In the last two postings, I’ve been gored on the horns of a dilemma.

First I’ve argued that, in order to be effective, churches must be focused.[1] They have to come to grips with their finiteness, with the harsh reality that they have only so many resources, with the truth that there are only so many things a particular group of people can expect to do well. Without focus, churches are doomed to shallow impact or short-term impact. Without focus, no church will turn the world upside down.

I argued next (and paradoxically) that churches have a multi-faceted mission, given to them by their Head, and must be balanced in addressing that mission.[2] Churches are mandated to love God, love each other, and love the lost. No matter what focus or goal a church sets, it cannot ignore or downplay the commission to reach up, in, and out.

So the question remains, how can churches (and the people who lead them) achieve focus and balance at the same time?

The Body Metaphor

Let me respond to that question with an appeal to the “body” metaphor used by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12. The picture of the “church-as-body” painted by Paul in this chapter is frequently (and properly) seen as a depiction of the relationship between a local congregation (“the body”) and its individual members (“parts”). The primary teachings of the chapter (diversity of gifts, every member gifted, gifts for the common good, the need to honor diversity, the importance of each part to the whole) are understood as an attempt to order how individual Christians interact with the church and how the church regards individual members. (Here is the passage. Take a moment to read it whole.)

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit….

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good…. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines.

The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.

Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” … God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other….

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

There is always danger in pushing a metaphor too far … making it say more than was originally intended. With that danger firmly in mind, I nevertheless want to push the body metaphor up one level and see if it has anything to teach us about a larger question.

What if the relationship of “parts” to “body” (that characterizes individual members and the local church in 1 Corinthians 12) also applies to local churches and the “Church Universal”? What if local churches (specific instantiations of the body of Christ) can—in some sense—be thought of as “parts” that make up the “Holy Catholic Church” (in the words of the Apostolic Creed[3]), the Body as a whole?

What if Paul’s teachings in 1 Corinthians 12 about the relation of “parts” to the “body” (teachings on giftedness, arrangement, whole and parts, mutuality—all directed originally, I admit, to members and their congregations) can be understood to apply also to individual churches and their relationship to the universal community of saints?

If this notion has validity, then the fundamental teachings of this chapter take on significantly different meanings.

Unpacking the Metaphor

A key idea in 1 Corinthians 12 is that the physical body has a number of essential functions to perform: breathing, circulation, hearing, sight, etc. To meet these functions, the body has a variety of members possessing a range of capabilities: feet, hands, ears to hear, eyes to see (to name body parts and functions mentioned by Paul himself). God himself designed each part and equipped it to accomplish particular purposes for the good of the body as a whole.

Paul uses this idea as a model for understanding the church. Like the body, the church also has a number of essential functions to perform. To meet these functions, the church has been formed of members who possess a range of capabilities (the “manifestations of the Spirit” listed here—and in Romans 12—by Paul). These members and their capabilities have been placed in the church by God, gifted and arranged just as he wanted them to be, for the good of the church as a whole.

It doesn’t require a great mental leap to see the implications of this teaching at a more general level. Like the local church, the Universal Church has a number of essential functions to perform (e.g., incarnating Christ and becoming his “fullness,” displaying the manifold wisdom of God, growing into a holy temple—read Ephesians for a good description of what God intends to accomplish through the church at large). To meet these functions, the Universal Church is made up of a variety of local congregations possessing a range of capabilities, goals, purposes, and callings. God himself designed each congregation and equipped it to accomplish particular purposes for the good of the Body as a whole—his Universal Church.

Based on this extension of Paul’s metaphor, there are a few parallels we can draw between the individual Christian and the individual congregation:

  1. The Spirit gives different kinds of gifts to individual members of the body. Though the gifts are diverse, they come from the same Spirit and are given to equip the church for effective ministry. In a similar way, I would argue that the Spirit gives different kinds of gifts, service, and working to individual congregations. Different callings. Different emphases. Individualized focus. Though these giftings are diverse, they come from one Spirit and, taken together, equip One Body—the Universal Church—to do its essential work.
  2. Every Christian has a unique gifting, a necessary gifting, and has been equipped for the good of the larger Body. But no one Christian is gifted with every spiritual gift. No single Christian is expected to do everything. We are finite people involved in an infinite task. Each of us has a role to play, but it is a limited, partial role. In the same way, I would argue that each congregation of God’s people has a unique gifting that contributes substantially to the good of the Church Universal. But no one congregation is equipped and gifted to do everything God expects of his church. Each congregation has a role to play in that larger agenda, but it is a limited, partial role.
  3. It is important for every Christian to understand the gift he or she has been given and use it (as God intended) for the greater good of the body. The body is not helped by members who don’t know their gifts or depreciate their gifts or fail to recognize and respect the gifts of others. So too is it important for individual congregations to understand what God has gifted, equipped, and called them to do and pursue that purpose for the greater good of the Body Universal. God’s Eternal Church is not helped by congregations who don’t know their mission or depreciate their mission or fail to recognize and respect the mission of others.
  4. Only in the context of the wider community can the full range of God’s gifts and functions come to bear. Since no single disciple has every gift and equipping, he/she must join with other disciples (who have differing gifts) to create a fully functioning church. Members have to trust each other and cooperate together for the church as a whole to be effective. In parallel fashion, only in the context of the Church Universal does the full range of God’s gifts, mission, and purposes for the church play out. No single congregation can accomplish everything God intends for his church. Congregations have to trust each other and cooperate together to create a fully functioning Church.

To put these ideas in table form:

Principle

Individual Christian

Individual Congregation

Diverse gifts

Each Christian has a unique role to play in the church for which he/she is uniquely equipped.

Each congregation has a unique role to play in the Church Universal for which that congregation is uniquely equipped.

Limited gifts

No one Christian can “do it all.” Individual Christians are limited and finite, having only a subset of the gifts needed to accomplish the kingdom work.

No one congregation can “do it all.” Particular congregations are limited and finite in gift and calling. Each has only a subset of the “working” that makes the whole Church effective.

Necessary gifts

Each Christian must use the gift God has given him/her. The church cannot function effectively without each member’s work.

Each congregation must recognize its unique calling and make the contribution God has asked of it. The Universal Church cannot function effectively without each congregation’s work.

Combined gifts

Only through the active collaboration of members can all God’s gifts, all the body’s functions, come to bear for effective kingdom work.

Only through the active collaboration of congregations can all God’s missions and purposes, all the Body’s functions, come to bear for effective kingdom work throughout the world and across time.

Rereading 1 Corinthians 12

If it is valid to extend Paul’s teachings about “parts” and “body” to the relationship between individual congregations and the Church at large, then the local congregation must be viewed as a subset of the Universal Church. The varied missions of the church (mandated by Christ and his Apostles) will be accomplished by the church as a whole. But no single congregation should expect to be gifted, equipped, and called to do everything.  Each congregation has a more narrow focus, a more limited gifting, a narrower role to play than the Church as a whole.

To test the validity of this interpretation, allow me to paraphrase 1 Corinthians 12 with individual congregations (rather than individual members) in mind:

There are different kinds of gifts/emphases/workings/missions, but the same Spirit is behind each of them.

Now to each congregation the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good of God’s Universal Church. To one congregation there is given through the Spirit a concern for foreign missions, to another a heart for strong marriages by means of the same Spirit, to another a focus on the urban poor by the same Spirit, to another maturing people in the Lord by that one Spirit, to another suffering for the gospel, to another warning of judgment to come, to another convicting the world of sin, to another lifting up holy hands to God, and to still another training disciples to walk in the Spirit. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each congregation, just as he determines.

The Body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one Body. So it is with Christ. For every congregation of God’s people has been joined by one Spirit into one Body (the Universal Church)—whether large or small, of whatever “brand”—and each has been given the one Spirit to drink.

Now the Body is not made up of one congregation but of many. If this church should say, “Because I am not like that church, I do not belong to the Body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the Body. And if that church should say, “Because I am not gifted or called like this church, I do not belong to the Body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the Body. If the whole Body majored in ministry to the poor, where would “preaching to the nations” be? If the whole Body focused on strong marriages, how could we serve singles, widows and the divorced? But in fact God has arranged the congregations that make up the Body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all doing the same thing, where would the Body be? As it is, there are many churches, but one Church.

A church (with a particular ministry and mission) cannot say to another church (with a different ministry and mission), “I don’t need you!” A large church (with broad influence) cannot say to a small church (with more limited influence), “I don’t need you!” … God has combined the congregations of the Body and has given greater honor to the churches that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the Body Universal, but that each congregation should have equal concern and respect for others with different callings and purposes.

Now you are the Body of Christ, and every congregation is a part of the whole.

This reading of 1 Corinthians 12 requires a very different understanding of “focus” and “balance” when it comes to the work of the church.

“Balance” has to be understood within the context of the relationship between “parts” and “whole.” Only when the Church as a whole is considered will God accomplish everything he has purposed to do through his Church. No individual congregation (just like no individual Christian) can do everything. The mission is just too large, too pervasive, for any one congregation to wrap its arms around—no matter how large or well-bestowed a particular church might be. “Balance,” ultimately, is a matter of each congregation doing its part and trusting the other “parts” of the Body to do theirs … trusting God’s arrangement of the parts to accomplish his overarching goals.

[That said, I do believe there is an irreducible minimum to the mission of the church that every congregation must address faithfully. Loving God, each other, and the world comprise—in my thinking—the three necessary dimensions that define faithful “space” in any congregation. It is this common commitment and balance that melds the parts into the whole. Diverse gifts, yes … but common purpose, the same Spirit, the good of the whole. See The Need for Balance.]

If “balance” is defined by the relationship of partstobody, “focus” is defined by the concept of gifts. The Spirit gifts and equips us. God arranges us within the larger whole just as he wants us to be. What a church is called to do and equipped to do and responsible to do is something God determines. And that commissioning—by definition—is smaller, narrower, more focused than the expectations of the Universal Church.

Thus, “focus” is not an option for the local congregation. It is, rather, a response of faithfulness to the call of God and the gifts God has provided for a particular church. We don’t look enviously at other churches with other emphases. We don’t try to imitate what this church is doing or the ministries of that church, because we understand and appreciate the role God has called our church to play. What our particular congregation has to offer is limited (when viewed from the context of the Universal Church) but necessary to the overall functioning of the kingdom. We can’t do everything, but what we do is important and what God has “arranged” us to do.

A Case Study

What does this tension between “balance” and “focus” look like in the flesh? How does it work in a particular congregation? Let me offer a real-life example.

I am presently working with a congregation that has defined its mission as “glorifying God by fostering transformed lives in the image of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

Because this church wants to be balanced, it can never forget its three primary “audiences”: heaven, church, and world. It doesn’t have the luxury of focusing only on transformed relationships with God; it must also think “transformation” in relation to a broken culture and the family of faith. But a concern for balance does not tempt this congregation to do everything God has purposed through his Church. It is willing to trust what God is doing through other congregations and is convinced that, with each congregation doing its part, the full spectrum of kingdom work will be done. Balance is achieved not by an ever-broadening program of work in this one congregation, but by trusting that God’s arrangement of congregational works within the Church at large will accomplish all his kingdom ends.

Because this church also wants to be focused, it is determined to understand exactly how God has equipped and commissioned it, and to respond faithfully to God’s calling by concentrating its efforts and ministries around that understanding. Through a process of discernment (who are our members? what are our gifts? what are the most pressing needs in our congregation and community? where are our skills and interests concentrated? which of the missions given to the Church are we equipped to address? how are we best positioned to make a significant difference?), the leaders of this church determined to focus the efforts and resources of the church on transformation. Everything about this congregation is aimed towards a transformative end: teaching, worship, ministries, outreach, small groups, etc.

Transformation themes inform the worship life of this church. Worship services express gratitude for God’s plan to save and sanctify us. Sermons focus on (for example) the image of Christ or maturing in faith or learning AGAPE love. There are testimonials about the power of the Spirit to change habits and appetites and attitudes. Elders will exhort the church to live out a Romans 12:1-2 definition of true worship (“Offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind”).

Transformation themes also shape the life of the church community itself. Shepherds meet with individuals and groups to encourage “putting off the old man” and “putting on the new.” Small groups meet together to explore the fruit of the Spirit and how we can make ourselves more available for the Spirit’s transforming work. Mentoring relationships form for the purpose of modeling and encouraging transformed homes and workplaces and habits.

And transformation themes also provide the “filter” by which ministry opportunities to the world are adopted and evaluated. Rather than embracing and supporting every good cause that comes along, this church asks specific questions: how does this particular ministry prompt changed lives? does this ministry promote lasting or only temporary change? is this the most effective ministry for transforming lives eternally? can this ministry be shaped to lead people through physical, emotional, and attitudinal changes to true spiritual transformation?

Someone may object that such a transformational mission is too limiting. It doesn’t leave enough room to stress issues that have been past priorities in our churches: e.g., denominational agendas, speculation about the end times, budgeting and buildings and programs, preferences regarding worship styles, or the “gospel” of health and wealth. To which I respond: that is precisely the point! When a church decides to make the main thing the main thing, much of the dross that has silted in the workings of the church gets flushed away—and good riddance!

A more serious objection might be that a transformational focus hinders the church from focusing on other things that are genuine kingdom priorities. What about themes like God’s plan of salvation … the service mandate (“I was hungry and you gave me something to eat”) … the core gospel (of which transformation is only a part—albeit an important part). What about witnessing to all nations or stewardship of God’s creation or tearing down walls of separation between race and gender and class?[4]

To which I respond: We can’t do everything. But if we can do this, we will glorify God. Transformed living is a grand focus, a Christ-like goal, and a kingdom priority. Any church that effectively fosters transformed lives is doing something worthy and of eternal significance—even if a few other kingdom priorities fall through the cracks along the way. Have confidence that God will gift and impassion some other congregation to accomplish the work your particular congregation doesn’t address.

Could a church focus instead on “Go into all the world and preach the gospel” (Mk 16:15)  or “the greatest among you must be the servant of all” (Mt 23:11) or “so far as it depends on you, live at peace with all men” (Rom 12:18)? Certainly. All are worthy missions for the church. Pick one. Pursue it with vigor and intensity.

Just don’t imagine you can effectively do them all. Don’t imagine that you need to! God’s church is bigger than you are … bigger even than the particular congregation you attend.

[Read the first article in this series.]

[Read the next article in this series.]


[1]     See The Power of Focus.

[2]     See The Need for Balance.

[3]     “Catholic” meaning not a denominational designation but “universal,” “general,” “whole.” The word is used in this sense when referring to the general Christian church, transcending local congregations and particular denominations; the church universal; the home of all the saints, no matter when or where they lived. From the Greek word katholikos.

[4]     Again, I refer you to the article Key Mission Passages for a discussion of the variety of “mandates” given to the church … and the opinion that setting all of these mandates as priorities for the church is mission impossible.