If I ever had any aspirations of going into the field of medicine, High School Biology class dashed them to the wind. Now, mind you, I attended a little Public High School in rural Harford County, Maryland and so “state-of-the-art” was little more than a series of spelling words for us. Nevertheless, we had biology class and in biology class, we dissected dead animals.
Mind you, we didn’t get to dissect anything exotic. Our teacher was a fisherman by avocation and so most of what we dissected related to that hobby: worms, crawfish, small fish, etc… Needless to say, for a teenage boy having grown up in the Boy Scouts, dissecting critters like this was not a huge draw.
What made things worse was the fact that those were the days when pretty much every boy carried some sort of knife in his pocket to school, but the School Board did not trust us with scalpels to do the dissections. Instead, we were assigned this little, rounded scissors — kind of like what we had used for crafts back in Kindergarten — to dissect these animals.
I don’t know what the School Board members were thinking (probably about liability), but if you are unsure as to the results we got, Kindergarten shears do not serve the budding biologist well in this task. I remember looking at all of the diagrams in our biology book, depicting what we were supposed to be seeing and all I remember ever seeing was mush. There is a rule of thumb principle in this — imprecise tools in the hands of a novice does not yield precision in any meaningful sense of the word.
So, why the recollection about High School Biology? In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul gives us one of the great analogies of the church — that of the body of Christ. Not all are eyes or hands but both eyes and hands are needed. You know the language. Yet, often, when pastors and theologians handle this idea and apply it to the church, I think that they handle it much like we handled dissection with Kindergarten shears. They make a mess and the body of Christ ends up looking like all the same stuff: mush.
Let me offer an example. In many denominations, if someone is identified as having a call to serve on the missions field or perhaps to go and plant a new church for the denomination, they are sent out to start raising money. True, the benefit to that model is that by the time the man is in the field, he has developed a large network of churches and Christians to help pray for and support his work — though most often, those churches and Christians are not anywhere near the field in which the man is working. Furthermore, it makes the assumption that the calling to be an evangelist brings with it the gift of being a fund-raiser. And the two do not necessarily go hand in glove.
A better model would be to say that if the church identifies a man as having the calling to serve as an evangelist, the church should send him and let him commit fully to said work while assigning the task to others in the body (who have a gift for and love of fund-raising) the task of making sure the evangelist’s financial needs are met. Different parts of the body have different roles, tasks, and giftings so that the whole body can function effectively.
It is true that we are fed by one Spirit and that we have one head in Christ Jesus. And so, there are some things that the whole body shares in common — a circulatory system and a nervous system, for example. Thus, there are things that the whole body does together. We gather for public worship, we commit time to prayer, and we study our Bibles. But, when it comes to the good works that we are called to do, we are most effective doing those works for which God has designed us. Not everyone is called to teach, but we need teachers. Not everyone is called to labor in mercy ministry, but we need those who do. Not everyone is called to organize events, but if we are going to put on an event of sorts, we need people to organize them. Not everyone is called to raise funds for projects, but we need people who raise funds. Not everyone is called to be at every mid-week prayer meeting, but they are good and healthy for the body (think of them like a vitamin tablet!). And, when you assume that every believer should be involved in every area of the work of the church (as many do), then you are making mush of the body with those kindergarten shears once again — rather than seeing the beauty of God’s design in the elegant complexity of the body.
Here’s the trick though. Each part of the body needs to be committed to a common end and each part of the body needs to trust the other parts of the body to act and work in the way in which they were designed. Just as in the human body, parts do not act autonomously, so too, all is meant to work under the headship of Christ that is expressed through the teaching of the Word of God and is moderated by the oversight of the Elders. Yet, the hand can do best what the hand was made to do and the other parts likewise.
And so, leadership in the body is not simply a matter of maintaining systems (your body can be physically healthy but your person can still remain utterly unproductive). Leadership is about equipping hands to be hands and eyes to be eyes and knees to be knees — and then letting those parts function at their full capacity (getting out of their way) so that the body as a whole can achieve its God-given mission of making disciples of the nations and being a buttress and pillar of the truth.
Now, part of Paul’s analogy is the principle that when one part of the body is hurting or in need, then other parts compensate. I stand amazed, for example, at people who have learned to do with their feet what most of us commonly do with our hands, and vice versa. Having had a stroke several years back where my left hand no longer wanted to work right, I had to learn to compensate and then to retrain my brain to make my hand work like it was supposed to do. And thus, in the church, sometimes we step out of our normal areas to assist the whole body in its time of need, but that too, only happens when the body is committed to a common end.
And so, we have a choice, as we look at the church, the body of Christ, we can lump all of the gifts together, dissecting the body with kindergarten shears (and ending up with a gooey mess) or you can expose the elegant diversity of God’s design for the church, celebrating the diverse gifts while knowing that all of those gifts came from one Spirit who calls us to serve to one end — the building of Christ’s kingdom.
In 1 Corinthians 12, the Apostle Paul makes an impassioned plea for the unity of the body…a unity that can only built up in love, when the body itself is functioning properly (Ephesians 4:16). Love in the body is indeed the “better way” (1 Corinthians 12:31) toward which we should strive. To make his point, Paul reminds us that a body has many parts…there are eyes and hands and ears, etc… Because the body needs all of the parts to be whole, unity is that which must be striven for. Amen. For most of us who have grown up in Christian circles or in churches, this is an idea that is pretty basic to our existence. No matter what our personal gifts and passions may be, we need the whole to live out the Great Commission in this world.
I fear, though, in a society that has become as specialized as ours has become, Paul’s analogy is often misapplied. In today’s world, it seems, that there are specialists in just about every field. Medicine, Law, and Mechanics are all examples of areas where people specialize in a narrow field. Certainly, there is a base of knowledge that all specialists share in common (I’ll come back to that idea), but there are Dermatologists, Hematologists, and Cardiologists; there those who specialize in Criminal Law, Civil Law, and Business Law; and people also specialize in Motorcycle Mechanics, Heavy Machinery Mechanics, and Auto Mechanics — many even specializing only one a particular make of automobiles.
Even in my former trade there were specialists (I installed carpet for 11 years before entering the ministry full-time). My specialty was Residential Flooring and in that, I did a lot of custom work (borders, inlays, etc…). For several months, just after arriving in seminary, I worked for a Commercial Flooring company, laying tile and glue-down floors. While I knew the basics, the guys who did that kind of flooring for a living could work circles around me. At the same time, most of them had never used a carpet kicker before…something that is a mainstay of residential work. We were specialists — we had areas in which we overlapped, but there were things in which we each did particularly well, and it is in those areas that we each tended to stay.
So, how does this apply to the church? Certainly, there are specializations in the church. To some, God has given the gift of administration, and we need those who can wisely manage the resources that God has entrusted to the church. To others, God has given the gift of helping, which extends well past the work of the Deacons to the whole church body, who cares enough to reach out and meet the needs of others (as I write this, we have a team of people traveling home from Houston, who spent the last week doing just that). To others, God gives the gift of teaching, something that is essential in the process of discipling Christians as they grow in faith. Still, to others, God has given a heart for evangelism, and these members are wired by God to look for people with whom they can share the Gospel. All of these are specializations — we share a common basic set of skills (every Christian ought to be able to share the Gospel, but some are that much more zealous for it, etc…). And again, Paul’s analogy carries, we all are not gifted in the same way and so we need one another.
At the same time, there are things in the life of the body that keep the whole body healthy. For example, as I am closing in on 50, my family doctor has insisted that I start taking vitamins and be more intentional about daily exercise. And so, I take my “One-a-Day” and I ride my stationary bike 5 miles (or walk a mile) pretty much every day (pretty much, life gets busy). These actions do not just benefit my stomach or my heart, they benefit every part of my body, helping it to be more healthy overall. Further, I pray and spend time reading and reflecting on God’s Word, every day. This again, benefits my whole being.
Likewise, in the life of the Church, there are things that we do that benefit the whole body — they act like vitamins for our soul. Spending time reading and reflecting on the Bible is not an activity that belongs just to the specialist, every part of the body must engage in this to keep the body well. Some often say that they are not good at prayer. Of course, if you can talk or think, you can pray and it again is an essential part of the Christian life, something not reserved for a specialist. Sometimes people say that they don’t really need Sunday School, but being discipled is again something that is to be a part of every Christian’s life and without a commitment to discipleship (personal and corporate), the body will not be healthy. They are exercises and vitamins for our overall health. True, my ears may not directly benefit from time on a stationary bike, but that time strengthens my heart which circulates blood all over my body, which in turn not only helps the blood flow to the ears, but it improves the health of the body to which my ears are attached. And so, they benefit indirectly, but they benefit nonetheless.
Sometimes Christians think that they don’t need corporate worship. Here, the analogy changes a little bit because our worship is not so much something we do to strengthen our body (though our body is strengthened as a by-product), it is our service to God. Our worship is our drawing near to our Almighty God and Savior according to His Word and giving him the praise and honor for who he is and for what he has done. This is a big part of what the church was created to do.
So, to say that you don’t need to worship as part of the church body is really to say that you are not part of the body at all. You exist, perhaps, in connection with the body for your own reasons, but that is to be like a parasite, not a functioning organ. Jesus speaks of this as well when he describes the church growing like a large tree from a small seed (see Mark 4:30-32). Once the tree (the Kingdom/Church) has grown and developed branches and leaves, the birds of the air (which often represent the unbelieving nations), make their nests in the midst of the tree. The birds benefit from the tree’s presence, but are not part of the tree and are not fed by the root of the tree. And, they will only nest in the branches of the tree for a season. Worship — being fed by the tap-root of the Spirit — drawing near according to the Word — is what distinguishes the tree from the bird in its nest.
Thus, in things like worship, the study of God’s word, and prayer, it is not a matter of specializing. It is a matter of being and being healthy. What is the goal of this healthy living? It is being united and built up in love. How is this love achieved? It is achieved through the growing mature in our doctrine so that we are not blown to and fro by the winds of human cunning and deceit (see Ephesians 4:13-16). This cannot happen apart from the whole body attending to the Word of God. Yes, we specialize, but we are also a part of a whole. To understand Paul’s analogy in 1 Corinthians 12, you need to preserve this balance…how often, though, we miss the second while over-emphasizing the first.
“Nevertheless, your work was beneficial in sharing the tribulation with me.”
While affliction…tribulation…is often a tool that God uses to refine his people and his church, the scriptures also insist that we not seek to do so alone. Part of the reason for being a part of the body of Christ is that when one portion suffers the others are able to walk alongside of the one who is hurting and minister to them. Whether this is a result of tragedy, trial, grief, challenges, etc…, this is one of the tasks to which the church must rightly apply itself. As Paul writes, when one member suffers, all suffer together (1 Corinthians 12:26).
Though separated by distance, this church sought to live this principle out along with the Apostle Paul…and not just as a matter of principle once Paul was arrested, but as Paul will later write, throughout his whole ministry. And their compassion for Paul was sincere; a matter of love, not a matter of duty.
For all the emphasis that Paul places on the believer imitating him as he imitates Christ; this church also leaves us a wonderful model to follow: be a body not just with those in the pew, but also with your pastors and missionaries. Rejoice with them when there is reason to rejoice, but weep with them when there is cause for grief and suffer with them when suffering and tribulation arise. Minister to those who minister to you and serve them who serve you. Be the body, don’t just talk about it.
“For you make me rejoice constantly, Yahweh, in your divine action; in the works of your hands, I continually exult.”
(Psalm 92:5 [verse 4 in English])
The question that we must raise is whether or not we can really say, with the psalmist that we rejoice and exult in the works of God. On the surface level, our first response is probably to say that we do rejoice in God’s works, but in saying that we need to take a closer look at what we are suggesting. Indeed, it is easy to rejoice in the blessings that God brings into our lives, but what of the trials? What of those times when everything is falling apart and we just cannot figure out which end is up in life? Is it not harder to rejoice in God and exult in his works when such things take place? Yet this, too, is in sight of what the Psalmist is saying.
Sometimes the hardest thing to do, when things fall apart in our lives, is to praise God in the midst of such things. Yet, in times of distress like this, such is what our soul most needs. We need that communion and worship and we need to affirm that God’s work is continually a good thing in my life because it is used to conform me into the image of his Son, Jesus.
One of the great reminders of this principle is the setting aside of the Sabbath day. A day where we join with the body of Christ and worship together — where we even lift one another up in worship, standing in the gap for the brother and sister who is broken and cannot stand (spiritually) on their own feet to do so. That joined with the promise that if we count the Sabbath a delight, God will raise us up from our depths and give us a taste of his glory (Isaiah 58:13-14).
For about 5 years I have been teaching High School students how important it is to have a mentor and how to go about seeking someone to mentor them. We talk about setting goals, knowing what you would like to achieve, and about looking for a man or woman who has achieved those goals already who might be willing to serve as a mentor. We also talk a great deal about the character of the person sought as a mentor and how that character reflects that person’s commitment to Christ. And we also talk about how to approach such a candidate for mentoring purposes without making that person feel like they are tying themselves into a long-term relationship.
All of this is fine and good. We need mentors at every level—I seek out mentors myself. Of late, though, I have realized that I have concentrated primarily on the ascending relationship of finding mentors and that I have not focused much on looking downward (if you will allow me the analogy)—the looking for someone to mentor. And, to be more specific than that, as a Christian leader, I have been reflecting on the principle of looking for people to mentor for the express purpose of evangelism, not just to replicate the successes you have had in the lives of others.
Usually, as we walk though life, we are all pretty self-centered. Sorry to offend if I have stepped on toes, but all of us can be pretty-self serving if left to our own devices. We want people to mentor us so that we can get ahead in business or in other personal goals. We even want to mentor others so that we can replicate ourselves in them…sometimes even living vicariously through the person we have sought to mentor. We do it as Christians and we even do it in the Christian church. How often we attract people to the church by attracting them to the pastor (his messages, his vision, etc…). I am suggesting that the model needs to be rethought.
The Apostle Paul told the church that they should seek to imitate him, but he did not end there. Paul said that the church should imitate him so that they may imitate Christ as they see Christ in him (1 Corinthians 11:1; 1 Thessalonians 1:6). In addition, both Paul and the writer of Hebrews affirmed that we ought to watch believers who are more mature than we are to learn about Christ from them (Philippians 3:17; 1 Thessalonians 2:14; Hebrews 13:7). The principle is that we attract to ourselves with the purpose of turning to Christ.
So, what model am I proposing? To begin with, I propose a mentoring model that is driven from the top, not from the bottom. Highly motivated people will always seek out mentors above them; those who are Christians and leaders in the community ought to start aggressively looking for those they would like to mentor and then invest time and resources into that person. Take them out to lunch several times, learn their goals and aspirations, and build a relationship with that young man or young woman. Then, use that relationship as an opportunity to evangelize those who you are mentoring.
To take that and apply that to a church context, pastors ought not stop at attracting people to themselves, but should attract people to themselves for the purpose of pointing people not only to Christ but also to those in the congregation who are mature in their faith. Thus the pastor functions as one who creates mentoring opportunities between two others within his congregational context.
To a degree, churches that are building small groups are accomplishing something like this model—groups of people living life together. I am not knocking small groups, they are necessary for building community, but where the small group model can fall short is in two ways. First, small groups typically do not exist to spawn other small groups; the purpose of a small group is to live life-on-life together in a relationship that grows deep over a long period and is not necessarily focused on growing wide. The small group model essentially takes a group of people who are at roughly the same point in their spiritual walk and grows them together. Sometimes small groups will grow and spin off other small groups; this happens best as an organic division (a younger leader is rising up and is ready to “spread his wings”) and not as a programmed split (if you tell people that they will be part of this small group for two years and then split off, the relationships will never grow vulnerable, transparent, or deep).
Mentoring, though has a different goal in its sights. Mentoring’s purpose is to take someone and assist them in reaching a specific goal. There are markers and the relationship is designed to be temporary. My role as a mentor, typically, is to help identify untapped potential in you and to help you grow in your gifts to a certain end; either to accomplish a specific goal I have already achieved or to exceed the plateau that I have reached. Mentoring relationships are deep, but in a very limited respect in that the depth is focused not on life in general, but upon the specific goal and purpose that is in sight.
The second area in which the small group model sometimes falls short is that small groups can become disconnected from other small groups within the church body—especially when the church is larger. There may be unity within groups “x” and “y” respectively, but many times, not unity between those in groups “x” and “y.” Some of this “inter-group” unity can be achieved through group projects or if co-workers, family, or friends are spread between multiple small groups. Also, said connections can be found when people in various small groups serve in the larger church fellowship—fellow Sunday School teachers, on the music team, etc…
Yet, to use the analogy that Paul employs in 1 Corinthians 12, the body is not made up of a bunch of isolated parts or parts that only occasionally come together. In the body, all of the parts exist organically together and in harmony. We are accustomed to reflecting on this passage in terms of individuals, but the analogy also applies to small groups. The reality is that none of us are a hand or a foot or a kidney unto ourselves, but we are individual cells that are part of the hand, foot, or kidney. In a small group model, the groups as a whole are the body parts and need a means by which they can be bonded together. The “coming together” of the church body on Sunday is part of that equation, but body parts do not occasionally come together; they exist together in connection as a whole.
The model that I am suggesting pictures the church body as a giant, interconnected network—a giant constellation per say—where everyone is connected to one or two mentors and one or two people they are mentoring. This is not meant as a replacement for small groups, but an addition to. To continue with the body analogy, the network of mentoring relationships being like the network of nerves or capillaries that transport life-giving blood to every body part and provide an inter-connected network by which the small groups never become isolated from the whole. And that the mentoring process be used for the intentional purpose of evangelism and discipling (Great Commission) as well as be designed to grow intentionally outward into the community around us and not inward. In other words, while typically small groups exist to serve the church, the mentoring network not only connects the church parts internally, but connects the church externally to the community.
If this model is done well, you will even find mentoring relationships between local church bodies. This is not for the purpose of stealing people from one local fellowship to another, but to build up the kingdom. Remember, Christ has one body (now we are applying this to inter-Church relationships), there needs to be an interconnectivity between Bible believing churches that runs deeper than the local pastors’ association. Surely we would all agree that any one of our towns or cities are large enough that no one church is big enough to effectively be salt and light for the whole. Getting on mission means getting out and being that witness in our community, but it also means that those who are not against us are for us (Mark 9:40; Luke 9:50).
In this context, part of the role of the pastor is to know existing members well enough that new people to the church can be introduced not only to small groups, but to members that will reach out to them and provide them with mentoring. Also, it is his job to know the community well enough that he can connect mature Christians in his church to those who could use mentoring (and evangelization) in the community…kind of like a spiritual match-making service (though I detest the analogy).
It should be noted that this model is almost impossible to monitor. In a church that is large enough to support a connectional pastor, perhaps he can facilitate such relationships, but for most of us who pastor either single or small-staff churches, it is not realistically feasible to know who is mentoring whom throughout your church network. At the same time, that is the organic nature of the church. We are not simply a mechanical organization with rules and guidelines that can be easily charted, but we are a living and breathing entity—structured indeed, we are not a blob from outer-space—and just as a medical doctor does not always know everything that is going on within you, but will have a good sense of your overall health, so too the pastor and leadership of the church will have a sense of what is going on, but may not be able to map out the ever changing network of mentoring relationships.
Yet, is this not the relationship we find in the Bible and in the early church (one where having large buildings and facilities was not possible ala Roman law). Barnabas saw what God was doing in Paul and facilitated Paul’s connection with the Apostles in Jerusalem. Paul identified Timothy for the purpose of mentoring him. Timothy was instructed to find others to mentor who would hold fast to the faith handed down from person to person, generation to generation. We are part of that giant mentoring network through history and mentoring happens within our churches in ways that none of us are aware. But where I believe our churches need to go is to the next step where we become intentional about creating the network of mentoring relationships inside and outside of our church body with a specific aim of evangelizing those whom we have sought out to mentor.
“Whereas there is not Greek and Jew, circumcision and un-circumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave, or free—but the whole, and Christ in all.”
You know, we, as the church, tend to make a lot of excuses to separate ourselves from those who are different from us. There are different styles of worship that often vary in different cultural settings. We tend to congregate in the communities in which we live and we tend to live around people who have a number of things in common with us, not the least of this is race and cultural background. Yet, for all of the excuses that we might put before us, it is passages like this that remind us that these things are nothing but that—excuses.
Though our language may be different, though our accents may vary, though the melanin that determines the color of our skin may be different, it is Christ who saves us all. If we are born again believers in Jesus Christ, we have not only been saved by Christ’s work, but we have been made part of His body. We are joined together inseparably with every other born again believer—united in the person of Christ. We are brothers and sisters united as the bride of our Lord. So, if we are brothers and sisters, bound together by the blood of Christ, why then do we feel we cannot worship together?
Paul’s teaching is radical even today—but essential. Even though there are many denominations, many local fellowships, and many types of gatherings, the body of Christ is not divided. We are bound together by Christ and whatever we do to create walls and barriers between churches or races within church denominations is seeking to frustrate what Christ has done. Not only is that impossible but it is sin as well.
Understand what Paul was saying here. There is neither Jew nor Greek in Christ. The Jews prided themselves in the purity of their bloodlines. The Greeks prided themselves in their culture and that they were neither legalistic Jews nor uncultured barbarians. The Barbarians, on the fringe of the empire, were considered a lower form of life because of their lack of culture. The Scythians were from the fringes of the Eastern part of the Roman Empire, between the Slavic and Persian territories—nomadic warriors known for their savagery—simply to call someone a Scythian was an insult. Slaves have no standing of their own and free men had the resources to keep themselves free from slavery. In other words, as broad a diversity as can be imagined is represented here—and yet found to be one in Christ! We are one whole and it is Christ who has not only saved each believer, but who has also chosen to unite with that believer, dwelling in his heart through the Holy Spirit.
Beloved, this is the reality that God has set before us. Oh, how far the church is from reaching this point, though. It is a reminder to us, though, that in eternity there will be no divisions amongst the nations—in fact, Revelation 7:9 simply describes us as a great mob of people—we are bound together as one body. Yet, if this is what heaven will be like, should we not be striving for that here on earth within the church? Martin Luther King once said that 11:00 on Sunday mornings was the most segregated hour in America. That is still true today, and it is not just a problem that white folks need to work through. Black folks tend to stay in black churches, Korean folks tend to stay in Korean churches, and the list goes on. Yet, loved ones, the church has one foundation, which means she has one structure. I pray that we might work to unify the structure that we so often seek to separate as a result of ignorance and sin. If there is truly neither Jew nor Greek in Christ, then why can’t we reflect that in the church?
Elect from every nation,
Yet one over all the earth,
Her charter of salvation
One Lord, one faith, one birth;
One holy name she blesses,
Partakes one holy food,
And to one hope she presses,
With every grace endued.