In the closest of earthly associations, connected too by the nearest and dearest of ties known to man, does the Church stand in relation to Christ. It is His body. Nothing can be closer than that. It is His bride, with the assured prospect of being manifested as the Lamb’s wife. Nothing can be dearer and nearer than that.
And first, as to His body, God has given “Him to be head over all things to the assembly, which is His body, the fulness of Him that filleth all in all.” (Eph. 1:22, 23.) Of assemblies, God acknowledges now but one, called here the assembly, the same which is elsewhere termed the assembly of the living God (1 Tim. 3:15), and is claimed by the Lord Jesus Christ, as we have seen, as His own. (Matt. 16:18.) But this assembly is also the body of Christ, which, viewed in this character, has Him for its head.
Now the headship of Christ is by no means an unimportant subject in the Scriptures, nor is it one in which but few have any concern. Far and wide throughout the universe does the headship of Christ extend. Further than the eye of man has yet penetrated is that headship to be acknowledged; for to three distinct spheres does the headship of Christ appertain. He is the head of all principality and power, as we learn from Col. 2:10. Headship in this character has of course to do with His place in creation; and the mystery of God’s will, now disclosed to us in Eph. 1:10, but not yet carried out, has made known the divine purpose of heading up all things in the Christ. Again, as the Christ, He is the head of every man, the man being in his turn woman’s head. (1 Cor. 11:3.) There is however a third character of headship in which the Lord is presented. “He is the head of the body, the Church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from among the dead; that in all things He might have the pre-eminence.” (Col. 1:18.) The headship over the universe is His who died, and He receives it who created all things, being the firstborn of all creation, and that by virtue of having called it all into being. (Col. 1:15.) His headship over every male as distinct from the female flows from His incarnation, who as man is the Christ. His headship in relation to the assembly only dates from His resurrection; for until He had died the assembly had no existence; but since He has died and has risen, He stands as head in relation to it. He is head of the body, the Church (Eph. 1:22; 4:15; Col. 1:18; 2:19); He is also head of the Church, as the husband is head of his wife. (Eph. 5:23.) Of Christ’s headship of the assembly the New Testament alone treats, and that only in the epistles to the Ephesians and the Colossians. This is a much more circumscribed sphere of course than that of headship over the universe; but we are taught, that it is He, who is head over all things, whom God has given to the Church which is His body, the fulness of Him who fills all in all. His relation to it, and by consequence its relation to Him, as viewed in this character, was both new and peculiar. Nothing of the kind had Israel, God’s earthly-people, ever known; nothing of the kind will they ever enjoy.
To the Church, whether viewed as His body or His bride, He is head, not Lord. Lord of course He is; God made Him such. (Acts 2:36.) Every knee in heaven, on earth, and under the earth (i.e. all intelligent creatures), must ever own Him as Lord. (Phil. 2:11.) The Church too knows Him as the Lord; but He is head to, not Lord of, the Church. Headship and Lordship both belong to Him, but they are not convertible terms. As Lord, He stands out apart from all others; as head, He is in close association with that to which He is as such connected. Scripture then never speaks of Him as Lord in relation to the Church; for that clause in Eph 5:29, when rightly read, stands thus: “Even as the Christ the Church.”1 Of this assembly He is the head, and it stands to Him in a relation altogether new, being His body, the fulness of Him that filleth all in all. St. Paul alone of the New Testament writers treats of this branch of the subject, and to him was the truth of it first made known. The foundation on which the assembly was to rest was announced, as we have seen, to Peter in the audience of the twelve. The existence of His body upon earth Christ first revealed to Paul (Eph. 3:3) when in the company of his fellow-travellers, though in words they did not understand. The Lord Jesus was speaking to Saul, but He did not address them. How near were they to the speaker from heaven, and yet remained strangers to the communication, embodied in that single sentence, “Why persecutest thou me?” No question surely was ever asked more astounding to anyone than this; no interrogation was ever addressed to a prisoner more condemnatory than this. From One whom Saul had never seen, and from that One in heavenly glory, the light of which the whole company beheld, came that startling, penetrating question to the impetuous opponent of God’s saints. All that Saul was doing was known to his interrogator. What Saul was doing was unknown to himself. To turn aside the question was impossible; so personal it was, so heart-searching it must have been. To answer it satisfactorily was equally impossible. It convicted him of ignorance of God’s mind, and of hatred to God and to His Son. Paul evidently never forgot it, nor the truth which by it was revealed. As proof that he never forgot it, we find that question recorded in all three accounts of his conversion, two of which are related by himself. Writing to the Corinthians, he tells them too of his sin. (1 Cor. 15:9.) Exhorting the Philippians, he makes mention of it (3:6); and when unbosoming himself to his child in the faith, he again refers to it. (1 Tim. 1:13.) The truth too which was thus revealed took a firm hold of him. He taught it, he contended for it, he suffered for it. (Eph. 3:1.) Further, by that question the Lord threw a shield over His persecuted ones, who were dear to Him, and arrested the arm of the self-constituted inquisitor of the saints. But He did more. By the form of His question He revealed the truth, that His saints were part of Himself. Of old Jehovah had declared of Israel that those who touched them touched the apple of His eye (Zech. 2:8); i.e. that which a man guards most carefully. Here the Lord announced that in persecuting His saints Saul was persecuting Him. Thus the mystery was disclosed of a body upon earth, which belonged to a head in heaven.
For teaching about this body we must turn, as we have said, to the epistles of Paul; not that he was the only one who knew about it, for to God’s holy apostles and prophets was it revealed by the Spirit (Eph. 3:5); but to Paul was it first made known by revelation. (Eph. 3:3.) A body on earth, its head in heaven, this constitutes the mystery of the Christ, the two making up the one mystic man—the Christ. And this body is His complement, or fulness, who fills all in all. (Eph. 1:23). Without it as the ascended Christ He was not complete; with it there is nothing left to be desired. The divine conception of the Christ thus stands forth in all its completeness. But what a conception! His fulness the body is, who fills all in all; thoughts, statements, a revelation, we have about the Christ which far surpass our small intelligence to grasp in their fulness. This however is simple, and within the power of our mental faculties to take in, that great as is His glory, who is God as well as man, when looked at as man, though He fills the whole universe with His divine glory, He, the Christ, is not complete without His body, the Church. What an interest He must take, He does take, in that which stands in this relation to Him! It is His body. How close to Him! how really a part of Himself! How full of meaning, then, was the question, “Why persecutest thou me?”
Now this body, in common in this respect with the assembly of God, is presented in the Word in three different lights. All the saints, from Pentecost to the rapture of 1 Thess. 4:16, 17, form part of it, and together compose it, according to Eph. 1:23, Col. 1:18. And although as saints they will reign with Christ, and as the assembly, the Lamb’s wife in glory, will be the metropolis of the kingdom, the new Jerusalem, it would nevertheless appear, from, the revelation of the body being His complement, who fills all in all, that this relation of the Church to Him, its head, will for ever abide; for viewed as the risen man, He is not complete without it. The body then will not, like a dissolving view, merge into the bride, the former disappearing when the latter is publicly displayed. These two characters of the Church are quite distinct now, and will be for ever.
Again, all the saints upon earth at any one time between Pentecost and the rapture are viewed as the body of Christ. Of this we learn from Eph. 4:16, Col. 2:19. Hence, at no time of its existence upon earth does it ever lack a limb. It is never as respects its members defective. A maimed body, a defective body, forms no part of Scripture teaching about the assembly or Church of God; and it should be noticed, that only when Scripture treats of the body as wholly in existence upon earth, do we read of its members, or of its joints and bands. Without all its members it could not of course rightly grow, nor properly discharge its functions. But we are plainly taught that it should grow, and as occasion requires should act, and it is to do both upon earth. Hence it is regarded as at all times fully furnished with its members whilst here below. Had we simply man’s thoughts about the body of Christ, we should probably have had it depicted as fully furnished with its members, only when viewed in its most comprehensive character, embracing all the saints who do, or will form part of it. This however is the only light in which, when viewed in the Word, the existence of its members is unnoticed. The wisdom of God in speaking of the members, when the body is looked at as on earth, all may discern. The absence of all mention of the members, when the body is viewed as complete in glory, we may surely account for satisfactorily.
Further, each local assembly, meaning thereby all the saints in any given locality, has the characteristic in Scripture of Christ ‘s body, sw'ma Cristou'. (1 Cor. 12:27.) We must say it has this characteristic; for the language of the passage, by the omission of the definite article before the noun “body,” whilst defining the character of the local assembly, excludes most carefully the thought of independency. The local assembly is charged with the responsibility which belongs to Christ’s body. Yet it is not the body of Christ to the exclusion of any of the saints elsewhere; for the saints in any given place are really only part of the body of Christ, though viewed in their local character they are responsible to act for Christ as His body in that place. And whether they understand it or not, whether they act accordingly or not, Scripture regards all saints in any one place as together Christ’s body, however many and diverse may be the names which they give to themselves. For there is but one body, as of course the head can have but one. Now this truth, when apprehended, deals a death blow to any denominational position or association. “There is one body, and one Spirit.” (Eph. 4:4.)
Of this body Christ is the head (Eph. 4:15; Col. 1:18; 2:19); and from Him as such, “all the body by joints and bands having nourishment ministered, and knit together, increaseth with the increase of God.” One learns from the Word of a double work constantly going on. By the gifts from the ascended Christ, labourers in the Word and doctrine (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers), souls are reached, and the body edified. But beside this we are taught of another work, the increase of the body. For this the service of all the members is requisite, but in connection with, and in subordination to the head. “From whom the whole body fitly joined together, and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.” (Eph. 4:16.) Thus does the head care for His body, and provide for its edification and growth. The body is to increase, and that according to the effectual working in the measure of each one part. Are all Christians alive to this? By the gifts of Christ souls are converted, the body is edified, the saints can be perfected. (Eph. 4:11, 12.) The increase of the body, however, is only mentioned in connection with the proper working of each one part. Surely there is something here which is too much forgotten. Edification by gifts of ministry is generally understood. Is the increase of the body by the effectual working of each ‘one part as generally acknowledged? Is it generally remembered, that to “every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ”? (Eph. 4:7.)
Now, were this the case, would there not be a marked difference in the outward aspect of the Church of God? Instead of casting all responsibility of the assembly on those who labour in the Word, which has too generally been done, being content just to receive from such what they may have to give, would there not be more real fellowship and a more general care for the increase of the body? Now where this is forgotten can it be said that Christians have entered in a broad Catholic way into that which interests Christ upon earth? Are any contented with seeking their own profit merely? Are any satisfied with, in addition to that, helping on the spread of the gospel of God’s grace? A happy, blessed service that surely is. But is that all that is put before us in the New Testament? Are we desirous of, and helping forward as far as we can, the increase of the body of Christ? Has the truth of the increase of the body, by the effectual working of each one part, dawned upon the reader, if a Christian, as that which very closely concerns him?
There is a circle of interest very dear to God, within the limits of which the whole race of man upon earth is included. This the Lord Jesus set forth on the day He rose from the dead, when He commissioned His disciples to preach repentance and remission of sins among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. Nothing less extensive than this for evangelistic work should bound the sympathies and desires of God’s saints. There is, however, another circle of interest, less extensive in its limits, yet not less important, and very dear to Christ. Within its range none but true Christians are numbered. It is the body of Christ, the increase of which He desires, and in the work of which each part of the body should take its part. Again we would ask, Has the reader acknowledged his responsibility in connection with it?
The lack of apprehension as regards this is however of no recent date. Denominational differences have but fostered it and strengthened it. The language too of men, accepted as perfectly proper, bears witness to it, as they talk of “this cause,” “that cause,” or “our cause.” Yet however widely extended may be the cause for which they plead, or which they support, it is far less comprehensive than that of the body of Christ. But to a much older date than that of Luther and Calvin must we trace back this evil. For we see it in those communities in which the clergy are looked upon as the church, and in which they arrogate to themselves all church action and authority. Herein they are wrong. Those who minister the Word are not the church, though part of it. The distinction, on the other hand, between those who do minister and those who do not is perfectly Scriptural, and all should maintain it. But the delegating to the clergy all church power and action, resulting very probably from the decline of spirituality in early days, this it is which has deadened the sense of general responsibility in reference to the increase of the body, till what Scripture teaches upon it has been wholly and for centuries forgotten.
The question then may be asked, What am I to do? How can I contribute to the increase of the body? The head, we would reply, will surely teach each member what is its place in the body. To Him we should look for direction; for it is His body, and He knows the part which each can take for the increase of the whole. How often have Christians looked to men for guidance as to their line of service. How often have godly men set others to work, instead of leaving that to the wisdom of the head, thus practically ignoring the head. Brotherly counsel is one thing, human direction is another. Apollos, as the servant of Christ, would not be directed even by Paul. Paul acknowledged the freedom of the workman from human control.
But if we have to own failure in so little apprehending Scripture teaching about the body of Christ, if from the natural selfishness of the human heart we have hitherto restricted our interest to a range less extensive than that of Christ’s body, the head, we have to thank God, has never ceased to care for anything less than all His members. And His unwearied devotedness is seen afresh in recalling the attention of His people to important and practical truths so long forgotten. How small, how narrow, how contracted, are men’s thoughts compared with the revelation of the body on earth united to the head in heaven! What it is to have such a head, and who is the head, the apostle Paul dwells upon in the epistle to the Colossians. What becomes those who are members of the body is specially set forth in that to the Ephesians. To a study of these epistles under the teaching of the Holy Ghost we recommend any who desire full instructions on the subject.
Nothing can be closer to Christ than the being a member of His body. A privilege indeed; but a privilege connected with great responsibilities. As thus connected with Him, sectional distinctions should drop, and denominational position be surrendered. As members one of another, there are responsibilities likewise. On these we hope to touch in a future article. Meanwhile we here close for the present, hoping in our next to look at the church as the bride of Christ.
1 Attention to the phraseology of Scripture on this point will help us to form a judgment as to that disputed reading in Acts 20:28, where many good authorities represent the apostle as having said “the assembly of the Lord” instead of “the assembly of God.” The former reading we may dismiss as contrary to the phraseology and general teaching of Scripture. “Assembly of God “is a Scriptural term; “assembly of Christ “is a Scriptural thought; “assembly of the Lord,” we believe, is neither the one nor the other.