Governing Principles for Building Up the Body of Christ

by Thomas W. Finley

Lesson 4


The body of Christ builds up itself through the function of every member. “From whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love” (Eph. 4:16). This truth applies to the local assembly, where the building up work actually occurs, as much as to the universal church.

What is one key reason for the spiritual immaturity of a local assembly and its lack of being a substantial, unified testimony of the living Christ? Here is the answer: all the members are not functioning; therefore, the body is not built up. So we need to ask another question: Why are all the members not functioning? If we discover the reasons for this problem, then perhaps we can find solutions.

I believe that there are two aspects of the problem. One aspect can be termed a “system problem” and the other aspect termed the “individual saint problem.” These two aspects are not fully divorced from one another - each aspect influences the other. Let us first examine the “system problem.”

System Problem

In speaking of a system in Christianity, let me make it clear that I am addressing the situation in American Christianity. This system may not exist in the same fashion elsewhere. The functioning of the saints here in America is severely hampered by a highly developed clergy/laity system. The “clergy” means the collective class of persons who are ordained for religious ministry. A “clergyman” is defined as a member of this clergy. As for the “laity,” they are defined as all those who are not included in the clergy.

Thus we see that, according to this existing system, there are two classes of believers: those who are officially authorized to be “ministers” and those who are not. This distinction exists, no matter how much some “pastors” would want to deny it or minimize it. This concept is firmly fixed in the mind of the average “lay person” - some are especially equipped to minister and some are not. Therefore, most “lay people” do not attempt to fully carry out their God-given gift of ministry. Those who really want to serve the Lord attempt to do so, but often in a timid way, requiring reassurance and direction from the pastor, since deep within they do not feel fully qualified. The exception is the bold saint who, enlivened and directed by the Holy Spirit, carries out his ministry in the body of Christ.

The New Testament knows nothing of a class distinction between “clergy” and “laity.” All believers are priests (1 Pet. 2:5), and as such they should serve God and help others live unto God. All the saints are to participate in “the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:12).

This great class distinction has been aggravated by a number of factors that make the clergy special. Firstly, special, formal training is required in most congregations. Only years of special schooling thus prepares and qualifies one to minister the word and lead a congregation. One preacher I talked to told me that he already had one seminary degree, but he then had to return to get schooled at another seminary in order to get “his ticket” (his term) for the pastorate within another circle of churches.

There is no doubt that those who preach the word should know the word, but where in the Bible do we see the formal academic training of those who teach the flock? The teachers and elders of the early church learned the word from other gifted persons (2 Tim. 2:2; Tit. 1:9), and by their own diligence as proper workmen (2 Tim. 2:15). Therefore, seminary or Bible school training should not be expected or required of elders or teachers. (I am not saying any such training should be prohibited.)

It should also be noted that as respects the overseers the Biblical emphasis on preparation is upon mature Christian character, although the ability to teach is required (1 Tim. 3:2-7; Tit. 1:5-9). This is in accordance with their primary role as leaders - to be examples for the flock to follow (1 Pet.5:3).

In line with special training is the matter of special livelihood. Most clergy today are expected to make their living from church service. Another specialty of today's clergy is special titles. Usually they are acknowledged by specific titles such as Reverend, Father, Pastor, Bishop, etc. These titles set them apart from the “common brethren,” who are not identified in any special manner. Was not our Lord warning of the problem of special elevation of some saints by the use of titles when He berated the Pharisees in Matthew 23?

“They love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, ‘Rabbi, Rabbi.’ But you, do not be called ‘Rabbi’; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ. But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matt. 23:6-12)

We should all just be brothers. Special titles only help create a distinctive, elevated class. Another distinction among some of today's clergy is special dress, either in or out of the pulpit. This practice is just an improper carry-over from the Old Testament priesthood, which in that era belonged to only one tribe and family (Num. 18:1-3; Heb. 7:5).

All of these factors of specialty make today's clergy a distinctive class with a special standing. In fact, what has developed today in American Christianity is a class of church professionals. The ministerial leader has become a professional, which by modern definition means that he has been highly trained academically, thus prepared to work at this calling as a profession (a way of making a living). Then, of course, is the matter of ordination, conferring official status to the “minister.”

The professional minister of today is, therefore, comparable to any other professional in society. After training and certification, one works in a church as a pastor, while another works as a CPA in an accounting firm. Both are distinguished and set apart from the common man. Of course, there are some congregations which do not have such professional leadership, and, for the most part, the church at large in America feels these leaders are “lesser folk” than the true professionals. They too, however, usually maintain a clerical standing, and usually have been officially “ordained.”

The early church, however, did not have such a class of church professionals. Here are the comments of historian Robert A. Baker: “In the New Testament period the church consisted of the people in a local body; the leaders were on the same level with the people but served because they had been given special gifts by the Spirit.” [1] “The earliest bishops or presbyters [elders] engaged in secular labor to make their living and performed the duties of their church office when not at work.”[2] “These leaders usually worked with their hands for their material needs. There was no artificial distinction between clergy and laity.”[3]

The development of the clergyman took place gradually and was integral to the development of church hierarchy. Originally, a group of elders, not one man, exercised the oversight in each church (Acts 14:23; 20:17, 28; Jas. 5:14). They shared this oversight equally as a group.[4] This initial Biblical pattern changed shortly after the close of the apostolic era, as detailed in A Summary of Christian History by Baker:

For one thing, the original equality among the several pastors, bishops, or presbyters serving in a church began to disappear. In the New Testament church there was no difference in office between a bishop and a presbyter, the two names simply describing functions of the one office (Acts 20:17- 35). But quite early in the second century it became common for one of the ministers to assume leadership, sometimes because of unusual scholarship, strong personality, or man, the best qualified, was asked to resign his secular labor, and give full time to the religious task. It became his business to “oversee” (the word which means “bishop”) the work of the Christian community. He received the title of bishop in a special sense and finally claimed the name as a special dignity. The other ministers were now called “presbyters” in distinguishing them from the overseeing minister, the bishop. Early in the second century the churches at Antioch and Asia had developed such a leader over all other presbyters, although this had not yet manifested itself in Rome, Philippi or Corinth.[5]

Church hierarchy and the clergy class had their beginnings at the time of the departure from the eldership system. Philip Schaff, the great church historian, also tells us of the evolution of some of the things we have been discussing:

In the external organization of the church, several important changes appear in the period [100-311 A. D.] before us. The distinction of the clergy and laity, and the sacerdotal view of the ministry becomes prominent and fixed; subordinate church offices are multiplied; the episcopate arises; the beginnings of the Roman primacy appear...During the third century it became customary to apply the term “priest” directly and exclusively to the Christian ministers, especially to the bishops. In the same manner the whole ministry, and it alone, was called “clergy,” with a double reference to its presidency and its peculiar relation to God. It was distinguished by this name from the Christian people or “laity.”[6]

From the above history, we see the aberrant development of church leadership into a clerical class and a hierarchy that eventually led to the Roman system. The reformation did not completely undo this development.

Some readers may now be wondering: “Do you mean no person teaching the Scriptures or doing missionary work should be supported or given monetary gifts? What about Paul's teaching in 1 Corinthians 9 concerning ‘not muzzling the ox?’ What about his instruction to Timothy: ‘Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine’ (1 Tim. 5:17)? What about Galatians 6:6?”

I would reply in this way. The same Paul who wrote those verses also wrote the following ones. In Acts 20, Paul called to himself the elders of the church in Ephesus (Acts 20:17). His final words of instruction to these leaders were these:

“I have coveted no one's silver or gold or apparel. Yes, you yourselves know that these hands have provided for my necessities, and for those who were with me. I have shown you in every way, by laboring like this, that you must support the weak. And remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (Acts 20:33-35)

Paul had a fruitful, sacrificial ministry in Ephesus for over two years (Acts 19:9-10), yet he made tents there for his living (as he did in Corinth: Acts 18:1-3). Not only did Paul support himself through his tent making, but he also supported others with him (Acts 20:34). It is important to note that in doing this he was providing an example to the elders at Ephesus. His lesson for them was that they, as leaders among the flock, should work hard at earning a living in order to help (materially) those less fortunate (Acts 20:35).

Also, in spite of the fact that Paul, as God's apostle, had a right to make his living from proclaiming the gospel, he did not insist upon this right (1 Cor. 9:6-15). Time and again he gave up this right for the benefit of those he ministered to, especially so that they might follow his example (Acts 20:35; 1 Thess. 2:9; 2 Thess. 3:8, 9). And, as we have already seen, Acts and church history show us that during the apostolic age it was not the practice of the local overseers to give up their secular work and make their livelihood from church service. Thus it should be clear that it was never God's intention to set up a system with a special class of paid professionals. The leaders of the assemblies are to be examples of sacrificial ministry.

Does this mean that we are not to give gifts to local elders or teachers? No, otherwise we would set up another system and deny the teaching of Galatians 6:6 and 1Timothy 5:17-18. Although the early church did not have paid, full time elders, those leaders, and other teachers of God’s word, probably did receive some gifts in accordance with these Scriptures. Also, those called by God to go out for His name and the gospel deserve our prayerful consideration of support (1 Cor. 9:2-14; Titus 3:13; 3 Jn. 1:5-8).

What God wants us to do is to follow His Spirit in these matters. Yet, we should be very aware that a system exists today that is contrary to the overall testimony of the Bible and early church history. In our decision making in this matter, therefore, we should take care not to be influenced by any man-made system.

Because there now exists a special clergy class, the laity tends to view the clergy as the truly capable ones, the ones who can really serve God. The laity views real service as belonging in the hands of the trained professional. Thus, the laity does not make much effort to serve. The laity's part is often viewed primarily as attending the service and giving money to support the church and the pastor.

Another element of this problem is that the pastor is so dominant in the meetings of today's churches that it would be very difficult for any “common” member to spontaneously function in the meeting as described in 1 Corinthians 14:26-33. The liberty does not exist in today's meetings for such functioning, partly due to a dominant clergy, which itself is the result of the clergy/laity system. Although many pastors today understand they are just to have an “equipping ministry” which prepares the saints for service (Eph. 4:12), this will never happen to any degree until there is no class distinction between the equipping ones and the other saints.

The damage done by the clergy/laity system should now be evident. Some Bible teachers feel that God specifically condemned this system in the Bible through the references in Revelation to the “Nicolaitans” (Rev. 2:6, 15)[7]. Church history cannot confirm with certainty that any group actually bearing this name ever existed. On the other hand, the Lord no doubt condemned real persons.

The name “Nicolaitans” is probably symbolic, as are some other terms in the book of Revelation. This meaningful name is a compound word composed of two words. The first word is from a verb which means to conquer or be victorious over. The second word means laity, or common people. Thus, the word “Nicolaitan” literally means one who conquers the common people, or is above them. Since the book of Revelation was written late in the first century, these Nicolaitans could well have been those who were promoting a special ruling class over the laity. It was early in the second century that history records that a single bishop began to take a position over the other elders as the unique, elevated overseer of the assembly. Concerning the doctrine and the deeds of the Nicolaitans, Christ says that he hates them (Rev. 2:6, 15).

The Bible clearly teaches that we are to acknowledge leading ones among us who watch over our souls, being willing to be persuaded by their counsel (Heb. 13:17). We are to recognize their role in the body and esteem them highly in love because of their labor (1 Thess. 5:12-13). However, there should be no class distinction (Jas. 2:3-4), or special elevation of one class of members that would create a division (1 Cor. 12:24-25). We are all brothers (Matt. 23:8); we are all priests (1 Pet. 2:5); we are all needed (1 Cor. 12:21, 22; Eph. 4:16); and we all must serve (Lk. 19:13).

Individual saint problem

Now let's look at the “individual saint” aspect of this problem of all the members not fully functioning. The problem here often has to do with a saint's estimation of his gift and his value to the body. In such a saint's mind, he is a small, unimportant member and his function does not add that much to the building up of the body. After all, he cannot give an inspiring talk like the pastor or the evangelist. He feels his portion is really not needed. Paul addresses this problem in 1 Corinthians 12:

For in fact the body is not one member but many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I am not of the body,” is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I am not of the body,” is it therefore not of the body? If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where would be the smelling? But now God has set the members, each one of them, in the body just as He pleased. And if they were all one member, where would the body be? But now indeed there are many members, yet one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” No, much rather, those members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary. And those members of the body which we think to be less honorable, on these we bestow greater honor; and our unpresentable parts have greater modesty, but our presentable parts have no need. But God composed the body, having given greater honor to that part which lacks it, that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another. (1 Cor. 12:14-25)

These members need to realize how important their function is. They must understand that God has sovereignly placed every member in the body according to His wisdom and plan (1 Cor.12:18, 24). In God's mind these members are vital.

My heart is heavy as I write this because I truly grieve over the wrong perspective of many saints. I long to be able to explain to them how utterly helpful and encouraging their seemingly insignificant gift is. What is more healing to the body than those who show mercy on the unlovable or undeserving? What is more uplifting than to see some impoverished family, which has been crying out to God for help, become overjoyed in testimony to answered prayer because some unnoticed, or unknown, saint felt the Holy Spirit move within him as a liberal giver? What is more moving than to see some faithful brother or sister (like Tabitha) sacrifice his or her time and energy again and again to serve others through practical help? Oh, how wonderful are these members! I love them so much! And God needs them so much!

Another element of this problem is seen in the Lord's parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30. Here, one servant fails to function. He is only given one “talent” [a weight measure] of silver. This one talent represents his spiritual gift, along with other “spiritual capital” of the Lord (such as the gospel, the Bible, prayer, opportunities, etc.), given according to his natural ability (v. 15). His responsibility is to employ this capital (the talent) in order to gain some profit for the Lord (v. 27).

This servant made excuses (v. 24), and did not employ his gift for his master. His master's appraisal of the servant was: “You wicked and lazy servant...” (v. 26). It is wickedness (sin) not to employ the gift given to us by the Lord, but it is slothfulness that is often a root cause. The Christian life cannot be passive. Every saint is required to produce a profit for God through the diligent employment of the Lord’s gift by faith. All the saints must be warned of slothfulness, not just the ones who are given one talent (see Lk. 19:12-26, where size of the gift is not an issue).

This parable teaches that the master (Christ) of that servant will eventually exercise a severe judgment upon the “unprofitable servant”: “‘Therefore take the talent from him, and give it to him who has ten talents. For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance; but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’” (Matt. 25:28-30).

This judgment is not upon a false servant, but upon a real servant entrusted with the master's (Christ's) gift. Here, the parable pictures the judgment of Christ upon the believer who does not use his gift to build up the body. This judgment does not involve the loss of eternal salvation, but has to do with the loss of joy and responsibility in the 1,000 year kingdom age that follows the Judgment Seat of Christ.

The antidote to the problem of a saint's laziness is this very kind of motivating teaching concerning the coming Judgment Seat. The reason the Lord gave this parable was to portray the future positive reward for the faithful saint and the future negative recompense to the slothful, unprofitable saint. Such teaching provides real motivation to those who would want to “bury their talent in the ground.”

Every member must be in full function for the body to grow to maturity (Eph. 4:16). Therefore, we must eliminate the clergy/laity distinction and system. We must value every saint, regardless of the size of the gift they have received from the Lord, encouraging them to appreciate their gift and its value to the body of Christ. Finally, we must stimulate every saint into service through proper teaching concerning the coming Judgment Seat 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)

[1] Robert A. Baker, A Summary of Christian History (Nashville, Tn.: Broadman Press, 1959), p. 43. Used by permission.)

[2] Ibid., pp. 43,44.

[3] Ibid., p. 11.

[4] “The basic unit was the city congregation, worshipping initially under the collegial leadership of a group of presbyter - episkopoi [elder-overseers], but from the second century onward under the presidency of a single bishop.” [Jones, Lindsay (Editor). Encyclopedia of Religion, 15 Volume Set, 2E © 2005 Gale, a part of Cengage Learning, Inc. Reproduced by permission. Quote from First Editon, Vol. 4, p. 561.] An excellent source for study of the plural co-equal eldership pattern is Biblical Eldership by Alexander Strauch. It is available as a full length book or as a quite adequate abridged version in booklet form. The publisher is Lewis and Roth (

[5] Baker, pp. 43, 44.

[6] Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1922), Vol. II, pp. 121, 126, 127.

[7] See, for example, the original Scofield Reference Bible and the Pilgrim Study Bible. Especially see The Numerical Bible and Nicolaitanism – The Rise and Growth of the Clergy by F. W. Grant (Believers Bookshelf, Box 261, Sunbury, PA, 17801), as well as The Orthodoxy of the Church by Watchman Nee.