The Organic Unity of the Church

Rev. Laning is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Walker, Michigan.

The unity of the church is an organic unity. It is not the mechanical unity of a machine, but the organic unity of a body, in which the many members together live one life. It is not the external, hierarchical unity of the Romish church, but the internal, spiritual union of those who are of like faith. It is a spiritual unity, a unity of faith, in which the Spirit of Christ unites together the various members of the body, so that they together live one life, having the same mind and the same will.

This very profound doctrine is also eminently practical. The doctrine of the unity of the church appears often in connection with our calling to use our gifts for the advantage and salvation of the other members of the body (cf. I Cor. 12Eph. 4). When reciting the Apostles’ Creed, after confessing that we believe a holy catholic church, we immediately go on and confess the communion of saints. In Lord’s Day 21, we explain the communion of saints to mean that every member of the body knows it to be his duty to use his gifts for the advantage and salvation of the other members of the body. We experience more of this covenant communion, the more we understand and meditate upon the truth concerning the organic unity of the body of Christ.

The Forming of this Body

It should go without saying that this body is formed solely by God. This is true of our physical bodies; it is also true of the body of Christ. There are many couples who, when they have a child, refer to this as their act of “making a baby.” But the reality is that only God can and does perform the wondrous work of forming a body in a mother’s womb. We are fearfully and wonderfully made; fashioned by the very hands of God (Ps. 119:73). The same is true also of the body of Christ. God alone is the one who forms the church. He alone is the one who mixes the body together (I Cor. 12:24), and forms her into the perfect body and bride of Christ.

This is actually denied by all those who maintain that God wants to save everyone, but only saves those who fulfill the condition of believing in Christ. Such people are saying that God wants everyone to be in the body of Christ, but that He leaves it up to each person to decide whether or not he wants to be a member of this body. This is really the same as saying that God has a place for each person in the body of Christ. But since many people do not fulfill the condition, many of these places are left vacant. If such was the case, then many parts of the beautiful body that God desired to form would be missing, and man would be the one who would determine the final form of this incomplete and thus deformed body of Christ. By such a view, sinful man tries to exalt himself and to rob God of His glory.

Over against this, we confess that God alone determines and forms the body of Christ. He does this in and through Christ Himself, who does this in and by His Spirit. The Spirit of Christ baptizes into Christ’s body, joining us to Him in a spiritual union. He washes us in Christ’s blood, and causes us to partake of all the blessings that Christ earned for us on the cross. The Spirit Himself is the Water of Life, that all the members drink (I Cor. 12:13). He feeds us with Christ’s body and blood, unites us more to Christ’s heavenly body, and causes us consciously and cheerfully to submit to His will.

This Unity Manifested in the Church Institute

As was mentioned in the previous article, the perfections of the universal body of Christ are also evident in the church institute. We consider now how this applies specifically to the unity of the church. The universal body, of course, is an organic whole. God in eternity chose all the members of the body of Christ, and determined the precise position that each one of these members would occupy in that body. Together all the members live one life, the life of Christ, and are united under Him as their one Head.

But this truth also applies to the instituted church. God said to the instituted church in Corinth that they were the body of Christ and members in particular (I Cor. 12:27). He did not tell them that they were part of the body of Christ, but that they were the body of Christ. This indicates that an instituted church is a complete manifestation of the body of Christ, and that the truth concerning the unity of the body of Christ also applies to the instituted church.

It is easy to forget this. We, as members of a certain instituted church, are united together as a body with the other members of our congregation. This means, according to Lord’s Day 21, that we are called to use our gifts for the advantage and salvation, not only of other believers in general, but specifically of the members of the instituted church where we have our membership.

One People of God, Not Two

It is commonly held among the Baptists, that Israel and the church are two different peoples of God. The explanation of a typical dispensational Baptist goes something like this: Israel was the original people of God. When Christ came, He offered to Israel the kingdom that God had promised to them, especially in the writings of the Old Testament prophets. But Israel refused God’s well-meant offer. So God then turned to build another people, which is called the church. He began building the church especially when the Spirit was poured out at Pentecost, and He will complete it right before the coming Great Tribulation. At that time, the members of the church who are still on this earth will be raptured (i.e., taken up) into heaven. Then God will return to His original people, Israel, and will offer them the kingdom again. This time the Israelites will have learned their lesson and will accept God’s offer. Then God will grant Israel the millennial kingdom (Rev. 20) that He has promised to them. While the church, as the body of Christ, is enjoying life together in heaven, God’s millennial kingdom people will be reigning on this earth for a thousand years. After this, there will be the final judgment, and both Israel and the church will live together forever in the New Jerusalem. Yet even then, though they will be living together in the same heavenly city, they will continue to be two distinct peoples of God.

Now, not all dispensationalists explain this scheme in precisely the same way. But fundamental to dispensationalism is the position that Israel and the church are two distinct peoples of God. Thus, they deny the organic unity of God’s people.

Over against this error we point out how Scripture and our creeds speak of the unity of the church in both dispensations. When we confess our belief that there is a holy, catholic church, we explain this to mean,

That the Son of God, from the beginning to the end of the world, gathers, defends, and preserves to Himself by His Spirit and Word, out of the whole human race, a church chosen to everlasting life, agreeing in true faith; and that I am, and for ever shall remain, a living member thereof (Heid. Cat., Q. 54).

One church gathered, not from Pentecost until a pre-tribulation rapture, but “from the beginning to the end of the world.”

Our creedal position is clearly that of Scripture. The Jews and Gentiles together constitute one building, not two. The saints at Ephesus, who were largely Gentiles, were told that they and the saints in the old dispensation constituted one people of God (Eph. 2:19-21).

19)Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God;

20)And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone;

21)In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord.

The Gentile converts were told that they were fellow citizens with the Jewish saints, and that they and the Jews together were growing into one holy temple, built upon one foundation. This is clearly expressed also in I Corinthians 12:13, which says,

For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.

The church is the body of Christ, and both the Jews and the Gentiles are said to be united in this one organism by the work of the one Spirit of Christ.

One may wonder how the dispensational Baptists explain passages such as these. Obviously they are aware of the fact that we frequently cite these passages, and many others like them, to refute their position. They try to get rid of all of these passages by arguing that although the church does consist of both Jews and Gentiles, the Jews in Old Testament Israel and the Jews that will one day reign in the earthly millennium constitute a different people of God. In other words, they claim that all the passages that speak of the Jews and the Gentiles being part of the same body are referring only to the Jews and Gentiles that are saved during the age in which we now live. But such is not the case.

It is, of course, especially now after Pentecost that the gospel is going to the nations and gathering the Jews and Gentiles into the one body of Christ. But the Gentile converts are not said to be united only with those Jews gathered into the church in the days of the new dispensation. They are said to be united to the believing Jews gathered throughout history.Ephesians 2:19-21, quoted above, uses the Old Testament symbol of the temple, and says that we and the believing Jews, whether living today or in the days of the Old Testament, are built into one holy temple. Another passage that sets this forth emphatically isMatthew 8:10, 11. The context speaks of the great faith of a Roman centurion, who was a Gentile. He believed that Christ did not need to come to his house to heal his servant. All He needed to do was to say the word, and the centurion’s servant would be healed. Then we read,

10) When Jesus heard it, he marvelled, and said to them that followed, Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.

11) And I say unto you, That many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven.

It is undeniable that Jesus is teaching here that the believing Gentiles are united, not only with the Jews that were then living, but with Abraham, with Isaac, with Jacob, and with all the other believing Jews in the days of the Old Testament.

There is one people of God. There is one everlasting covenant of grace made with God’s people in both dispensations. God’s one people are united in one faith, believing one covenant promise. Lord willing, that subject will be one of those addressed in the next article.