Reevangelizing the Church: What is the Body?
Sadly, over the course of the last century, we have reduced the gospel to simplistic formulas and programmatic appeals—appeals that are designed to produce “decisions,” whereas the gospel of the kingdom is conveyed in various and more demonstrative ways, reflecting the different gifts and diversity of the body.
This diversity of witness and gospel expression is captured in the variation of gifts given to the body described in Romans 12:4–8: We do not all have the same function or ministry in the kingdom. Some are called to teach, some to serve, some to give financially, some to lead, and some to acts of mercy. In 1 Corinthians 12:4, the apostle Paul again stresses that there are a variety of gifts, service and activities—given to the church and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Ephesians chapter 4 indicates that only some are given as “apostles, prophets, and evangelists” and yet today, through both the reduction of the gospel and the modern efforts to mass-market decisional theology, we demand that every church member be an evangelist in this very narrow sense. This might explain why, according to research, most Christians have not shared their faith with another in the past year. Perhaps this is not their gift or purpose in the body? However, we make little or no accommodation for these other gifts under the reductionist version of the gospel with its exclusive emphasis on proselytization.
Throughout these passages, Paul emphasizes that this diversity of spiritual giftedness is given “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:12, ESV). This body, the church (collectively), is, according to Scripture, the central witness-bearing feature of the kingdom, come into the world. The scriptures repeatedly stress that this witness emanates from the observable life and conduct within the community of God’s people as seen and experienced by the outside world.
What is the result of this modern emphasis that reduces the gospel to a simplistic prescription for personal salvation? Answer: We obscure the relational unity within the body and neglect those areas essential to the witness of Christ and his kingdom. Not to mention heaping tons of guilt upon those not called to evangelism. Furthermore, we fail to incarnate the person of Christ in the life and witness of the Christian community.
Folks, a dead body is no witness. Christ rose from the dead and he has by grace, raised us to new life in him. And this new life—displayed in community—is foundational to the witness and testimony of the church. In a radically individualistic and narcissistic America, this may be the church’s greatest obstacle to carrying out the missio Dei.
Jesus’ invitation is to “enter the kingdom of God.” Practically, this means that we are saved out of our isolation and alienation and into the community of God’s people. As C. S. Lewis points out in his classic, Mere Christianity, as Christians are “united together in a body, loving one another, helping one another …” their life together becomes “the one really adequate instrument for learning about God…” (Emphasis mine.)
Recall that the Great Commission given by Jesus was to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit …” (Matt. 28:19, ESV). Jesus is stressing the conversion of individuals through relationships (i.e., make disciples) followed by their being joined to the body of Christ through baptism. There is a “corporateness” to the kingdom message.
Paul further stresses that the Gentiles who were once alienated from “the commonwealth of Israel” have been brought near “by the blood of Christ” that “he might create in himself one new man [or humanity] in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross” (Eph. 2:12–15, ESV). Again, there is a corporate sense to God’s redemptive plan that carries forward from national Israel to form a new covenant people (the church) out of both the Jew and Gentile into the new Israel.
In Ephesians 5:30 Paul writes we are “members of his body.” However, in individualized Western culture, we hear Paul’s teaching about our being members of Christ in precisely the wrong way. For many Westerners a member is a person who merely belongs to something like a country club or a political party. The member in this sense is merely an individual who happens to have voluntarily joined the organization. As Americans, we think we posses the rights to our membership and thus we offer it only to those institutions that we think are deserving. This might explain why we are nation of church-hoppers and shoppers!
But Paul uses member in an organic sense. We are members of Christ in the same way that the eye, ear, hand, and foot are members of the body. At the conclusion of Ephesians chapter two Paul writes, “Built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (20–22, ESV). The emphasis is on the corporate nature of God’s redemptive plan. We together are the temple of the Holy Spirit, not “I’m a temple” and “you’re a temple” and so on.
Also, this community is not merely the social gathering of a people with common values—but rather a people who display proof of God’s redemptive work in the world. In other words, we are intended to bear witness to Christ’s kingdom come into the world. And this proof or witness flows forth from converted individuals whose transformation is formed and authenticated through their interactions with each other.
So, how does the church represent the mission of God in the world? How do we express the gospel of the kingdom beyond its modern reductionist version? (You know, the sort of detached drive-by evangelism that relies on tracts and rote presentations.) The Bible appears to outline a threefold approach, which I will begin to lay out next week.
©2009 by S. Michael Craven
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S. Michael Craven is the President of the Center for Christ & Culture and the author of Uncompromised Faith: Overcoming Our Culturalized Christianity (Navpress, 2009). Michael's ministry is dedicated to equipping the church to engage the culture with the redemptive mission of Christ. For more information on the Center for Christ & Culture, the teaching ministry of S. Michael Craven, visit: www.battlefortruth.org
Michael lives in the Dallas area with his wife Carol and their three children.