The Meaning of Membership
One of the chief concerns among Christians today is renewal in the church. We are seeing a new emphasis on the Holy Spirit and on spiritual gifts. Of course, there are some extremes and excesses; but there are also some genuine works going on to the glory of God.
The New Testament churches were characterized by excitement and fulfillment. As you read the Book of Acts, for example, you meet men and women who were excited about their faith, sharing it with others, and experiencing a real fulfillment in their own lives. This is because the early church knew the meaning of spiritual gifts, and “spiritual gifts” is Paul’s theme in 1 Corinthians 12.
We do not have to invent some new thing to experience new life in the church. We simply need to get back to the “old paths” that God gave His church in the beginning. It is not necessary to manufacture renewal by mixing (in various proportions) group dynamics, a minimum of Bible doctrine, and a strong leader. Our church can experience the renewing ministry of the Spirit if only we will understand and use the gifts the Spirit has given us. In this chapter, Paul presents four basic facts for us to grasp.
1. Every Christian has a spiritual gift.
Now, it is important that we make a distinction (as the Bible does) between the Gift of the Spirit, and gifts of the Spirit, and the graces of the Spirit. The Gift of the Spirit is received when a sinner turns to Christ by faith and receives Him as Savior. In verse 3, Paul makes it clear that no man can bear witness to Christ apart from the Spirit of God. The Gift of the Spirit is imparted at conversion, and this Gift is never revoked.
The gifts of the Spirit have to do with our ministry in the church. In verses 4-11 and 28-29, Paul lists some of the gifts; and he expands this list in Romans 12 and Ephesians 4. These gifts are not simply natural abilities, because even unsaved people have abilities. These gifts of the Spirit enable the Christian to minister in the church so that the church is built up and God is glorified. Paul compares these gifts to the various functions of the parts of the human body, showing that each part is necessary for the growth and health of the whole body.
Paul deals with spiritual graces in chapter 13. It is possible to have spiritual gifts and not have the spiritual graces that make it easy for the body to function. In fact, this was one of the problems in the Corinthian church: the members were using their gifts for their own glory and not for the good of the church. They especially needed love.
Now, every Christian has at least one spiritual gift. This gift was received at conversion when the Spirit baptized the believer into the Body of Christ. The baptism Paul mentions in verse 13 is not water baptism, because no amount of water could ever put a sinner into the Body of Christ. It is the baptism of the Spirit that takes place at conversion. This is not an experience after conversion that we must seek and pray for. No, it takes place when the sinner trusts Jesus Christ.
In verse 2, Paul describes the former life of these believers, when they were idol-worshippers. They worshipped a dead idol; but now they know the living God. Their god was silent; but now they trust a God Who speaks to them, and Who enables them to speak. Finally, they were once controlled by demons who enslaved them to idols; but now they have been set free and are led by God’s Holy Spirit. What a difference it makes when you trust Christ!
Each of us, then, has at least one spiritual gift. As we grow in grace and minister in one way or another in the local church, we discover what our gifts are. It is in the fellowship of the local church that these gifts are best discovered, developed, and used. You will note that in 1 Corinthians 14, Romans 12, and Ephesians 4, Paul ties the spiritual gifts into the life and growth of the local assembly; which leads us to the second fact:
2. These gifts are for the good of the whole church.
Verse 7 reads, “But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (NASB). These gifts are not luxuries for individual saints to enjoy; they are necessities for the whole church to employ. This is why Paul uses the image of the human body to explain the meaning of these gifts.
At this point, I want to make it clear that this “body” Paul is discussing is not some kind of “invisible body” or “universal body”; but rather, it is the local body of believers in a given area. In Ephesians, Paul discusses the “universal church,” that is, the whole Church made up of all believers from Pentecost to the Rapture. But in 1 Corinthians, Paul is writing about a local body. In Ephesians, Paul tells us that the Church universal is a Body (1:22-23), a building (2:19-22), and a Bride (5:28ff). But he uses these same illustrations when talking about the local church at Corinth: a body (1 Corinthians 12:27), a building (1 Corinthians 3:16-17), and a Bride (2 Corinthians 11:1-3).
Too many Christians are excusing their absence from, and lack of membership in, a local church by saying, “I belong to the Body of Christ.” I do, too, but I also belong to a local body, because this is where the work gets done! Does the “Universal Church” ever meet for the Lord’s Supper, or to baptize converts? Does it ever send out a missionary or clothe and feed an orphan? Of course not! The only time the “Universal Church” will meet is at the Rapture! Meanwhile, Christ has established local churches to carry out His Commission to win the lost. And apart from these spiritual gifts, we cannot do the job.
Through the work of the Holy Spirit, you and I as believers are members of a spiritual body. We belong to each other; we affect each other; we need each other. If each Christian would discover and develop his spiritual gifts, and use them in the local church, there would be growth and health in the body. There would be unity, because the parts of the body dare not compete with each other: we need each other! And there would be ministry as the members would “have the same care one for another” (vs. 25). There would be maturity as the body grows in the Lord (Ephesians 4:12-16). So, if the local church is characterized by division, competition, and immaturity, you can be sure that the Holy Spirit is not being allowed to work and to use the gifts He has given. Every Christian has a spiritual gift, and this gift is for the good of the whole church. But, Paul goes on to say—
3. Gifts must be used in the Spirit’s power.
You will note in vss. 4-6 that the whole Trinity is involved in the bestowing of the spiritual gifts. There is no division or competition here! In a local church, each member of the body has his special gift and ministry, and the same God Who bestowed the gift will enable us to use it correctly. Sad to say, in the church at Corinth, the members abused their gifts because the Spirit was not allowed to work. Let me warn you that the flesh can seek to imitate these gifts, and Satan can seek to control them. Not everyone who is “ministering” is energized by the Holy Spirit.
Let’s pursue this illustration of the body. Suppose your body is weak and sick; what do you do? Do you dismember your body and hope that, by separating the parts, you will get well? Of course not! Yet this is what is suggested today by some “renewal” leaders. “Forget about that old body!” they say. “Take a few choice saints out of the body and start all over again!” Yet they would not follow that kind of counsel with a physical body! They would seek to remove from the body that part was sick, and then would tenderly try to cultivate new life and health in the body. This is what we must do in the local church: we must through prayer and the Word seek to bring new life to the body, with each member adding his strength through his gift. Of course, this is the difficult way, the less exciting way; but I believe it is the Bible way.
My doctor tells me that over three million cells a minute are being replaced in my body, so that I can remain healthy. We need this same kind of “cell replacement” in the spiritual body, the local church. As the Spirit of God is permitted to work in our lives, we bring in the fresh life and take out that which is stale and dead. Renewal in the church is not a crisis that destroys; it is a process that builds; and this can be done only by the Holy Spirit as we surrender to Him.
This leads to the fourth fact:
4. If gifts are not used, everybody suffers.
This explains why there was so much trouble in the Corinthian church. When a church is not functioning on the “spirituals,” then it has to function on the “carnals.” But the results are vastly different!
When a church depends on the gifts of the Spirit, there is unity and harmony, and the Spirit “lubricates” the machinery of the church. This does not mean that people do not disagree, but it does mean that they are not disagreeable! When the Spirit and His gifts are in control, it is not necessary for the church to depend on substitutes: God provides what it needs in each local assembly. The members of the body minister to one another, and the whole body is built up!
But this kind of a ministry is a costly one: it demands dedication, prayer, sacrifice, holy living. The Holy Spirit does not work in a vacuum: He uses the Word and prayer to accomplish His work. But, what a joy it is to see God do the work through His people! It is just one miracle after another, and nobody can explain it except to say, “The Lord did it all!”
What, then, should we do to make sure that the Spirit of God is using each of us in our local body?
1. Let’s admit the need. To try to cover our spiritual poverty would only make the situation worse.
2. Let’s discover and develop our gifts. Instead of trying to serve some intangible “invisible church,” let’s get to work in a local church with all of its faults. Let’s not abandon the body; let’s seek to bring new life and strength to the body.
3. Let’s believe God for greater things. As the local body grows and matures, it can better minister to the city, the nation, and the world. It is not selfish for us to want to serve the Lord in a local body, because the local church is the very foundation for His work around the world.
Yes, we are members of the body, members with spiritual functions to perform. We belong to each other; we affect each other; we need each other. May God help us to be faithful to Him and to each other to use our gifts in His power to build His church.