HOW THE CHURCH WORKS
Ephesians 4:11-16 NET
The Bible has a lot to tell us about the church. It tells us who the church is. It is a question of identity. We have two examples of that in today’s text. In verse 12 the church is called “the saints.” Notice that the term includes every Christian. It is not a word that is supposed to describe people who have attained some supernatural status or level of reverence. It is a term for all of us because we all need to be equipped for the work of ministry.
We see that reality also in the second term in today’s text that describes what the church is. According to verse 12 again, we are “the body of Christ.” A living body is designed to be always growing during its life. As members of Christ’s body on earth, we all need to be built up.
In other places in the Bible, other terms are used to describe and define the church. We are (for example) the salt of the earth, a letter from Christ, fish and a fishnet, the Ark, unleavened bread, branches of the vine, the vineyard, the fig tree, the olive tree, God’s planting, God’s building, Pillars of the truth, virgins, the Bride of Christ, citizens of the kingdom, exiles, ambassadors, the people of God, the family of God, the new creation, and this list goes on.1
Another way the Bible teaches about the church is by defining and describing the work that we are called to do as the church.
I like to use the acronym WIFE to outline the work of the church.
W stands for WORSHIP.
The church is God’s gathered community, designed to radiate his glory through (among other things) worship. When his people honor his person and praise him for his works, they help the creation reboot. Somewhere along the line, this planet has lost its purpose. Worship is our way of revisiting that purpose.
When Jesus was clip-clopping into Jerusalem at his triumphal entry, some Pharisees (who did not have a clue what was going on) demanded that Jesus stop his disciples from worshipping him. Not only did Jesus refuse to stop them, he told the Pharisees that if they were silenced “the very stones would cry out.” Now that our Savior has come, his worship is imperative. We all do it poorly, compared to how we will do it, but we try anyway. It is as natural as breathing for us.
Worship is supposed to be “in spirit and truth,” which is simply a way of saying “authentically.”
Its opposite would be worshipping in the flesh without a true feeling of awe or gratitude. Perhaps you remember the last time you attended a service that just seemed to be going through the motions? That is not worship. Authentic worship is a reaction to God’s felt presence, and God’s manifested works. It is not an expression of our “worth-ship” but his. The worshipper does not get carried away with herself but is caught up in him. That is why the fruit of the Spirit – self-control – must manifest in worship as well. Much damage has been done by confusing a self-honoring frenzy with God-honoring worship.
Yet, there is something to the process of worship which at times may seem like a loss of control. Paul told the formerly pagan Ephesians not to get drunk on wine, but to be filled with the Spirit. They were to replace one kind of intoxication for another. Instead of wine causing them to abuse one another, they were to drink deeply of the Holy Spirit, which would influence them. It would result in “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
When the Holy Spirit is manifested in our gatherings, he causes us to do things that outsiders may not understand, and may attribute to the wrong cause. At Pentecost, Peter had to remind the crowd that those who were receiving manifestations were not drunk; it was (after all) only nine o’clock in the morning. From that time on, “praising God” was a description of what believers constantly do.
I stands for INSTRUCTION
A true church is a discipling church, and a discipling church is a teaching church. One of the earliest criticisms that unbelieving authorities hurled at the early church was that they were teaching in Christ’s name. The apostles arose at daybreak and started teaching.
My sermons here at Piney Grove have mostly focused on teaching the commands of Christ. Even if we use an Old Testament text, it is usually to help us focus on something Jesus taught about that topic. Next Sunday, we will begin a series on the Sermon on the Mount and its Luke version, the sermon on the plain.
Discipling consists of bringing people to the point of commitment to Christ (baptizing) and then nurturing that commitment through a lifelong process of teaching. The gathered church is a teaching church. The means of the church’s teaching ministry is not a creed or a set of church traditions. It is the Holy Spirit, who is continuing the discipling ministry of Jesus Christ among us. The medium He uses is the Bible, the word of God.
Believers with the Holy Spirit inside them, and the word of God coming out of them, are a strong force for change in the world. Jesus intends for his gathered church to not simply sit by and wait until his return. He has commanded us to “engage in business” until he comes. “Until I come, (he said) devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.” The gathered church is a teaching church.
F stands for FELLOWSHIP
The church is God’s gathered community designed to radiate his glory by growing closer together and demonstrating our unity. This is done through fellowship. The act of gathering us together was intentional. God did not mean for us to be spiritual lone rangers. He does not have one church of doers and another church of viewers. He has one body, with many members. Fellowship is the way we show our unity among ourselves and to the watching world.
The gathered church is not a saved soul here, and a saved soul there. We are a collected crop. We are gathered sheaths, prepared to be harvested for our master on the last day. The gathered church is a fellowshipping church.
E stands for EVANGELISM
The church is God’s gathered community designed to radiate his glory by snatching people from among the doomed and bringing them to eternal life in Christ. We do this through dynamic witness. Jesus told us that we would be his witnesses “in Jerusalem and all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth”.
The church that truly evangelizes leads people from accepting Christ’s gift of forgiveness to embracing Christ’s authority and his coming kingdom. The church is God’s gathered community designed to radiate his glory by bringing others into his kingdom through dynamic witness.
Our passage today explains how the church works when it is working right.
The church works by equipping the saints for the work of ministry (11-12a).
11 It was he who gave some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12a to equip the saints for the work of ministry,
When a church is working right, members with the equipping gifts help all the saints become better at doing the work that they do.
The list that Paul uses here is not a list of professional church leaders. Even the word pastor as Paul used it here did not refer to someone hired to lead a church. All these terms referred to church members who had special Spiritual Gifts designed to equip everyone else in their ministry.
The apostle was a missionary — someone who could cross cultural or ethnic or geographical boundaries and reach people with the word of God.
The prophet was a person empowered with a message from God — usually a message that challenged people to turn to God in repentance.
The evangelist was also a person empowered with a message from God — usually a message of comfort or encouragement.
The pastor was a person who could shepherd the hungry and hurting and bring them to a place of strength, rest, and healing.
The teacher was a person who could feed the spiritually hungry by systematically setting out the truths of the word of God in a way that hearers can understand and apply to their lives.
When these equipping ministries are present and do their work, the result will be that the saints who hear them will be able to do what God calls them to do.
The church works by building up the body of Christ (12b-13).
12b that is, to build up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God — a mature person, attaining to the measure of Christ’s full stature.
A body that is properly built up is going to manifest two characteristics. First, it is going to attain unity. When we are first born, we have all the things that we need to do what people do. But we are not born with natural unity. We have feet, but we cannot walk. We have eyes but we only focus on what is straight in front of us. We have ears but we cannot always tell where a sound is coming from. We have to learn over time how to use our bodies as one. We call it coordination.
The unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God that Paul talks about here is something like that coordination. The more we gather together as a body, the more opportunities we have to get coordinated with each other so that we think and speak with a unified voice about the things of God. But, just like that baby, we have to work at it. It does not come automatically. Baptism does not make us work together. Working together is the only way to learn this kind of unity.
The second characteristic we need to attain is maturity “attaining to the measure of Christ’s full stature. Nobody is born mature. It seems like some people never mature. But if we don’t gather together for the equipping ministries to help us, we are not going to get built up.
The church works by maturing the members of the body of Christ (14-15).
14 So we are no longer to be children, tossed back and forth by waves and carried about by every wind of teaching by the trickery of people who craftily carry out their deceitful schemes. 15 But practicing the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into Christ, who is the head.
Paul uses two images of the church in these two verses. He says that immature believers are like a boat. They are tossed back and forth by waves and carried about by every wind. False teachers can make us like that. No teachers can also make us like that. If we fail to come together to learn the word of God, we will remain like children, and our boats will be flopping around everywhere, with no stability.
Another image Paul uses is the body. A body begins as a child, but it is expected to grow up. It is expected to mature. Maturity for the church is that each member grows “up into Christ, who is the head.”
The church works by all the members mutually supporting one another (16).
16 From him the whole body grows, fitted and held together through every supporting ligament. As each one does its part, the body grows in love.
Don’t forget this last verse of today’s text because it tells us something very important about how the church works when it is working right.
Let me put it this way. People imagine the church is working right when it resembles a concert. All the fans gather in the auditorium. The band plays on the stage. The fans listen, they cheer. The playing is over. Everybody goes home. If that is the way you think church works, you are bound to be disappointed.
Let me read that verse again: “From him the whole body grows, fitted and held together through every supporting ligament. As each one does its part, the body grows in love.”
Every time we gather as a church, we do a lot of things (worship, instruction, fellowshipping, evangelism) but while we are doing that growth is happening. The growth comes from Jesus “from him the whole body grows.” But that growth does not come passively. In a concert, the band plays, and the fans listen — passively taking it in. But in a church service growth happens only “as each one does its part.” So church works by all the members mutually supporting one another. When that happens “the body grows in love.”
I want us to be a church that works. If we commit ourselves to be a working church, I think the LORD is going to surprise us. I think he wants to work with us to build up the body of Christ in this community.
1 For an example of this kind of study, see Paul Minear’s book, Images of the Church in the New Testament.