From Him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work (Ephesians 4:16).
The Industrial Revolution at the turn of the 19th century, first in England and then in Europe and the U.S., saw a seminal shift in how goods were produced. The result: a major turning point in most aspects of daily life – far beyond the lives of those working directly in industry.
The revolution saw “one-off” hand-made items transition to machine-assisted production; from wood fuel to coal, with increasing reliance on water and steam power; from small artisan workshops to larger industrial sites, with rapidly swelling labour forces and an emphasis on mass production.
Although the Revolution ushered in a rise in economic and cultural standards for the general population, it was also characterized by dirty, noisy, disease-inducing work-places with oppressive labour standards and toxic chemical by-products.
However, economic historians often point to this 8-decade period as among the most transformative in the history of humanity.
If he had witnessed it, the Apostle Paul might have used the mass-production factory as an analogy for the church.
At Bethel, as we consider our New Testament mandate we often refer to the local church as a “disciple-making factory”. Our mandate is to work together under the Great Overseer and empowered by the Holy Spirit, to produce and nurture disciples of Jesus Christ carefully disguised in our society as students, labourers, healthcare professionals, office workers, teachers and home-makers.*
But Paul lived 17 centuries before the Industrial Revolution. As Paul reached for an illustrative parallel to what he observed the Holy Spirit doing within these communities of faith during those early decades of the Christian movement, he most often spoke of the church as a Body – the Body of Christ.
Even in the 1st century, Paul understood – possibly enlightened by his medically-trained companion Luke – that the human body is a carefully designed collection of interdependent functional systems beautifully and intentionally arranged anatomically for creativity, endurance, strength, efficiency, the ability to self-repair…and production!
What he couldn’t have understood in his time, is that the average mature human body contains 37.2 trillion cells, each a miniature production factory.
Paul’s choice of the body as an illustration of the church – both universal and local – is brilliant as it graphically demonstrates diversity and interdependence within the church, with Christ as our Head.
Stated another way: like our bodies under the management of the Head, the local church is a living organism of various functioning “parts”, each different from the others, but relying on them as we live together in community.
And as with our bodies, if any part is not functioning – and to the capacity for which it was designed – difficulty will result.
Sometimes it is obvious, resulting in great pain and/or a serious limitation in function.
Or, it may not be immediately apparent only resulting in destructive disease or debilitating dysfunction further down the road.
The New Testament assumes that every believer is a part – a functioning part – of the local church.
Stephen Yuille observes on contemporary Christian body-life: “Kevin DeYoung has formulated an interesting, if somewhat grisly, term to describe a current trend within the local church: decorpulation. We’re all familiar with the meaning of decapitation – the removal of the head from the body. Well, decorpulation emphasizes the other side of the equation – the removal of the body from the head.”
He explains the word-picture further: “professing Christians who claim to belong to the head – Christ – while rejecting, or at least sorely neglecting, the body – the church.”**
Takeaway: in our contemporary consumerist mode, it’s not uncommon for Christians to think that any local church must fit a shopping list of features – style of worship, music genre, convenient parking, quality child-care, animated preaching, beauty of physical architectural design, etc. – as if the whole experience should be designed for individual consumer preferences.
But the antidote to a bad church experience is not a “no church” experience, but rather a good church experience. The unbiblical option is, having had a less-than-desirable experience, to conclude that participation is really optional – and to opt out!
And for those of us raising families, here is what we found as an unequalled benefit: to participate in life together and to provide opportunity for our kids to experience what it is to learn from – be molded by – multi-generational examples.
New Testament fellowship is my opportunity to serve Christ by serving others; to give myself in a significant way to a local community of Christ-followers: spiritually, emotionally, physically, financially, relationally.
* analogy: Stuart Briscoe.
**Stephen Yuille, Longing for Home, Shepherd Press, 2015.
illustration: “William Bell Scott – Iron and Coal”