THE ASSEMBLY AND THE BODY
What is a “church”? If you’ve been a Christian for very long, you’ve probably heard someone say, “The church is not a building. It’s the people.” So far, so good. When we turn to the New Testament, we find a similar, though more complete, answer to our question. The word “church,” found 114 times in across the pages of the New Testament, is a word that actually means “assembly.” Any official or semi-official town gathering could have been called an assembly, or ecclesia(pronounced ek-lay-SEE-ah) in the world of the New Testament. Generally speaking, the word ecclesiarefers to a people who have gathered together for a purpose. When we look at the use of “church” in the New Testament, we see that most of the time it is used to refer to local churches, the assembly of God’s people who live in a particular place.These people are bound together by their faith in Christ and their personal commitment to one another. New Testament churches were formed when the Gospel was preached and received. Those who trusted in Christ gathered together regularly under the preaching of the Word/Gospel, the administration of baptism and the Lord’s supper, and recognized leaders. The “church,” in the Christian sense, is this kind of assembly.
From this overview of the nature of the church, we can see that the church is more than just another organization; it is as much an organism as it is an organization. The church is made up of living parts, with all the parts working together for the health and well-being of the whole body. We see this truth reflected in a number of passages in Paul’s letters.
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. (Romans 12:4–5 ESV)
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 the body does not consist of one member but of many… 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. (1 Corinthians 12:12, 13, 18-20)
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers,to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ… (Ephesians 4:11–12)
Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions,puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind,and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God… (Colossians 2:18–19)
Because we are individually members (parts) of Christ’s body, we need the other members (parts) to join with us if we are to be equipped, built up, nourished, and grow “with a growth that is from God.”
A COMPANY OF SOLDIERS
Returning to our earlier warfare analogy, we can say that we are not lone soldiers, but members of a company, committed to one another and to our Commander. In truth, “If we would be holy we must fight.”Thankfully, we do not have to fight alone. In our war against the world, the flesh, and the devil we labor together and fight side-by-side. Unfortunately, we do not get to go to bootcamp, far removed from the battlefield, to prepare ourselves before the fight. Our training itself takes place on the battlefield. Discipleship itself is a fight and a spiritual discipline to which we must be committed.
One of God’s primary means of training us for godliness is in his use of other believers in our lives to sharpen us and shape us.
The Scriptures call us to be intimately connected to our brothers and sisters in Christ. Our fellowship is an essential ingredient for lasting change. The work of redemption involves our individual relationship with Christ alongside our relationships with others.
This “fellowship” takes place in larger gatherings, such as the primary corporate worship gathering of the church. It also takes place in smaller gatherings, such as small groups (Community Groups, family worship, etc.) and Bible studies. These are all important means by which God grows us and makes us more holy, more satisfied in Christ. In addition to these whole church and small group gatherings and studies, we must add personal discipleship. The New Testament abounds with exhortations that can only be obeyed in the context of personal relationships:
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32)
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience,bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. (Colossians 3:12–13)
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works,not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:24–25)
Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. (James 5:16)
As a part of Christ’s body, we must play our part. To do that we have to know the other members of the body and actually be engaged in their lives. This does not mean that we will know every person in our local church in an intimate way. Even in small churches, this is not usually possible. A hand can support the work of the head without being directly attached to it. In the same way, so long as we have some direct, personal attachments in the local church, we need not fret because there are those within the church with whom we do not have as direct or personal an attachment.
It’s these direct, personal relationships which are the soil out of which genuine, personal discipleship and mentoring can spring. Each of us should be connected to another member of the body in such a way that we might mutually encourage and equip one another. We need to be involved in one-to-one discipleship. Younger believers need to know more mature believers well enough to imitate their godly lifestyle.
Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. (Philippians 3:17)
Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. (1 Timothy 4:12)
This means that mature members of the body of Christ need to reach out to others. Mature members need to be actively engaged in training other Christians, helping them to become, healthy, mature believers themselves. Likewise, younger or less spiritually mature members should reach out to those they admire or those in whom they see Christ at work. Relationships need to be built so that investment can be made.
WHAT DO WE DO?
Know Your Place
At this point, if you see the importance of this kind of discipleship, you may be asking yourself, “How do I do this?” First and foremost, you need to know where you are in your walk with Christ. None of us is where he or she wants to be. All of us are still fighting sin and wrestling with our own failings. Still, you may be much further along in the fight than others in the church. If you have been walking with Christ, soaking up his Word, and engaged in the fight to treasure Jesus for longer than some around you, then you need to make efforts to meet with another, less mature believer.
If, on the other hand, you are either a new follower of Christ or have never really been discipled, you need to look for wiser, godlier examples in the church. These are the men and women to whom you can look for leadership and training in godliness.
Most people within the church will find themselves somewhere in the middle. Most of us should be in the process of being discipled by another believer and discipling still another believer.
Before moving on, it is important that we note that God has already established, for many of us, both a small group training ground and individuals who need to be discipled: our families. Godly husbands should actively shepherd and disciple their wives (most of this will happen informally) and godly wives will likewise sharpen and impart wisdom to their husbands. Every parent should be actively discipling their children, doing all the things mentioned below within the context of the unique relationships established by God in the home.
Impart the Word
Once you have recognized your place in the body of Christ, you need to pursue practical ways of discipling and being discipled. There are really two primary components to any discipling relationship. First, there is the imparting of truth or doctrine.
You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus,and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men,who will be able to teach others also. (2 Timothy 2:1–2)
Older women… are to teach what is good,and so train the young women to love their husbands and children,to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled. (Titus 2:3–5)
There is, of course, a sense in which not all Christians are teachers. We are even warned against desiring to teach, because teachers of the Word will face a stricter judgment (James 3:1). However, we should not let such warnings, directed at those who teach the church, discourage us from sharing God’s Word with one another and non-Christians. All of us are called to “make disciples,” which means all of us must be busy “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you,” (Matthew 28:20).
We may do this by reading through the Bible with another believer (usually, the Gospel of Mark or John is a good place to begin). While they are not necessary, here are some very helpful resources to guide you in this process:
One-to-One Bible Readingby David Helm
Christianity Explored(books and videos, etc.)
The Word One-to-One(series of short studies on John)
I’ve also found it helpful to turn to the following books for more topical/theological training (there are many other good books to add):
Knowing Godby J.I. Packer
Desiring Godby John Piper
The Holiness of Godby R. C. Sproul
What is the Gospelby Gregg Gilbert
Holinessby J. C. Ryle
In addition to imparting the Word, we need to spend time sharing with one another and lifting one another up in prayer. We should do more than just read and teach when we get together. We need to share our struggles, our failures, and our needs. Then we will know how to pray for one another.
Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. (James 5:16)
James brings together confession and intercessory prayer. We are to pray for one another’s spiritual needs and physical needs. When we do these things in pursuit of godliness, “great power” accompanies our prayers. We all desperately need this power as we fight for lasting, sin-conquering, God-glorifying joy in Christ.
It is important that we remember that God has established relationships within the body of Christ for our good. He has designed us to live in community, and community consists of real relationships. Church is not a place we go, but a people to whom we belong. One of the greatest blessings of being a part of the people of God is being engaged in “the work of ministry” that God has for each of us in the body. We need each other. We need the whole body, and we need individuals within the body to help us grow and to stand beside us in the fight.
Of the 114 uses of the Greek word ecclesia in the New Testament, more than 100 refer to a particular local congregation.
J. C. Ryle, Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots(Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007) 66.
Timothy S. Lane and Paul David Tripp, How People Change(Greensborough: New Growth Press, 2006) 65.