HOW THE CHURCH IS SUPPOSED TO WORK
by Bob Wheeler
We have already seen in our studies in Ephesians that all genuine believers are a part of the universal church, which is described as “the body of Christ.” We have also seen that we are to be “endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3; NKJV). But how is this possible? Given the highly fragmented church scene today, how could we ever achieve church unity?
Part of our problem is that the church today does not function the way it was intended to. Today when we see the word “church” in our Bibles we think that we know what it means. We automatically think of an organization that meets in a building and has a paid pastor brought in from the outside to run the various programs and activities of the church. Most of the church members simply show up on a Sunday morning and sit passively in their pews while the church runs through the program outlined in the bulletin. There is music, there is an offering to defray expenses, and there is a comforting message delivered by the pastor.
That, however, is not how a church is supposed to function. What we have inherited from the past is an institutional model of church life that slowly evolved over the centuries. But it is very far from what is described in the New Testament.
In Eph. 4:7-16 the apostle Paul gives us an overall picture of how the church is supposed to operate. The first thing that is to be noted is that the ministry involves the exercise of spiritual gifts. “But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift” (4:7). “Grace,” in this context, is the special ability to perform a spiritual ministry, and it is something that is given by Christ Himself through the Holy Spirit. It is not a diploma received from an academic institution. There are people who have never darkened the doors of a college or seminary who have the spiritual gift of teaching. Sadly, there are many who have seminary degrees who do not. Our text says that individuals have these gifts “according to the measure of Christ’s gift,” i.e., it is up to Christ to decide which Christian has which gift. Our job is to discern who has which gift, not to create a gift which has not been given.
Secondly, it should be noted that every member of the church has a spiritual gift of some sort. “But to each one of us grace was given.” Thus ministry is not the exclusive prerogative of the paid professional. Rather, all the members of the church should be actively involved in ministering to each other.
Some of the gifts, of course, do involve a formal teaching ministry, and Paul lists these in verse 11: “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers . . .” In this context the term “apostles” evidently refers to the twelve original apostles who functioned as the personal representatives of Christ and were the human founders of the church. There is much debate today, of course, about whether or not the gift of prophecy still exists, but there is no clear indication in the New Testament that it was meant to cease, and there have been incidents of prophecy down through history that appear authentic. “Evangelists” would probably be what we would call today missionaries – traveling preachers who would parent churches. There would have no distinction in Paul’s day between foreign and domestic missions. Anyone who was sent to preach the gospel to the lost was an evangelist. And then, of course, there were pastors and teachers, who would typically occupy the office of elder in a local assembly.
But what is the aim of the teaching ministry? Paul tells us that it is “for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (v. 12). In other words, the aim here is not to concentrate ministry in the hands of a single person or a small professional staff, but rather to make it possible for everyone in the church to use their individual spiritual gifts to minister to each other.
But what does this accomplish? The passage makes it clear that the ultimate aim of the ministry is spiritual unity: “that we all come to the unity of the faith” (v. 13). And how is this accomplished? By coming to “the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” And this, in turn, means that “we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the treachery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting” (v .14). In other words, doctrine, truly sound doctrine, should unite rather than divide. And it does this by drawing us each closer to Christ, and as we each draw closer to Christ we draw closer to each other, like an ever constricting circle. Thus, “speaking the truth in love” we are to “grow up in all things into Him who is the head – Christ” (v. 15). The unity of the universal church depends on a common relationship with Christ Himself. Or, to put it another way, the Holy Spirit does not lead different parts of the body in different directions at the same time. If we are all truly following Christ then we should all be headed in the same direction.
The end result should be that “the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love” (v. 16). Here it will be noted that “the whole body,” not just a privileged few, has an important role to play in building itself up in love. (To “edify” literally means “to build up”).
Today most churches are filled with nominal Christians who are content simply to show up on Sunday mornings and sit there passively in the pews and be spoon-fed by the pastor. This is not what church is supposed to look like, however. It is supposed to be an active, living fellowship of brothers and sisters in the Lord who care for each other and minister to each other’s needs. It is in this practical, concrete way that the love of Christ is made manifest to the world.