The New Testament stresses the importance of individual personal faith which is the foundation of being accepted by God and enjoying eternal life. Such personal faith is therefore crucial and fundamental. But it equally clearly teaches that Christianity is essentially corporate. The church is not a building. It is not just a conglomeration of individuals who happen to attend to do various religious things individually and to bounce off one another. It is intended to be a living, dynamic corporate unity.
This corporate unity is desired by Christ
On the traumatic night before he died, Jesus pleaded with his Father that his followers would be as united as he is with the Father. He prayed: “that they may be one as we are one … that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:11, 21-23). What a standard of unity – to be as united as the Trinity! Isolated individualism has no place in the church of Christ. This is why Paul pleaded with the Corinthians to overcome their divisions and to “be perfectly united in mind and thought” (1 Cor. 1:10).
This corporate unity is founded on Christ
He gave himself up for the church (Eph 5:25). He bought it with his own blood (Acts 20:28). He is the foundation of the church (1 Cor. 3:11). The church “is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (Eph 1:23).
This corporate unity is created by the Spirit
When we were baptised it was not a purely individual action. “We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (1 Cor. 12:13). Spiritually speaking, there is no such thing as an isolated believer. We are necessarily and inevitably incorporated into the one church of Christ.
The earliest church understood this and manifested it in practice. “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:44-47). “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had” (Acts 4:32).
This corporate unity is indwelt by the Spirit
Paul writes: “Don’t you know that you yourselves [NB. Plural] are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16). Elsewhere he writes that the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” (Eph 2:21-22).
Jesus “feeds and cares for” the church (Eph 5:29). He “loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Eph 5:25-27).
This corporate unity is holy to the Lord
Paul writes of the church: “In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord” (Eph 2:21). It is so holy and precious to the Lord that Paul warns:“If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple” (1 Cor. 3:17)
This corporate unity is built through ministry
God supplied variously-gifted leadership ministries to the church in order to encourage every-member-ministry so that it may be built up. Paul writes: “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up …. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Eph 4:11, 12, 16).
The various leadership gifts are essential to enabling the whole church to minister and for individual members to use their gifts in the service of the kingdom. Paul teaches that there are different gifts and “to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). The church is like a body and needs its different parts, i.e. the gifts of each member, in order to function properly.
This corporate unity is built on relationships
Peter writes: “You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house” in which he is the cornerstone (1 Peter 2:5-6). This indicates that the members of the church are to be in the same close relationship with one another as the stones in a building.
“Each member belongs to all the others” (Rom 12:5)
This is a beautiful concept. We all have a need to belong. We are beings who need to live in community. In the church everyone belongs. Each member should be able to rejoice in the fact that the church regards him/her as belonging to them, just as husband and wife belong to one another.
- Each member is concerned for all the others
Paul writes: “Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others …. there should be no division in the body, but … its parts should have equal concern for each other” (1 Cor. 10:24; 12:25). He adds: “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Php 2:4).
Each member shows compassion to all the others
Paul rules out insensitivity, thoughtlessness and envy: “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it” (1 Cor. 12:26).
Each member shows humility to all the others
“All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another,” writes Peter (1 Peter 5:5). Paul urges the Philippians “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Php 2:3-4). “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph 5:21).
This attitude of humility should also be shown towards church leaders. Paul writes: “Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work” (1 Thess 5:12-13). On the other hand, church leaders also should show an attitude of humility towards churchmembers (see The Ordained Ministry – a biblical pattern for more on this).
This corporate unity is a context for worship
The church is called “to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). Individual worship is very important but God has always called his people to gather together in worship. There is great encouragement in this. As Paul puts it: “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph 5:19-20). Worship is obviously first and foremost an offering to God. But Paul refers also to the encouraging practice of speaking to one another “with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.” Then there is the encouragement of the teaching ministry and the privilege of joining with the church at the Lord’s table. This is in addition to the caring ministry mentioned above.
This corporate unity is a context for mission
In Jesus’ great prayer for the unity of believers, he prays: “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:21). His concern is that the united fellowship of the church will be in itself, quite apart from active evangelism, a witness to the world, drawing people to Christ. Paul urges the Philippians to “stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you” (Php 1:27). The church is called to be an effective instrument of mission and evangelism.
In the light of all this, people who say they don’t need to “go to church” to be a Christian are seriously misguided. They are ignoring the Lord’s intention and call for every believer to be practically involved in the church. They are missing out on the encouragement, teaching and caring ministry of the church. They are neglecting the Lord’s Supper which he wanted all believers to be regularly involved in. They are not encouraging and supporting the church in its worship, ministry and mission.
According to the New Testament the church should be composed of people who are:
- Each aiming at perfect unity in heart and mind by the power of the Spirit on the foundation of the living and written word
- Each regarding themselves as members of the body and as belonging to the others
- Each fulfilling their role as members of the body, encouraging a worthy offering of worship to God
- Each submitting to the others and treating others as if they were better than themselves
- Each suffering and rejoicing with the others
- Each caring and sharing with the others practically
- Each respecting and encouraging their leaders
- Each standing with the others for mission and evangelism
Scriptures taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version® NIV®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by Biblica, Inc.™ . Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
© Tony Higton: see conditions for reproduction