Governing Principles for Building Up the Body of Christ

by Thomas W. Finley

Lesson 2


“And He [Christ] is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence.” (Col. 1: 18)

Honoring Christ’s headship through honoring His word

In honoring Christ as the head, we must firstly honor His word. Jesus Himself made this matter pointedly clear: “‘Why do you call me “Lord, Lord” and do not do the things which I say?’” (Lk. 6:46). In the practice of the assembly life, therefore, it is Christ's word, containing His thought and His way, that must be honored and obeyed, not man's thought and man's way. In the last chapter we saw man’s abilities to “build” the church contrasted with the power of the Spirit. In this chapter we see the ideas and ways of the natural man for “building” contrasted with obedience to God’s word. Our starting point must be a confession. We must agree with God's word in Isaiah. “‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts’” (Is. 55:8-9).

The Scripture and Christian history reveal a major obstacle to obedience to God’s word, and that is the religious traditions of men. If we find that our tradition transgresses the word of God, as did the practice of the Pharisees (Matt. 15:1-9; Mk. 7:2-13), are we willing to repent that Christ may have the headship? Dare we build a church according to our way? To those who were building by the natural way of man in Corinth, the apostle Paul warned:

According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one's work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one's work, of what sort it is. If anyone's work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone's work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire. Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are. Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you seems to be wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. (1 Cor. 3:10-18)

The “temple of God” mentioned here is the local church in Corinth since the “you” is plural in the phrase “you are the temple of God.” Any practice that produces division in the body of Christ is clearly against God’s word. Those who were divisively practicing the assembly life there in Corinth (1 Cor. 3:3, 4) were being warned by Paul of the coming Judgment Seat of Christ. The apostle was warning them that their natural way of building, characterized by preferring and grouping around leaders, was going to be tested by fire at the future judgment. Those doing this were facing some “destruction” (a ruinous judgment, not loss of eternal salvation) by God.

The final part of this passage shows that this wrongful practice was something that might be considered wise according to this age, but not according to God's thought. So here we see an example of “building” the church according to the thought and way of man, not according to God’s word. In God's view this was not edification, but defilement of the church. If we tolerate any of the ways of man in the church which violate God’s word, we deny Christ His headship and violate a basic principle of the body we claim to build up.

Honoring Christ’s headship by allowing the Holy Spirit to rule in the body

Besides acknowledging Christ's headship by honoring His word, we must also know His headship by letting the Holy Spirit rule in the church. The Holy Spirit’s ministry is to reveal Christ to us, so yielding to the guidance of the Holy Spirit equals being under Christ’s headship (Jn. 16:14). The Bible reveals that the function of all the members according to their respective gifts is a matter of the working of the Spirit:

There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works all in all. But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all: for to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge through the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healings by the same Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills. (1 Cor. 12:4-11)

The operation of the Spirit as intrinsic to the assembly life is again seen in the Biblical portrait of a proper Christian meeting:

How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be two or at the most three, each in turn, and let one interpret. But if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in church, and let him speak to himself and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others judge. But if anything is revealed to another who sits by, let the first keep silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, that all may learn and all may be encouraged. And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets. For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints. (1 Cor. 14:26-33)

It is the Spirit of Christ working in each member that brings the gifts and ministries of the saints into function. This truth calls for each member of the body to be functioning under the headship of Christ (1 Cor. 12:4-6; Eph. 4:15-16; Col. 2:19). In the meeting pictured in 1 Corinthians 14 above, there is no fully prearranged program with hymns already posted on a board, or a Sunday school lesson selected by a denominational headquarters. These actions frustrate the living head of a living body. Nor is the meeting planned, organized and overseen by one member. Rather, the meeting is the spontaneous activity of a living organism, where each member gets its life and stimulus for ministry directly from the head of the body, Christ. “Ministers” are not limited to those chosen and approved by men or by headquarters, but include all who are taught, prepared and enlivened by the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.

This kind of body life provides an atmosphere of liberty that encourages the function of all the members. Here, a member only needs to look to Christ the head as to when and how to function. This atmosphere, particularly in the meeting of the assembly, is in total contrast to one where everything is routine, pre-planned, controlled from headquarters or directed from the platform at the front.

“Won't confusion result?” you ask. “Won't mistakes be made or unlearned ones do damage?” This same passage declares: “For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints” (1 Cor. 14:33). Mistakes may occur, but if we dare to let God control the assembly directly He will, in His way, bring about peace and edification. Rather than fear that things may get out of control through liberty, we should instead fear man's control of the assembly. If man's authority is in tight control over the church, then Christ as the head is locked outside.

Honoring Christ’s headship by not allowing it to be usurped by man

The testimony of Christian history reveals the tendency of men to want a human leader, someone to be “the head,” whom the rest follow in obedience. But, we must be on guard against this tendency in order to preserve Christ’s unique headship. Christ alone is the one true authority in the church. The desire for human authority is seen in the Old Testament when the Israelites wanted a king like the nations around them. Concerning their demand for a human king, God said: “‘they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them’” (1 Sam. 8:7). In the New Testament it was prophesied that some would “rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves” (Acts 20:30). False apostles tried to bring others into bondage under themselves (2 Cor. 11:20). But the Scripture tells us: “Likewise he who is called while free is Christ’s slave. You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men” (1 Cor. 7:22b-23).

Each member must be exercised to hold only Christ as the unique Head (Eph. 4:15; 5:23). By such an exercise the saint should be directly under Christ’s headship, hearing His voice in order to follow His will for their lives. Over the centuries Satan has cleverly brought in corrupt teachings to usurp Christ’s headship so that persons, churches or ministries become “the head.” For example, the Roman Catholic Church teaches that the Pope is the “true vicar of Christ and Head of the whole church.”[1] The term “vicar” here means “earthly representative.” So the Pope supposedly acts as the visible head on the earth for the invisible head in heaven, being God’s “deputy authority” on the earth. Thus, strict obedience is enjoined upon Roman Catholics to follow his dictates and his teachings. This erroneous idea of such a “deputy authority” has been seen in other groups over the centuries besides the Roman Catholic Church. It always brings the saints into some bondage to a person, a church, a ministry or a movement. It hinders the individual saint’s freedom and responsibility to search and understand the Scriptures for himself or herself (Acts 17:11; 1 Thess. 5:20-21). It also hampers the saint’s ability to “hear the Lord” for their own spiritual direction because they have already been told what God’s will is for them in some points by the “deputy authority.” At its extreme, such authority teaching has even been used to control the most personal decisions of an individual’s life.

God does place human leaders in the church. The elders of the local assembly are placed there by the Holy Spirit to oversee and shepherd the flock – to watch over their welfare (Acts 20:28). Other members besides recognized elders may also provide leadership for the saints (Acts 15:22; 1 Cor. 16:15-16). Leadership in the church is not like that of the world, however, involving a hierarchy where the higher one has “authority over” the lower one and can command him what to do. This is proven by Jesus’ word in Luke 22:25-26: “And He said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those who exercise authority over them are called “benefactors.” But not so among you; on the contrary, he who is greatest among you, let him be as the younger, and he who governs as he who serves.’” The New Testament calls for the elders not to “lord it over” the flock, but to be godly examples (1 Pet. 5:3). The example of the godly lives of the leaders, along with the truth they teach, gives reason for the saints to follow their pattern of faith (Heb. 13:7).

With these concepts in mind we come to understand Hebrews 13:17: “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.” The word here translated as “obey” (Strong’s # 3982) is not the word used for “obey” in the New Testament as respects obedience to God and Christ. Rather, the verb used here means “to persuade” and the particular voice of the Greek verb here would indicate cooperation with the persuasion. A possible translation would be “let yourself be persuaded by” your leaders. Also, most modern translations use the term “leaders” in this verse instead of “those who rule over you.” “Leaders” is preferable, since we are apt to think of “rule over” as something like “lord it over” (“have absolute authority over”). We must be reminded that the idea of lording it over others is against the teaching of the New Testament (Matt. 20:25-28; Lk. 22:25-26; 1 Pet.5:3). Finally, the Greek verb translated “be submissive” (Strong’s # 5226) in Heb. 13:17 is used only here in the entire New Testament. It means to yield or surrender, and it pictures surrender after battle when used of military engagement. Thus, the overall picture in the first part of this verse presents a willingness to be persuaded by the leaders, including a yielding to them after listening to them, or perhaps having a dialogue. So, a paraphrase might be: “Let yourself be persuaded by your leaders, being willing to yield to them.”

God provides leadership in the church through the example of godly lives and the ministry of God’s word (Heb. 13:7). Thus, we surely should be open to be persuaded by what these leaders counsel and teach, respecting the leadership that God has given them. However, no person, church or ministry is infallible or has absolute “deputy authority” from God. We are to test things that are taught (1 Thess. 5:20, 21) and even men (1 Jn. 4:1; Rev. 2:2), realizing that some men can even be false leaders. We must preserve the headship of Christ by not allowing any absolute headship of men to be imposed upon us.

[1] First Vatican Council, 1870.

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