by Bob Wheeler

Most of us think we know what church is like. A group of people get together in a building and sit in pews while they work their way through the program contained in the bulletin. Song are sung, a plate is passed, and the sermon is preached. And when it is all done, they all go home to Sunday dinner. It would come as a surprise, therefore, to discover that such an arrangement would have been virtually unrecognizable to Christians in the First Century. Then there were no church buildings, there were no choirs and organs, and there was no professional clergy. Our modern practice would have struck them as cold and sterile.

In I Corinthians the apostle Paul gives us a fascinating glimpse into the life of the First Century church. It is about as similar to the modern church as butterflies are to orangutans.

The charismatic gifts obviously played a prominent role, and Paul mentions the “word of wisdom,” “the word of knowledge,” faith, gifts of healing, the working of miracles, prophecy, “discerning spirits,” tongues, and the interpretation of tongues (vv. 8-10). Yet Paul’s main concern throughout the chapter is not about the spiritual gifts per se; it is about the underlying spiritual unity of the church. He takes it for granted that the gifts existed and were being used at Corinth. His concern was to make sure that they were being used properly.

He tells us that “there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works all in all” (vv. 4-6; NKJV). The Corinthians, it would seem, were a contentious lot. While Paul could say that “you come short in no gift” (1:7), he also had to castigate them for their divisions and party spirit. “. . . for you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men?” (3:3).

In Chapter 12 Paul challenges this way of thinking by essentially asking them where these gifts came from, and he tells them that these gifts are “the manifestation of the Spirit” that is “given to each one for the profit of all” (12:7). They came from God himself for a specific purpose, viz., the edification of the entire body. They should not be the occasion of boasting and pride.

Paradoxically, the diversity of gifts actually reveals an underlying unity. “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free – and have all been made to drink into one Spirit’ (v. 13). Even though the gifts are quite diverse from each other, they come from the same source – the Holy Spirit. What is even more significant is that believers share a mystical unity with this Spirit – He dwells within each of their hearts as a result of the new birth.   Thus Christians have a deeper tie with each other than exists in any secular, worldly society.

Moreover this deeply spiritual unity obviates any of the social or economic divisions that ordinarily exist in human society. “. . .whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free . . . [they] have all been made to drink into one Spirit.” We make look at ourselves and each other outwardly, and seem quite different from each other, and we have a natural tendency to look down on those whom we perceive occupy a lower station in life from ourselves. But within the community of believers those distinctions are superficial and essentially meaningless. What really matters is what goes on inside, the work of God within the human soul. At the bottom of it Christians are all brothers and sisters of each other – the outward social distinctions simply don’t matter anymore.

Paul explains by comparing the church to a human body. The body is made up of many different parts, but it is still one body, and it functions as a whole. Just because the foot is not the hand does not mean that it is any less a part of the body. And if the whole body were an eye, how would it hear? In the final analysis, all the parts are necessary for the proper functioning of the body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I do not need you.” Moreover, our less attractive parts we adorn with nice clothing so that in the end, everything looks nice.

Paul then makes his point:” . . that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another” (v. 25). The exercise of spiritual gifts, rather than be the occasion of personal rivalries, rather should be the opportunity for us to serve each in Christian love.

The point of it all is this: if we are genuine Christians we have been “born again” and the Holy Spirit resides within each of our hearts. And it is the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts that gives us an intimate personal connection with Christ and with each other. Thus a church should be much more than just a social club, a group of people joined together by common social, cultural or political interests. It should be a kind of mystical fellowship with each other and with Christ.

That fellowship, that loving concern that we should have for each other should be demonstrated in the personal interaction that we have with each other. And that almost necessitates meeting together in small groups. This is undoubtedly why the early Christians met together in private homes where each member was actively involved in the group.

This does not mean, however, that any old group of people gathered together in a private home is automatically a church. It is the presence of Christ though his Holy Spirit that makes the church the church. Thus when we gather together as Christian believers we should consciously seek his felt presence in our meeting, and he should always be the center of our attention.

Today we are encouraged to see more and more believers gathered together in house churches, as well as some of the more traditional churches turning to home Bible studies and discipleship groups to supplement their regular Sunday morning services. For it is only in a small group setting that we can minister to each other on a personal level, with each of us as a vital member of the larger body. May we find God’s blessing as we seek to worship Him and minister to each other!