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The Body of Christ


In church circles, the term Body of Christ is understood to mean all true Christians. It is used frequently and with little friction between one Christian and another over what it actually means... although a closer examination would undoubtedly reveal that the perceived boundaries of this "body" are quite different for each individual. In fact, if there really was universal understanding about who is in the body and about who is not , then the body would probably cease to be invisible, and they would all join up with one another.

Some have a universal idea of the Body of Christ, while others have a more exclusive idea. Both approaches have their good points and their bad points. There can be wrong motives for making the terms too broad, and there can be wrong motives for making the terms too exclusive. But the term is still a convenient one considering the paradox that confronts anyone who wishes to identify the basis for their fellowship with some people as fellow Christians and their lack of fellowship with others.

Long ago I rejected the idea of the ecumenical movement as being God's tool for putting together the Body of Christ. Its terms were far too broad, and seemed only to be directed toward making a worldwide political body. In fact, the ecumenical approach seems to just extend the misconception that has led to so much confusion and division to begin with. It works on the assumption that empires and organisations can be treated as spiritual units, with very little regard for the individual members. For me, the Body of Christ must be based on something that is infinitely personal, and it is precisely because of that, that the Body of Christ remains an invisible "mystery" which only God can fathom.

But then I set out to do all I could to follow Christ personally and to teach others to do the same thing. Along the way I discovered that personal faith and honesty are extremely rare. At one stage I worked on the idea that only about one person in every 40,000 would be a genuine follower of Christ, thus making up an invisible worldwide membership of 144,000. But now, after many years of searching, my own exclusive rules for membership indicate that the group that I have been forming would not come anywhere near 144,000... at least not according to my understanding of the rules for membership. There must be some other way to approach this mysterious Body of Christ.

The Bible itself seems contradictory with regard to how many will be saved. Jesus said that the way to heaven was a narrow way, and very few would find it. (Matthew 7:14) But The Revelation talks about a "multitude which no one could number" that comes through the Tribulation and is rewarded by Christ. (Revelation 7:9) There seems to be a hard line and a soft line approach, an exclusive and a universal approach, a disciplined and a gracious approach, and we need to be able to juggle the two at the same time.

On the one hand we need to "run the race as though only one will win the prize" (I Corinthians 9:24), and on the other hand, we need to find a vision of the kingdom of heaven that takes in every speck of genuine love, genuine faith, and genuine honesty that exists in otherwise unloving, unfaithful, and dishonest individuals. We need to see the kingdom of heaven as being much bigger than our little organisations, at the same time that we continue to exercise discipline ourselves.

You may think someone is sincere whom I think is an absolute hypocrite. If you see sincerity, it is your duty to encourage it; and if I see hypocrisy, it is my duty to condemn it. Ideally we should each be skilled surgeons who can encourage the good while condemning the evil in the same individuals. However, God seems able to work on a different level, where he allows (and maybe even requires) one person to include a person whom another person excludes.

It is the classic illustration of cognitive dissonance: How can we both be friends if you like someone I cannot stand? How can we both be Christians, if you do not like me? Such dissonance requires answers. In the past, we have always felt that the safest answer is to reject those who reject us. To a certain extent, we must each continue to do that. Within our own organisational boundaries, and within our own hearts, we must identify that which we see as evil, and have nothing to do with it. But on another level, we may need to see that God's ways are not always our ways, and his values are not always our values.

God may want us all to learn the same lessons; but he may put us through the list in a different order. He may be infinitely patient with immorality, dishonesty, or bitterness in some individuals, even though we could present a strong case for arguing that such things are grounds for disfellowshipping them. The answer may be to both exclude them and to take them in at the same time.

Is there room for us to genuinely encourage one another in areas of spiritual growth, through some informal network of communication, without having to endorse the faults that we see in each other? And can we do it without compromising our own personal hard lines? Can we honestly rejoice when we see God using others who strongly disagree with us? I think we must do this if we are to put into practice what has always been a purely theoretical teaching in the past.

We have taught that we are not the only ones sincerely seeking to obey God. We have argued in theory that there must be others "out there" who are sincere. So how are we going to act toward those who show signs of sincerity in some areas, but not in others? The bottom line is not whether we work with them or whether they work with us. The bottom line is, "Are they seeking to serve God and to build his kingdom of faith and truth and love?"

If we are very good with words, we can argue that they are not, for one reason or another. And we may be right. Perhaps their self-righteousness or our selfishness, their dishonesty or our lack of love exempts one or both of us from the kingdom. But why not have a bet "each way"? Why not take a hard line on ourselves and a soft line on the others? Why not continue to teach ourselves and our members that some of what they teach is wrong, at the same time that we choose to show grace toward them... love our "enemies" if we wish to use such a term for those who oppose us? And most importantly, why not honestly and humbly consider that maybe even our "enemies" are accomplishing some good for God, and rejoice that he is being helped even if we are not?

In fact, maybe that is what this invisible "body" that we keep talking about is really all about. Maybe God is just waiting for the day when someone will get more excited about what is being accomplished for God than we get about who agrees or disagrees with us.

(See also The Trend Toward Tolerance, Pastors and Teachers, and A Part of God's Plan?)

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