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Christ Commands His Body: An Excerpt from Living in the Underground Church

Posted by Rev. Eric Foley on with   Comments

Identifying the commands of God in Scripture is neither difficult nor time consuming. We go through the passage we are reading and we underline or highlight the divine verbs. It takes only moments.

But what takes a Christian lifetime is understanding who is being commanded, and who completes the command.

Christ commands his body, the church.

In this, he is like us. Each of us also commands our own body. We command our body, for example, to stand up or sit down, to move here or go there, to pick up one item or put down another, to speak or to stay silent.

But we also command other people’s bodies. Commanders command the bodies of soldiers. Parents command the bodies of children. Bosses command the bodies of workers.

In this, Christ is not like us. With surprisingly few exceptions, his commands are focused on his own body, the members of whom have been baptized into him. His commands are like sacred pearls, so he permits them only to adorn his bride. He says in Matthew 7:6, “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.”[5] He pronounces woes on some people, responds to the inquiries and questions of others, exorcises demons, and ultimately judges goats. But with surprisingly few exceptions, he commands only his own body, the church.

We are not invited to membership in Christ’s body as a reward for keeping his commands, nor are we admitted on a trial basis based on our pledge to do so. We are incorporated into his body solely by being baptized into his death.[6] Keeping his commands is not what merits or maintains our membership in him. We do not consider our legs to be a part of our body only as long as they do what we want them to do. Amidst night cramps, broken fibulae, paralysis, and aging they are still our legs. Likewise, we do not regard our legs as meritorious when they enable us to stand up when we command. That is what legs are supposed to do. Jesus says, “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.'”[7]

When our legs do not do their duty, do we then remove them from our body? Of course not. As the Apostle Paul writes,

No, much rather, those members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary. And those members of the body which we think to be less honorable, on these we bestow greater honor; and our unpresentable parts have greater modesty, but our presentable parts have no need. But God composed the body, having given greater honor to that part which lacks it, that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.[8]

Thus, even for those members of Christ’s body who do not keep his commands, we do not cut them off, nor do we regard them with contempt. As the Apostle Paul asks, “Who are you to judge someone else's servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.”[9] Instead of cutting off such members, we care for them, seek to heal them, willingly compensate for their shortcomings without contempt or resentment, and bear with them patiently. We, like them, are mere members of Christ’s body. He is the head. And his command to us regarding our weakest members asks even more of us than Paul’s command not to judge them: “Love one another, as I have loved you.”[10]

Christians today tend to think of biblical commands as the responsibility of individual Christians to fulfill, as if the Bible is a guidebook for individual behavior. But this is a contemporary understanding, not a biblical one. Today some people like to use the phrase “spiritual but not religious” to describe themselves. They see this as a favorable description. By this phrase they mean to indicate that for them faith is a private matter, and they practice their faith individually, without connection to a wider body. Thus, it is natural for them to read the Bible as a private manual of practice, or at least a source of personal inspiration.

But in Colossians 2:18 Paul describes such behavior as “unspiritual.” We become “unspiritual,” says Paul, when we “have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.”[11] To be spiritual, then, is to be religious: Religion comes from the Latin word religare, which means “to bind.”[12] Christians only exist bound together as members of Christ’s body, under his headship. Christ does not command Christians individually, as if they were a loose confederation of like-minded spiritual people, each seeking to be faithful. He commands his body as a body, “joined and held together by every joint” as Paul says in Ephesians.[13]

So, when we read the Bible, we are being addressed and blessed and commanded jointly by a living word. This is hard for us to understand in a practical sense. How does the whole church “turn the other cheek” if it was my cheek that was slapped? Or how is the whole church to love my enemy, if my enemy is someone at my workplace that no one else at my church knows? How, in other words, do God’s commands relate both to me as an individual and to the body of Christ corporately?

This is a core subject in Scripture, but we often fail to notice because it speaks in ways the confound our contemporary individualistic understanding. In 1 Corinthians 12:26 noted above, Paul writes, “And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.”[14] We typically (mis)read this verse as though Paul was giving a command, or stating an ideal, i.e., “And if one member suffers, all the members should suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members should rejoice with it.”

But this is precisely the opposite of Paul’s point. Paul’s point is that when we have a sore throat, we often say, “I am sick,” not just “My throat is sick.” In the same way, in the body of Christ the suffering of one member is regarded and even experienced as the suffering of the whole. Thus, the risen Christ can appear to Saul the persecutor and ask, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?",[15] not, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting the Christians of Jerusalem and now Damascus?”

The writer of Hebrews puts forward the same identification logic between member and body with the command, “Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.”[16] As with the 1 Corinthians 12 passage above, the meaning of the verse is lost if we read it to say, “You should remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, even though you are not.” The meaning of the verse is captured precisely if we read it to say, “Because you are one body, you who are outside of prison are one with those who are in prison; therefore, you yourselves are suffering together with them.” This is not a plea not to forget the poor prisoners; it is a call to act according to the identification with the one body to which we are joined at baptism.

Even for Christians who are active in churches, the body of Christ is usually in the background of the day-to-day individual decision-making process in their personal lives. When it comes to matters that take place behind closed doors, for example, rare is the Christian who asks, “To what am I binding the church and Christ through my private actions?” Sadly, rare also is the Christian who asks that same question regarding their public actions.

Yet for Paul, the obvious and foundational ethical question for the individual Christian is how our individual actions bind the body of Christ, including its head, to honor or suffering. Because we are part of Christ's body, our actions are his actions. So, in having sex with a prostitute, we unite Christ's body with a prostitute. “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself?” asks the Apostle Paul. “Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never!”[17] Similarly, in taking our disputes to court, we shame Christ before the watching world.[18]

We think of our own individual actions as our own individual actions; at most, we think our actions might influence those we know to think more positively or negatively about God or the church. God in Christ, however, has identified himself so completely with us that he owns our own individual actions as fundamentally his actions and the actions of his body. The identification is so absolute and complete and tangible that the Apostle Paul describes it with the most physical language possible in Ephesians 5:30: “For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones.”[19]

Because of this total identification with his body, and of his whole body with each member of that body, Christ can say, “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”[20] This is not a privilege given to a designated few, as Christ’s body is a body of priests—each member a priest—a priesthood of all believers.[21] If we are concerned by the degree of identification Christ makes between himself, his body, and the individual believer, we should remember that it is only this complete identification that makes salvation possible: He died for us. We were baptized into his death. We live only in him.

Since Christ is fundamentally present in our actions, and since Christ is fundamentally present in the least of his brothers and sisters, [22] our actions toward the least are really Christ’s actions toward himself: Christ is the one who commands; Christ is the one who acts; Christ is the recipient of the action. This is also true regarding our actions toward other believers, who are members of his one body: He commands; he acts; he receives. A similar dynamic is also at work regarding our enemies: When our enemies act against us, they are in in truth acting against Christ, since it is no longer we who live but him.[23] Christ commands that we receive and respond to our enemy’s actions as being done to him and to his corporate body, of which we are merely one member, one part. An attack on one is an attack on all—or, rather, the One. Through us our enemies are to be offered Christ’s mercy and the love of Christ’s whole body. We are to reserve judgment until Christ returns in glory. Thus, the Apostle Paul writes,

Do not avenge yourselves, beloved, but leave room for God’s wrath. For it is written: “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” On the contrary, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink. For in so doing, you will heap burning coals on his head.”[24]

This is why an “atomic” focus, i.e., a focus on our individual actions—i.e., considering our actions as fundamentally belonging to us, springing from us, yielding praise or punishment for us, distinct from Christ and from his body—is anathema to the gospel. The main issue in works righteousness is not merely our trying to earn God’s approval. It is our believing ourselves capable of doing anything at all as if we were autonomous actors rather than local expressions of the Second Adam, united in every moment with all other believers as his very body.

We should be very cautious when we read the Bible that we do not invent or infer commands for ourselves individually. Such commands may sound right and reverent to the individual religious mind—commands like “obey God” and “listen to God” and “pray” and “give” and “serve.” We tend to read these into every passage of Scripture, prefacing them with “you should” and treating them as the imperatives with which God is preoccupied. “Is this Christian obeying me? Is this Christian listening to me? Is this Christian praying? Giving? Serving?” The God of the Bible does not talk like this, but the god who lives in our head who claims to be that God certainly does. Commands like the ones noted here fly beneath the works righteousness “radar” of most Christians because they sound like humble, obedient actions, not self-righteous ones. But a work is anything that originates with us and which we perceive as our own action distinct from Christ and his body—no matter how humble or obedient it may sound. Ultimately, we are only obeying ourselves in these pseudo-commands, because we, not God, are the ones originating such commands.

The opposite of works righteousness is thus not simply grace but rather getting over ourselves. It is realizing that our lives and actions are no longer about us but about the whole Christ, head and body. Love for ourselves is replaced by love for the body and for its head. As we act, we bring suffering or joy to that whole Christ to whom we became inseparably bound at baptism. The New Testament teaches us that we are no longer able to act independent of our connection with Christ and his body; everything we do arises from and accrues to the whole Christ. What you do, the body of Christ does. What you do, Christ himself does. If you join with a prostitute, you join Christ and his body to a prostitute. Conversely, if you suffer for his name, then with the Apostle Paul you “fill up in [your] flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.”[25]

In this way, all God's commands as given in Scripture are invitations to interact with him from within the body of Christ, jointly with that body, together partaking of his character in the same way we together partake of his body and blood in the Lord's Supper.

Indeed, it is through the Lord's Supper that we become trained to see and act according this fundamental Christian truth: This is the body, the body, the body... In baptism we die not only to self but to separateness: in the Lord’s Supper we take our place permanently in his body, joined and held together by every joint. This is why failure to discern the body—i.e., seeing the Lord’s Supper as primarily a time for individual communion with God and for strengthening our individual relationship with him--is to partake in an unworthy manner. About this the Apostle Paul says, “For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.”[26]

When we read commands in the Scripture, therefore, we do not approach with the question, “What does God call me to do?” Instead, we first begin by remembering who we are: We are members of his body. Unilateral action is by nature impossible for the Christian. All Christian action is by nature multilateral: There is Christ, there is the body, there is the Christian as a member of the body, there is Christ present in the least of these our brothers and sisters, there is Christ in our brothers and sisters, there is Christ extending the hand of reconciliation to his enemies. We read every command with that multilateral consciousness, which is granted to us through the grace of Christ given to us through the Lord’s Supper. We then ask, “What is God calling the body of Christ to do?”, and we act as the full expression of that body in our place and time.

Membership in the body cannot be fully expressed through membership in one local institutional expression of it, e.g., a particular church in a particular denomination in a particular city, with particular people we like and choose. We cannot look at such a unit and say, “This is the body of Christ, for me.” Only Christ can demarcate his body. And Christ does not permit time or distance or nationality to divide his one body into many bodies of Christ for our convenience or understanding or pragmatic action. We cannot say, “The Korean Church, the Chinese Church, the American Church.” We cannot say, “The early church, the medieval church, the modern church.” We cannot say, “The local church, the national church, the global church.” We are as joined at every joint with the 17th Century Chinese Christians as we are with the 21st Century Russian Christians as we are with the church of a different denomination across the street. Christ knows one body—or, as we confess with the Nicene Creed, One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. Of that one body, the Apostle Paul writes, “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.”[27] Across time, space, denomination, and every human boundary, its indissolubility is its mark of authenticity, says Paul: “And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.”[28] If it is not that, then it is not church.

When Christ commands in Scripture, then, he is commanding his one body, across time, space, national boundary, and denomination. Through the Lord’s Supper, we are trained to hear his commands corporately, and to understand our own individual actions as, by his mysterious grace, the actions of the whole church and her Lord.

This does not mean that Christ and the whole church depend upon our getting every action right. In fact, exactly the opposite is true. Christ and the whole church rest upon Christ’s having gotten every action right, and upon our recognizing that and submitting to the death we died in baptism so that he can work through us with less and less resistance. The key issue for us to recognize is that Christ commands his body, and that we are to hear each command from the standpoint of our being as a member within the body, and we are to offer our bodies to him to fulfill that command through us, as indicated in Romans 12:1-2. We are to remember that because of our union with Christ’s head and body, the whole Christ is present in our action, for suffering and honor.

So yes, the whole church turns its cheek when we turn ours as its rightful local representative. And the whole church does not turn its cheek when we as its representative fail to do so. When we have an enemy at our workplace, that enemy must be understood by us as the enemy of the whole church and of Christ, and the sorrow or honor we experience at the hands of that enemy accrues to the head and body as a whole, as we love them according to the command of Christ. “Why do you persecute me?”, Christ asks our workplace enemy, not “Why do you persecute Sally?”[29] (Of course, we must discern whether our enemy is actually an enemy, or whether that one is actually a servant of Christ whom Christ is using to lead us more deeply into the death to self we entered through baptism. Perhaps they are both.)

When we hear the commands of God, therefore, we first remember who and what we are: we are humble members of a body that is being commanded by its head. Such remembrance is essential to rightly hearing and doing the word. This becomes apparent in considering even a single example of biblical command, such as the words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount:

You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.[30]

When we read the commands of Christ keeping in mind our corporate identity, the first thing that resolves itself is any potential confusion between Jesus’ assertion in Matthew 5:14, “You are the light of the world,” and his assertion in John 8:12, “I am the light of the world.” Christ is the head and the church is the body. The head cannot be separated from the body. Together they form what Augustine called “the whole Christ.”[31] In us, the light of Christ and the church of all the ages is present. This presence transfigures wherever any member is into holy space.

Based on what we have shared in this chapter, we are now sensitized to avoid finding commands in Scripture where none exist. Christ does not in this passage of Scripture command us, “Be the salt of the earth. Be the light of the world.” There is no command from him here to become something other than what we have already been made by his joining us together with him in baptism.

Instead, there is in this passage only one command: “Let your light shine before others.” It is a command that makes sense in the context of what comes immediately before it, in Matthew 5:11-12:

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”[32]

When one is beset by persecution, one’s immediately inclination is to hide, to blend in, to become bland, to disown one’s troublesome fellows—to individuate again. But to do so, says Jesus, would defeat the purpose of being salt and light, which, not incidentally, are corporate substances. Therefore, Christ commands, in the midst of persecution, his body should not hide itself, nor any part of itself, nor any part of the message entrusted to it by its head. There is one body—a glorious, transfigured body of whom you are a local expression. That body—and now, your singular flesh-and-blood body—lights the world as the whole church in a single point, so that the character of God may be see everywhere, and by all.

Through what we have shared in this chapter we are also now sensitized to our tendency to individualize the commands of Christ. We know now to avoid calving out commands from God’s word for ourselves to individually obey. The word is addressed to the whole faithful body across time, space, nation, and denomination, of which we are an inseparable part. We know, too, to avoid calving ourselves out of the body as we hear each command, as if we could do any part of it as he intends, if we separate ourselves from the whole.

Every “you” and “your” in this Scripture passage from the Sermon on the Mount is plural, including the command to let “your” light shine. This is not a call to individual Christians to shine their own individual light, as if together we then made a thousand points of light, each in our own dark corner of the world as according to God’s private leading and our own spiritual giftings. It is Christ’s command to let the one light shine through us—the whole Christ—all of him, head and body, “that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all”[33], across all time, space, nations, and denominations. Shine all of that, refusing to become the church as I see it, living out the faith as I practice it, standing for the parts of it that I consider important and sensible.

Identifying the commands of God in Scripture is neither difficult nor time consuming. Learning to hear and do them as members of his body, with the head commanding, doing, and receiving, takes a Christian lifetime.

[5] Matthew 7:6, NIV.

[6] Cf. Mark 16:16.

[7] Luke 17:10, NIV.

[8] 1 Corinthians 12:22-26, NKJV.

[9] Romans 14:4, NIV.

[10] Cf. John 13:34.

[11] Colossians 2:18-19, NIV.

[12] S.F. Hoyt, 1912. "The Etymology of Religion." Journal of the American Oriental Society 32, no. 2, p. 126.

[13] Ephesians 4:16, ESV.

[14] 1 Corinthians 12:26, NKJV.

[15] Acts 9:4, NIV.

[16] Hebrews 13:3, NIV.

[17] 1 Corinthians 6:15, NIV.

[18] Cf. 1 Corinthians 6.

[19] Ephesians 5:30, NKJV, emphasis mine.

[20] Matthew 18:18, NKJV.

[21] Cf. 1 Peter 2:5; Hebrews 4:14-16.

[22] Cf. Matthew 25:31–46.

[23] Cf. Galatians 2:20.

[24] Romans 12:19-20, BSB.

[25] Colossians 1:24, NIV.

[26] 1 Corinthians 11:29, NIV.

[27] Colossians 3:11.

[28] 1 Corinthians 12:26, KJV.

[29] Cf. E. Foley, 2012. “Your Enemy is Actually Attacking Christ – Not You. And Christ Still Does Good to Them — Through You.” Doers of the Word. http://dotheword.org/2012/01/11/your-enemy-is-actually-attacking-christ/.

[30] Matthew 5:13-16, NIV.

[31] Cf. Augustine, 1996. Sermons 341-400 on Various Themes. Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, p. 26.

[32] Matthew 5:11-12, NIV.

[33] Vincent of Lérins, 1894. In Schaff, Philip; Wace, Henry. A select library of the Nicene and post-Nicene fathers of the Christian Church. 2. 11. Translated by Heurtley, Charles A. (American ed.). Buffalo: Christian Literature.

Tags: body of christ, command, commandment, lord's supper, sermon on the mount, works righteousness