning. That process ends with either repentance on the part of the sinner, or excommunication by the rest of the body. And 1 Corinthians 5 is Paul’s instructions to the church in Corinth to carry out that process in Matthew 18 on an unrepentant individual caught in a public sin. There Paul tells the Corinthian body, that they should have put the unrepentant sinner ‘out of [their] fellowship’ (v.2) and ‘when you are assembled and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord’ (v.4 & 5). Lastly, Paul says to them, ‘what business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?’ (v.12).

So, in Paul’s mind there are clearly defined members or parts of a church body, from which individuals can be removed. There is an inside and an outside.

Therefore, Riverside must have a clearly defined group; parts that make up the whole. These parts must love each other and care for one another to exercise their gifts for the benefit of each other. These parts must be clearly enough defined so that elders know who belongs to the flock. These parts must be committed enough to submit to the elder’s authority. And these parts must belong enough to make excommunication meaningful.

God’s aim behind membership is the preservation of faith, the purity of the bride, and the performance of the gospel in a dim and dark world.

All these aims exalt the magnitude of God’s worth, and they exalt the preciousness of the blood of Jesus, and they exalt the excellence of the Spirit’s empowerment.


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