Dismembering the Church

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When a family member leaves this life or maybe simply moves away, things are never going to be the same. The idea that he or she might be replaced by another, new member should be seen as absurd. It doesn’t matter how young or old the individual might be, each member is as much a part of the family as any other and has a particular place and part to play within that family. All are certainly not equal, but all are unique and together they make up what we understand to be the family.

The same is true of the family of God, to which all in Christ belong, and should be the experience of each family of believers or local group of disciples. Each individual disciple is unique, loved by God, and has a particular place and part to play within the whole. Perhaps the best analogy of this is that of the body, as used by Paul in a number of his letters to groups of believers.

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (1 Corinthians 12:27)

We are here introduced to a term which may well be familiar to us, but which nowadays is so often used in a different sense. We are, as individuals, members of the body of Christ. But more than that, being called from independence to interdependence, we are also “individually members one of another.” (Romans 12:5)


The concept of membership is generally used today in the sense of the collective, and not in the sense used in the New Testament writings. Mathematically, numbers might be members of a set; we may be represented by a Member of Parliament; we could be a member of a sugar-wrapper collecting club and so on. However we are not, and should never speak of ourselves in this fashion, ‘members of the church.’ To do so would suggest that we are simply a unit of a whole, simply one of many, and the Scriptures never speak of membership in this way.

To be a member of the body of Christ, in the Biblical sense, is one thing; to be a member of the church, in the sense most often used, is something quite different. And it really does no good suggesting that as we are ‘members of the body’ and as ‘the body is the church’ so ‘we are members of the church.’ We might as well say that as we are living stones in the temple of God (1 Peter 2:4-5), so we are living stones of the church – and that really makes no sense. We simply shouldn’t be mixing our metaphors.

Collectivism and membership

At first glance it might be easy to confuse the idea of collectivism with that of membership of a body and think that they are much of the same thing. Both are essentially made up of groups of people, but both are fundamentally different in nature. Both might be presented as alternatives to individualism or even solitude, but one through an assumed or even enforced equality, the other through recognition of diversity.

Perhaps this is seen little more clearly than in George Orwell’s satirical Animal Farm, in which the animals’ seventh commandment clearly stated that: “All animals are equal.” That may not have stood the test of time as some became “more equal than others,” but the idea of the collective was prevalent. In his essay on Membership, C. S. Lewis sees the collective idea carried to its extreme when a convict is given a number in place of a name. And ironically, he suggests, a man may also lose his name in his own house when he is known simply as ‘Father.’ Both have lost their names in departing from isolation, one lost to the collective, the other to membership of the family.

Where the collective disregards personal identity and considers all ‘members’ as being equal and identical; membership, in the true sense, regards each as unique both in identity and in contribution to the family or body as a whole. To put it simply, the collective is made up of lots of the same, the body is composed of lots of different parts – body parts, or members.

True members

Da_Vinci_Vitruve_Luc_ViatourbIt is only Paul who uses the Greek word melos to speak of believers as ‘members’ of the body of Christ. This is the common word for a ‘body part’ and is used in its more literal sense in passages such as James 3:5-6 where the tongue is spoken of as “a small member … set among our members;” or Matthew 5:29-30 where Jesus says it would be “better for you to lose one of your members,” such as your right eye or right hand, “than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” The idea of body parts is very clear here, and one would hardly consider the tongue, eye, or hand to be simply equal members of some organisation or club.

So when Paul uses the word ‘members’ to speak of individual believers, it is very much with the image of the body in mind. This is made very clear in passages such as this one which discusses the diversity of gifts among believers:

For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. (1 Corinthians 12:14-20)

English translations tend to vary, using either “members” or “parts” (or both) to translate melos, some even occasionally adding either word in an attempt to add clarity. That might well be useful, but it is less useful when translations then use the same word “members” in the more modern, collective sense such as when Joseph of Arimathea is spoken of as a respected “member of the council” (Mark 15:43) or Paul from Tarsus is said to be “a member of the tribe of Benjamin” (Romans 11:1). In both of these passages – and there are others like these – the word has been supplied and is not present in the Greek text of the New Testament. Neither of these passages speak of membership in the Biblical sense, as neither councils nor tribes are made up of body parts, and if we cannot substitute the word “member” with the phrase “body part” then we are not using the word in the Biblical sense.

Furthermore, it does not help when translators render the Greek adelphoi (brothers) as “members of the church” as does the NRSV in 1 Timothy 6:2. This is not only an unnecessary rendition, but it only adds to this misunderstanding.

A unique body

The idea of viewing body membership in the modern, collective sense becomes even more incongruous when considering the nature of the body to which we, as its parts, now belong. When we began following Jesus, devoting our lives to him and his teaching, we were dipped in water and made to be members of his body (1 Corinthians 12:13). We were added not to a collective, but to the Lord himself who is the head of his body of which we are now members, or body parts.

In another passage addressing the unity of the Spirit and the diversity of his gifts, Paul speaks of Christ as the head of his body from whom

the whole body grows, fitted and held together through every supporting ligament. As each one does its part, the body grows in love. (Ephesians 4:16 NET)

The picture here is both beautiful and instructive. We are members, that is we are body parts: limbs, joints, ligaments, organs – each one different, each with its particular place and each with its part to play within the body as a whole. The modern, collective notion of membership tends to treat all ‘members’ as equal, a trend propagated by the contemporary obsession with so-called ‘equality’ in which even distinctions of gender are being undermined in a desperate attempt to make all individuals supposedly the same as each other.

The one body and the bride

Of course, it could be that the difficulty is not only with the use of the word ‘member’ but also with the misuse or misunderstanding of the word ‘church’ used in most English translations to represent the Greek ekklesia. This is not the place to discuss the validity or otherwise of such a translation, but to understand the ekklesia of Christ as being some sort of collective or society in which all are essentially equal ‘members’ is not at all helpful.

In the New Testament Scriptures the ekklesia of Jesus is viewed as a singular entity. That is to say it is seen as a body, not simply as a collection of members or body parts; it is viewed as a temple, not simply as a collection or pile of stones. As a chain is more than simply a plurality of links – albeit generally equal – and an orchestra more than a gathering of musicians, so the ekklesia of God in Christ is more than simply a collection of the saved.

The ekklesia or assembly of God is composed of individual believers who have been called by him and who have committed themselves to him in Christ, but as believers we do not belong to the ‘church’ as such, but rather to Christ himself. It is to him that we owe our allegiance and to him we are committed, and along with all others who have been immersed into Christ we are now the people of God in him – his ekklesia. And it is the ekklesia of God that is the body of Christ and which is to be his bride! (Ephesians 5)

In conclusion

So if I am asked: “How long have you been a member of the church?” I am likely to say that I am not, as I rather suspect that the word is being used in the collective, non-body-part sense. It would be far better if we asked something like: “How long have you been a follower of Jesus?” Or “how long have you belonged to Jesus?” For it is through being his that we are members or body parts of his body, the body that is his ekklesia.

Patrick Boyns

BiBloS 03-March 2016 211:300 v. smallThis article is from BiBloS, a teaching resource of the British Bible School. To read more articles or download the whole of Issue 3, click here.