In his essay, Chase raised for us the question, “What is good for us?”. In a sense, the answer is “Jesus”: God has loved us in Christ, and as we know God’s love for us in Christ, we in turn love him and learn to love one another.
What I want to reflect on in this article is some of the implications of what it means that our communities are formed and founded in Jesus. I want to do this by looking particularly at that little section in 1 Corinthians 12 that talks about our life together as a body.
Membership in Christ is membership in the body (our faulty application of grace)
Firstly, you cannot have Christ without community.
Now, for some of us, our evangelical Reformed Protestant background makes us feel slightly uncomfortable about that phrase. There’s a bunch of reasons why we feel that and you often see them worked out in the discussions that we have about church.
For example, all throughout my Christian life, whenever the topic of church comes up, one question people always ask is, “Do you have to go to church to be a Christian?” That’s something we debate backwards and forwards, and we have a particular form in our answer: we love the doctrine of justification and the Book of Galatians, which says that if you have the gospel plus anything else, you lose the gospel entirely. Paul says if you have the gospel and you have to be circumcised, then you’ve lost the gospel. If you have the gospel and you have to obey the law, then you’ve lost the gospel. And so we tend to think that if you’ve got the gospel and you have to go to church, then all of a sudden, you’ve lost the gospel, and church feels like it’s in danger of becoming one of these “gospel plus” heresies.
Our love for grace and our desire to say that relationship with God is all of grace and none of our works pushes us in the same direction. Do you belong to Jesus? You belong to Jesus by faith. And so, of course, by the grace of God, you don’t need to meet with others in order to know Christ by faith. You can have life in him without it.
The problem is, what we’ve done is form a question that is utterly weird. If you asked the Apostles, “Do you have to go to church to be a Christian?”, they would have looked at you like you had three heads and fourteen arms. The question doesn’t make sense in their worldview. If you look through all Scripture, you’ll find that there is one head who has one body. Furthermore, at the point you come to belong to the head, you belong to the body. You have no other choice: Jesus has one body, and if you’re united to him, you’re part of the body.
1 Corinthians 12 describes it like this:
Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. (vv. 12-13)
You belong to the head by the work of the Spirit through faith, and at that same moment, you’re actually bound together into the life of the body. You have no choice. You can’t call Christ “Lord” without the Spirit, and if you possess the Spirit of God, then you belong to Christ and you belong to his body.
So if we seek to protect grace by asking questions like, “Can you be a Christian and not go to church?”, the problem is we’ve formulated the completely wrong question. The Apostles’ question would be, “What is the relationship between Christ and his church?” The answer is, “If you belong to Christ, you belong to his body”.
I was talking to a friend recently who said, “Yeah, it’s like, ‘If I marry her, do I have to live with her?’” That is, “Do you have to go to church in order to be a Christian?” is a question that has that kind of weirdness associated with it, because if you belong to Christ, you belong to the body; you cannot separate those things. Church is not an optional extra or add-on to the Christian life; this is just fundamentally who you are if you belong to Jesus.
You can’t opt out, and you can’t excise the other
Now as Paul wrestles with that truth in 1 Corinthians 12, he says that means that there are a whole lot of implications for you for the way you live with one another in the Christian life. Specifically, he says two things: you can’t opt out and you can’t cut others out.
The image of the body is a really helpful one: imagine your hand as opposed to the rest of your body. Imagine your hand decides that, for whatever reason, it’s going to depart the life of your body. Imagine it tears itself off and pulls away. Your hand is actually hurting both itself and your body! Why would you do that? And yet, Paul says, some of us are tempted to act in this way:
The body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. (1 Cor 12:14-16)
Even if you don’t feel like you’re a part of the body, if you belong to Christ, what God says to you in the most gracious terms possible is, “You belong. You are part of this.” Indeed, God has actually arranged all of the members of the body, “each one of them, as he chose” (1 Cor 12:18). So whatever space you’re in, as you express your belonging to Christ, each of you is made differently and put together by God. If you choose to separate yourself, you actually wound both yourself and the body.
Then Paul turns around and says, “Look, there’s another group of people. Their problem isn’t separating themselves; their problem is separating other people.” There are some of us who think, “I don’t belong” and there are others of us who think, “You don’t belong”. But Paul says you end up with exactly the same problem:
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable. (1 Cor 12:21-22)
“Indispensable”: that’s God’s word for it! Imagine your head saying, “Well, look, feet, I don’t need you. I’m just going to lop you off.” The moment your head lops your feet off your body, your head has affected its ability to move and engage. It has hurt itself at the same moment that it’s removed the other person from your body. Removing yourself from the body, or the body choosing to remove parts that belong to it—both of these things are detrimental to everybody involved. Because, if you remember, God declares “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor 12:7). Whoever you are—in all your wholeness and imperfection, with all of your gifts and quirks and all of the things that make you you—you are God’s good gift to the body, and the body is God’s good gift to you. To take those things apart from each other is to deny the very work of God in Christ. It undoes what God is trying to do in Jesus.
The value of shared experience
So as Paul talks about what it means to belong as a member of the body, he says that whether you like it or not, your job is to share the Christian life with one another. You are to share all the experiences—the highs and the lows, the joys and the suffering of the Christian life. This verse resonates deeply: “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together” (1 Cor 12:26).
Now brothers and sisters, that’s both a description of reality and a challenge to think about how we live with one another. Are you comfortable for everybody to share their suffering with you, or are there some you’re happy to suffer with and others you don’t want to suffer with so much? When Paul says, “One part suffers, everybody suffers”, he actually means it: at a deep level, as we’re connected to each other, the suffering of one belongs to the many. Furthermore, on the flip side, if one member is honoured, all rejoice together.
So again, I ask whether this is actually reflective of your own experience in church. Do you sometimes feel when someone else is honoured a jealousy or disappointment that you weren’t honoured in the same breath? But Paul says all of those things are actually expressions of a reality we’re creating, rather than the reality God is creating. So are you sharing the experiences of your brothers and sisters in Christ? Do you have a space where, as you hear of people suffering, you experience that in some way, and you bring them before the Lord in prayer? Do you do little things to suffer alongside them, even if it’s just sitting and weeping with them?
Likewise when your brothers and sisters are honoured, do you delight genuinely in the gifts God’s given them? Do you rejoice when the whole body takes pleasure in the praise of the body? When you get a prize at school, it’s not like your head walks up on stage and gets the prize; your whole body walks up on stage and gets the prize. You are honoured as a person because of whatever your body does. That’s how our life ought to be in church.
Commitment to life in the body
So when we think of community, we must remember that it’s not an optional extra; it’s fundamental to belonging to Jesus. We’re called to live it out.
I’d like to finish with a couple of quotes from church history—one of which you will feel is incredibly wrong and the other you will be sure is wrong, but it’s said by the right guy. In the third century AD, Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, said, “You cannot have God as your Father unless you have the church for your Mother”.1If you have a Roman Catholic background or if you’ve thought about church as being a monolithic concept, that quote will fill you with horror. We would want to say, “No, I don’t need the church! I just need Jesus.” But what Cyprian was trying to do was express that you can’t have one without the other; they belong together.
Cut Calvin, who describes the church as your mother in Book IV of the Institutes:
But because it is now our intention to discuss the visible church, let us learn even from the simple title “mother” how useful, indeed how necessary, it is that we should know her. For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, unless she keep us under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like the angels.2
What Calvin is saying is that unless you live as a member of the church and are nourished by the church all the days of your life until Jesus comes to take you home, you won’t actually belong to Christ, because if you belong to Christ, you belong to the church. And if you belong to the church, you belong to Christ. I reckon that undoes so much of the way we think materialistically and personally about church.
So the next time someone asks you, “Do you have to go to church to be a Christian?”, the answer is, “If I marry her, do I have to live with her?” That is, “Yes!”: you go to church if you’re Christian, because it is your delight to live out what God has given you as the body of Christ.
1 Cyprian, On the Unity of the Church, trans. Robert Ernest Wallis. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 5, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson and A Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886). Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/050701.htm. Accessed online 22 March 2021.