What Is the “Church of Christ”?

Whenever someone asks me “Are you a member of the church of Christ?” I almost always hesitate before I answer.  This has nothing to do with me being ashamed of Christ or His church. Quite the opposite! I hesitate because I love the church, and I want to communicate clearly and biblically. I’ve found that the phrase “church of Christ” has come to mean different things to different people. I hesitate because a simple “yes” or “no” answer often leads to confusion or even encourages unbiblical ideas about the church.

As an illustration, consider three different ways the phrase “Church of Christ” is understood.

The Denominational Understanding

For many, the phrase “Church of Christ” is understood to refer to those churches which wear the name “Church of Christ” and associate with one another as a branch of the American Restoration Movement. Together, these “Churches of Christ” represent one branch, or one denomination of the universal body of Christ.

This is perhaps the most common understanding of the phrase in our culture. Whether we like it or not, we live in a denominational world. We have Catholics, Baptists, Methodist, Presbyterians and so on. According to this understanding, the “Church of Christ” fits right in this list of denominations. Among those who think of themselves as belonging to one denomination or another, it is natural for them to assume that when we use the phrase “Church of Christ” we are talking about our denomination.

Even many who attend Churches of Christ (i.e. those congregations with the name “Church of Christ”) use the phrase in this way. “Church of Christ” is viewed as the name of our group. We have “Church of Christ” schools, “Church of Christ” preachers, and “Church of Christ” traditions. If you ever hear someone say “I grew up Church of Christ, but then I switched to _______” , they are using the phrase as a denominational title.

Sometimes you will hear Christian scholars or preachers speak of “our heritage”, “our tribe” or “our little corner of the kingdom”. These are ways of describing the “Church of Christ” as one group among many. This is especially common among those who have been highly exposed to the “sectarian” view of the church (see below). This usage confronts the arrogance and closed mindedness of the sectarian view and challenges it with a much needed does of humility to recognize that we are not uniquely smarter or more capable of discerning truth than anyone else.

In a religious environment where denominationalism is the default position for almost everyone, many have given up on using the phrase to describe anything other than another denomination.

The Sectarian Understanding

In my opinion, the best definition of sectarianism was given by David Lipscomb in his 1907 article “A Sectarian and a Truth Seeker”.  (It would be worth your time to read this excellent article here).

A sectarian is one who defends everything his party holds or that will help his party, and opposes all that his party does not hold or that will injure the strength and popularity of his party. The partisan takes for granted everything his party holds is right, and everything the other part holds is wrong and to be opposed. Hence the party lines define his faith and teaching. He sees no good in the other party. He sees no wrong in his own party, unless someone in his party should love truth and oppose an error of his party or defend a truth of the other party.

Sectarians understand that biblically speaking, there is only one church, the church of Christ (Eph. 1.22-23; Eph. 4.4). They know and use all the same scriptures about the “church of Christ” as those who use the phrase biblically (see below). Yet despite sounding like those who use the phrase “church of Christ” biblically, their understanding of the church is actually much more closely aligned with the denominational understanding of the church.

Similar to the denominational understanding, sectarians understand the phrase “Church of Christ” to refer to those churches which wear the name “Church of Christ” and associate with one another as a branch of the American Restoration Movement. But rather than thinking of themselves as one denomination of the universal church, they think that their party, the “Church of Christ”, constitutes the entirety of the body of Christ. In their minds, people in other parties cannot possibly be members of the one true church.

This view is not to be confused with the scriptural view. They do share the scriptural concept of “only one church” which was built by and belongs to Christ. But rather than understanding the boundaries of Christ’s church as “those who have been baptized and are faithful to Christ” (Gal. 3.26-27), they identify the church as “those who are faithful to my party”. In other words, they identify the body of Christ as synonymous with the modern day association of churches which wear the name “Church of Christ.”

This view is common among those who have been fed a steady diet of proof texts about the “one church”, but have not studied enough to grasp a distinction between how the phrase “churches of Christ” is used in scripture (Rom. 16.16) and how denominational titles are used in our culture.

A sectarian understanding is often present when:

  • The phrase “Church of Christ” is used as the official name for the church, and as the exclusive phrase used to describe the church
  • Party lines and traditions are more important than scripture (or worse, when adherence to written “statements of faith” are made the test of fellowship rather than adherence to Scripture)
  • Someone who has obeyed the gospel is forced to submit to “rebaptism” if they did not learn the gospel directly from a Church of Christ member
  • Someone refuses to question any traditions, practices, or beliefs of the Church of Christ, even when Scriptural objections are raised

This view is often held by those who recognize the problem of denominationalism, but instead of seeking to destroy denominationalism with unity in Christ, they seek to build up and strengthen their distinct sect.

The Biblical Understanding

I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hades will not overpower it. – Matthew 16.18

Jesus built His church. There is one church (cf .Eph. 1.22-23; Eph. 4.4) which belongs to Christ. This one church is the universal body of Christ which is made up of all those who are saved (Heb. 12.22-24).

Congregations of these believers can rightly be described as “churches of Christ” (Rom. 16.16). However, it should be noted that we could just as rightly refer to the church as the church of God, the body, the kingdom, etc. (1 Cor. 10.32; Eph. 1.22-23; Col. 1.13).

When we use the phrase “church of Christ” in this biblical sense, we are not referring to any sect or denomination you could choose to join.  Biblically speaking, only the Lord can add you to His church, and He does this when you are saved (Acts 2.41, 47). There are no saved people outside His one church (Heb. 12.22-24). Regardless of how many sects or denominations that may come and go throughout the years, there is and always will be only “one body” of Christ (Eph. 4.4).

Ultimately, it is the Lord who knows who is “in” and who is “out” of His church (Heb. 12.23; 2 Tim. 2.19). If we have clothed ourselves with Christ in baptism and give our faithful allegiance to Jesus, we can know that we are numbered among His children (Gal. 3.26-27).

There are still many who strive to use the phrase in the same way it was used in Romans 16.16, to simply refer to a congregation of Christians. There are still those who desire use the phrase to call for nondenominational and nonsectarian Christianity.

The Importance of Speaking Clearly

  • Please remember that not everyone who uses the phrase “church of Christ” to refer to Christ’s one church is a sectarian.

When you hear things like “Christ only established one church, and if you aren’t a part of that church you can’t go to heaven” this is not necessarily sectarianism. It could be, but it depends on what body they have in mind when they speak of the one church. They might simply be upholding a sect, but they could simply be trying to encourage someone to become a Christian. If you aren’t sure what they mean, ask them. Give them a chance to explain themselves more clearly before drawing your conclusion.

  • If you are going to use the phrase “church of Christ” in the biblical sense, make sure you are using the phrase properly.

“Church of Christ” is not the official name of the church. It is not the exclusive (or even the primary) description of the church. When we use it as such, we are encouraging an unbiblical understanding of the church. I am not “Church of Christ”. And I am certainly not a “CofC’er”. I am a Christian.

  • If you are committed to using the phrase “Church of Christ” as a sectarian or denominational title, please don’t give that sect or denomination your loyalty.

It drives me crazy whenever I hear someone refer to the “Church of Christ” as simply “our heritage” or “our tribe” or “our little corner of the kingdom”, and then proceed to express how much they love the Churches of Christ and want to see them succeed. If what we have in mind is a sect or a denomination, why would we give it one ounce of our loyalty? Let the Church of Christ denomination die! Let the Church of Christ sect die! But let Christ’s church live eternally! Let’s give our loyalty to Christ, not to any denomination or sect.

  • If you are going to use the phrase “church of Christ”, please take extra care to make sure your listeners know what you are talking about.

When terms are understood differently by different people it only breeds confusion. If you are going to use the phrase in a denominational or sectarian sense, please make sure others know that you are not using it to refer to the one body of Christ. If you are going to use the phrase to refer to the one universal body of Christ, please make sure others understand that you are not referring to a sect or a denomination.

Our aim is to simply be Christians. We want to be faithful, loyal, disciples of Christ. We want to give our allegiance to Him as part of His one church, without encouraging denominationalism or sectarianism. Let’s not use the name of Christ in vain by misusing His name.

Let’s be careful how we talk about the “church of Christ.”

Restoration: A Biblical Principle

There was only one time in the history of the universe that restoration was not needed. That time was between Genesis 1:31 and Genesis 3:6, when sin was nonexistent.

God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. Genesis 1:31.

When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate. Genesis 3:6

All of creation was affected by the sin of Eve and Adam. Of course, that does not mean that all of creation was guilty of the sin. But even we, though not guilty of Adam’s sin, are affected by it.

Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned. Romans 5:12

For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. 1 Corinthians 15:21

Death reigns over this world, so long as sin is in it. The serpent’s goal was to deceive the woman, and through her disobedience, introduce death into the world. The beauty is this: God had a plan all along. To the serpent, God said,

And I will put enmity
Between you and the woman,
And between your seed and her seed;
He shall bruise you on the head,
And you shall bruise him on the heel. Genesis 3:15.

Though Satan’s goal is to reign over mankind through death, God’s plan is hostile toward death. The key words in this passage are “I will…” Before turning to the woman and the man and detailing their individual punishments, before they had a chance and beg on their knees for redemption, God revealed His will to redeem, to restore, mankind.

Since that moment in the Garden, mankind has known God as the God of Restoration. When creation is separated from its Creator, it is God’s mission to restore. In that moment in the Garden, God revealed that His instrument of restoration would be the “seed” of the woman (i.e., Christ).

Many centuries passed between that moment in in the Garden and Jesus’ atoning sacrifice. But even while creation waited for the “fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4), God continued to reveal Himself as the God of Restoration. When mankind had tainted all of creation with continual sinfulness, God restored the world through a flood and the salvation of one family. When God’s people were held captive by pagan Egyptians, God restored their place of prominence in His plans. When the nation of Israel was corrupted by bad kings and false gods, the true God sent prophets to restore the nation to their first love. When the city of God was in ruins, God sent Nehemiah to begin the long process of restoration. Nehemiah is best known for his work to restore the wall in Jerusalem (Neh. 3; 6:15-19). In addition, however, Nehemiah (and Ezra), speaking for God, also called for the restoration of:

  • Confidence in the Lord (Neh. 4:11-23)
  • Fairness in trade and care for the poor (Neh. 5:1-13)
  • Understanding of the Law (Neh. 8:1-8)
  • Holy days and feasts (Neh. 8:9-18)
  • Repentance and forgiveness (Neh. 9:1-4)
  • Acceptable worship (Neh. 9:5-37)
  • National purity (Neh. 13:1-3)
  • Tithes (Neh. 13:10-14)
  • Sabbath-keeping (Neh. 13:15-22)
  • Family purity (Neh. 13:23-29)

A reading through the book of Nehemiah quickly demonstrates that God is the God of Restoration. God sets out a plan, and when His people forget it or are otherwise unable to live out that plan, He provides the admonishment and means necessary for restoration. What is the lesson for us today? God continues to provide a way for and demand restoration when His plans are forsaken.

To build is difficult. To destroy is simple. To rebuild is often the most difficult. In all of the cases that God’s servants called for restoration, pain and sacrifice were required. Money, selfishness, time, personal possessions, friends, and even marriages had to be surrendered. Was it easy? No. Was it painful? Yes. Was it worth it? Absolutely.

Today, many of God’s plans have been forsaken. Marriages are treated as disposable. Godly parenting is replaced by worldly philosophies and the workplace. The question of salvation is the most confusing question in the religious world. The body of Christ has been chopped, sliced, distorted, and forgotten. Worship has turned inward, where the heart and mind of people are most important. Allegiance has been placed into the establishments of men. Restoration is needed just as badly today as it was in Nehemiah’s time. Is there hope?

We might be tempted to look at Nehemiah and Ezra as privileged, since it seems they were commissioned specifically to the task of restoration. They had “direction” from God. Do we not? What did Nehemiah and Ezra use to call the people to restoration? They brought no new revelation. Instead, they used the Law of Moses, which had already been revealed centuries before.

We have acted very corruptly against You and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the ordinances which You commanded Your servant Moses. Nehemiah 1:7.

They found written in the law how the Lord had commanded through Moses that the sons of Israel should live in booths during the feast of the seventh month. So they proclaimed and circulated a proclamation in all their cities and in Jerusalem… Nehemiah 8:14-15.

Now the rest of the people… are taking on themselves a curse and an oath to walk in God’s law, which was given through Moses, God’s servant, and to keep and to observe all the commandments of God our Lord, and His ordinances and His statutes. Nehemiah 10:28-29

It did not take long after Jesus established His church for selfishness to creep into the body of Christ (Acts 5:1-4). As time went on, the influence of false teachers increased. Many of the epistles of the New Testament were written to Christians who were either already under the influence of falsehood or were at risk. Over and over, the Lord’s disciples were called to go back to what they had first received.

I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! Galatians 1:6-8.

Just as in the Garden, where falsehood has influence, restoration is required. People need to return to the original blueprints.

  • For marriage, let us return to God’s plan from the beginning (Matt. 19:1-9)
  • For parenting, let us return to the simplicity of love and admonition (Eph. 6:4)
  • For salvation, let us return to the “pattern of teaching” (Rom. 6:17)
  • For unity, let us return to the one body (Eph. 4:4-6)
  • For worship, let us return to what God seeks (John 4:23-24)
  • For allegiance, let us return to the sovereignty of Christ (1 Tim. 6:13-16)

All of this will require sacrifice. But isn’t that the call of discipleship?

And He was saying to them all, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it. For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world, and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when He comes in His glory, and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.” Luke 9:23-26.

When people of the 21st century destroy the home, forsake the Lordship of Christ, and denominate the church, God’s word remains the same. The opportunity for restoration is now. Hear the call, heed the call, and then begin to call others.

But I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place—unless you repent. Revelation 2:4-5.

Restoring the Mission

The church was created for a mission. However, it seems that there is much disagreement among Christians as to what that mission is.

Some place the emphasis on the church’s responsibility to change the world now, while others place the emphasis on the church’s responsibility to prepare themselves and others for a future in eternity. Among those who emphasize the importance of solving social problems there is too often a de-emphasis on doctrines of sin, salvation, heaven and hell, and eternal life in heaven. Likewise, those who focus solely on meeting spiritual needs sometimes get the idea that the only hope for social justice and the end of poverty and war is to die and go away to heaven, where justice will be restored at last and peace and love will finally abound forever. Neither side accurately reflects the teachings of Scripture.

The mission of the church cannot be separated from the resurrection of Christ.

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures… But if there is not resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, your faith also is in vain…. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied. – 1 Cor. 15.3-4, 13-14, 19

Did you hear that? Paul said that Christ’s death for our sins and His resurrection is “of first importance”; not political or social reform. Yes, Jesus showed deep compassion for the poor, the sick, the dispossessed and the outcasts in society. And as important as these things are, “first importance” is the forgiveness of sins at the cross.

Paul goes on to state that if Christ had not been raised then our faith would be in vain. Any “mission” that would not require the resurrection of Christ is NOT the mission of the church. Developing social programs to alleviate poverty, increase education, and end drug abuse could be implemented by any organization of men, with or without the resurrection of Christ. Any group of men could call for positive political change, with or without the resurrection of Christ. If the mission of the church was simply to alleviate social ills, why did Jesus have to die on the cross?

The mission of the church is not just “going away to heaven.”

At the conclusion of Paul’s famous discussion of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul did not conclude by saying “Therefore, make sure your sins are forgiven so you can lift up your eyes to heaven and wait for that glorious day when you finally get to come into My Kingdom, and receive a brand new body, never again to suffer pain or poverty, but rather to finally enjoy perfect justice and peace and love.”

Notice carefully Paul’s conclusion:

Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord. – 1 Cor. 15.58

Your toil is not in vain. What work you do in the kingdom of the Lord is not wasted. When you fully submit your life to Christ, doing works of justice and peace and love, and help others to do the same, you can know that your labor will be worth it! The resurrection not only gives us hope of a better future, it also means that whatever work for God we do today is not wasted!

The Mission of the Messiah

To better understand the mission of the church, it is helpful to first understand the mission of Jesus Christ. If you were to ask the average person why Jesus came to earth, you would probably get an answer like “To seek and save the lost” (Luke 19.10), or perhaps “To die on the cross so that we might have the hope of heaven”. While both of these are absolutely true, to state either of these answers alone would be incomplete. To fully understand the mission of the Jesus, we have to first understand His role as the promised Jewish Messiah.

For hundreds of years before Christ came to earth, the prophets had foretold the coming “Kingdom of God.” As Isaiah foretold, this coming Kingdom would be a “light of the nations” so that His salvation “may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa. 49.6). In this coming Kingdom, once more it would be said that “God reigns” (Isa. 52.7). The coming Messiah would be one who would bear our griefs, carry our sorrows, be pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, and chastised for our well-being. “And by His scourging we are healed” (Isa. 53.3-5) from the consequences of our sins.

Someday God would reign again, through His coming Messiah. In this Kingdom, the effects of sin would be reversed, and man would once again submit themselves to God and His Anointed King!

Shortly before Jesus began His ministry, John the Baptist preached the gospel of God, saying “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3.2). In other words, the time was finally here! Someone was finally coming to who “brings good news of happiness, Who announces salvation, And says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” (Isa. 52.7).

By viewing the role of Jesus from the perspective of God’s Kingdom as promised in the Old Testament, we can sum up the mission of the Messiah in three ways:

  1. The Messiah came to proclaim the good news of His kingdom. When Jesus began to preach, Matthew summed up his message by saying, “From that time Jesus began to preach and say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matt. 4.17). Notice that Jesus didn’t simply go forth preaching about himself, but rather he went forth preaching about the coming of the prophesied kingdom of God! The kingdom he preached wasn’t one that was somewhere up in the sky. Nor was it some kingdom that we would only experience after death. Rather it was God’s reign! His Kingdom was coming now! He prayed and proclaimed that God’s will was to be done “on earth as it is in heaven.”
  2. The Messiah came to enact the good news. Jesus practiced what he preached. Not only did Jesus proclaim the release of captives, sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed, He literally backed up those proclamations with action! He released those who were captive to sin! He made the blind to see! He gave freedom to those who were oppressed! Not only did Jesus teach that we should turn the other cheek and love our enemies, but He “when He was reviled, did not revile in return; while he was suffering, He uttered no threats.” (1 Pet. 2.23). Not only did Jesus proclaim that God’s kingdom was at hand, but He lived in submission to the Father’s authority in all that He said and did. (John 14.31).
  3. The Messiah brought the gospel through His suffering and resurrection. It was not enough to simply come and proclaim that “God reigns”. As long as man still bore his sins, he would continue to be separated from God. For this reason, Jesus “Did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10.45). He was sent to fulfill the mission that was prophesied by Isaiah, as one who would be “crushed for our iniquities” upon whom the LORD would cause “the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.” Sin and death destroyed our relationship with God. Of all the things that Jesus did while He was on earth, this was the work that Paul described as being of “first importance.”

The Mission of the Church

Jesus fully and perfectly accomplished His mission. And yet there is still work to do. Shortly before His death Jesus said to his disciples “As the Father sent Me, I also send you.” (John 20:21). There was still work to be done.

In 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, Paul spoke of Christ having “reconciled the world to Himself”, and yet, Paul recognized that He himself had been entrusted with the “word of reconciliation” as an “ambassador for Christ.” There was still work to be done.

Luke began His second letter to Theophilus by speaking of the works that “Jesus began to do and teach”. The rest of the book of Acts is about the work of Jesus that the apostles and the early church continued to do and to teach. There was still work to be done.

The mission of the church is to continue the mission of Jesus and to call others to follow Him in His mission as well. Consider carefully the words of the great commission:

And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. – Matt. 28.18-20

  1. Our mission is to proclaim the good news of His Kingdom.  Notice that our mission is not to proclaim simply that Jesus reigns in heaven, and one day we can go away and enjoy His Kingdom there. Jesus said that all authority has been given to Him in heaven and on earth. Jesus is Lord already. Right now, Jesus reigns, over the earth. (Rom 6.23; 10.0; 2 Cor. 4.5; Phil. 2.9). It is our mission to proclaim the gospel of His kingdom, thus bringing new disciples into His kingdom.
  2. Our mission is to enact the good news through total submission. The message of the gospel has, from the very beginning, been a message about God’s reign, His Kingdom, and our submission to His Kingdom. It is a message of His authority, our discipleship, and our obedience to what He has commanded. Since King Jesus reigns today, we must live like He is in charge! Whether it be visiting the widows and orphans, or loving our enemies, or feeding the hungry, we must strive to submit ourselves to His authority. Failure to stand up for justice, peace, and love is not just  overlooking a small detail (Matt. 23.23); it is denying our discipleship; it is denying that we believe Christ reigns; it is refusal to live as His Kingdom.
  3. Our Mission is to suffer and be raised with Christ. 

For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, “Who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth”; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.” – 1 Pet. 2.21-24.

As long as we are here on earth, we are called to suffer along with Christ. Jesus Himself said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matt. 16.24). We were called for this purpose. And since we know that Jesus reigns as Lord, our suffering in the Lord is not in vain.


Your Toil Is Not In Vain

“For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus “every knee will bow,” of those who are in heave and on earth and under the earth.” – Phil. 2:9-10

Have you ever imagined what it would look like if God literally was in charge of the earth right now? What if the entire earth was His Kingdom, filled with His disciples, who submitted their lives to Him? What would that look like?

As of yet, not every knee has bowed. But Christ is already King. The mission of the church is not to establish some sort of “utopian” kingdom of God on earth. But as the church, we are commanded to be a colony of heaven on earth (Philippians 3.20-21). We know that Christ already reigns over the earth. It is our job to live like it. We are God’s kingdom on earth, proclaiming to and showing the world that God already reigns. The Christian mission is to declare to all nations that Jesus is Lord, He has been exalted, and He currently has the name which is above every name, in anticipation for the day when every knee shall bow.

Christians don’t have to patiently wait around for the day when God will reign and make everything right. Neither is it is not our job revolutionize earth through social and political reforms. Although we are not called to build a heaven on earth, we must not forget that we do have a mission to do the work of heaven while on earth.

Healthy Parts, Healthy Body

Healthy: A Flexible Word

When it comes to our bodies, the definition of “healthy” is often a moving target that changes with each person you ask because people use different standards and reference points when comparing a given body to an imaginary “ideal” body. Does healthy mean there are no aches or pains right now or does it also include having none of the chronic disorders such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and elevated inflammation markers (with all of their ranges of progression)? Is a person with two previous heart attacks and slightly reduced heart function, but who feels great, has a sharp mind, and still has the ability to be “active” (another word that’s tough to pin down) considered healthy even though he is now at higher risk of future heart issues? What about age? Is an 85 year old who is able to keep up with the young guns who are just now turning 60 deemed healthy, even though his strength is no where close to the average 25 year old?

A growing approach to assessing health is to also consider the “whole person” rather than just the surface point of symptoms. Modern science is growing in understanding how the body’s incredibly complex organ systems, with each of their hierarchy of functions from the organs down through the tissues, cells, proteins, DNA, and necessary nutrients, impact and are affected by the other organ systems and their constituent parts. I.e., the digestive system sends signals through the nervous system that affect the blood supply via the cardiovascular symptom that intricately maneuver the muscular system in its proper functioning to digest food. And the effects are not all local to what we might consider its “primary” purpose. Eating a meal and the functions needed for it affect the brain, heart rate, respiratory rate, hormonal regulation, kidneys, etc.

Every function of the body, each with its own complex inter-workings, communicates with other parts so as to maintain homeostasis, which is the proper and effective functions and composition of the body. And when just one part is not functioning effectively, its effects can cause a chain of dysfunctional events that may or may not be apparent to the individual. The complexity I’ve briefly described has not even included the vast interconnections between the “hardware” of organ systems and the emotional status of the individual.

At the risk of pushing a biblical analogy further than its intended purpose, I believe the common image of God’s New Covenant people as the Body, of which Christ is the Head (Eph. 2:22,23; 3:11-16), itself made up of unique, yet unified, parts (Rom. 12:4,5) is such a good illustration for assessing our spiritual health both as a single unit and as individual members. What better way to illustrate the unity, maturity, unique tasks, mutual effects, and common purposes of the Church than to compare it to the chief object of creation, that which was made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). But qualified as being not under the headship of Adam, but of Christ, who himself is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1:15-20). He is the model of submission and yet effectively exercises God-given dominion over all things (Ps. 8), even death.

Jesus: A “Healthy Template” for the Church

Here we can have our standard, our reference point for what can be deemed “healthy.”

And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love. Ephesians 4:11-16

Here we have a standard for what it looks like for the Church to be healthy. A healthy mature Church looks like Christ in every way. The unity of faith and the unity of the knowledge of the Son of God is a picture of maturity and stature. A healthy thinking, healthy functioning Body does not chase the trends of human societies, is not swayed by arguments based on faulty human reasoning, or deceived by outright lies. Rather the mature Church boldly reflects the love and will of God into the world as we imitate God himself (Eph. 5:1,2). Much of Ephesians is a detailed description of what that looks like. Where God created man in His own image and subsequently gives him dominion to be the agents of God’s authority over the lower creation, the Church lives it out by ruling our bodies and properties in a God-glorifying way and serving and loving one another.

It is not 100% accurate to say that the Church ought to restore the 1st century church (is it desirable to imitate 1st century Corinth?). Rather, our goal is to restore it to the model of health and maturity revealed to us by Christ himself and the Spirit of God through the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:19-22).

Healthy From Every Angle

Consider the complexity of the human body once more. The body cannot be said to be restored to full health if all of the organ systems are sound but the vascular system is hardened. In fact, atherosclerosis will prevent the other organ systems themselves from remaining healthy. The body is not healthy if muscles are strong but the digestive tract is swollen and inflamed. In fact, decreased nutrient intake will eventually weaken the muscles. The church is not restored to Biblical health if beliefs about judgment and eternity are Scriptural but they neglect the poor and oppressed. In fact, Biblical hope and anticipation for the age to come shapes our motivation to implement the effects of God’s current reign in the “now time” (Matt. 25:31-46). A church who strives for the true and authorized ways to offer worship to God on a weekly basis but neglects opportunities to express brotherly love to one another will have not restored the characteristic of God’s church being a family. In fact, worship in an environment that is void of mutual love for one another will quickly deteriorate away from being worship done in spirit and in truth.

Just as restoring the health of the church must address the “whole person” and not neglect different “organ systems” (as if they can so easily be pulled apart from one another without destroying the person), a healthy body also relies on healthy organs within it. A person is not healthy if the liver hardened. Cirrhosis of the liver will in fact destroy the other organs and their functions. A person is not healthy if the thyroid is unregulated. In fact, a dysfunctional thyroid can destroy the bones, metabolism, hair growth, temperature regulation, and memory of a person.

The church is not restored to full health if its people thrive in benevolence, offers scripturally consistent worship, shares the gospel with many but whose members are giving up fights against addiction, are being swayed by the mindsets and powers of the world, scratching whatever itch comes around, or silently drifting off unnoticed. This aspect of the restoration ought to remind us that there should never be a feeling of “We have arrived.” A healthy church is evangelistic, bringing in younger generations, and growing in Biblical wisdom and knowledge at every level. All of these present opportunities for growth and maturity at every moment in time.

A Healthy Church is Full of Healthy Christians

If the church is to be restored to health, we must commit ourselves to being restored to health as individuals, which will include healthy attitudes and behaviors towards one another corporately (Rom. 12:3). Having spiritual health as individuals will result in looking different than the world. A collection of individuals that are different than the world will be a nation that looks different than the nations of the world. Ephesians 3 goes on to say in verse 22 that we are to “lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.” Healthy is good. Healthy is effective. We have a picture of what healthy looks like, but it is a conscious effort.