THE MINISTRIES OF THE CHURCH
Many of us would have heard the story of a man who went in search of the perfect church. After years of going all over the world, he finally found one. But when he joined it, it lost its perfection, because he was not perfect! When I join many others in dreaming about an ideal church, it is only with the desire to spur all of us towards that goal hoping that we will be able to get nearer to that ideal in the days to come than we are at present.
What Is The Church?
Most of us are aware that the word 'church' in the New Testament was not referring to a building, with or without special architectural features. In simple words, it refers to a group of people who are assembled together in the name of Christ. Two phrases are used nowadays to refer to the church in its different forms of existence, namely, 'the universal church' and 'the local church.' The universal church, of course, refers to the entire group of born again believers of all time and the local church refers to the group of Christians who are gathered together in any locality. Unfortunately, the people in the local churches are not all born again. The universal church will not include those who are not born again (Jn.3:5). Most of the times when the Bible uses the word 'church' it refers to the universal church, and, in a few places, it is clear that it is referring to the local church.
The Body Of Christ
The 'body of Christ' refers to the universal church. Even though, at different times, a few groups and even local churches have claimed to be exclusively the body of Christ, it has been clear to the others that those groups were deceiving themselves. In most cases, those groups based their claim on some special 'revelation' that only they had, or on subscribing to a certain set of doctrines. But membership in the body of Christ can only be based on a personal relationship with Christ that comes through being born again. We cannot join the universal church or the body of Christ by filling up an application form or signing a faith statement. After Jesus went up to heaven to be with the Father, He has left the church on earth to act in His place as His body. Just as a human body has different parts, each serving a specific function, the body of Christ also has different parts carrying out different ministries. Many Christians are aware of this diversity of ministries and there is a lot of teaching available on the spiritual gifts each member of the body of Christ can receive and serve with. Many local churches have a great focus on the working out of these gifts and promoting such ministries.
But the mistake many people make is in looking at spiritual gifts and ministries in the context of individuals and local churches and not seeing the larger picture in the context of the universal church. It is the universal church which is the body of Christ, and at any point of time, it is the members of this church who are alive at that time who together carry out the different ministries. The mistake is in expecting that any local church can function as the body of Christ manifesting His fullness even in terms of spiritual gifts and ministries.
When we look around, what we see is that no single church completely represents Christ or carries out all that He did while He was on earth. As some people have understood, each local church is carrying out a part of the whole task of the church. It is the universal church that represents Christ. We can then understand that each local church is a part of the body of Christ (the universal church) carrying out certain functions, just like the different parts of the human body.
The Dream For The Ideal Church
1 Corinthians 12 describes how these local churches are to work together as the body of Christ. How can this work out in practice? Let us say that the emphasis in a church is on teaching from the Word of God, in another on evangelism, in another on praying, etc. What is happening now is that since each local church tends to act independently, the church majoring on teaching tends to miss out on evangelism and prayer. They have very good teaching, but concern for others tends to take a backseat. The church with zeal for evangelism tends to end up with mixed up teaching, and the church with the focus on prayer seems to be out of touch with practical realities. As a result, all these churches end up distorting the function of the body of Christ.
The solution is for all these local churches to recognise and appreciate the ministries that the other churches are carrying out and to work together in sharing ministries. Instead of each local church striving to function as the entire body of Christ, the way is to recognise the universal church as the body of Christ and to work together as such.
This is easier said than done. Once when I was answering questions as a guest speaker in a church, one sister asked if it was all right to go to another church to attend a special meeting, when an anointed servant of God was visiting that church. Before I could answer, the Pastor of the church told her that there was no need to do that since the church where she was a member was capable of meeting all her spiritual needs. Pastors are afraid that they would lose members to other churches, and members are taught to have a misplaced sense of loyalty to their own church. Some Pastors hate to acknowledge that they are less than perfect or complete, and thus they prevent their flock from getting what they need from elsewhere. Some leaders are secretly insecure, and they would rather continue with their small groups than mingle with other churches where their lacks and wrong ways could be exposed. Such fears can be dealt with more easily when everyone can see himself as a small part of a bigger picture and stop trying to preserve his small independent identity.
Local churches, according to the teachings of the New Testament, are meant to be administratively independent. However no local church can afford to be spiritually independent of other parts of the body of Christ. Each small church has something to share with the rest of the body, and much to receive from the other parts of the body.
I hope that this will stir up many people, especially leaders, to think more on this subject. This is not an exhaustive treatise addressing all the different aspects of the subject, but an appetiser that will create interest in many hearts to pursue this further.