The Church: His Body, His Bride
A Scriptural examination of the Church of Jesus Christ, which is His body, His bride, the very “fullness of Him which fills all in all.”
At Calvary, looking beyond the cross, Jesus endured the physical and spiritual agony for one great purpose – “the joy that was set before him.” (Hebrews 12:2) He saw salvation for sin-ruined humanity; He saw victory over satan and death; He saw heaven inhabited forever by the redeemed. Above all else, He saw the church.
“Christ 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.” (Ephesians 5:25-27 NIV) From Calvary, He knew, would come His bride: bone of His bone and flesh of His flesh; she would be the vessel of the plan of God on earth as He had been.
Consider the incomparable scope of the church’s calling, the breadth of what God has planned:
- It is His intent “that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Ephesians 3:10, 11 NIV)
- The church is the fullness of Christ – “the fullness of him that filleth all in all.” (Ephesians 1:23)
- The church will be God’s eternal habitation: “In him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” (Ephesians 2:22 NIV)
- And, the church is the bride of Christ. She will be joined to Him eternally when He returns to earth. (Revelation 19:7)
What follows is a brief look at the church as revealed in the New Testament. It is written with the hope that those who read may catch the vision of the church as Christ will have it to be.
The Nature of the Church
The three principal names of the church – the church, the body and the bride – in themselves reveal a great deal about her nature.
The word “church” translates the Greek word ecclesia. It means the “called-out assembly” – those among mankind who have been called by God to be His people and who belong especially to Him.
The word “body” describes the relationship of the members of the church to Jesus Christ, the head of the body, and to each other. In one body, the members are intimately joined to the head and at the same time are indivisibly joined together. The church functions as a body.
The word “bride” speaks of the future of the church as the wife of the Lamb, for which she is called now to active preparation. She will be joined to Christ forever, sitting with Him on His throne, sharing His authority and glory. (Revelation 19:7; also 3:21 and 2:26,27; John 17:22)
The word “church,” however, presents a semantic problem, since there is a difference between what the word normally means and what the New Testament speaks of. Nowadays, church can mean either a building where people meet for public worship or the people themselves. People usually “join” a church or “belong” to one. Some members may be born again and others not. But the church in the New Testament was quite different. All of its members were born again. We must distinguish the true church of Jesus Christ from various associations of people who are called “Christians” even though they may lack salvation. To avoid confusion, we will speak more often of the “body” of Christ, meaning the church in the New Testament sense of the word.
In the New Testament, we find that the body was composed of members gathered in local churches. Often they met in the houses of believers. (Romans 16:5; Colossians 4:15; Philemon 2) Most members remained in their own localities, while others moved about as God led them in ministry, establishing and nourishing local churches. Together, these made up the whole church, and they maintained a marvelous combination of liberty, order, and power.
But the church did not develop as the expression of man’s best estimate of what would work. It burst into being on the day of Pentecost, and was brought by a God-given pattern into spiritual maturity. The church began with supernatural power and it was endued with supernatural gifts by the Holy Spirit.
The Gifts of the Holy Spirit
“Go into all the world and preach the gospel,” Jesus commanded His disciples after His resurrection, but He enjoined them, “tarry in Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high.” (Luke 24:49) They waited, and when the day of Pentecost came, they were all empowered with the Holy Spirit; tongues of fire came upon them and they spoke with other languages, “as the Spirit gave them utterance.” (Acts 2:4)
Visitors had come to Jerusalem from Rome, Asia Minor, Arabia and many other lands, and yet they heard “them declaring the wonders of God in [their] own tongues!” (Acts 2:8-11 NIV) That mighty baptism in the Holy Spirit not only transformed Peter and the other apostles into bold, powerful preachers of the gospel; it did much more. It forged the whole company of believers into a victorious common life – a continuing, vital, empowered union that the devil could not overthrow.
Satan soon tried to adulterate the church through a ruse that two people concocted. Ananias and his wife, Sapphira, agreed to sell some land and pretend they were dedicating all of the proceeds to the Lord’s work.
As Ananias presented the money, Peter discerned that satan was working and, using supernatural knowledge, exposed the lie of the scheming Ananias, who immediately fell dead. Three hours later, Peter questioned Sapphira about the matter. The apostle knew by supernatural means that the woman had conspired with her husband, but the extraordinary wisdom he used made it possible for her to escape death (by confessing her sin and repenting) or to seal her soul with her own words in the enemy’s plot. She chose the latter. Peter prophesied her death and she immediately died. Moreover, Peter needed special faith to meet this satanic challenge to the purity of the church, a matter so important that it meant the death of two people. It was an awesome example to all around that God was truly and powerfully in the midst of the church, so that no one dared to join them, except those the Lord added. (Acts 5:1-14)
The church also received the gift of healing, demonstrated at the Gate Beautiful when a crippled beggar leaped to his feet fully healed at Peter’s command, and on many other occasions recorded in the Book of Acts.
These gifts were an integral part of the church’s growth, ministry and maturity. Paul’s missionary journeys, for example, were begun as the result of the gift of prophecy. He, who had known his calling to the Gentiles from the time of his conversion, waited for supernatural confirmation in the church before setting forth. Acts 13:2 depicts the church assembled at Antioch: “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’” (NIV) That word of prophecy set a sure supernatural foundation for extraordinary trials and triumphs to come.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul identified the gifts of the Holy Spirit as follows: the gift of the word of wisdom, the gift of the word of knowledge, faith, gifts of healing, the working of miracles, prophecy, discerning of spirits, diversities of tongues and the interpretation of tongues. Gifts were given to “each” member of the church, not to a select few. They were given as the Holy Spirit willed, bestowing certain gifts on particular members. (1 Corinthians 12:11) They were an indispensable part of the life of the church.
When the church members gathered for worship, “everyone” had “a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.” (1 Corinthians 14:26 NIV) The key to their worship services lay in the fact that “everyone” actually participated and that the gifts were manifested.
The gifts were given for the edifying of the church and for the church’s ministry to the world. The church, therefore, is the proper setting for the gifts essential to empowered worship.
In order for them to have their full impact today, the gifts must be exercised in the way they were meant to be. At the same time, the believers who exercise the gifts need to be, first of all, in a church that is truly Scriptural and also functioning in their particular places in that church. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are manifested through human vessels. Water cannot run as it should through constricted, out of joint, or clogged pipes. Neither can the Holy Spirit minister to the church or to the unsaved as He would unless believers are in their places, in the will of God, and able to move in the gifts of the Spirit as the Lord leads.
In short, for God’s work to be done as He intends it, His people must find where they fit in the body of Christ.
Members of One Body
Every born-again believer has the privilege of becoming a member of the body of Christ. The Holy Spirit is giving out the invitation to God’s children: “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’” (Revelation 22:17 NIV)
Every member of the body of Christ enjoys these privileges in the Christian life: salvation, baptism in water, baptism in the Holy Spirit, exercising the gifts of the Holy Spirit, baptism by the Holy Spirit into the body of Christ, and ministry to the other members of the body. The members build each other up until all “come to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:13)
To be a functioning member of the church of Jesus Christ, a person must, of course, be born again, washed by His blood – made a new creature by the quickening power of the Holy Spirit. He must also be baptized in the Holy Spirit for the edification of his fellow believers. Most importantly, he must be baptized by the Holy Spirit into his place in the body of Christ. (1 Corinthians 12:13)
A physical body whose members are not joined together by ligaments and muscles is no body at all. And a body whose members are fitted together properly but which are not connected to the head individually through nerves, is unable to move. A healthy, living body must have parts which are exactly fitted in their places, individually and rightly joined to the head, and which actually move, according to the direction of the head, in coordination with the other members. There is perfect natural coordination, with no uncommanded movements.
Translate that into spiritual terms and you have the body of Christ. (Ephesians 4:15,16) Each member is spiritually joined to the head, Jesus Christ – joined as integrally as hand to head. This is primary. The Lord, through the leading of the Holy Spirit, places that member in the local church with other believers who have this same relationship with the risen Christ. In this setting, everyone fits, coordinates, and takes his place, working together as a living whole.
But just as God does not force anyone to be saved, He does not force anyone to yield his life wholly to Christ, or to be baptized in the Holy Spirit, or to become a member of the body of Christ. One does not automatically proceed from step to step. As a believer walks in the light, he moves on into all that God has for him.
One of the great central truths about the church is that it is made up of both Jewish and Gentile believers. When the church began, it was entirely Jewish. Was there a place for Gentiles? God answered that question supernaturally during Peter’s visit to Cornelius, the Roman centurion. (Acts chapters 10 and 11) Gentiles were by no means to be left outside of the church, since God had included them by baptizing them in the Holy Spirit. Paul wrote extensively about this great truth in his letters to the Romans (chapter 11) and to the Ephesians (chapter 2). Today, the question is often reversed: Where do Jews fit into the church? The answer is that their place is indispensable. They, with the Gentiles, are to be “one new man” in Christ. (Ephesians 2:15)
To be a member of the body of Christ, then, a believer – be he Jewish or Gentile – must be functioning in his place.
This church is the bride pictured in the Song of Solomon: “fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners” (Song of Solomon 6:10) – beautiful to God and a terror to the enemy because she assaults the kingdom of darkness with the whole armor of God.
When the Scriptures speak of the body of Christ, they refer to those who are joined to Him – “members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones.” (Ephesians 5:30) They are joined to Him for all eternity, and while on earth they do the will of God. They “follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth.” (Revelation 14:4)
Maintaining order, liberty and the unity of the faith among the members is a central necessity and one requiring special wisdom. For that reason God has given particular gifts to the church – spiritual ministries having to do with gospel order, godly oversight, and guidance for the church at large.
In Ephesians 4:11, Paul wrote, “He gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers.” These are chosen by the Lord from among the members and supernaturally endowed to build the church, “for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:12,13)
The difference between the gifts of the Holy Spirit and these ministries may be seen in Paul’s statements, “Ye may all prophesy,” but that not all are prophets. The first speaks of the gift of the Holy Spirit, which may be exercised by any member of the church. The second speaks of a ministry given to a person. (1 Corinthians 14:31 and 12:29)
The calling given these ministers is as high as it can be, and their task could not be greater. Their charge is to bring God’s people to full maturity.
APOSTLES – These are spiritual pioneers, founding and building up churches where none have existed. The life of the apostle Paul exemplified this ministry, in the burdens he bore, in his labors, his fruit, and in the price he paid, filling “up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church.” (Colossians 1:24) He did not build on any other man’s foundation. (Romans 15:20) It was to the apostles and prophets that the mystery of the church was revealed – God’s plan that Jewish and Gentile Christians should be joined together in the same body. As Paul wrote, “In other ages [it] was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.” (Ephesians 3:5,6)
PROPHETS – They speak the mind of the Lord by the immediate inspiration of the Holy Spirit, declaring what is otherwise unknown to the natural understanding. In the New Testament, prophets warned the church and thus prepared it for coming events, as Agabus foretold world famine and Paul’s imprisonment. (Acts 11:28 and 21:10,11) genuine prophecy is always wholly supernatural in origin and comes “not by the will of man.” (2 Peter 1:21; see also 1 Corinthians 14:29)
EVANGELISTS – These ministers go out among the unbelievers and confront them with the Gospel of salvation, thus breaking the ground spiritually by sowing seeds of faith. Their call is to proclaim the gospel far and wide, particularly where it has not been heard. Others, normally, will be sent to nourish the fruit of their preaching; their work is integrally related to the rest of the body of Christ and not carried out in the “free-lance” style we see so much today.
PASTORS AND TEACHERS – Tradition has created a distortion in the relationships among the ministries that God has ordained for His church. Perhaps in this area more than any other we need to be most careful to examine what the Scriptures actually say about the office. Except in reference to Jesus, the Greek word “pastors,” describing ministers, appears only once in the New Testament, and that is in Ephesians 4:11. Is it not strange that the ministry least described in the New Testament has come to occupy the central place in the life of the church?
We have in this listing five words describing ministry, but the Greek wording gives us to understand that they refer to four ministries. Note that the word “some,” describing those called to these ministries, occurs four times – the last before the complementary terms “pastors” and “teachers.” If pastors are taken to be separate from teachers, we are left with a ministry that is not described and not mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament.
The ministry of teachers is cited in various contexts. For example, we read: “Now in the church at Antioch there were PROPHETS and TEACHERS” (Acts 13:1), five of whom are named and two of whom were set apart by the Holy Spirit to be apostles. The other references to “teacher” (in 1 Corinthians 12:28,29 and in 1 Timothy 2:7 and 2 Timothy 1:11) speak of the ministry of “teacher” in a way similar to that of “apostle,” “prophet” and “evangelist,” so as to suggest that this ministry, like the others, was for the church at large. It was not to be limited to a single congregation. The pastor-teachers did not displace the authority of the elders in each place, but complemented it. Not permanently stationed in one church, they traveled as the Lord led them and as the needs of the local assemblies required.
It is clear that Paul, as an apostle, moved in the full breadth of these gift ministries. He spoke of himself as “a preacher, and an apostle, and a teacher of the Gentiles.” (2 Timothy 1:11) As a prophet, he confronted those in the highest stations of authority, kings and their advisers. (Acts 13:6-12; also Acts chapters 24 and 25) Sometimes his ministry was that of an evangelist, moving rather quickly from place to place. At other times, he stayed in one place, such as Ephesus, for longer periods, teaching and building up the church there. Frequently, he returned to churches he had founded to teach, correct and strengthen them.
It is by these ministries that God has ordained to build and nourish the body of Christ. Each complements the others, in the common goal of bringing the bride of Christ to her full stature. Subtract any aspect, and the church becomes vulnerable to attacks of the enemy, stagnation, spiritual blindness of disunity.
Elders and Deacons
While everyone who is a member of the body bears responsibility for ministering to the other members, the Holy Spirit chooses some men to bear special responsibility for the welfare of the church at the local level. That place of responsibility is called “the office of a bishop.” (1 Timothy 3:1) The first verse of the letter to the Philippians affords a glimpse of the relationship God has ordained for the church: “to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons.” There was not simply a bishop, there were bishops and they were not in responsibility over an area primarily, but in a particular church. (See Acts 14:23)
In Acts 20:17, we see Paul, who “sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church.” He exhorted them: “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over which the Holy Ghost has made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he has purchased with his own blood.” (Acts 20:28) The elders of the church, charged to feed the flock, are here addressed by the apostle Paul as “overseers.” The word in Greek is episkopos, from which the English word “bishop” comes. This same Greek word is translated “bishop” in 1 Timothy 3:1 and Titus 1:7. In the New Testament, the three words (bishop, elder, overseer) refer to the same office in the local church.
An eldership is a position of honor, but it is not an honorary one, and only an individual who meets a high Scriptural standard may rightly attain to it. As described in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9, an elder must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, self-controlled, hospitable, able to teach, not given to much wine, not violent but gentle, not a lover of money, a good father who is obeyed and respected by his children. He must not be a recent convert. He should have a good reputation in the community. He must be honest, a lover of good, upright, holy, disciplined, and sound and knowledgeable in doctrine. In sum, right in all things in the sight of God and man.
In each local church, there is always more than one elder, as all of the references to them in the Scriptures show. Theirs is a joint ministry. Together, they teach and lead (or “rule”) the church. They “take heed to” and “feed the flock of God” – not as lords or masters, but as servants. (Acts 20:28, 1 Peter 5:2,3) “They watch for your souls.” (Hebrews 13:17)
Thus, the local church never is under one-man rule. (The only example of one-man rule is described in John’s third letter, and he condemned it.)
Elders, as we see from Acts 20 and from 1 Timothy and Titus, are chosen by the Holy Spirit and ordained by one or more of those ministers who are given to the church at large. (Acts 14:23) In the New Testament, elders were not elected by the local church. For example, Paul charged Titus to appoint and ordain elders in every city. (Titus 1:5)
The qualifications for deacons – the Greek means simply those who serve – are as high as for elders (see 1 Timothy and Titus). It appears (from Acts 6) that the church members chose the deacons to care for the practical affairs of the church, and then the elders prayed for them.
It should also be noted that Phoebe, a deaconess in the church at Cenchrea, was highly commended by Paul in Romans 16:1,2.
Without Spot or Blemish
But is all this so important? Must it be this way and not some other way? Indeed, it must, and for this reason: it is God’s way. We say that the Bible is God’s word, that it is holy and inviolable. Then are not those things in the Bible holy? Are they not inviolable, to be followed with utmost care? The Bible is God’s inspired textbook.
Consider God’s words to Moses as he began building the tabernacle. He told Moses, “See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.” (Exodus 25:9,40; Numbers 8:4; Hebrews 8:5 NIV) God was going to dwell in the tabernacle. It could not be tainted by human alteration and still be His holy dwelling place.
Surely it must be the same way with the church – the eternal, holy temple of God. (Ephesians 2:21,22) The church is the vessel He has chosen to use in demonstrating His manifold wisdom to “principalities and powers.” (Ephesians 3:10)
The time will come, indeed, when God will assert His almighty power and authority over the wicked hosts and lock them forever in the lake of fire. But before that, He will prove that they have not triumphed. He will show them that among fallen and redeemed mankind there are those (the church) who love Him solely because of who He is.
God’s integrity is at stake in the church. This is why the church absolutely must be formed according to His Word. Anything more, anything less, anything other than God’s pattern partakes of another “wisdom” – wisdom that comes from the one who says, “hath God said?” (Genesis 3:1) We do well to keep in mind that satan has, from the beginning, sought to influence men to do things in a way – any way – different from God’s Word.
How important this is can be seen, for example, in 1 Chronicles 13:5-14 and 15:2 and 11-15, when David began bringing the ark to Jerusalem, carried on a new cart and not on the shoulders of the priests, as the law commanded. It cost a man his life. David said, “God made a breach upon us, for that we sought him not after the due order.” From this we see that men can seek to do God’s will in other than God’s way, but they cannot thereby fully please Him.
An indispensable distinctive of the body of Christ is member ministering to member, and member caring for member, just as Christ ministers to and cares for His own. Nothing else finally is the body of Christ, nor will the Lord accept anything less because it is His only plan.
When the members of the church are all in their God-ordained places and moving together as He wants them to, they are far more than an association of individuals. They are a living whole. They move as an athlete does when he runs. No single part draws special attention – legs, arms, sinews, heart. What is vital is how everything moves together. When a runner is running, everything about him is running. Similarly, the body is a moving, coordinated whole. The members are joined to Jesus Christ, the head, so closely that together they are His body.
Reformation and Restoration
What is described quite briefly above – the New Testament pattern of the church – is not new doctrine or new revelation. It continues the prevailing thrust of Christian history ever since the Reformation – a return to original, Scriptural truth.
Martin Luther broke through to the understanding that righteousness comes by faith and not by works. In this aspect, what he did was not so much reformation, as restoration.
Since then, the Holy Spirit has been leading believers into more and more of the truth given in the New Testament and originally possessed by the early church: Baptism in water by immersion, holiness, evangelism, missionary endeavor, the baptism in the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Holy Spirit are major areas of truth long buried under piles of religious tradition, which have been excavated and restored.
The direction of this spiritual progression is evident and it will continue until God’s people obtain their full inheritance, until the church is formed in fullness of purity and power, according to God’s pattern.
It has not been easy. Some have given their lives to restore truth to God’s people. Cost what it may, it is a high privilege to be part of this work.
When Christ returns to earth, He will come with His bride and she will be as He is. She will be spotless and without blemish. Hear the triumphant cry sounded in the Book of Revelation concerning her:
“Hallelujah!” For the Lord God Omnipotent reigns. Let us be glad and rejoice, and give him glory! For the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, clean and white, was given her to wear. For the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.” (Revelation 19:6-8)
Having been identified with Christ in His death and resurrection, in His burdens and joys, she is prepared to be with Him at His side for all eternity, to share His throne, His glory and His kingdom forever.
Those who seek the full formation of the body of Christ seek the hardest thing possible. They defy the powers of hell – all the wiles, all the lies, all the resistance of the rulers of darkness, who are set above all else, against the church. This is the great conflict of the ages – the awesome clash of faith against rebellion – and through it will shine the triumph of our God in His people. (Matthew 16:18)
For this we know: He who is in us is greater than he that is in the world. He who triumphed in His own body on the cross will continue that triumph through His body – the church – and He will have His bride.
© 1982 by The New Testament Missionary Fellowship. All rights reserved.