So then, be careful how you walk, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, in which there is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your hearts to the Lord; always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to our God and Father; and subject yourselves to one another in the fear of Christ.
Ephesians 5:15–21 (NASB)
Our church is going through this lesson series, and we’re currently in a section where we’re talking about the church and the function of the church and how members should relate to the church. It’s pretty good stuff, and has been very helpful for us in refocusing our priorities and determining what’s next for us. The passage above was the heart of last night’s lesson, and we spent a good while talking about it and exploring what it means and how it relates to the lesson series at large and how its context informs that understanding, and something specific really popped out to me in the midst of that conversation and reading. It’s about where we center our priorities and sense of purpose.
Consider the language we use when we talk about putting Christ at the center of our lives, or about how we can be a blessing to the body. Even when we talk about communal elements of the Christian life, we talk about them from an individualistic perspective. It’s all about our personal prayer time, our personal time in the word, Me & Jesus time.
But the context in which the New Testament talks about the church, and even about our growth as Christians, is almost never talking about one individual doing much of anything. Paul is never instructing people to engage with the body out of the overflow of the great benefits they, personally, have received. It is always about growing and operating as a body. And we should hardly be surprised at this, given that the first church shared all they had with one another.
Note the passage that opened this article. It’s part of a larger discussion on living lives that honor God, but note the communal nature of it. Throughout Ephesians chapters 4 & 5, Paul constantly ties the things he’s saying to a group context. He talks about “bearing one another in love” (4:2), “equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ” (4:12); tells us to “SPEAK TRUTH EACH ONE OF YOU WITH HIS NEIGHBOR, because we are parts of one another” (4:25), “be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” (4:32), “walk in love” (5:2). Why? So that we, “being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love” (4:16).
See, the thing is, it’s easy for us to think about our involvement in the body in terms that focus on us as individuals. We so often talk about the Christian life as though we are solitary cups that need to sit alone to be refilled, and then we can bless others with the excess that pours out of us. Or as batteries, that get plugged into the body to give it what energy we have, but then have to be unplugged and sent to recharge so we have something to bring when we return. And there is a certain sense in which this is true; we all have our own lives and we bring to the body that which is unique about us. We do not, however, primarily grow in isolation. When the New Testament addresses the Christian life, it addresses bodies of believers. It addresses churches, and expects them not only to grow together, but to grow because they are together. We do not grow in isolation any more than a finger can grow when separated from the body. Our priority, if we are to be the body we have been called to be, must be other-focused.
And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; or again, the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”
1 Corinthians 12:21 (NASB)
Allow me to paint a different picture.
The study we’re doing has a section where it cites various scholars talking about the passage at hand. One of those scholars was Howard Snyder, and in the midst of his statement from The Community of the King he quotes Karl Barth (from Bromiley’s translation of Church Dogmatics) as saying, “I can edify myself only as I edify the community.” This stood out to me as distinct from the way I’ve been taught to think of edification, but aligned well with how scripture treats the subject. But what does it mean to be edified only as we edify the community? What does it mean to grow only as we grow together?
The image that came to my mind as we discussed it last night was one of a circuit board. See, the parts of the circuit work specifically because they’re connected. They all do different things and they serve the whole in different ways and maybe even at different times, but they are all part of the same circuit. And being part of the same circuit is not only preferred, it is required. The thing about body analogies (which, admittedly, was probably the best image available to Paul at the time) is that it’s easy to note that the eye can continue to work as designed even if the hand has been cut off; but this isn’t true of the church, and it isn’t true of a circuit. In the case of the hand, the hand suffers complete loss by being separated from the body, and the body suffers the loss of a single function but continues on working in general. In the case of a circuit, breaking the circuit at any point shuts the whole operation down. The pieces are interdependent. It doesn’t matter how close an LED is to the power source, if the circuit is broken at a missing transistor twenty connections away, the circuit is broken, and the light will not shine.
The church is not a collection of individuals, each empowered by the Holy Spirit and thus made greater than the sum of its parts when brought together. The church is a circuit, with each part energized by the Holy Spirit because the Holy Spirit is energizing the whole. He does live in us individually, and unlike a circuit component we can learn some in private reading and prayer, but the design for us as Christians and the way we are expected to function is as a community, working together and supporting one another in all that we do. We must prioritize the ways we connect and help keep the circuit working over our private edification if we’re ever going to be effective at the mission. My phone will not work properly, will not have any ability to serve its purpose well, if I started taking pieces out of the motherboard. If I expected the components to do their work apart from the whole.
In what ways are we prioritizing ourselves over our communities? In what way can we put the health and mission of the church as higher than our own personal calling, and align our lives to serve in the way we’re designed? Are we taking seriously that we are a part of a whole, and have we considered what that means for the way we spend our time, the way we exercise our gifts, the way we relate to one another?