So far we’ve been on a very brief and highly selective and impressionistic trip down the last few decades to look at how the church (or at least my bit of it) has changed and developed. Now it’s time to get more biblical, as we look at how the church is described within the NT (mainly). It’s worth noting that there are many different terms used of the gathering of those who are followers of Jesus, and that the Bible contains some which are clear descriptions, and others which are more vague allusions or pictures. So let’s begin with perhaps the clearest – the Church as the Body of Christ. What are the strengths and weaknesses of a church community which thinks of itself in these terms?
The first thing to say is that it is one of the most biblical pictures. In 1 Cor 12, the key passage, Paul states clearly that ‘you are the body of Christ’ (v 27). You can’t get clearer than that! He uses the same language in Rom 12:4-5, and, if you believe he also wrote Ephesians and Colossians, a couple of times there. The idea is that all of us who are in Christ, the head of the body, are bits with different roles to play. As I’ve already mentioned the church rediscovered this notion along with charismatic renewal in the mid-70s, and it really was a liberation from centuries of clericalism and priestly domination. Along with the mood of the times it encouraged people to find their niche and grow to their full potential, and it released into the church an army (see later!) of lay ministries without which we might never have survived. It is an organic model, rather than a mechanistic one (although the NT has those as well), and it emphasises the importance of all, not just a few.
However, as we will see with all the different models, it is not without its problems. Indeed Paul anticipated some of them and addressed them head on in 1 Cor 12. Basically there are two issues: ‘I’m more important than you!’ and ‘You’re more important than me!’ The fact is that as in any area of life some jobs or roles feel more important than others. However much you big up the deputy washer of the church tea-towels, the worship-leader or preacher seems to be far more important. Paul addresses this too, illustrating his words with some different bits of the human body, some of which, vital though they may be, are usually less visible! To cultivate a culture where everyone is equally valued is nevertheless not an easy thing to do, and this may be where some other models become more helpful.
The other great weakness of the ‘body’ model, though, is that it tells us little about what the body is there to do. Churches which major on this model in their self-identification may find that it doesn’t help them to be purposeful, and whilst it does have a growth imperative, that growth is only in the direction of personal and corporate maturity, and not necessarily in size. A human body which started growing new members, an extra leg or two or a few more fingers, would be a grotesque thing indeed. It does not take seriously the Lord who adds to our number: it seems to be merely about how to make a self-sufficient closed system work better.
That’s why we need all the different biblical models, and not just one. Next week – Church as Qahal and Ekklesia (bet you can’t wait!)