The Nature of the Church: The Body

Posted on 03/03/2007

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The Body of Christ

            God the Father sent the Son, (John 8.42).  God the Father and the Son sent the Spirit, (Luke 11.13; John 14.26, 16.7-8).  God the Father, the Son and the Spirit sent and are continually sending the Church on mission into the world, (Matthew 28.18-20; John 20.21; Acts 1.8).  The church has been commissioned to be God’s “sent” people, on mission to take the gospel to the world.  The mission of God continues on earth as Jesus sends his people out into the world as the continuation of His mission. As Jesus was sent, so is the church; to proclaim the gospel.  Because our God is a missionary God, and because our Lord was a missionary savior, our identity is reflected in our being a missionary people.  Therefore, mission is not merely what we do it is who we are in the world. 

Who the church is in the world is revealed by the biblical description of it being the “body of Christ.”  This image is used sixteen times in the New Testament as a metaphor for the church.[1]  In Colossians we are taught that Jesus is “the head of the body, the church,” (Colossians 1:18).  Just as a body is controlled by a brain, so Jesus is seen as having an “organic relationship over the church in which he exercised the control over his people.”[2] Thus, the church is then Christ’s body on earth, subjected to do his will.  Paul teaches in Ephesians:

And he put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.  (Ephesians 1.22-23)

As his body, the church continues to be the powerful presence of Christ Jesus in and to the world.[4] In a spiritual sense we are Christ’s loving serving presence on earth.  Richardson points out that, “the church is thus the means of Christ’s work in the world; it is his hands and feet, his mouth and voice.  As in his incarnate life, Christ had to have a body to proclaim his gospel and to do his work, so in his resurrection in this age he still needs a body to be the instrument of his gospel and of his work in the world.”[5] 

This truth implies that the church must be filled with the Spirit of Christ and allow him to work through them.  What we do is more about what Jesus works through us rather than what we do for him.   Therefore, it is obvious from looking at the mission of Jesus on earth, that the church should primarily be an evangelistic, missionary body.  If the body is not fulfilling the missionary mandates of Christ (Matthew 28:18-20, Luke 24:46-48, John 20:21-23, Acts 1:8), then it is not in proper subordination to Christ the head. 

Just as Jesus was God incarnated in human flesh, the church also follows Jesus’ model as it exists in the world as his body to reach the world with the gospel.[6]  This is often referred to as an “incarnational” nature of the church.   Stetzer observes that as Christ was God incarnated, so the church is to be the incarnation of Christ’s continued mission in the world:

Incarnational describes what’s actually happening.  Just as Christ came to live among us, we dwell with the people around us.  In many ways, we’re like them.  But we’re changed, transformed; and because of that, we seek to change and transform.[7] 

            The reality is that the church is God’s agent to reach the world.  Coleman points out that:

Christian disciples are sent men—sent out in the same work of world evangelism to which the Lord was sent, and for which He gave His life.  Evangelism is not an optional accessory to our life.  It is the heartbeat of all that we are called to be and do.[8] 

            The fact is that God desires to use ordinary, individual members of a church to incarnationally be on a gospel-mission in their world; in their work-places, schools, neighborhoods, and through other social interactions in their culture.  Missions and evangelism can and should be more than a program or ministry of a church.  Missions and evangelism can occur as Christ’s people live out Christ’s mission in their day to day lives.  Stetzer calls these types of Churches and Christians “missional” as opposed to being merely “mission-minded:”

            A missional church is “on mission.”  Time for another definition: on mission means being intentional and deliberate about reaching others.  For example, on-mission Christians might look like these people: She establishes a Bible study in her home for neighbors who are unchurched.  He finds opportunities to share Christ with coworkers.  A couple’s family vacations are mission trips, not only to share evangelism experiences but also to teach their children the value of sharing Christ as an ongoing lifestyle.  An on-mission congregation might be one that sponsors events to bring into the church those people who usually avoid church, thinking it’s irrelevant…Christian leaders are beginning to understand that the church must not rework its programs; it must rediscover its mission.  In short, it must become missional.[9] 

                The incarnational aspect of a church’s ministry as the body of Christ can only be fulfilled in the lives of his disciples.  A building cannot penetrate the culture that exists around it.  An institution that meets at a designated address in a specific facility is unable to permeate families, workplaces, schools and neighborhoods with the gospel.  Only as Christ’s people become missional will we see the Gospel permeate our culture in ways similar to what is recorded in Acts.

 We observe this kind of on-mission Christianity in Acts 8.  After Stephen was killed a great persecution broke out against the church and we are told that, “Therefore those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word,” (Acts 8.4).  From this verse we see that the mission to take the gospel to the world was accepted and lived out by not only the Apostles but also by ordinary Christians.  We desperately need to foster this kind of incarnational evangelistic lifestyle in the lives of every member of our church. 

                  As every church member understands that they are the hands and feet of Christ in this world, they will hopefully seek the Holy Spirit’s direction and empowering to take the gospel with them in their day-to-day lives.   Then we will see our communities impacted for Christ in ways that many of us have never seen.  As Jesus was the fullness of God incarnated and embodied in a human being, the missional church follows Jesus’ model, learning from him how to embody the fullness of Christ carrying on his mission in the world.


[1] Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary, (
Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 290.
 

[2] Peter T. O’Brian, Word Biblical Commentary: Colossians, Philemon, (Waco: Word Book Publisher, 1982), 49.   

[3]Richard R. Melick, Jr., The New American Commentary: Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1991), 221.

[4] Andrew T. Lincoln, Word Biblical Commentary: Ephesians, (Dallas: Word Books, Publishers, 1990), 80.  

[5] Alan Richardson, An Introduction to the Theology o f the New Testament, (New York: Harper, 1958), 254,255.

[6] Aldrich, Lifestyle Evangelism, 31-32 

[7] Ed Stetzer, Planting Missional Churches (
Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006), 2.
 

[8] Coleman, The Master Plan of Evangelism, 92.  

[9] Ibid., 19-20.

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