Belonging to the Body
People who are part of a particular Christian congregation are often called church “members.” This language is profoundly biblical, and is a visible manifestation of the believer’s union with Christ and the communion of saints.
The Greek word used to describe the individual parts of a body is melos; literally “body member”. For example, James 3:5-6 call the tongue an individual member of the body. Throughout New Testament, melos is also used metaphorically to describe the relationship between believers and Christ. Individual believers are all mele (members) of Christ, such as in Romans 12:4-5, because we are in Christ. Just as the human body has parts that are members of the whole, so also Christians are individually members of the whole body of Christ. To be part of Christ is to be a member of him, to be united to him.
This union of the believer with Christ is total: all of the believer, in all our being, even our bodies, as part of ourselves, are mele, members, of Christ. This is what Paul means when he reminds the church of Corinth that their bodies are members of Christ (1 Corinthians 6:15; cf. Ephesians 5:29-30). Through the work of the Holy Spirit, Christians have been united to Christ as his members (1 Corinthians 12:12-13).
This is biblically developed most clearly in Ephesians. God reveals the gospel by Gentiles, along with Jews, being brought by the Holy Spirit into the church as oikeoi, household members, of God’s family (Ephesians 2:18-22). Here the language of member persists, though the metaphor has shifted from individual body parts being united to a whole, to a single household composed of individual people collected into one family. Christians are family members.
Yet, Paul grounds the two metaphors in the same reality: Because of the gospel, Jews and Gentiles alike are sus-soma, of the same body (Ephesians 3:6). The gospel that God reveals shows that scattered individuals are united together by the Spirit under Christ, either with the metaphor of Jesus as the head of his body (Ephesians 1:22-23) or the household cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20). By the Holy Spirit, Christians are made members of the household of God, because we share in the same body, that is, we are all united to Christ. This mele, union in Christ, is central to the mystery of the gospel relationship of Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:29-32). Salvation is Jesus joining with his people and his people being joined to him. By being his members, the Christian is a participant in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4) because Jesus abides in us and we in him (John 14). That is what church membership is, ontologically.
The mele of the church then also describes the way in which individual Christians relate to each other as a whole. Being united to Christ as his individual members is the basis of the communion of saints: by our union with Christ, Christians are members of Jesus and each other. When Peter describes participation in the divine nature, he has an immediate ethical application in mind (supplementing faith with virtue to resist the corruption of sin). Paul has a similar approach on the basis of our membership in Christ, “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members (mele) one of another” (Ephesians 4:25). Because we are united to Jesus as his members, we are members with each other, and have obligations to each other on the basis of God’s precious and great promises.
This is why Paul describes the duties of love Christians have for one another in the terminology of membership in Romans 12:4-5 and 1 Corinthians 12:14-30. The Petrine cultivation of virtue is urged towards in the communal practice of inter-dependent support: the members of Christ looking out for one another, bearing one another’s burden’s, caring for each other. But more than that, the members of Christ do so as the church. In these two passages, as well as Ephesians 5:29-32, the context is of being comembers of Christ is not merely the interpersonal relationships of the saints, but the life of the institutional church.
The many members of Christ’s body have gifts that includes prophesying to and teaching other members serving them and contributing (i.e. financial support) to the good of the whole, according to the grace given to each (Romans 12:6-7). The many members of the body as described in 1 Corinthians 12 include those who exercise ministerial authority over the body, as apostles, prophets, teachers, and administrators (1 Corinthians 12:27-30). In other words, being members of Christ, the communion of saints, includes a gathered, worshipping aspect. Being members of each other, as a result our union with Christ, requires us to belong to visible expressions of the body of Christ, including the institutional ministry of the gospel. From being led by Christ in worship (Hebrews 2:11-12) to singing to each other (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16), membership in Jesus means membership in the church of which Jesus is the cornerstone, and this membership expresses itself visibly in gathered worship.
This means that being a member of Christ requires commitment to his visible, present (e.g. local) body. Christians are to submit to their leaders (Hebrews 13:17), who are to shepherd the flock of God (1 Peter 5:1-3). Membership in Christ is the foundation of membership in the church, which is practiced through commitment to a local congregation where the members of Christ graced with gifts of teaching and ministry shepherd the household of God.
To be a Christian is to be a member of Christ. To be a member of Christ is to be a member of the church. To be a member of the church is to be a participant in the institutional life of the church. Or to reverse the order: church membership reflects our union with Christ. That’s what makes the term and practice profoundly biblical.
Cameron Shaffer is pastor of Lanhorne Presbyterian Church (EPC) in Langhorne, PA. He can be found online at cameronshaffer.com.
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