The description of the church as a body seems to be one of Paul’s great, metaphorical contributions to Christian understanding. In addition to 1 Corinthians 12 his elaboration of this metaphor in Ephesians 4 has generated considerable discussion about the nature of the church. In particular, we often use this passage to define the role of pastoral leadership in the equipping of believers to do ministry. Paul argues that God gifts His church with such leadership specifically to enable the body of the Messiah to be built up (4:12).
In Ephesians 4:11-16 (one complex sentence) Paul intermingles two developmental metaphors. One is a building or construction metaphor (cf. 2:20-22). The other metaphor uses the natural growth of a human body. Both are used to define the corporate maturing of the Messiah’s body, the church.
Paul introduces the construction metaphor in 4:12 when he states that the full restoration (equipping) of the holy ones to engage in activities of service (diakonia) is accompanied by the concurrent “building up of the body of the Messiah”. In our modern idiom “to build a body” has connotations of exercise designed to get a person in shape or to add muscle. However, this is not quite the idea behind Paul’s metaphor. Rather, the image of ‘building’ is first connected with the process of temple construction or repair work. Such construction requires strong foundations (2:20-22) which, according to Paul, are the Messiah and the apostles, and one needs the skilled craftsmanship of the Holy Spirit. Paul returns to this building metaphor in 4:16 where a parallel expression occurs in the phrase “resulting in1 its own building in love”.
In between these two uses of the construction metaphor (eis oikodomen 4:12,16), Paul uses the metaphor of physical or bodily growth. He applies this growth metaphor primarily to the corporate assembly, but implies that it will require the cooperation of each individual part if it is to occur. The goal is the “mature man” (eis andra teleion). The head of this complete human being is the Messiah (vs.15), but the united holy ones, the Messiah’s assembly, form the torso.
The question for Paul is how does this body grow or develop? At least three agents are involved. First, there is the “head” of the body, the Messiah. Paul says (vs. 16) that the Messiah is the ultimate source (“from whom the whole body…causes the growth….) for the body’s growth. A significant way the Messiah does this is by providing grace-endowed gifts, i.e. people, to the body (vs. 7, 11) for its development. So a second agency of growth would be the spiritual leadership whose primary purpose is the “restoration of the saints for works of service” (vs. 12). Finally, Paul insists that it is the body itself, in all of its diverse forms and working in cooperative harmony, that “produces the growth of the body” (vs. 16).
The picture is complex. The Messiah provides the unifying force and complete nourishment necessary for the body’s growth into the “complete man”. As well he creates the energetic actions that generate the body’s involvement in its own growth. He accomplishes this by bringing all the bodily members into connection with one another (like the stones used in creating a building) and through this inter-connection enables nourishment to flow through the body (the supply). In the unity, however, the Messiah does not neglect the individual part, as he ministers to “the need of each individual part”. A primary means by which such needs are met is through the teaching of God’s word. A well-taught people of God is necessary if the body is to grow and fulfill its commission to be confessing Gospel truth in love.
With this understanding of the body of the Messiah firmly in mind, Paul then moves to define what this looks like in real, everyday kinds of actions and decisions (Ephesians 4:17- 6:9). The “complete man”, i.e. the corporate body of Christ, will have a definite, specific physique, expressed in the God-defined values and attitudes it embodies.
Application: as you reflect upon God’s word today:
- consider how you are contributing to the growth of the Messiah’s body in this world;
- what will you do differently today because of your reflection?
- what do you need the Lord Jesus to “supply” you with today, so that you can contribute to the body’s growth?
- how are you “speaking Gospel truth in love” to those who need to hear this good news?
- 1. I take the preposition eis here as defining the result or outcome expected.