Paul writes: “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says, “When He ascended on high He led a host of captives, and He gave gifts to men.” (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that He had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.) And He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into Him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Eph 4:1–16).
From a human perspective, it’s but a bunch of religious folk doing life together. It’s about gathering; about music; about children’s ministry. There’s preaching, and singing, and the breaking of bread, and prayer. All good things, but nothing exceptional. But look at her from a spiritual perspective, and a very different picture emerges. She is a heaven-and-earth collaborative, with heaven unsurprisingly weighing in as dominant partner. In the passage above Paul describes that collaborative as the body of Christ – Jesus the head, us His body. He could have used any number of metaphors, and still made the same point. The local church is primarily spiritual, with the Lord Himself the jewel in the setting, whatever the word-picture in play.
The local church is truly extraordinary!
Getting to grips with the fact that the church is spiritual, and that she occupies a place and functions in the spiritual realm, is essential. If we don’t, church will be all about us, what we put in, and what we get out. It starts by recognizing that Biblical metaphor often moves beyond mere literary tool. For example: Christians are not like children of God; they literally are His children. He is not just like a father to us; He is Our Heavenly Father. In the same way, the church is not just like a family, a bride, an army, a body or a vine. We are these things. In actual fact, these spiritual realities are far richer than their reflections in the natural, but these reflections enable all of us to grasp in measure that which is infinite and beyond us.
This in turn means that our primary contribution in being and doing church is in the spiritual realm. The natural things – locking and unlocking, music, child care – these facilitate the real work, and as such are part of it. But these are not the main event. The main event is our collaboration with heaven. Together, we build in the spirit-realm. We use our voices, and we use music, and we use the communion table, but the engine room is the exercise is our faith, responding to grace, and worked out in love. Sometimes gatherings are decidedly militant (army); others are tender and intimate (bride). Some involve a great deal of ministry one to another (family); others are almost entirely consumed with ministry to the Lord and His world (priesthood). The Spirit leads; we follow.
Building the house is first and foremost a spiritual endeavor. Doing it well should lead to more people in the gatherings, a greater range of spiritual gifts in operation, fruit of every description in greater abundance, and increasing effectiveness in the work of the Gospel. It all starts in the Spirit, which is why we can so confidently assert that everyone has a contribution to make, and an indispensable contribution at that. The singing, clapping, dancing and giving is but a means to an end. The real issue is what is achieved in the spiritual realm. Ironically, it is the folk in the pews who are best positioned to contribute, because they are not distracted by serving in some way or another.
Revisit the passage and notice what Paul had to say about it: It’s a calling. The grace that we’ve received belongs to that calling. Our gifts belong to that calling. His injunction is that we should walk worthy of that calling. This is so because the church only builds herself up to the degree that each of us walk in that calling, playing our part. For the local church to thrive, the collaboration has to run every which way, between heaven and earth, and between all of us. As we do, what started out as the “unity of the Spirit” (Eph 4:3), a given in the Lord, becomes “the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13).
Vision will always be the poster-boy of progress, and what a vision we’ve been given – the fullness of Christ in every way! How we respond in our hearts to this great calling is make-or-break for the church. Gathering matters. Even more important is our attitudes when gathering. Apathy, lethargy and unbelief undermine. But so does legalism. Getting everyone jumping through the hoops in obligation will disembowel life. Faithfulness is required, but its the faithfulness of faith that will get the job done, not a faithfulness born of guilt and condemnation. This great safeguard ensures that doing church can never be onerous. Only faith and love will get us where we’re going, and these fuel us, rather than deplete us. Healthy and vibrant local churches will always give as good as they get, and the people who make the greatest sacrifices for her will be the ones who find them the most meaningful.
The fruit of building in the spirit is spiritual first, temporal second. Local church in full flight is the grace of God on display, reconciling the irreconcilable, and triumphing over sin, flesh, devil and grave! These victories spill over into the natural in blessings and breakthroughs of all kinds. Only a small percentage of these ever make it to testimony or praise report, and are but the tip of the iceberg of what the Lord is doing in and through His people.
A thought in conclusion. We’ll never build in the Spirit in any significant way if we cannot get people through the doors when we gather. In fact, getting them through the doors is the very first step in building. Yet so infra dig has church attendance become, that it is being mooted as one of the most important spiritual disciplines to nurtured in the twenty-first century. The Lord is intent on reversing the trend, and will be re-gathering His people once again. Let’s move with Him swiftly and surely, hearing what the Spirit is saying to the churches, and respond in joy and faith. The future is upon us, and the best is yet ahead!
Yours in Christ Jesus.