The images used by New Testament writers to speak of the church, both in its global totality and in any given local manifestation, are all collective images. They are images in which the individual member’s significance is found in his or her place as a vital part of the larger whole.
The image that most pervades the New Testament is the image of family. Indeed, to speak of this as an “image” is to speak too timidly about the assertions made throughout the early Christian Scriptures. Being family is the new reality for those who have attached themselves to Jesus. Jesus himself is remembered to have begun this process of redefining family. On one occasion, as he was teaching a large group in something like a house, his mother and his brothers were standing outside and seeking to get in a word with him. When someone told Jesus about them, he replied:
“Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matt. 12:48b–50 NIV; see also Mark 3:33–35; Luke 8:21)
While this word would no doubt have been difficult for his biological family to hear and process, it clearly articulated Jesus’ vision for the kind of community his followers would offer to one another. They were to share with one another the level of attention, commitment, and investment that was normally reserved for one’s blood relations. Jesus spoke this in an environment in which following him would typically provoke rejection by one’s blood relations. Those who suffered being ostracized and cut off from their natural families for Jesus’ sake would be able to find a new and larger family among Jesus’ followers. Because of the emotional, social, and often material support of this new family, the many alienated individual followers of Jesus would be able to persevere in their commitment to him and not succumb to the social pressures seeking to shame them into turning back from that commitment.
As Jesus assured Peter and all who followed him:
“There is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.” (Mark 10:29–30)
Finding in one’s fellow followers of Jesus a family that would take the place of the natural relatives that they left behind—or that dissociated themselves from the Christ-follower—remains critically important for believers in hostile environments around the world today. But it is also a critically important network of encouragement, support, and companionship if disciples in any environment are to attain the heights of the holiness and commitment to which Christ calls us all.
Early Christian preachers latched onto this facet of Jesus’ teaching and pushed it even further. Paul, for example, spoke of Jesus’ achievement on our behalf in terms of bringing about our adoption into God’s family.
In Christ Jesus you are all sons [and daughters] of God, through faith. (Gal. 3:26 ESV)
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons [and daughters]. And because you are sons [and daughters], God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” (Gal. 4:4–6 ESV)
Jesus, Paul, and other New Testament voices call us to bestow upon one another the status of being our family as a necessary consequence of God’s bestowing upon me, upon you, upon him, and upon her, the status of being God’s sons and daughters together. The adoption of which Galatians 4:4–6 and other texts speak is an adoption into a new household, a new family, and not into a merely private relationship that I enjoy with God. And together with acknowledging one another as the family that God has brought together, the family that God has given to each one of us, we are called to show one another the care, commitment, and mutual responsibility that we owe one another as family. We might define family—somewhat tongue-in-cheek—as the people you can’t really get rid of, the people who remain with you in some sense even when you’re not together, not agreeing, perhaps not even speaking. This is even truer of the family that God has brought together, for he has done so for eternity. What would our relationships with other Christians look like if we gave these relationships the priority that such a faith claim makes on their behalf?
Far and away the most common term used to name or address another Christian in the early church is “brother” or “sister.” New Testament authors speak of the global Christian community as a “brotherhood and sisterhood” (1 Peter 2:17; 5:9) and on several occasions specifically lift up “brotherly and sisterly love” (in Greek, philadelphia) as the particular species of love that Christians are to show one another (Rom. 12:9–10; 1 Thess. 4:9–10; Heb. 13:1; 1 Peter 1:22; 3:8; 2 Peter 1:7). It is, of course, appropriate that the sibling relationship should emerge as the particular family relationship that we all share with one another, since we have all been adopted together by the same Parent into his family thanks to the mediation of the one “natural” Son in the divine household. Many facets of the ethos that the New Testament writers sought to nurture are related to this most basic identification of one another as “family” and, particularly, as “brothers and sisters.” The relationship shared by siblings was generally held to be the closest and most enduring of relationships in the first-century context. And we will see as the study continues to unfold, that a great deal of how we are urged to treat one another in the New Testament reflects the ideal behavior of brothers and sisters toward each other in Greek and Roman ethical writings. Sharing resources with one another, prioritizing unity and seeking to live harmoniously with one another, cooperating rather than competing with one another, forgiving one another—these were all ways in which natural siblings were urged to behave in their interactions with one another.
The Church as Building
A second image for the church found throughout the second half of the New Testament is that of a building. This is a metaphor that overtook the reality as churches came to refer to physical buildings in which Christians gathered rather than identifying the gathered Christians as (part of) the spiritual building that God was fitting together for God’s own dwelling. Such confusion was not yet possible in the first century or two of the Christian movement’s existence, before Christians began building separate structures dedicated to the common life and worship of the local community of believers. Rather, they understood that the gathering of Christ-followers was the “church,” as reflected, for example, in Paul’s statement: “When you come together as a church” (1 Cor. 11:18, emphasis added), never “in a church.” In such a context, the authors of 1 Peter and of Ephesians could liken the growth of the global community of Christ-followers to the construction of a new kind of temple for God’s dwelling:
Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:4–5)
In [Christ] the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. (Eph. 2:21–22)
A stone, no matter how well shaped and polished, is not much of a temple. But as such stones are brought together—so these authors would suggest—a suitable house for God comes into being. Sacred space has always been important to human beings in their quest for the divine; these New Testament authors make the bold claim that such sacred space is not architectural, but social. It is the space occupied by those who have been made new in Christ and, as those who have received mercy, have been made a new people together (1 Peter 2:10). We know God’s presence and offer to God the worship and service that is God’s due more fully when we come together collectively as the temple in which God dwells and collectively as the “holy priesthood” that has been consecrated together as agents for divine service.
The Church as Body of Jesus Christ
A third image is that of a body, a single entity composed of many distinct parts, a single whole no part of which can be cut off from another except in the direst circumstances and never without deep sorrow, pain, and awareness of loss. The image, prominent in the letters of Paul, was developed first by Greek philosophers reflecting on the cosmos as a whole. These philosophers likened the universe to a single, complex organism. It was a body of which all living beings and other facets of material creation were parts, contributing their various functions to the overall working of the whole, and within which God was the animating soul. Paul seized on the image to describe the Christian community, both local and global, animated by the Holy Spirit as its unifying and life-giving force.
For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. (Rom. 12:4–5)
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. . . . If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. . . . The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”. . . Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (1 Cor. 12:12–14, 17–18, 21, 27)
The image allows Paul to drive home several points about Christians in community. The focus of God’s redemptive action is not on me living out my faith well, but on us living out our faith well in a coordinated fashion with one another. No one of us can accomplish all that needs to take place for Christian community to function properly and flourish. No one of us can achieve God’s vision for us on our own, because God’s vision is a vision for an us and not a me. Those who say that they can be Christian without “going to church” (that is, without “coming together as a church”) and those who believe that their faith is a “private matter between me and God” have either rejected or not grasped Paul’s gospel. Paul wanted Christ-followers to understand that each one of them was more akin to a hand or an eye or a liver—vital when embedded in and working as part of the whole, but something else entirely when disconnected from the whole. The image of a body made up of many parts drives home the fundamental interdependence that Christians share with one another and, by implication, the systemic dysfunction that results when we fail to fulfill our function on behalf of the whole body.
Brothers and sisters in one, great family. Stones fitted together into God’s own dwelling. The many parts of a well-functioning and flourishing body. These images provide us with points of entry into how we are to think about our connection with one another—namely, that this connection is central to our Christian identity. They also guide us as we think about our responses to and responsibilities for one another. God has joined us together for eternity and joined us together now for our own and one another’s eternal good.
God’s Spirit indeed lives in each one of us, but there is another, indispensable dimension of encountering God as a result of our having been brought together with and joined to one another. God has placed each of us in the context of the larger body—whether we conceive of this in terms of our local Christian assembly or in terms of the global body of Christ—so that we could receive the benefits of what other Christians contribute to our lives and our walk of faith and so that we might contribute beneficially to their lives and their walk of faith. If we are to know, experience, and realize God’s vision for us, we need to lay aside the value of independence and embrace the New Testament vision for interdependence, each one with each other in the body of Christ, the household of faith.
If you’re ready to take community life to the next level, get the foundational study that will lead you into this deeper understanding of the Christian life. One Another by David deSilva paints the New Testament vision for our relationships, interactions, and interventions with one another in a local Christian community. This vision impels us to encourage and support one another, offering reinforcement for holy living that, according to the apostles, we owe one another as the people not only welcomed into relationship with God through Jesus Christ, but given as gifts to one another for this very purpose.
- Group leader training
- Small group studies
- Sunday school classes
- Discipleship bands
In these pages you’ll:
- Gain an appreciation for how we thrive in community
- Wrestle with our command to receive from and contribute to others’ faith
- Understand the biblical teaching on God’s people, the body of Christ
- Be challenged to abandon individualistic versions of the Christian faith