The Unity of the Body of Christ

“Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.” 1 Corinthians 10:17 (NIV)

Tom Gilbert

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This familiar Memorial text occurs in a context where the Apostle Paulmarchapril-2015
is talking about the idolatry of Israel as they wandered 40 years in the desert.  He is encouraging the brethren to avoid Israel’s examples.  They literally and figuratively committed fornication with other peoples and their heathen gods.  They complained about the manna that God provided them.  They made a golden calf to visibly represent Jehovah.  They murmured against Moses, Aaron, and Jehovah because the evil report of the 10 spies filled them with fear.  In other words, they were complaining and doing things based on what they wanted, the way they saw things, and what would satisfy their appetites.   Their idolatry was in asserting their wants, their thinking, above the commandments and gracious provisions of Jehovah.  They weren’t satisfied with His ways; they wanted their own way.  They were serving the idol of self-interest, or self-will.  It can be the most subtle and dangerous idol of all.

Paul inserts the illustration of the Memorial to point out that by partaking of the emblems of Jesus’ sacrifice, we publicly demonstrate that we have committed our lives to serving the purposes for which Jesus lived among mankind and sacrificially gave his life upon the cross.  He compares our eating of the emblems to the priests of Israel eating some of the sacrifices that were offered by the people under the Law.  The law concerning the grain offering and the sin offering is recorded in Leviticus 6:14-30.  According to these laws, any priest who eats of these sacrifices “shall become consecrated” (verses 18 and 27, NAS) or demonstrate that he is one who has been consecrated for service in the Tabernacle/Temple.

Paul is saying that if we eat the emblems of Jesus’ sacrifice, we are publicly declaring that we have consecrated our lives to Jesus and his Father.  If, having done so, we let our lives be ruled by self-interest and self-will, rather than the will of God, then we are in idolatry.  He soberly reminds us of the consequences reaped by Israel for their idolatrous behavior.

Paul includes the thought reflected in our theme text.  Since there is only one loaf—the body of Jesus—and we all partake of that one loaf, then we who are many are one (united) body of consecrated disciples of Jesus.

Unity

The unity of the body of Christ is a theme that the Apostle Paul visited again and again in his writings to the churches.  He understood deeply the Lord’s desire for unity among his disciples.

Jesus prayed that his followers would exhibit a special kind of unity that would be a testimony to the world.  “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:20-23, NIV).

Does history record that this is the way Christians have lived?  No; far from it. Rather than unity, harmony, and cooperation, Christians are often known for their squabbles and divisions.  There have been persecutions and wars between peoples of differing Christian beliefs.  Today, there are approximately 41,000 distinct Christian churches or denominations worldwide.

Why are there so many different denominations and types of churches?

  1. Disagreements on scriptural interpretation and doctrine/belief.
  2. Disagreements on church practices in worship and other activities.
  3. Disagreements on church structure and where authority lies—with the local congregation or with a centralized hierarchy.
  4. Differences in personality, passions, and talents. Some Christians emphasize Biblical knowledge; some prefer creative and artistic methods of worship; and some prefer to focus on service to others who are in need or less fortunate.
  5. Differences over the role of traditions passed down over generations or even centuries.  For example, some enjoy using contemporary Christian music; some prefer only traditional hymns.
  6. Sometimes people just don’t get along with each other. Christians still struggle with pride, selfishness, and stubbornness, and sometimes disagreements are taken personally and people are offended.  Maybe this is why Jesus focused so much of his teaching on love and forgiveness as an expression of the kind of people he wants us to be.

What Do the Scriptures Say?

“Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1)

“Accept life with humility and patience, making allowances for each other because you love each other. Make it your aim to be at one in the Spirit, and you will inevitably be at peace with one another. You all belong to one body, of which there is one Spirit, just as you all experienced one calling to one hope. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God, one Father of us all, who is the one over all, the one working through all and the one living in all.

“Naturally there are different gifts and functions; individually grace is given to us in different ways out of the rich diversity of Christ’s giving.

His “gifts to men” were varied. Some he made his messengers, some prophets, some preachers of the Gospel; to some he gave the power to guide and teach his people. His gifts were made that Christians might be properly equipped for their service, that the whole body might be built up until the time comes when, in the unity of the common faith and common knowledge of the Son of God, we arrive at real maturity—that measure of development which is meant by the “fullness of Christ”.

 (Ephesians 4:2-7, 11-13 (Phillips))

Humility Is the Key

The Apostle is clearly stating the fact that Christ has created diversity among his body members by giving different gifts/talents to each one.  Yet despite these differences, he calls on us to make it our aim to be at one in the Spirit.  How do we do this?  By having humility.

If we find that we are not in agreement with a fellow Christian, are we able to ask ourselves the question, “Do I have it wrong?”  We will only be able to ask ourselves that question if we have true humility.  Even if in subsequent conversation with that person, and personal study, we find ourselves reassured of our position, are we able to accept and respect the liberty for that person to hold a different view?  Only if we have true humility.

True unity during this Gospel Age can only be attained when each member of the body of Christ has an absolute heart conviction that “I am no better or more important than anyone else,” and when there is sincere respect for differences among God’s children.  This respect must affirm the value of every other human being, and their right to exist as a part of God’s creation, including his New Creation.  Humility must be deep in our heart and mind.

“For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.  Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.  We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith.  If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.

“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.  Be devoted to one another in brotherly love.  Honor one another above yourselves.… Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.” (Romans 12:3-10, 16 (NIV))

Humility acknowledges that I am not more worthy of salvation and God’s love than anyone else, for none are worthy in his sight.  It acknowledges that my needs are no more important than others’, and that my ideas and understandings, while precious to me, carry no more weight in the minds of others just because I believe them.  This humility acknowledges that I know only in part, even if most of my understandings are correct and others’ are largely wrong, even if God himself has revealed those things to me or led me to them by experience.  I cannot discount the experiences and leadings of God claimed by others.

“Now concerning what you wrote about food offered to idols.  It is true, of course, that “all of us have knowledge,” as they say.  Such knowledge, however, puffs a person up with pride, but love builds up.  Those who think they know something really don’t know as they ought to know.” (1 Corinthians 8:1-2 (TEV))

“Love is eternal.  There are inspired messages, but they are temporary; there are gifts of speaking in strange tongues, but they will cease; there is knowledge, but it will pass.  For our gifts of knowledge and of inspired messages are only partial; but when what is perfect comes, then what is partial will disappear.” (1 Corinthians 13:8-10 (TEV))

Avoid a Competitive Spirit

Elimination of all feelings of self-importance and being more valuable than others removes any feelings or thoughts of competition with anyone else.  When competition in our minds is gone, there is room for only joy and appreciation for the existence of others.  This is true humility.  That is when we are completely emptied of self-interest.  That is when we can easily practice the golden rule.  That is when we can love even our enemies.

We can at one and the same time be God’s special treasure, and yet be no better or more important than anyone else.  This would seem to be a “divine paradox”—both are true.  Our relationship with God is like a spectrum—at one end we are very special to God, at the other end we are as nothing in his eyes.  The bridge between those two ends of the spectrum is Jesus Christ.

How then do we balance this with having a sense of being closer to God and having a deeper understanding of his Word than others who have no relationship with him.  Well, that is a statement of comparison, and it implies superiority to some degree.  So perhaps we can avoid thinking in these terms and leave others out of our contemplation of our close relationship with God.

Christian unity requires a humility that affirms that there is no inherent competition generated by someone having different beliefs or thoughts compared to me.  It takes a humility that recognizes that nothing has to be done in this Age to resolve the reality that others believe and act differently.  It takes faith that God will resolve these differences in his way in his due time, and we do not have to be anxious or discomforted by these differences unless perhaps there is a need to consider that we are the one who is wrong. It takes a humility that recognizes that we ourselves cannot do anything to change the views or perspectives of others unless God opens the hearts of others and my heart to understand and resolve these differences with no party feeling they have “won” or “been vindicated over others.”  It takes a humility that recognizes that we are not or may not be God’s instrument to resolve differences now.  Only when we truly respect the differences of others can we speak in a respectful way about our different views and have any chance for coming to mutual respect and perhaps more similar understandings.

It takes recognition that others’ differences in no way diminish us because we are different from them.  Thus, others’ differences (beliefs, services, activities, etc.) are no inherent threat to us.

Retaining Humility When There Are Divisions

It also means that we can meet and act separately from them without condemning them or feeling superior in any way.  A belief, like hellfire/eternal torment, impugns the character of God, and is not scripturally supported, but we need not condemn the people who hold this view or feel superior to them.  We might see hypocrisy in the position of others and point that out with compassion and humility.  We believe what we believe, because our studies of God’s word and our Christian experience have led us to conclusions that appeal to our head and heart.  The same is true of every other sincere Christian, and we should respect that even while we disagree with their conclusions.   Even people of other religions should be respected, for how could they be expected to have the understandings we have if God has not called them and not empowered them with His Spirit.

It is somewhat natural to meet with those who are like-minded in their understandings of scriptures and perspectives on how to live the Christian life.  What is wrong is to view those in other congregations as less faithful.  A separation for the sake of peace and comfort in meetings and practice is not wrong, as long as there is not a judgment by either of the two groups that the other is wrong or less faithful or less spiritual.  However, there is a great temptation in that direction, because of our competitive, and sometimes insecure, human natures.

There were divisions in the church in the Apostle Paul’s day.

“But in giving this instruction, I do not praise you, because you come together not for the better but for the worse.  For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that divisions exist among you; and in part, I believe it.  For there must also be factions among you, in order that those who are approved may have become evident among you.” (1 Corinthians 11:17-19 (NAS))

Thus, one reality, as Paul seems to acknowledge, is that we will not all think alike, and my not all be meeting together.  Some will be approved by the Lord, and some will not.  But still the call is clearly to unity.

In cases where there are separations and divisions, it is important that those who leave not wrap themselves in a self-righteous justification such as, “We are doing this to protect the purity of the truth.”  Such justifications serve neither those leaving nor those who remain in a congregation.  To those leaving, such a justification serves as a smokescreen for the unwillingness to tolerate other viewpoints.  To those who remain, such a justification stands as an unwarranted indictment against their motives and capabilities as followers of Jesus.  The only truth that may be operating in such separations is the fact that  some have decided they cannot tolerate others who think differently and have chosen to emphasize differences for the purpose of feeling superior to others.

Humility Does Not Press for Uniformity

On the other hand, there are times when the leaders of a congregation have not been willing to tolerate others who think differently than themselves and have suppressed freedom of expression.  In these cases, sometimes brethren have separated in order to regain Christian liberty.

In such cases, it may be that Christian unity has failed because some lost sight of the humble perspective of not seeing oneself as better or more important than others, and respecting their different views and understandings.

If we acknowledge what the Apostle says—that we know only partially at this time—it would seem to be presumptive to see our own perspective of how to lead the consecrated life as the only or best pattern or template for our fellow Christians.  An example to one another, perhaps, but not a basis for judgment or for drawing a sense of being more pleasing to God.

It is hard to understand the motive which drives a Christian to passionately try to convince others of their views.  There seems to be an unresolved anxiety in some if others do not agree with their perspectives or interpretation of Scripture.  It seems they can’t imagine how you could be happy without seeing things as they see it.  Or it may be that they can’t be happy unless you see things as they see it.  This missionary approach to convincing others of an interpretation of Scripture is much different from someone who merely shares an insight or understanding that has come to them through study, and does so merely because they think it might be a blessing to others also.

Humility Embraces Liberty and Diversity

As Bible Students we might all find ourselves unwilling to regularly meet with a congregation that believed in the Trinity, that we have an immortal soul, and that heaven and eternal torment are the only two possible destinies of man.  But there are other differences of interpretation and understanding that could or should be tolerated, because they do no violence to God’s Plan that we all agree on, and they do not affect the way we understand God’s expectations about our character development.  Examples might include:

  • When does the Millennium (1000 years) begin and end?
  • Does the New Covenant go into effect at the beginning of the Gospel Age or the Millennial Age?  Or at the end of the Millennial Age?
  • All matters relating to chronology.  Br. Russell gives excellent counsel on this point.  “Suffer not any dispute over a day or a year to break the most precious bond of love which binds us to the Lord and to all who are truly His.  Be specially careful on this point when the subject of discussion is one respecting which we have no positive knowledge.  The rupture of fellowship may sometimes be necessary, when we “contend earnestly for the faith once delivered unto the saints”—faith in the Divine Plan, in the Redeemer, in the efficacy of His death, etc.  These matters are positively stated in the Bible—not left to deduction, as in the case of chronology and all matters based upon chronology.” (R. 5348)

Another piece of wise counsel from Br. Russell on the subject is found in Studies in the Scriptures, Volume 6, pages 240-242.

“Unity of faith is desirable; it is to be striven for–yet not the kind of unity that is generally aimed at. Unity is to be along the lines of “the faith once delivered unto the saints” in its purity and simplicity, and with full liberty to each member to take different views of minor points, and with no instruction whatever in respect to human speculations, theories, etc. The Scriptural idea of unity is upon the foundation principles of the Gospel. (1) Our redemption through the precious blood, and our justification by demonstrated faith therein. (2) Our sanctification, setting apart to the Lord, the Truth and their service–including the service of the brethren. (3) Aside from these essentials, upon which unity must be demanded, there can be no Scriptural fellowship; upon every other point fullest liberty is to be accorded ….”

Some of the challenges we have on unity are compounded by a couple of our beliefs and practices: (1) that in terms of our relationship with God through Jesus Christ, and our reading and interpretation of the Bible, we are all on an equal footing, and (2) our practice of having the majority of our weekly meetings in the format of open discussion studies, where anyone can make a comment and state their interpretation or view.  So we all study the Bible and we come to a variety of conclusions, and our meetings provide the forums for verbalizing our conclusions to one another.  Do we see the inherent challenge?

Paul addressed this diversity, while at the same time reinforcing the oneness from which it originates, in his first letter to the Church at Corinth.

“There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit.  There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord.  There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.

“Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.  To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues.  All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines.

“The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ.  For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body-whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free-and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (1 Corinthians 12:4-13 (NIV)).

The Christian Message Is Inclusive

A few members of the children of God may have a natural ability to draw people together; the rest of us will have to learn it through the dark or dimly-lit paths that mark our lives.  But to be useful to our Lord in his Kingdom work, we will need to have this ability.  To help people rise above the wounds of this life, to trust in a God who has been misunderstood and misrepresented for millennia, to join with diverse members of the human race to build a world that has a place for everyone who has ever lived, a world that is characterized by harmony, peace, and love.

The “Christian message” that is trumpeted so loudly today, by those who claim the name, is a message of exclusion; but the Good News announced by angels the night of Jesus’ birth was a message of inclusion, “Good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.”

Are we practicing inclusiveness now?  In all areas of our life, but especially within our fellowship?

There are several accounts in the Gospels of Jesus’ disciples getting into debates over which of them would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  How disappointed Jesus must have been when he overheard their conversations!  He told them,

“But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant.  And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted. (Matthew 23:11-12)

I think as we consider one another, we should keep in mind the Parable of the 11th Hour Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16).  When it came time at the end of the day to pay the workers, the master paid those who had been hired last first, and he paid them a penny/denarius/silver coin.  When he got down to those who had worked all day, they thought they would receive more, but he paid them the same—the wages that they had agreed to work for.  This speaks clearly about the equality among us in God’s eyes, and therefore the humility we should have, not considering ourselves any better or more important than anyone else, certainly not better or more important than any other of God’s servants.

Conclusion

In the dynamics of human relationships, there is a natural tendency to begin to think that we know better what is right or best, that our way of doing things is superior to others’, that our contribution to a success was greater than others, and that, therefore, we are more important than others.  If we reach this point in our thinking, then we can easily take the next step and mentally dismiss or diminish the importance and value of others.  This is the thought process that Jesus was describing in Matthew 5:22—a progressive devaluing of our brother or sister in Christ.

Is there a tendency for any of us to think that all of our Scriptural understandings are correct?  That we have a duty above others to “protect” God’s truth?  That we carry more responsibility than others in showing fellow Christians the right doctrine to believe and the right way to live?  That we are especially important to God’s work of developing the body of Christ?  If we do, then automatically we are diminishing the value of others in these areas.

“… it is clear that the Lord’s plan of granting great liberty is the best plan–the one which most surely tests the heart-loyalty, most fully develops character, and proves the willingness of each to follow with the other the Law of Love, doing to the other as he would the other should do to him. Such a liberty, or, comparative freedom, is well adapted to the Lord’s object in the present time–namely, the selection of the little flock and the perfecting of them in character and instructing them for the Royal Priesthood of the future ….” (Studies in the Scripture, Vol. 6., p. 196)

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