October 19, 2017

The Spiritual Nature of the Church

Larry Oats

“The church is God’s institution for this age.” We hear this often, and the vast majority of those reading this article would give a hearty amen to the statement. The church, however, is not an “institution” in the modern sense of the word. The Oxford Dictionary defines “institution” as a large organization founded for a particular purpose, such as a college, bank, etc.; an organization providing residential care for people with special needs; an official organization with an important role in a country; or an established law or custom.” While some pastors might think that the second definition fits their ministry to a T, it is clear that the church is not an “institution” in this sense of the word. The purpose of this article is to examine the New Testament metaphors used for the church and demonstrate that the church is a living organism, linked organically to Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit.

There are church models that focus on business, with the desire of making the church comfortable for the business world. The pastor is the “CEO,” the deacons or elders are the “Board of Directors,” and the people are “clients.” The building is designed not to look like a church. In more traditional churches, we are reminded frequently that the government, our bank, and the businesses who serve our needs view us as an “institution,” and we need to make sure that our churches use good “business practices.”

We acknowledge that some of the metaphors used for the church tend toward this idea of “institution.” Paul speaks of the church as a field in 1 Corinthians 3:5–9 and then switches to the referring to the church as “temple.” First Peter 2:5 uses the temple or building idea, but emphasizes that the members are living stones built upon Christ, who is the cornerstone. First Timothy 3:15 continues the building concept, seeing the church as the “pillar and ground of the truth.” Other metaphors for the church are more personal. In 1 Timothy 5:1, 2 Paul views the church as family, with the older to be treated as fathers and mothers, the younger as brothers and sisters.

One of the more spiritual metaphors is found in 2 Corinthians 11:2 and Ephesians 5:31, 32. In 2 Corinthians 11:2 Paul used the image of an engagement of the church to Christ: “I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ.” Paul as a father expressed his concern for the spiritual purity of his daughter, the church at Corinth. When the Corinthians responded to his gospel preaching, he gave them to be the future bride of the heavenly Bridegroom, Jesus Christ. As a result, he also “committed himself to guarding her virginity—her undivided loyalty to Christ—until the consummation of her marriage at Christ’s appearance from heaven.”[1] This imagery is carried forward by Paul in Colossians 1:22 and especially Ephesians 5:27 and 32 where the church moves from the betrothed to the bride. This takes place in the future, as spoken of by John in Revelation 19:7–10. Paul describes the church as “glorious,” a word which speaks

of the eschatological radiance and brightness of God’s presence on the final day. . . . This glory is the radiance of God, the shining forth and manifestation of his presence. The immediately following statements in v. 27, which depict the church as “free from spot, wrinkle or anything of the sort,” amplify and explain what is meant by “glorious,” and, in the light of the following purpose clause (that the church “might be holy and blameless”), are best taken as referring to the spiritual and ethical perfection on the last day. The glory is “the perfection of character with which the Lord has endowed her.”[2]

More significant than the imagery of the church as the bride of Christ, however, is the metaphor of the body. Paul alone of all the NT writers speaks of the church as the “body of Christ” (1 Cor. 12:27; Rom. 12:5; see also 1 Cor. 10:16, 17; 12:12, 13) and as a body of which Christ is the “Head” (Eph. 1:22, 23; 4:12–16; Col. 1:18; 2:19). These are two slightly different metaphors, for in the first the whole body is the metaphor. Paul speaks of the members of the church being eyes, ears, and noses. Christ is the Lord who is outside this body and is the One whom this body worships and serves. In the second the church is the body of which Christ is the Head. The church is the body distinguished from the head.

First Corinthians 12:27 is an example of the first metaphor. Paul declares simply, “Ye are the body of Christ.” The church of Corinth, as a whole, was considered to be Christ’s body.

They are the people who have been made holy in Christ Jesus and are called to be holy (1:2). Yet these people quarreled, caused divisions, failed to expel an immoral brother, brought lawsuits against fellow brothers, criticized the apostles, and did not properly observe the Lord’s Supper. In spite of all these shortcomings, Paul tells the Corinthians that they are the body of Christ.[3]

“Body” does not have the definite article. Paul may have been saying, “You are a body, one of many,” or you are “body,” the one and only one. Either way, this body exists in Christ and belongs to Christ. It is genuinely united with Christ, for every individual member is included in Christ.[4] Paul’s following statement, “and members in particular,” identifies the individuality of the members inside the unity of the body. In the context, each of them received a gift by means of which each member of the body contributed to the well-being of the body and thus of Christ.

Romans 12:4, 5 is very similar. There is a spiritual unity in the church which is possible because the individuals are “in Christ.” In the New Testament those who are joined to Christ become part of the body of Christ. When we are one body in Christ, we are also then “members one of another.” Christianity, ultimately, is a corporate experience. “Although each member has come to faith by a separate and individual act of faith, the believing community lives out its Christian experience in fellowship with one another. John Donne’s ‘No man is an island’ is true of the church of Jesus Christ. ‘Lone Ranger Christianity’ is a contradiction in terms.”[5]

Ephesians 4:16 (very similar to Col. 2:19) is an example of the second metaphor, in which Jesus is the Head and the church is the body. This passage demonstrates the intricate connection that the church has with the head. “From whom [Christ] the whole body fitly joined together and compacted [knit together] 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.” This verse is “as grammatically difficult as it is uncommonly rich in meaning.”[6]

The verse begins with two participles that begin with the preposition sun, “with, together with”—“joined together” (sunarmologoumenon) and “compacted” or “knit together” (sumbibazomenon). “Joined together” (“fitly framed together”) was used in Ephesians 2:21 in an architectural image of a building, but here it pictures the organic growth of a body. These two occurrences, however, are not completely different. In 2:21, the building, when it is properly “joined together,” grows into a holy temple. Thus, in both uses, the idea is that when a church is properly joined together, the result is spiritual growth.

“By that which every joint supplieth” can be translated “by every supporting ligament.” This refers to the role of the individuals in the body. The body grows as each part does its duty. We know that spiritual growth ultimately comes from Christ. Nevertheless, “the body grows as each part does its apportioned building work in love (reaffirming v 7, and clarifying that it is not just leaders who build the church). All along, that upbuilding and growth is held in unity and cohesion by every supporting ligament (echoing the role of the teaching leaders).”[7] While the focus here is on the church as a whole, the individual is still important.

The church is joined together and knit together as each individual completes his responsibility “according to the effectual working in the measure of every part.” This can be translated “according to the energy that corresponds to the capacity of each individual part.” This is a continuation of the emphasis on the members of the body, but it also recognizes that members are not equal to one another. Their gifts are different, and thus their activities differ. Every member performs his ministry “in accordance with his God-given ability.”[8]

The end result of the church joining and knitting itself through the work of each individual for the purpose of increasing the body unto the edifying of itself in love. The church is now “building itself up in love as it becomes more and more Christlike (the identical eis oikodomen is used in 4:12).”[9] This completes the image of the organic growth of a body.

This complex passage teaches us much about the church. “Grammar is evidently the small price paid for such a successful compression of central themes and imagery.”[10] The significance is that Christ, as the Head, gives the church, as the body, all that it needs to grow into Christlikeness. “Paul’s focus is on the growth of the body as a whole, not on the need for individuals to become mature in Christ, however necessary this may be.”[11]

The end result of the paragraph that begins in Ephesians 4:7 and runs through verse 16 is that the exhortations in chapters 5 and 6 are addressed to the whole church as a corporate reality. Unity is both the underlying basis and the final goal of the exhortations. This can only be accomplished, however, when each member of the body hears and responds to the instructions which Paul directs to the whole body.[12]

Christ, as the Head of the church, causes the body to live and grow. Christ, as the Head over the church, exercises authority over the church. While the images are somewhat different, both of these concepts are undoubtedly present when Christ is called Head of the church.

These wonderful images of the church teach us many truths. The church is pictured as a structure, built upon a solid foundation. It is a field where laborers work in the harvest. In a more personal view, however, the church is the virgin, pure and chaste, awaiting the coming of her Groom and her wedding to Him. The church is Christ’s body as He directs, empowers, grows, and prospers the church spiritually. In the church each individual contributes to its vitality; no Christian can divorce himself from the church, for the church is God’s organic, living institution for this age.


Larry Oats serves as dean of Maranatha Baptist Seminary.

(Originally published in FrontLine • July/August 2011. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

  1. Murray J. Harris, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 735. []
  2. Peter Thomas O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 425. []
  3. Simon J. Kistemaker and William Hendriksen, Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians, New Testament Commentary 18 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953–2001), 440. []
  4. Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, John Richard de Witt, tr. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 375–76. []
  5. Robert H. Mounce, Romans, The New American Commentary 27 (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2001), 234. []
  6. Thomas R. Yoder Neufeld, Ephesians, Believers Church Bible Commentary (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2001), 189. []
  7. D. A. Carson, New Bible Commentary : 21st Century Edition, 4th ed. (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), Eph. 4:7–16. []
  8. William Hendriksen and Simon J. Kistemaker, Exposition of Ephesians, New Testament Commentary 7 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1953–2001), 204. []
  9. Neufeld, Ephesians, 189. []
  10. Ibid. []
  11. O’Brien, Ephesians, 313. []
  12. Neufeld, Ephesians, 190. []


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