All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version 2016 Text Ed. (ESV)
The two specific errors I want to address in this chapter are the errors of individualistic Christianity, and of organizational Christianity. In western Christianity, both of these errors are about as common. Individualistic Christianity is the view that Christians are mainly individual followers of Christ, and that salvation is mainly a personal matter, and not integrally linked to all Christians on earth. Organizational Christianity is the view that being a part of a church is merely or mainly being part of a human organization with an established structure, elected officers, official documents, and/or government recognition.
Since individualistic Christianity is more prevalent in the western world, let’s see what Scripture has to say on this topic first.
The Unity of the Church
But before examining Scripture’s teaching on the corporate or community nature of salvation, let’s think about this problem of western individualism. It mainly stems from a false belief that we are able to live life on our own, to blaze our own trails, and to remain essentially disconnected from close relationships with the Christians outside of our households. To put it simply, it’s an attitude of either ignorant or proud self-sufficiency – that we have most of the resources within our own households to live faithful Christian lives.
How does this attitude of self-sufficiency manifest itself in our Christian practice? One major example is how we conduct our church gatherings. For one, seating is individualized in rows, so that your interaction with the “service” is primarily confined to yourself and whichever speaker is at the front. Secondly, a great number of praise songs have most lyrics written in the first person singular, with just yourself expressing yourself to God. Thirdly, there’s usually very little, if any, time given to social interaction among the congregation, and such interaction is usually very limited or restricted in nature. Last but not least, the Lord’s Supper – which we will see is supposed to be the most unifying Christian practice – is individualized as mostly a personal experience between you and the Lord. As a final example outside of the church gathering, think of how little time is spent having fellow congregants over to one another’s homes, despite the New Testament’s repeated emphasis on hospitality, togetherness, and brotherly affection.
Standing in stark contrast to all this individualism and isolation is the New Testament’s constant teaching on the universal and collective nature of salvation. This teaching is usually called “the unity of the church”.
One of the clearest passages of Scripture on the unity of the church is Paul’s description of the reconciliation of Gentiles and Jews in one body to God in Ephesians 2:11-14, 17-18:
“Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by what is called the circumcision [the Jews], which is made in the flesh by hands – remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility . . . [that He] might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.”
In this passage, Paul highlights the essential corporate element of salvation by describing how Gentiles have been made completely equal partakers with Jews in the blessings of Christ through His death, ascension, and Spirit. He begins by describing the past alienated condition of the Ephesian Christians that he’s writing to. Before they were “made alive together with Christ”, and were still “dead in trespasses and sins”, they were completely separated from all the blessings of Christ and His people – “the commonwealth of Israel”. However, through His bloody suffering and death, he’s brought these Gentiles “near” to God Himself, and to all the blessings of His people. At the same time, Paul immediately links this reconciliation to the joining together of Jews and Gentiles in one body, since Christ has made them both one through His gift of peace.
How has He done this? By reconciling them “both to God in one body through the cross”. This truth is so significant, but so often overlooked. Jesus doesn’t just reconcile each of us as individuals, but through His suffering on the cross, has already reconciled all of His people to God in anticipation of our realized reconciliation in our own lives. In other words, when Jesus died, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven, all of those who would ever be saved in the future had their reconciliation secured and assured already. Paul’s words are clear here – Jesus reconciled all of His people in one body through His death. Hence, our salvation isn’t just an individual event in each of our Christian lives, but is an event that has already happened to all of Christ’s people through His death.
And what is the result of the reconciliation to God that Jesus has secured for all of His chosen people? Paul says that “through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father”. When we learn the gospel, repent, and trust in Christ as Lord and Savior, we receive the same Holy Spirit who lives inside of every believer. And He’s the One who gives us the power to know God as our Father. Therefore, from the moment we’re saved, we are indwelt by the same God who lives inside of every believer.
The implications of this truth are massive. If the same God lives in you that lives in me, then we share the same experience and the same divine life. Further, because the Spirit gives each of us access to God as our Father, then we share the same heavenly Father. Obviously, this means that we belong to the same family, and have much the same character that reflects our heavenly Father. Thus, we share the same essential affections, interests, desires, and purposes. And all of these things come from the Holy Spirit changing us, and living inside of us.
But what is the basis of us all receiving the Holy Spirit, and sharing in the blessings of Christ? It’s our “oneness” or “unity” with Christ. This truth is one of the foundations of understanding our unity with other believers. Why? Because as those who are “in” Christ, or “one” with Him, we share the same human status as Him. Notice what Paul says in verse 13 of the passage we just looked at:
“. . . in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near . . .”
Paul makes reference to this concept of believers being in Christ dozens of times in his letters, especially in Ephesians. This is because being “one” with Christ is the basis of our forgiveness from God, our peace with Him, our membership in His family, and our heavenly inheritance. What it means is basically this – Christ is our representative before God, who died in our place on the cross, taking our punishment from God. And now He stands in the presence of God the Father in heaven, giving us access to the Father through His death, resurrection, and ascension. Because God has chosen all who would ever believe before time began, these whom He chose are granted salvation only because of what Christ has done. When a person puts his faith in Christ, God treats him as if he’s suffered the punishment that Jesus suffered, andas if he has risen and gone into heaven to enjoy God’s presence, blessing, and glory, as Jesus has. To be in Christ, then – or united to Him – means that a person receives all the blessings and privileges that Christ deserves, simply on the basis of his faith in Christ. God treats believers as if they share the same human status as Christ.
This means that our identity and nature as Christians isn’t found in our individual personalities, backgrounds, heritage, ethnicity, social status, or any other human, earthly condition. Instead, as Christians we share the same human nature and status as Christ, just as every other believer. When I look at another believer, then, I don’t simply see another unique individual who has totally different experiences from me. Instead, I see another child of God who belongs to Christ, and shares the same divine life of the Holy Spirit as me.
Because all believers share Christ’s life, it follows that His life, purposes, and desires affect all believers. In fact, another aspect of our oneness with Christ is that we’re not only sharers of His blessings, but we’re also under His control as our “Head”, or “Ruler”. Because He’s the source of the Holy Spirit who lives inside of us, transforming our hearts and minds, then He’s also the source of our direction and purpose in our living. In other words, He decides how we’re supposed to live, and He not only does this for us as individuals, but also as parts of Him.
Christ has purposed that, since we share His Spirit, and are fellow children of God, we are to be His representatives on this earth, and even for eternity to reflect who He is. Because of this unity, we are to work together in making Him known, and bringing more people to know Him as Lord and Savior. Paul describes this operation of His people with the picture of a body. Because Christ is the source of our life and instruction, He’s like the head of a body. He’s the head; we’re the body.
Paul directly addresses individualistic Christianity with this metaphor in his letter to the Romans, chapter 12, verses 3-5:
“For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.”
In Romans 12, Paul is beginning to directly give practical instruction in righteous living. And a brief exhortation on righteous thinking, he moves quickly into addressing our treatment of the believers in our lives. He begins by urging the Romans to think humbly, then to think faithfully, and then describes the integrity or simplicity of Christ’s people.
Paul begins this passage by countering the main cause of the individualism that we’ve looked at. This cause is pride – thinking of yourself “more highly than [you] ought to think”. Such thinking leads to you seeing yourself as very self-sufficient, and in no need of your brethren in Christ. But Paul calls the Romans to realistic and humble thinking. They are to recognize the reality that they’re no better than any other Christian, and incomplete from other Christians. That’s why Paul reminds them that each of them has a measure of faith, or only a limited and specific amount given for their unique situation.
Then, Paul explains this by picturing the Christian community as a body – Christ’s body. First of all, he says that all Christians are “one body in Christ”. He’s again referencing our union, or oneness, with Christ. Because we are in Christ, we belong to His spiritual body. Because of this, each Christian is a part or member of His body, and plays an essential and specific role in allowing the body to function properly. Paul describes this unity by saying that all Christians are “members one of another”. That is, we belong to one another, and we can’t live faithfully without one another.