Body life in action: Koinonia
I think one of the most majestic discussions of the body of Christ is in the book of Ephesians. Here again, Paul begins with a lengthy discussion of the nature and importance of our mystical union with Christ and each other. For three chapters he argues that God’s vast plan of the ages has been building toward this outcome.
Two pillars of unity in practice
Finally, in Chapter 4, he pleads with his readers to live out what God has already done:
Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of [or “suitable to”] the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (vs. 1-3).Notice that Paul extols the “unity of the Spirit” in this passage. This is not an organizational unity. It’s not an outward, structural unity where we all share the same church government. People have made huge mistakes during the history of the church by concluding that the key is a single, over-arching church structure or a single leadership entity.
Paul is referring to a unity that is spiritual and mystical. It’s the unity we studied in the previous post--the one that comes from our mystical union with Jesus.
Notice also that the last phrase urges us to “preserve the unity of the Spirit,” not to create unity. Paul is teaching that God has already built real unity into his body, by virtue of the mystical union. But how will this inner, spiritual unity ever come out into the light of day where people can see and experience it?
The first clue is in verse two. Showing “humility, gentleness, patience and tolerance in love”--all these are referring to things found in relationships between people. Living out our unity in the body of Christ is not to be some strange or far-out thing, like a spell or a feeling that comes over people. Instead, we work out our unity by developing loving, deep, personal relationships between the people of God.
Wouldn’t that be something--Christian people who deeply loved the others in their spiritual community? It would be very impressive if these relationships reached the level called for in the New Testament writings.
At the deepest level, then, is the unseen, but real, mystical union. But over that and because of it, we are to build relationships that are deep, loving, impressive, maybe even amazing to the watching world. Jesus prayed that the unity between believers would be so profound and unusual that it would convince the world that he was authentic (John 17:23, c.f. 14:34-35).
But relationships aren’t all. consider verses 4 through 6:
For there is one body and one Spirit, just as you have been called to one glorious hope for the future. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father, who is over all and in all and living through all.
Here again, we see unity. But these seven bases for unity all lie outside our doings with each other. They are truths, or facts, that we did not create and cannot alter. Truth, as well as love, is a key basis for unity. In fact, truth and love have a dynamic relationship that forms the basis for what we should be doing. Paul calls us to bring these two pillars together in verse 15:
But speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even ChristTo speak the truth in love; what does it mean? And how does that result in spiritual growth to maturity?
In the New Testament, Christians gathered to share or exchange the life of Christ with each other. The New Testament authors often express this sharing, or having in common, with the Greek word koinonia. Koinonia comes from a stem meaning “common,” and so means to share or to have in common--to exchange something. The term is a rich one and has many applications, including the one here in Ephesians 4, when Paul refers to “speaking the truth in love.”
To develop true koinonia--or “body life” as some have called it--is not that easy. We must develop several background features if we expect to practice body life at the New Testament level. Paul explains in Ephesians 4:
Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ (v. 11-12).Equipping
The process of establishing quality koinonia begins with the leadership, according to these verses. Those with spiritual gifts and roles associated with leadership in the local church have the task of “equipping” God’s people to do his work, or his ministry. One of the central parts of equipping members in the body is teaching them truth.
Paul describes this work in Colossians 1:28: “We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ” (NASB). If we are serious about “speaking the truth in love” to one another, we will all have to learn the truth from God’s word at a much deeper level than most Christians in America have so far, as we will see in chapter 20. Any church that takes this piece seriously is going to have to devote much more energy and resources to the project of equipping people with the truth than today’s typical church.
Why should God’s people be equipped? For “the work of service” (NASB) or “the work of ministry” (RSV). The last word in the phrase, diakonia, is translated both service and ministry in our English Bibles. That’s because ministry is serving people in love. Serving others is the business of the people of God, and properly understood, ministry is the active component in biblical love. Love in the Bible is not selfish love, but serving love, or sacrificial love.
Ministry comes in different forms--word ministries, service ministries, and prayer-related ministries. A full understanding of the New Testament concept of ministry takes some time, so we devote a chapter to it. Most ministries in the local church involve relationship building.
The fruit of ministry
People’s characters need to be transformed before they can be what God wants those who serve him to be. Paul tells us where the trajectory of building up the body leads:
[We are to grow]...until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:13).If this is what God envisions as the result of ministry, it gives us an idea of what will be needed in the way of equipping.
First, notice the words, “we all” (hoi pantes). What this passage describes is not for the few or the elite. God calls each and every one of us in the body of Christ attain to the level of maturity described.
This is also important because as the passage continues, Paul repeatedly uses the word “we” as the subject. In other words, every one of us is to be a recipient as well as a powerful minister in the process of koinonia.
Next, he mentions that we are to attain to “the unity of the faith, and the knowledge of the Son of God.” For this reason alone, equipping God’s people will be an enormous task in modern America, where most new Christians begin in almost complete biblical illiteracy. Attaining to the “knowledge of the Son of God” (v. 13) probably means a lengthy time of study and personal discipleship. Even those raised in the church usually have only a Bible-story knowledge that is practically unusable in ministry situations.
Our characters also need formation. Paul envisions people reaching the level of “a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” (v. 13). Only those who have been significantly transformed by the Lord themselves can foster such character change.
Those lacking the ability to build lasting love relationships are not ready to play their parts as ministers in the body of Christ. Love-takers are not ready to give out in ministry. Self-absorbed or materialistic people are not ready. Addicts of all types are not ready. Immoral people are not ready.
Members in the church have to seek character transformation in each other’s lives, if they are to effectively give out in ministry. If we have a church full of passive listeners who aren’t growing spiritually, this whole picture breaks down; koinonia becomes an unreal concept. For this reason alone, we see that much more will be needed than what we see in many modern churches. How would the leadership of any sizable church even know whether or not people in the church are growing? How are leaders supposed to match counseling, admonition, training, and help to people’s needs? Vast swaths of our modern understanding of the church will have to be massively revised if the New Testament picture of the church is to be more than a perplexing mystery to our people.
Truth in love
As people become equipped in the truth and see substantial character change, new possibilities open. Such people are in position to do what Paul calls, “speaking the truth in love” in verse 15:
...but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head.But what does “speaking the truth in love” mean? Does it mean that we tell people true things in a “lovey” tone of voice? Does it mean that we try to project loving feelings and a friendly demeanor when we tell people the truth?
In the context of New Testament teaching, only one understanding of
this phrase makes sense: Paul is teaching that we should speak God’s
truth (based on his word) to each other in the context of love relationships. This is what transforms lives, according to this and other passages.
In the New Testament, love is not a smiling face or tone of voice we show people in the lobby at church. Neither is it just a feeling or demeanor we project toward someone. Jesus’ call to love others is far more costly than many modern understandings. Such superficial understandings of love--that it is nothing more than a friendly demeanor--come from the world, not from the Bible.
When Jesus calls his followers to love one another as he loved them, he explains that this means laying down our lives for them (John 15:12-13). He means we should build friendships with others and love them sacrificially as he did. Then, in that context, we need to teach, admonish, and encourage each other, based on the truth as taught in God’s word.
Here comes the time commitment. Here comes the interference with worldly goals and values. This means getting outside of my interests, my family, my aspirations, and getting into other people’s lives. No wonder the early church devoted extensive time to fellowship. They were taking the concept of speaking the truth in love seriously!
Koinonia and church values
Have you ever wondered why some groups seem to assume that people in the body of Christ should invest deeply into relationships and develop closeness, while other groups assume that you go to church and go home afterward and that’s it? This is a perfect example of an area where our theology and our values intersect to form a different ethos. Under some patterns of teaching, people never even try to experience real koinonia--they don’t even know what it is. But if we expound this concept regularly and deeply, people may begin to aspire to a new level of body life never known before.
Simply knowing what the Bible teaches on koinonia won’t be adequate; much more will be needed, as we shall see. On the other hand, failure to teach this area strongly will almost certainly short-circuit any hopes for a New Testament-style church.
Ask yourself: Why would people in a church assume they should pursue in-depth equipping? Why would they think they won’t be complete until they develop a meaningful ministry? Only deeply held biblical convictions that ministry is the birthright of every Christian, combined with the encouragement of the community will likely result in this outcome. Quality community requires that people understanding and believe at a deep level what the New Testament teaches on koinonia.
In our next section, we'll examine New Testament teaching that points to how deep our relationships need to be.