Building Up One Another by Gene Getz
“So we who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Rom. 12:5, NASB).
The New Testament clearly and unequivocally states that Christians are “members of one another.” All New Testament authors recognized this truth. But it was Paul who developed the concept extensively in his correspondence with certain churches. It was also Paul who exclusively used a unique illustration to get his point across the human body. In his letters to the Romans, the Corinthians, the Ephesians, and the Colossians, he penned the word “body” (soma) more than 30 times to illustrate the functioning church. Approximately half of the times he used the word, he was referring to the human, physical body with its many parts and members. In the other half, he applied the term to the Church the body of Christ.
Paul’s most extensive use of the analogy of the human body appears in his letter to the Corinthians, no doubt because of their carnality and immaturity. Because of their immature state, he made a special effort to clearly and carefully spell out the similarity between the “human body” and “Christ’s body the Church.” In two extensive paragraphs, he used the word “body” 13 times to illustrate just how this body actually functions. Paul didn’t want them to miss his point! And since he had previously experienced their inability to grasp spiritual truth, and since they were still unable to handle “solid food” (1 Cor. 3:1 2), he decided to make his point so clear that even the most immature Christian could understand what he was illustrating. Thus he wrote:
Now the body [the human body] is not made up of one part but of many.
If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be a part of the body.
And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be a part of the body.
If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, everyone of them, just as He wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts of the body that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it (1 Cor. 12:14 26).
There was no way that even the most carnal and immature Corinthian Christian could miss Paul’s message. If repetition with variety is a significant key to learning (and it is), Paul certainly was a master teacher. His point of application was that Christians are “members one of another.” Thus he concluded these lengthy, descriptive, and repetitious paragraphs by adding this concise statement: “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Cor. 12:27) .
A Wrong Emphasis
Three major passages in Paul’s letters illustrate and describe the functioning body of Christ. One we’ve already looked at-1 Corinthians 12. The others are Romans 12 and Ephesians 4.
It is my opinion that many Christians (including myself), who have read and studied these passages of Scripture, have missed Paul’s major emphasis. For years I used these passages to teach that Christians must search for and try to discover their spiritual gifts in order to function in the body of Christ. The reason, of course, is obvious. In all of these passages Paul made extensive reference to specific spiritual gifts.
However, it suddenly dawned on me one day as I was studying that nowhere in these verses can we find any exhortation for individual Christians to “look for” or to “try to discover” his or her spiritual gift or gifts. In fact, nowhere in the Bible can we find any such exhortation.
What, then, was Paul saying?
First, Paul teaching the New Testament believers that no individual Christian can function effectively by himself.
Not long ago a speck of dust blew into my eye. Instinctively I rubbed my eye with my finger. I didn’t have to debate with my finger to help my eye. After pulling the lid down, causing the eye to cry, the dust was washed out. In a short time my eye was back to normal. But without my hand, including specially functioning fingers, the irritant would have remained.
Just as “there are many parts of one body” in the physical makeup of human beings, so the body of Christ is made up of many members. And each member is important. We are indeed “members of one another.” No member of Christ’s body can say, “I don’t need you.” We all need each other.
Second, Paul was also teaching that no member of Christ’s body should feel he is more important than another member of Christ’s body. No Christian has exclusive rights to God’s grace. This perhaps, is one of Paul’s major teachings in these three passages. His emphasis is on humility! Though implied all the way through the Corinthian passage (some Corinthians were saying, “I don’t need you” and “I’m more important than you”), Paul made it clear in his Roman letter when he wrote:
“For by the grace given to 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” (Rom. 12:3).
Then Paul went on to emphasize: “So in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others” (Rom. 12:5). It seems that the Romans were having a problem similar to the Corinthians’, but probably not to the same degree. Some were carnal in their attitudes about their spiritual gifts, using them in such a way so as to make other members of the body feel unimportant.
Interestingly, the Ephesian passage describing “body function” reflects the same emphasis. Setting the stage for the purpose of gifts (as spelled out in Ephesians 4:11 16), Paul wrote: ` Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love” (Eph. 4:2).
Why did Paul emphasize humility, gentleness and patience? Because, as he went on to say, “there is one body and one Spirit” (Eph. 4:4). With this statement he is in essence saying the same thing he said to the Corinthians: “For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body (1 Cor. 12:13) . In other words, no member of Christ’s body is more important than the other. Though one person may have a more responsible position, in God’s sight even the person who may go unnoticed is just as important and necessary in the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:22 23) .
When we use the analogy of the human body, immediately our minds picture the expressive parts of the body: mouth, hands, feet, eyes the outwardly movable. But the hidden parts: bones, ligaments, muscles, glands these are also vital to proper functioning. Could the hands or feet or tongue operate without controlling muscles and the all controlling brain?
Third, Paul was teaching that Christians should work hard at creating unity in the body of Christ. This is why Paul wrote clearly to the Corinthians: “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts” (1 Cor. 12:12) . This is why he immediately opened the letter to them by saying, “I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought” (1 Cor. 1:10). And this is why he wrote to the Ephesians, in the very same passage where he discussed body functions: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3).
To sum up, then, what Paul was teaching in these passages is this: Not one of us can function effectively by ourselves; need each other. Not one of us is more important than any other Christian, even though one of us may have a more obvious or ‘ significant position in the body. We are to be clothed with humility remembering that even the one who has the greatest responsibility is to be the greatest servant. And finally, all of us as members of Christ’s body are to strive diligently for unity and peace. We are to do everything possible to keen misunderstandings from arise from erupting.
What About Spiritual Gifts?
Paul makes reference to spiritual gifts in each of these passages. In all three instances, no reference or implication is made to indicate these Christians did not know what their gifts were. They knew only too well what gifts they had. Their problem they were using them incorrectly. Some were building themselves up or putting other Christians down. Some were giving the impression they were more important than others. They didn’t need other members of the body. Some who knew they had the “unnoticed” gifts were feeling unimportant in Christ’s body.
It would seem that all these gifts, given by the Holy Spirit to the Early Church, were sovereignly and divinely bestowed abilities. Each gift was so obvious that every Christian knew exactly what his gift was. Every Christian also knew immediately what other Christians’ gifts were. No one had to go around looking and searching for his gift or gifts. Rather, the problem was how to use it in a humble, gentle, and patient way, realizing that the gift was given not to glorify self, but to minister to others.
What About Spiritual Gifts Today?
Many different opinions about the subject exist in the Church. There is general agreement among most Christian leaders who speak out on the subject, yet many excellent Bible students disagree with each other on some aspects. Significantly, most disagree on how many gifts are yet in existence, how to recognize and discover those that are in existence, and how to use them.
The primary reason for this disagreement seems to be that we are emphasizing something the Bible does not emphasize. As was stated before, nowhere do the Scriptures teach that we as individuals are to look for and to try to discover our gifts before we can function as members in Christ’s body.
Some Christians use 1 Corinthians 14:1 to teach that we should try to discover personal spiritual gifts. But a careful look at the text and context strongly points to the fact that this is not what Paul was teaching. All the way through this section of the Corinthian letter, Paul was directing his exhortations not to individuals but to the corporate body of believers at Corinth. He specifically used the second person plural: “Eagerly [as a body] desire spiritual gifts” (1 Cor. 14:1). In other words, as a body of believers desire that the greater gifts be manifested in your midst, not the lesser gifts. You see, some Corinthian believers were giving primary attention to “tongues speaking” (definitely classified by Paul as a lesser gift) rather than to apostleship, prophecy, and teaching, which were the “greater gifts” (see 1 Cor. 12:28 31).
The Proper Emphasis
What then does the Bible emphasize? Its emphasis is on becoming mature in Christ. This, of course, was Paul’s primary concern in the Corinthian letter the Corinthian believers were to no longer talk, think, and reason like children (1 Cor. 13 :11) . Love for others is the most significant key to unity and effective body function.
Furthermore, when Paul discussed the qualifications for leadership in the church (both for elders and deacons) he made no reference whatever to spiritual gifts. Rather, he wrote extensively about character traits: being above reproach, morally pure, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, being able to teach, not being addicted to wine, not self willed, not quick tempered, not pugnacious, uncontentious, gentle, free from the love of money, a good manager of the home, a good reputation with non Christians, loving what is good, being just, devout. He also stated that church leaders were not to be new converts, for a new convert could not possibly be a mature Christian (1 Tim. 3 ; Titus 1) .
Some have interpreted “being able to teach,” mentioned in 1 Timothy 3, as the gift of teaching. However, a careful look at the word translated “able to teach” in the original text, and Paul’s use of it in 1 Timothy 3:2 and 2 Timothy 2:24, reveals significant evidence that Paul was talking about a quality of life, not a particular pedagogical skill or a special gift. Furthermore, it would be rather strange for Paul to single out the “gift of teaching” as a requirement for leadership and to omit “the gift of pastor” and the “gift of administration.” This would be especially strange in view of the fact that Paul definitely instructed elders to be responsible for the teaching, shepherding, and managing responsibilities of a church.
A Personal Experience
For a number of years I diligently taught that Christians should try to discover their spiritual gifts in order to function in the body of Christ. But little by little, I began to notice some serious problems in the lives of those who sat under my teaching and the teaching of others who took this approach. For one thing, many became confused. Some tried diligently and desperately to find their gifts to “pigeonhole” what they thought was a spiritual gift given to them at conversion. But many Christians including many mature believers could not seem to isolate their gifts. I remember one pastor who became frustrated because his most mature members were unable to discover for sure what their gifts were.
Another category of people emerges from an emphasis on discovering gifts those who quickly fixate on what they think their gift is. They promptly begin to use it as a rationalization for not fulfilling other biblical responsibilities. Interestingly enough, I’ve seen this happen in the context of a theological seminary. For example, a person concludes he has the gift of teaching (not pastoring). This conclusion is based primarily upon the fact that he “feels” comfortable behind a lectern or a pulpit, but feels uncomfortable working with people one on one. On the other hand, there’s the person who has a difficult time studying, preparing messages, and speaking, but who feels comfortable “hanging loose with people.” He concludes, “I have the gift of pastoring, but not of teaching.” And, of course, we’ve all met people who do not share their faith because they know “they don’t have the gift of evangelism.” Their criterion? They don’t feel comfortable sharing Christ.
Martin was an excellent Greek and Hebrew student. He loudly proclaimed to fellow seminarians he had the gift of teaching. Evangelism wasn’t his calling. He’d spend his life building the lives of believers. Others could evangelize. That was for those who couldn’t think deep thoughts . . . or expound the Scriptures!
A little insight into human personality clearly focuses the problem. What this points to is not a lack of gifts but psychological hang ups, a kind of rationalization that keeps a person from becoming mature in Jesus Christ.
Another problem I have observed resulting from an emphasis on discovering gifts is the problem of self deception. I’m speaking primarily of the person who thinks he has a gift when he doesn’t. For example, the person who has a “quick mind” concludes he has the gift of wisdom. Or the impressionable person given over to “subjective and intuitive thoughts” or even “obsessions” easily concludes he has the gift of prophecy. And so it goes.
These observations drove me back to a fresh study of the New Testament regarding spiritual gifts. To my surprise and chagrin I discovered no emphasis on personally looking for spiritual gifts. Rather, I found a profuse and repetitious emphasis on becoming mature in Jesus Christ.
Concurrently with this new perspective, the Lord allowed me to start a new church in Dallas, Texas. This gave me an opportunity to emphasize in my preaching and teaching not gifts but maturity, both corporately and personally. On the one hand, I emphasized faith, hope, and love as reflections of “Body maturity.” On the other hand, I emphasized the qualities for personal maturity specified in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. And not surprisingly, in view of what the Bible emphasizes, I began to see more body function take place than at any other time in my ministry and without confusion, rationalization, and self deception.
Practical Steps for Developing Body Function in Your Church
The following project is designed to help you to become a more effective functioning member of Christ’s body. It is also designed to help other Christians do the same.
Note that most biblical references to the functioning body of Christ focus on local churches. The exceptions appear in some of Paul’s statements in the Ephesian and Colossian letters. Even here, it must be recognized that believers can only function practically and minister to each other in close relationships. For example, I realize that I am a vital part of the universal body of Christ wherever it is located, but I cannot “hurt” or “rejoice” with someone that I do not know exists.
People suffering for Christ in China are unknown to me. Therefore, I have difficulty hurting with them. But I can identify with suffering saints in drought ridden North Africa or in the Oklahoma dust bowls because we know the reality of such extended hot, dry spells in Texas.
The only possible way for body function to be effective, meaningful, and dynamic is in the context of local bodies of believers who know each other well and who are able, on the basis of that knowledge, to minister to each other. They are indeed part of the universal body of Christ. They represent local manifestations of the universal body. In these local manifestations true body function takes place.
It’s important to understand a local body of believers does not function automatically. There must be a degree of spiritual maturity. In order to become mature, believers must be taught the nature of the body of Christ. This, of course, is why Paul took so much effort to spell this out in the Corinthian letter.
Interestingly, when Paul wrote to the Ephesian and Colossian Christians, he nowhere described the nature of the human body. He talked directly about the functioning body of Christ, assuming understanding, insight, and perception. This is not surprising when you compare the maturity level of the groups. The Ephesians and Colossians were much further along in their spiritual development.
Note Paul’s direct references to the functioning body of Christ in these letters:
• “And God . . . appointed Him [Jesus] to be head over everything for the church, which is His body” (Eph. 1:22 23) .
• “His [Christ’s] purpose was to create in Himself one new man out of the two [Jews and Gentiles], thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross” (Eph. 2:15 16).
• “There is one body and one Spirit” (Eph. 4:4).
• “It was He who gave some . . . to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Eph. 4:11 12).
• “From Him [Christ] the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:16).
• “For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the
head of the church, His body” (Eph. 5:23) .
• “For we are members of His [Christ’s] body” (Eph.
• “And He [Christ] is the head of the body, the church” (Col. 1:18).
• “I [Paul] fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His body, which is the church” (Col. 1:24) .
• “He [an unspiritual person] has lost connection with the Head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow” (Col. 2:19) .
Either as a Christian leader or as a regular member of Christ’s body, are you emphasizing “looking for gifts or are
you emphasizing becoming spiritually mature” Emphasizing looking for gifts can lead to confusion, rationalization, and even self deception. An emphasis on becoming spiritually mature will lead to concern, humility, patience, sensitivity, freedom, and unity. These are true expressions of love.
If you are a pastor (or in another position of Christian leadership), what are you doing to help other Christians become participating members of Christ’s body? Check yourself!
I’m doing all I can to help other believers become mature in Christ measured according to the qualities specified in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 ”
I look for as many opportunities as possible to encourage other mature Christians to participate in teaching the Scriptures, praying, helping others, counseling, etc.
I realize that God can use other members of the body of Christ, even though they may not have had as much training as I have.
I have a subtle sense of pride which keeps telling me I’m the only one capable of effectively ministering to other people.
I have difficulty trusting other members of Christ’s body either because I have not viewed other Christians properly, or I am threatened by the fact that they might be able to do things better than I can.
Isolate your areas of strength and weakness, and then accentuate your strengths and work at eliminating your weaknesses. Set up specific goals, including contact with specific individuals in your church.
Note: To start, select one person you are going to help become a more functioning member of Christ’s body.