A few months ago, when the government once again restricted religious gatherings—at the time when the churches have already gained momentum and hope of getting back to normal—many Christians expressed their disappointments and filled the social media with posts having the hashtags, #ChurchIsEssential.
And it begs the question, “Why? How is the church essential?” What would you personally answer?
Especially in these times of crisis, it is important that we always go back to the authoritative Scriptures and let God’s Word shape our minds and actions. Of course, the Bible does not speak specifically and explicitly about COVID-19, but it gives us timeless principles that help us know God and his will, and to glorify him in our lives TODAY.
“The truth of [God’s Word] does not vary, but the significance (application) of that truth can vary greatly and be stated in many different ways that are appropriate for differing situations.” ~ Bryan Chapell
Unless God directs my heart and mind to something else, I intend to have a mini-series about the church, and I hope this study will help us to also see our trials and situations today from the perspective of God’s will for his people. And may the Lord guide and sustain us as we seek to study and apply his Word, for his glory.
The first topic that we’ll cover today is about “The Church as a Body.” The primary text we will look at is 1 Corinthians 12:12-27.
In 1 Corinthians 12:12-27, Paul reminds them of the principle and truth that they are united as one body of Christ. And because they are one body, they must live in unity and harmony in all things.
Now this morning, we will look at “3 aspects of the church being the body of Christ”: (1) The type of this body, (2) the members of this body, and (3) the duties of the members of this body.
1. The Type of this Body
“For 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)
Some keywords to observe for now:
- One body
- Body of Christ (cf. v.27)
- Spirit (partakers of one Spirit)
There is one body, and that body belongs to Christ, and those who are members of that body are those who are partakers of the Holy Spirit. In short, the church is the spiritual body of Christ composed of spiritual members/people, not a building or physical organization of people.
How come? (Clarification)
Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 21, Q. 54
54.) Tanong: Ano ang iyong pinaniniwalaan tungkol sa “banal na iglesiyang katoliko” (not Roman Catholic)?
Sumasampalataya ako na ang Anak ng Diyos,
sa pamamagitan ng Kanyang Espiritu at Salita,
mula sa buong lahi ng mga tao,
at mula pa noong simula ng sanlibutan hanggang sa katapusan nito
ay Siyang nagtitipon, nag-iingat, at nagpapanatili para sa Kanyang sarili
ng isang komunidad na hinirang (elect) para sa buhay na walang hanggan
at pinagkaisa sa tunay na pananampalataya.
At sa komunidad na ito, ako ngayon at magpakailanman ay mananatiling
isang buhay na miyembro nito.
“Nagtitipon” / “Gathers” – The meaning of the church. Ekklesia – Called (kaleo) out (ek-). Called out of the world into the kingdom of God (1 Peter 2:9). But unlike during the Roman times when orators or public officers would call out randomly to people, the church is called not by chance nor in a disorderly manner. Rather, God’s people (chosen according to his eternal counsel) are called out by the voice of the Lord, by the outward preaching of the gospel and the inward work of the Holy Spirit that makes men hear and embrace the Word of God.
Now this calling into the church, into the kingdom of God, is two-fold. It is both external and internal. External/outward calling involves both the elect and the hypocrites (professors of faith). Inward calling involves only the elect (possessors of faith).
And this is where we see the reality of the two-fold character of the church as both invisible and visible.
The church is said to be invisible because it consists of the elect, true believers in Christ around the world. While the church is said to be visible because it consists of all who profess faith in Christ—both true believers and hypocrites—in particular places and time (e.g. local churches in the Philippines).
Zacharias Ursinus: “The church is called invisible not because you cannot see the men in it, but because the faith and piety of those who belong to it can neither be seen, nor known, except by those who possess it (cf. Romans 8:16); and also because we cannot with [full] certainty distinguish the godly from those who are hypocrites in the visible church.”
So all who are members of the invisible church (true believers, elect) will be part of the visible church. But not all who are part of the visible church (local community) are part of the invisible church.
Scriptural basis – Parable of the wheat and tares growing together (Matt. 13:24-30)
What does the difference imply? How does it matter to us?
“The church invisible stands, with respect to its members, in an inward and spiritual relationship to Christ, whereas the Church visible stands to Him in an outward relationship only.” ~ Bannerman 32
Invisible church – “It is the members of this Church that are each and all savingly united to Him as their Head. The bond of communion between them and the Saviour is an invisible and spiritual one, securing to all of them the enjoyment of saving blessings here, and the promise of everlasting redemption hereafter.” ~ Bannerman 32
If by the grace of God, the Spirit regenerated you and converted you to faith and repentance, and you see his sanctifying work in you—you will certainly enjoy the assurance and security of your salvation. And absolutely nothing can take that away from you; nothing can separate you and stop you from being united to Christ.
Nevertheless… for the visible church… which is composed of true believers and hypocrites and professing believers only…
“It is to be distinguished from the condition of the world at large; for the members of the visible Church have received and obeyed, at least outwardly, the call of Christ, and have made a profession of their faith in Him, and in consequence have entered into the possession and enjoyment of certain privileges and ordinances that belong to the Church.” ~ Bannerman 33
“[Yes] it is to be distinguished from the condition of the invisible church of true believers… But although it is an outward relationship, and no more, it is nevertheless a real one… And although he falls short of the saving benefit which the spiritual Christian finds in Christ’s Church, yet the benefits he actually enjoys are real and important.” – Bannerman 33-34
That is why the call of the gospel is universal and without discrimination. We preach Christ and his salvation to anyone. And for all of us who are here, whether you are an elect or not, hearing the Word of God preached every Sunday—this is a real privilege that you partake in.
If you are not sure of your salvation, and you hear God’s Word telling you that you are a sinner and your only way of salvation is Christ, the only way to be part of Christ’s spiritual body and possess all his benefits here and for eternity is to put your faith in him. It is not only by physical means of membership and attendance. It is more so by the spiritual means of repentance and faith.
And if you are here, professing to be a believer or enjoying the benefits as a member of this visible church—every means of God’s grace (Word of God, the Sacraments), every means of fellowship, etc., are all real benefits. Don’t take it for granted.
Of course, we don’t say to each other, “Wait lang, bago ka pumasok sa church or makipag-fellowship, ‘Elect ka ba talaga?’”
“… para sa mga taong panlabas na nagpapahayag ng kanilang pananampalataya at nagpapakita ng pagpapabuti ng kanilang mga buhay, dapat tayong mag-isip, mag-husga, at mag-salita tungkol sa kanila sa pinaka-kanais-nais na paraan—gaya ng halimbawa ng mga apostol. Sapagkat hindi naman natin nakikita ang pinaka-loob-looban ng kanilang mga puso.” ~ Canons of Dort, 3rd and 4th Main Points, Art. 15
Yes, we always remind ourselves that all these privileges only have a saving benefit to those who are true believers. That’s why Peter exhorts believers to “be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election” (2 Peter 1:10). Make sure you are a true Christian. Grow in the grace of God, grow in gratitude and obedience to him, and cultivate the virtues of the Christian life.
Nevertheless, going back to the text, Paul tells the entire Corinthian visible church that they are one body of Christ. (He certainly cannot determine who is the elect among them). Hence, if you believe in Christ and gather with a visible, local church—even if your election cannot be determined by others—you are considered part of the spiritual body of Christ. And you must live as a member of the body of Christ.
2. The Members of the Body
“For the body does not consist of one member but or 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 (i.e. it cannot stop from being part of the body). If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.” (vv. 14-20)
It was common in the city of Corinth that roles are determined by social status, and the rich and powerful often preferred religious, philosophical, and political ideologies that advance their power and influence. Such values and context of the broader society surrounding the Corinthian church seems to be carried over among the believers, so that their diverse groups led to divisive issues and practices.
(Example: Church members are inclined toward particular teachers according to their preferences (1 Cor. 1:11-12). Lawsuits against one another (1 Cor. 6:1-8). Demonstration of individual spiritual gifts without order and unity (1 Cor. 12-14).
But Paul makes it clear that as believers, though they are many and diverse from each other—they are one and united in Christ.
When the Spirit graciously works in us and dwells in us, we become united with Christ and the Spirit applies to us all the benefits of Christ’s atoning work. As the Spirit gives us repentance and faith, we become justified. And as we become righteous and reconciled with God, we become adopted in which we cry to God, “Abba! Father!”
Our union with Christ through the Spirit’s work makes us altogether children of God. Therefore, union with Christ leads to union with one another.
When Paul speaks to the Gentile believers in Ephesians 2:14-16 concerning the salvation of the Jews and Gentiles, he argues that Christ brought them peace, reconciling them both “to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility” (v. 16).
There are no more differences that separate believers from each other. Paul keeps on repeating this. Verse 12: “… The body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body.”
For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.
The church is a diversity in unity. If you belong to Christ, you belong to the same body with your brothers and sisters in Christ—regardless of your social status, educational attainment, gender, or age. Isn’t that encouraging? If you are in Christ, you are in no way separated from his body. You are not a lesser part of the body.
This is his will. Just as he designed the body to be composed of many diverse parts, he designed the church to be composed of many diverse people. Not because you’re not a pastor means you’re less a member of the church. The church is not composed by the pastor or the elder or the rich people alone.
Even our children are part of the church. As a Reformed church, we believe that the children of believers are also partakers of the same promises of the gospel of Christ. And unless they explicitly demonstrate an ungodly and unrepentant life as they grow up, we should never doubt their salvation, but rather continue to bring them up and encourage them in the ways of the Lord.
Of course, we need to distinguish between the general office of believers and the special office of men whom God appointed as office-bearers of the church. God designed the church to be an “organism,” a communion of believers with all the gifts and graces we have individually. But God also appointed the church as an “institution” that functions through the offices and means he provided. This includes the ministers, elders, and deacons, who bear the primary responsibility of preaching God’s Word, administering the Sacraments, and keeping things pure and in order.
Nevertheless, both the office-bearers (undershepherds) and the members of the church are all under one Great Shepherd—God. Different as we are, we all belong to the same body of Christ. As Paul mentioned in Romans 12:4-5, “we do not all have the same function… but we are individually members one of another.”
As a Christian, you do not belong to yourself. You are part of the body of Christ. And if you are part of the same body, you cannot live as if you are separated from the body nor consider other members of the body as if they are not.
3. The Duties of the Members of the Body
“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, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division (i.e., schism, gap) in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” (vv. 21-26)
Paul reminds the Corinthian believers that because of their unity in Christ, they ought to live in harmony. Not one of them—not the rich nor the spiritually gifted—can live independent of others.
We live in unity with fellow believers not in order to become united in Christ. Rather, because we are united in Christ by faith through the Spirit dwelling in us, then we ought to live in unity and love for one another.
And though there are some who seem weak, little, and seemingly less honorable, they are nevertheless members of the same body who are necessary for the overall condition of the body.
- Veins – Veins, capillaries and arteries would stretch for more than 60,000 miles if laid out flat (Earth’s circumference is 25,000 miles)
- Body hair – They protect the skin (e.g., sun damage) and keep normal temperature. Studies also show that many of those who remove them completely suffer rashes and other injuries.
Though since the advent of processed food, chemicals and pollution, and even medical experiments, there are some people who suffer from abnormal bodies. But naturally and ordinarily, God has fearfully and wonderfully formed our inward parts (Psalm 139:13-15). God so composed our body with its tiny and big parts in order to function properly and thrive in various conditions.
Likewise, God so composed the church without someone separated or insignificant. Like the veins, we are interconnected and interdependent with one another. Everyone is important and has a function. “The members do not all have the same function” (Rom. 12:4), but they all function. In Ephesians 4:15-16, Paul also writes:
“… speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”
After speaking of the gifts of men (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers) whom God provided for the establishment of the church, Paul reminds them of how the church grows.
Christ is the foundation, the source of the body’s existence and growth. But what holds us and equips us together as a body is our bond and fellowship with one another (according to the Spirit’s work in all of us). How does this bond happen? “When each part is working properly.” And the result of this is growth.
- A scaffolding – Slim sheets of metal, when joined together, make the structure stable
Yes, there will always be differences in the church. Some are rich, some are poor. Some are wiser, some are not. Some have more spiritual gifts, some have a few. But these differences are not meant to create a barrier between ourselves. Rather, those to whom God has given more financial, spiritual, or physical capabilities ought to support those who don’t have much. And whatever we have even in our poverty, when we give it heartily for the service of others, it helps build up the entire church.
If you are a Christian, even if you’re not a pastor or an elder or deacon, you have a significant part and function in building up the church.
God designed it this way so “that there will be no division or gap in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.“ (1 Cor. 12:25).
“Care” (μεριμνῶσιν) – Not just to care or attend to (cf. Luke 10:34). Rather, it is an “Anxious care” (cf. Matthew 6:27), as if one is distracted while having a careful thought for someone else’s condition and welfare. (Just like finding ways to help encourage ate Hazel’s family)
For that reason, because of such concern, “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:26).
- When you’re satisfied with food, it’s not only your stomach that rejoices
- When one part of your body is hurt and wounded, the whole body is aware and affected
“No man is an island.” No Christian is an island. God does not save us, bring to his kingdom, and unite with his people so that we can live and function in isolation (“mamuhay nang hiwalay sa isa’t-isa”). (Not referring to physical and geographical sense). As we grow individually, we must grow as a community.
Like the human body, we are so connected with one another that we cannot neglect each other. We ought to love and care for one another.
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” ~ John 13:34-35
Our unity as one body of Christ has countless practical implications, but in this time and age we live in (COVID-19 crisis), let me suggest 3 relevant applications.
1.) Empathy & Sympathy
- Communicating and understanding each other
- Praying for one another
Illustration: When a body is hurt, everybody knows it. When the eyes see it, it doesn’t deny the wound. When the skin feels it, it doesn’t deny the pain.
When we see our brothers and sisters suffering, let us be quick to encourage one another with the comfort and hope we have in God.
2.) Bearing one another’s burden
Instead of isolating ourselves or carrying our burdens alone, let us help one another. When one part of the body is wounded, you don’t take it away and put it back once it’s healed.
This COVID-19 crisis or pandemic tends to form in us in a subtle way a kind of thinking or habit, that once we get sick—we separate (ideology of “social distancing”). We’re not like Christ who has the power to heal the sick and need not worry about approaching the sick, but we also have examples of early Christians who demonstrated Christian love despite the threats of sickness.
[Epidemics in the Roman world in A.D. 165 and A.D. 250]
- Scholars estimate that up to a quarter of the population died during each plague.
- At the height of the second epidemic, thousands died daily in the city of Rome
Gerald L. Sittser, Water from a Deep Well: Christian Spirituality from Early Martyrs to Modern Missionaries
The plague afflicted both pagans and Christians. But the response of the two groups was decidedly different… Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage when the plague of A.D. 250 struck, asked his congregation whether they would show the same kind of generosity to victims that God extends to the least deserving.
Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, wrote movingly of the sacrifices that Christians had made on behalf of the sick and dying. Christians, he said, “showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy.”
Ironically, Christians survived the plagues at higher rates than pagans, even though Christians were more willing to be exposed to the deadly contagion.
How could that happen?
- Some suggest that the physical presence and nursing care of the Christians encouraged and helped strengthen the sick
- Some suggest that their exposure to the sick made them immune to the disease
- But most of all, God definitely worked among them and through them.
We cannot presume that God will make a miracle and heal all COVID cases or so-called COVID cases. But either way, modern science and medicine are not the only and perfect solution. Science and medicine cannot determine how we ought to live with one another.
God’s Word is clear that we need to support those who are in need. James 5:14: “Is anyone sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.” James 1:27: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”
In our times of sickness and trials, let us ask help and give help to our brothers and sisters as much as possible, according to God-given means.
3.) Meeting with one another every Lord’s Day and as often as possible
How Christians treated the Lord’s Day was already a problem way before the government mandated lockdowns, masks, and distancing. So it is no surprise that COVID-19 kept church attendance low. Sadly, even today, despite the loosening restrictions, many Christians prefer to worship on Sundays online while freely going to malls, “gala” swimming, etc. throughout the week.
God’s exhortation is clear:
“And let us consider how to stir up (provoke, incite) one another to love and good works, (which includes) not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some (i.e., it is indeed happening), but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” ~ Hebrews 10:24-25
Our fellowship under God’s Word every Lord’s Day is God’s ordinary means to nourish us and sanctify us as his people. Nothing can replace it.
“When believers gather as a disciplined communion of saints, God is present among his people in a way different from his presence in our regular, daily lives. The church is the ekklesia, called out of this world to honor and worship God, and to receive his mercy and blessing. While God is always and everywhere present among his people, his presence is special and unique in public worship on the Lord’s Day.” ~ D.G. Hart and John Muether
It is the primary place where we can hear God’s Word, pray, and encourage one another in the faith.
How about those who cannot come?
- We must pray and find ways to minister to children and seniors (while we hope for the lifting up of all government restrictions)(Especially if COVID continues)
- Keep finding ways to go to church and other means of fellowship
I may not know exactly now how valid our reasons are for not going to church. But we must pray and make adjustments even to the point of sacrifice and inconvenience.
- “Fish” (ichthys or ichthus) symbol – acronym for “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior.” Early Christians used this symbol to covertly identify and communicate with other Christians during the time of empire-wide persecution.
It is amazing how God preserves his church throughout history. Indeed, no matter what trials befall the church—even in the face of persecution—Christ is the Builder of the Church, and God will always provide all the means to keep and sustain his church.
History attests that being physically present with the church encourages fellow believers. But living in isolation only harms yourself and others.
- Burning charcoal in a grill (hot charcoal removed vs. cold charcoal beside hot ones)
It is in God’s Word that we find encouragement as the Spirit sustains us in this walk of faith. But God also uses the means of his people to bless us and make us persevere. That’s why #ChurchIsEssential.
In the end, no unbeliever will understand and desire these things. It is only by the Spirit’s work that we will long for fellowship with one another and care for one another, no matter what.
We are naturally arrogant, selfish, self-centered people. We love comfort more than Christ. We love safety more than our neighbors. Looking only to ourselves, insisting on our wants, our preferences, and our conveniences, rather than seeking after the welfare of other people and getting involved in their lives even in times of hardships.
But we have the greatest example: Jesus Christ. He said,
“The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).
Not counting his divine glory and majesty as the Son of God a thing to be grasped, he put on our weak human flesh and offered himself so that he may redeem sinners and unite them to himself and to one another—as one body.
“In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:9-11).
Isn’t that a wonderful privilege? If you have this person who is a sinner like you, but now made one with Christ together with you—will you not love that person, will you not rejoice or suffer with that person, will you not long to fellowship with that person?
Brothers and sisters, friends, unnecessary and prolonged “distancing” is not a virtue for believers. May it never be among us as well. Instead, as 1 Peter 4:8-10 reads:
Above all, keep loving one another earnestly… Show hospitality to one another without grumbling… [And] as each has received a gift, use it to serve one another.
May God by His Spirit continue to strengthen us and stir up our hearts towards one another, so that by the great love that we receive from God in Jesus Christ, we will indeed live and grow as one living body of Christ. Amen
Reuel Dawal is the Minister of the Word and Sacraments at ZCRC. He was an intern prior to being ordained and installed as the church's new pastor. He is currently finishing his Biblical and Theological Studies at the Miami International Seminary (MINTS) online. He and his wife Yeng are married since 2017 and lives in Imus, Cavite.