Governing Principles for Building Up the Body of Christ

by Thomas W. Finley

Lesson 3


A crucial fundamental characteristic of the body of Christ is its oneness. “There is one body” (Eph. 4:4). “For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ” (1 Cor. 12:12). The unity of the body of Christ is a prominent theme in the New Testament. In its spiritual reality, in example, and in practical exhortation, the oneness of the body is emphasized again and again (Jn. 17:22-23; Acts 4:32; Rom. 12:4-5; 14:1-15:7; 16:17; 1 Cor. 1:10-13; 3:1-4; 11:17-22; 12:12-27; Gal. 3:26-28; 5:19-20; Eph. 2:11-16; 3:4-6; 4:1-6, 13-16; Phil. 2:2-3; 4:2; Col. 3:14-15; Tit. 3:10). Significantly, Christ prayed to the Father on the very night before the cross concerning this oneness:

“I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.” (Jn. 17:20-23)

We see, therefore, that the oneness of the body of Christ is critical in God's view. We are all in one body universally (1 Cor. 12:13), yet experientially we must practice this oneness and grow in this oneness (Rom. 14:1-15:7; Eph. 4:1-3, 12-13). As believers who fellowship and serve in a local church, we must take care of the oneness that is so essential to the church. The building up of the body of Christ cannot be separated from the matter of oneness. True building up results in unity: “for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying [building up] of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:12-13).

In dealing with the issue of oneness, God's word takes a twofold approach. In a number of passages the Bible reveals the necessity of dealing with certain negative attitudes and practices that divide believers. On the other hand, Scripture also teaches us certain positive steps to take in order to promote and preserve the unity.

As we touch some of these negative and positive admonitions, I would ask you to maintain an open and prayerful spirit to God. It may be that some of these admonitions contradict your current practices. By God's grace, please remain open to His word on the matter rather than being defensive. In this way you may very well experience a change of mind in this area and become more obedient and pleasing to our Lord.

Division based on leaders

The Bible teaches that certain practices divide the body of Christ. For example, the church in Corinth was experiencing the stress cracks of division. It had not yet fully fractured into separated fellowships (there was still one identifiable fellowship in the city of Corinth), but divisive practices were evident. Paul addressed these practices with real concern in his first epistle to the Corinthians. He wrote:

Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you . . . For it has been declared to me concerning you . . . that there are contentions among you. Now I say this, that each of you says, "I am of Paul," or "I am of Apollos," or "I am of Cephas," or "I am of Christ." Is Christ divided? (1 Cor. 1: 10-13)

These divisions were the result of believers grouping their fellowship around gifted leaders and their ministries. The Corinthian believers should have realized that all the gifted ones are for the whole body and that all of these leaders belonged to them (1 Cor. 3:21-22). They should not have had a special identification with one person or his ministry, because in doing so they distinguished themselves from others and made their fellowship exclusive. In other words, by establishing special fellowships with only those believers who preferred certain ministers, they effectively excluded other believers.

Related to the unity of the body of Christ is the principle that the body is inclusive. The body of Christ includes all the members (1 Cor. 12:12). If we practice any basis of fellowship that is particular, that is not as general and as broad as the entire body, then we become exclusive - we effectively exclude certain members of the body and divide it.

Someone may well ask, “What about the statement ‘I am of Christ’ that Paul included in his condemnation?” The context of this phrase (“I am of Christ”) indicates that those who claimed to be “of Christ” were involved in quarrels and division (1 Cor. 1:10-12). Paul was condemning the divisive attitude of those making this claim. They had a divisive attitude in that they were essentially saying, “You others may be of Paul or Apollos, but we are of Christ.” They most likely felt that they were spiritually superior by not gathering around human leaders but only “honoring” Christ. Yet, they held their fellowship “around Christ” in an exclusive way. They really did not care for all the members, but only for those who agreed to their “separated standing” to be “of Christ.” The exclusiveness of this kind of attitude, masked by a “spiritual” reason, is harder to detect within ourselves than more obvious practices, such as preferring human leaders.

Paul condemned all these special groupings as the work of fleshly men and of babes in Christ (1 Cor. 3:1-4). He concluded his criticism of the Corinthians on this point by stating: “Therefore let no one boast in men. For all things are yours: whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas, or the world or life or death, or things present or things to come - all are yours” (1 Cor. 3:21-22). Paul's word here stressed the inclusive nature of the body by stating that the gifted ministers were possessed in common by all the members.

We must be willing to see how this teaching applies to the church today. In particular, it certainly applies to divisions caused by fellowships that identify with certain men or ministries. If Paul was here today would he not have the same thing to say to those who would state, “I am a Lutheran,” or “I am a Wesleyan” (of John Wesley), or “I am a Mennonite” (which sect was named after Menno Simons)? These names represent denominations (particular groups with specific names) named after men. Today’s denominations are universal groupings having many local fellowships in association together.

The same principle applies to singular congregations also, such as the “Richardson Memorial Church,” which would be a church named in memory of Mr. Richardson. How can any assembly take a name other than the name of their Lord, the Lord Jesus Christ? It seems incredible to me that another name could be so honored as to name the assembly by it. Is not our Lord affronted by such an action?

The Lord Jesus spoke approvingly to the church in Philadelphia: “You have a little strength, have kept My word, and have not denied My name” (Rev. 3:8). There are other groups today which do not take the name of a person, but nonetheless are exclusive in the same manner. Their attitude is to care only for their unique leader and his ministry. Their basis of fellowship is narrow and divisive; it is circumscribed in reality only by those who appreciate that leader and his ministry. A final category here would be represented by those who are “of Christ.” These would claim that their unique leader is Christ. While it is true that our sole leader should be Christ Himself, we must be careful to guard against the danger of holding a superior attitude towards others that generates exclusivity. Spiritual pride is certainly a root of division. Robert Chapman, an Englishman who lived in the 1800s and was known for his Christ-like life stated: “Humility is the secret of fellowship, and pride the secret of division.”

Doctrinal and other divisions

Before we review the teaching of the Bible concerning the positive things we must do to preserve the oneness, let us continue to look at the negative side by examining other factors that divide Christians. Any person who honestly assesses the situation in Christianity today will acknowledge that doctrinal differences often divide believers. Here again we have believers forming special fellowships (churches), not around certain persons, but in this case around non-foundational beliefs or convictions they especially hold dear. We must see that the basis of our fellowship with other believers, even all believers, is life, the eternal life of God which we all share, not “light” on certain doctrines (Jn. 17:2-3; 1 Jn. 1:2-3).

There is nothing wrong with having convictions concerning truth or practice. The problem comes in when Christians emphasize certain truths to the point where they become the key factors or the basis of their association together. In His wisdom, God has revealed the remedy for this problem in His word. When Paul wrote to the saints in Rome, he realized that there were probably different views among the saints there concerning certain matters. His concern was that these differing views not damage the unity among all the believers living in Rome. Here is Paul's teaching in this regard:

Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things. For one believes he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats only vegetables. Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him. Who are you to judge another's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand. One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks. . . . Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother's way. . . . Therefore let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another. . . . We then who are strong ought to bear with the scruples of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, leading to edification. . . . Now may the God of patience and comfort grant you to be like-minded toward one another, according to Christ Jesus, that you may with one mind and one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore receive one another, just as Christ also received us, to the glory of God. (Rom. 14:1-6, 13, 19; 15:1-2, 5-7)

In this passage Paul is addressing the saints’ varying views on “doubtful things” (Rom. 14:1). “Doubtful things” are those matters in Christian belief and practice which may not seem to be so clearly defined in Scripture. Certainly there should be uniformity of belief regarding the clear teaching and commands of Scripture on moral matters. And, all believers should hold to the fundamentals of the faith concerning God and concerning Christ’s person and work. However, the testimony of Christian history is that sincere believers can read the Bible and sincerely pray, yet arrive at different conclusions regarding minor doctrines, or regarding convictions concerning what God desires in terms of practical holiness in our lives.

In the passage in Romans 14 the Bible uses the example of different convictions concerning eating meat and the observance of days. However, the principle extends to any “doubtful thing.” Today, for example, there are different convictions concerning what constitutes “being holy” or “not loving the world.” There are also sincere differences of opinion on what the Bible teaches concerning the rapture.

The oneness of the body of Christ is a great work achieved by Christ through the cross (Eph. 2:11-16). Therefore, we should see that the carrying out of this oneness is much more important than our pet secondary doctrines or practices, which we can misuse to cause division in the body of Christ.

We should never expect or insist that other believers agree with us on minor points of doctrine or practice. The only doctrine that should be uniformly accepted by all true believers is “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). “The faith” consists of the basic truths concerning Christ and His redemptive work for salvation. Regarding these foundational truths the church must be unyielding. In other words, it is proper for the church to emphasize and insist upon these truths, holding them as beyond dispute. However, a more general attitude must be held on other doctrines, allowing liberty for different views. Philipp Melancthon, university professor and intimate friend of Luther, stated the kernel of this truth in this way: “In necessary things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity [love].”

There is some positive instruction in the Romans passage cited above for maintaining unity, but we also need to see the potential divisive factors noted there. It is a sad fact of history that believers tend to separate from other believers by emphasizing minor doctrines or practices. Such an emphasis, or an expectation of conformity among the members of the congregation, inevitably leads to special fellowships (churches) based upon these emphases. What is of gravest significance here, however, is that the oneness that should be evidenced among Christians locally (Rom. 15:5-7), is destroyed by such “churches.” Through their practice of distinctions, the one local body of Christ in each city (1 Cor. 12:27; Rev. 1:11) is divided in a visible way.

Persons outside the church have no difficulty in seeing the divisions in Christianity: Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, etc. All of these divisions are based upon distinctions. The Baptist movement had its impetus from a strong conviction about believer's baptism (as opposed to infant baptism). Methodists had their beginnings with Charles Wesley, who, along with his brother John, were members of a club at Oxford University that practiced certain spiritual disciplines. Due to their disciplined lifestyle, others termed them “Methodists.” Although today their method is probably not emphasized universally in Methodist churches, the Methodist label remains as a distinction that separates (divides) them from other Christians.

The Episcopal Church's distinction comes from its emphasis on the bishop system of church government. The Presbyterian Church emphasizes another church government arrangement, namely that of presbyteries, or ruling bodies of elders. Denominations are defined as sects (factions, divisions) that carry a certain name. Sometimes the distinctive beliefs or practices are obvious from the name and sometimes they are not.

In recapitulation, let us put this matter in full Biblical perspective. It is appropriate and necessary for teachers to teach minor doctrines, as they understand them, in their assemblies (1 Tim. 4:13, 16; 5:17; 2 Tim. 4:2-4). Yet, uniformity of belief within the assembly on minor doctrines should not be expected. On the contrary, each member is responsible to grant other members the liberty to believe as each one is convinced in his own mind, without despising the other members (Rom. 14:1-19). While allowing for such diversity, these members collectively are to practice unity by receiving all other members, thus glorifying God (Rom. 15:5-7). It is not permissible to misuse this liberty to form special groups or parties within the local body, because this would damage the oneness (1 Cor. 1:10-13; 11:17-19).

It is here that we can see the error of ecumenism. This movement attempts to solve the problem of division by bringing into “unity” (actually only loose association) various sects or denominations. No labels are dropped and particular fellowships (individual assemblies) based upon distinctions are maintained under an umbrella of vague “oneness.” Biblical unity consists of individual members, not sectarian groups or bodies, forming one body locally in each city (1 Cor. 1:2; 12:27). Biblical oneness permits diverse doctrinal views, but forbids division to arise out of these diverse views through labels (1 Cor. 1:10-13), or grouping into sects (Rom. 16:17; 1 Cor. 11:18-19; Gal. 5:20). The Bible declares that divisions are just as much a work of the flesh as are immorality and drunkenness (Gal. 5:19-21).

Since the matter of division has now been covered in detail, I will only mention a few other factors of division. Some groups create special fellowships by having an emphasis on certain experiences (such as the Pentecostal or “second blessing” experience). Some gather together on the basis of race or nationality (such as a “black church” or a “Korean church”). Such grounds of meeting are contrary to the principle that all such distinctions are dissolved in Christ (Col. 3:10-11). Some churches may create division by focusing upon ministry only to a certain segment of society. A real life example would be a congregation in a certain city that says its mission is only to serve the professional and academic members of their community. However, we should have the same care for all the members of the body or we will create division (1 Cor. 12:25).

Practicing the oneness

We have seen some dividing factors. On the positive side, however, how are we to practice the unity of the body? To practice this oneness we need to pay attention to both outward practices and inward attitudes. Outwardly, we should not divide the body of Christ by taking labels or making special (exclusive) fellowships based upon grounds narrower than the whole body (1 Cor. 1:10-13) and “the faith” (Jude 1:3).

Concerning the need for inward practice, there are several key passages, among others, that we should consider. Carefully review the following three passages which focus upon our inner attitudes:

I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Eph. 4:1-3)

Fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. (Phil. 2:2-4)

Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful. (Col. 3:12-15)

In addition, we are to receive all the other members of the body of Christ without despising them for their views on minor practices and doctrines (Rom. 14:1-15:7). We must also not make distinctions among members of the body (Jas. 2:4), but instead we need to exercise the same degree of love and care toward each member of the body (1 Cor. 12:25; Phil. 2:2).

Note the special place given to humility and lowliness of mind in the verses quoted above. Spiritual pride can easily come in because we “know more” or feel we follow Christ more closely than others. This pride, if not dealt with, will cause us to inwardly pull away from other believers and desire to be just with those who “see” or practice what we see. Like those who were claiming to be “of Christ” (1 Cor. 1:12), spiritual pride can be especially subtle when our convictions seem particularly “spiritual” and right before God. Our need for humility in order to practice unity with all believers is paramount. Perhaps this is why the beatitudes begins with the blessing upon the “poor in spirit,” our sense of utter poverty before God (in our resources) to be or do anything that pleases Him (Matt. 5:3).

By all of the practices noted above, we can see that to properly practice the oneness that belongs to the body of Christ is extremely challenging. It is against our natural tendencies and is impossible in our own energy. To practice this oneness is probably the greatest test of one's spirituality and maturity in the Lord. However, in Eph. 4:1-3 we are enjoined to walk worthily of our calling by diligently practicing this oneness with all believers. The context of this injunction points especially to our calling into the one body of Christ.

In the midst of the divided situation in the church at Corinth, there were some saints who practiced maintaining unity. Paul's comments on these saints are rarely noticed by those who read the Bible, but they are truly significant: “For first of all, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it. For there must also be factions among you, that those who are approved may be recognized among you” (1 Cor. 11:18-19). Since, according to the context, the disapproved ones were those practicing division, the approved ones would have to be those who would have a proper attitude and care towards all the saints (1 Cor. 11:17-22). In application today this attitude and care must be shown toward all believers, not just those meeting with us. It is much easier to love and appreciate those with whom we meet, or those who are like-minded with us in minor matters. Yet God earnestly desires (it is His will) that believers will broaden their hearts to have the same love toward all of His children.

Today in Christianity, in your city, a divided situation also exists - only more so (all the saints no longer come together as they did in Corinth). Such a divided situation provides an opportunity for some to be approved, in God's sight, by practicing the oneness of the body of Christ. Such a practice truly builds up the body of Christ.

Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ

And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart" (Jer. 29:13, NASB)