John M. Crowe, M.Div., D.Min.
In our quest for developing healthy, vital and effective congregations, we ignore exploring the meaning of Christ being head of the church to our own peril. A church is not healthy when people view the life of Christian discipleship as just them and Jesus. No, a vital part of being a Christian also involves being an active participant in the life and ministry of a church body. Without this clarity of focus we lack the strength of purpose and clarity of direction to carry us beyond the pitfalls of utilitarianism or self-preservation which create ministries out of needs or pragmatism which transforms ministry into marketing strategies like a business.
We start our journey into the spiritual anatomy of the church by first looking at the head-Jesus Christ. My prayer is that the Holy Spirit will open the eyes of the reader to see more than the intellectual truth of this, but also grasp something of the spiritual reality of Jesus being head of his body, the church. One thing we don’t want to be as a church is going around like a chicken with its head cut off. The human head provides three important functions for the body. From Ephesians, Colossians, and Revelation, we will dig into the meaning of these three functions for the spiritual anatomy of the church.
1. Life—this is the one appendage that we cannot live without.
2. Identity—our head identifies us.
3. Direction—our head directs and coordinates our actions.
Jesus being the head of the body is mentioned three times in Ephesians and twice in Colossians.
The first mention of Jesus being head of the church comes near the end of Paul’s prayer. “And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (Ephesians 1:22-23). These verses portray the risen and ascended Jesus Christ as not only the transcendent head over his body, the church, but also the immanent divine presence within the church by the Holy Spirit. As the universal head and lord of all, he is the divinely appointed origin and source of the church’s life and before whom “. . .every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” Philippians 10-11). See also Colossians 1:18 where the apostle Paul writes that Christ is the head of the body, the church.
In his prayer, Ephesians 1:15-21, Paul prays for the Church at Ephesus to grow in the spiritual life that Jesus gives to the church as its head. Jesus is head of all things and head of the church via being raised from the dead, ascending to heaven and being seated at God the Father’s right hand.
I wrote the following prayer for a church to pray based on Paul’s prayer. We asked God to
Grant ____ church spiritual wisdom and insight so that we might know you better, O God, and might more fully grasp who ____ church is as his body, the church, blessed with all spiritual blessings because of being partakers of the life of Christ. May we know our spiritual position and blessings in Christ more fully, may ____ church know the surpassing greatness of your power for ___ church to live out our spiritual position and blessings in Christ according to the working of your great strength which you put to work in raising Christ from the dead and seating him in the heavenly places above all authority, power and dominion in either the earthly realm or the spiritual realm. May our understanding and our life as ____ church reflect more and more the reality of Christ’s exalted position over all things, including ___ church. May we truly grasp that as a body of believers in Christ, ___ church is not a law unto itself, but a community of believers under the lordship of Christ by the discipline of the Holy Spirit to be equipped and empowered for the achieving of God’s purposes in the world today. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.
A healthy church is spiritually hungry to know God better; knows its position and blessings in Christ as Paul describes in Ephesians 1; experiences the resurrection power of God; and reflects the reality of Christ being head of all things including the church.
Second, we are called to grow up in all aspects into our head-Jesus Christ “From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work (Ephesians 4:15, 16). As F.F. Bruce states in his commentary on Ephesians
They grow up to the measure of his full stature, but at the same time it is from him that they draw the resources necessary for. . . It is from him that the body, in all its parts, derives its life. . . it is indeed from the living Christ that his people receive (through the Spirit) all that they need to make them effectively his people. (352-353).
Earlier in Chapter 4, the means of a church growing up are the equipping ministries of the body for the purpose of each person having their own ministry for as is said earlier in Ephesians, we are created in Christ to do good works (reference). To resist the equipping role of a minister is actually to go against the head of the church. For a minister to neglect equipping others for their own ministry is to disobey the head of the church as well.
The last mention of Jesus being the head of the church in Ephesians is in chapter 5:23-29 where Paul compares the relationship between a husband and wife to that of Christ and the Church which in this context is implied to be like a bride although the NT does not actually call the Church the bride of Christ.
. . .Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. . . the church submits to Christ. . . Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. . . but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church.
We find parts of these verses in the opening verse of the hymn “The Church’s One Foundation.”
The church’s one Foundation
Is Jesus Christ her Lord;
She is his new creation
By water and the Word:
From heav’n he came and sought her
To be his holy bride;
With his own blood he bought her,
And for her life he died (UMH 545).
Once again, we encounter the theme that the church belongs to Christ who is both head and savior of his body. Christ gave himself not only to create the church, but also to make her like a holy bride who is called to submit to him. The whole theme of Christ loving, nourishing and cherishing the Church communicates a spiritual intimacy between the ascended Jesus and his body the Church. This intimacy is likened unto the union of a husband and wife into one flesh in marriage. The dynamic of spiritual intimacy is conveyed in the opening part of the 5thverse of “The Church’s One Foundation.”
Yet she on earth hath union
with God the Three in One, (UMH 545).
About 30 years after the Epistle to the Ephesians was written, the apostle John receives a vision of Jesus Christ that he wrote down about in the book of Revelation. The church at Ephesus was one of the seven churches to which Revelation was written and sent to.
The apostle John’s vision of Christ in Revelation chapter 1 shows the risen and ascended Christ in his full glory and authority. This part of the vision communicated to the readers four important truths. First, that Christ alone is sovereign over this world. It does not belong to the self-proclaimed saviors of society or the emperors of Rome, nor to those who persecute and seek to destroy the Church of Jesus. Let us remember that the Head of the church said that all authority in heaven and on earth is his and the gates of hell will not prevail against his church (reference). Second, that Christ’s living presence forms the sole basis for the church. Jesus did not found his church and leave it. Jesus is present in the church now by the Holy Spirit whom he promised his disciples as another comforter and the one who would empower the church to be his witnesses (John 14:16; Acts 1:4-8). In Ephesians chapter two, the church is described as a holy temple and a dwelling of God in the Spirit (2:19-22). This is true of the whole body of Christ throughout the world and of each particular body of believers. The bond that unites members in all of the parts of the body with one another is the love of God shed abroad in their hearts by the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5). Third, as head of the Church, Christ is not only the source of our life, but also our ultimate authority as a church. Fourth, Christ’s living presence by the Holy Spirit also means that he has intimate knowledge of each and every church as portrayed in Revelation 1-3.
In these seven letters to the seven churches in chapters two and three, we read about what the Lord of the Church has to say directly to seven churches of that day which also speak to us today. This powerful vision illustrates the spiritual transcendence and imminence of the Head of the Church with and within the body of Christ. For some of the churches, this vision and the letter to them is comforting, but for others it is confronting them with how they are no longer holding fast to their head-Jesus Christ. A few of these seven churches were in worse shape than the others and a few were far healthier than the others. Even today, there are churches who have left their first love, are lukewarm, tolerate false doctrine, and immorality.
As the head and chief cornerstone, the church would collapse without being vitally related to Christ. For the cornerstone is laid at the intersection of two walls dependent upon it for support. In the words of Jesus from the Gospel of John, he is the vine and we are the branches. Christ is the source of the life of the body-the church.
The headship of Christ over the church gives us the boldness to live for Jesus and to reach out to the unchurched, including those of other religions. The headship of Christ strengthens us to boldly go to make disciples of other people. The headship of Christ assures us that his ministry through us will bear fruit.
Since there is no power or authority anywhere over which Jesus does not have dominion, a healthy church believes it can carry out whatever Jesus wants his church to carry out.
Such a life giving view of the headship of Christ over the church leads us to pray less “Lord help me in this ministry activity” and more “Lord help yourself to me so that I am not in your way or mess your thing up.” The headship of Jesus over the church means that we don’t have to make it happen. We don’t have to burn out with some kind of Elijah flameout complex that we will save the body of Christ for Jesus! I know of too many clergy and laity who are all burned out, disillusioned and embittered doing the work of the Lord because of being focused on the Lord’s worker or the Lord’s work instead of on the Lord of the work. Let us remember that the head of the church said that all authority in heaven and on earth are his and the gates of hell will not prevail against his church (Mtt. 16:18 ).
As a living system, a congregation draws its life from our supreme relationship with the Church’s head—Jesus Christ (Eph. 4:15-16). Overflowing from our being in Christ, God’s love is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5). The New Testament also encourages us to stir one another up to love and good works by regularly assembling together (Heb. 10:24-25). The healthy inner harmony of a church breaks down whenever our relationships deteriorate.
First and foremost, Christ being the life of the church reminds us of whom the church belongs to and receives its life from. This addresses the spiritual formation of the congregation as a body. Theologically speaking, this truth focuses on the Church as the temple of the Holy Spirit.
In a nutshell, a healthy church is a congregation of holy loving relationships by God's amazing grace in Christ, the empowering of the Holy Spirit, and shaped by New Testament teaching about being the body of Christ.
The absence of the above mentioned health dynamic is harmful to the life and ministry of a church as my colleague Dr. Guy Brewer wrote.
It is harmful to the life and ministry of a church to forsake its first love or to forsake the focus on Christ as the life of the church as my colleague Dr. Guy Brewer wrote.
Over the course of three years I worked day and night to build the congregation and physical facility that became Edgewater United Methodist Church. Although I devoted virtually no time to prayer, I averaged eighty hours per week in committee meetings, visitation, sermon preparation, and the work of the ministry. By the end of those three years, Edgewater United Methodist Church was a success according to the standards of the annual conference. We had gathered a congregation of 200 plus persons and completed construction of a church building and a parsonage. Under the veneer of performance standards, this fledgling congregation was exhausted, under-nourished, and fearful with a worn-out, depressed pastor. Edgewater United Methodist Church appeared to be a success but lacked the marks of congregational health such as joy, unity, patience, and enthusiasm. We relied on ourselves and achieved exactly what we set out to do. We built a church under our own power. (5)
When volume of activity becomes the measure of ministry, matters of interior transformation often go unnoticed and neglected. As Peterson puts it, “Busyness is an illness of the spirit, a rush from one thing to another because there is no ballast of vocational integrity and no confidence in the primacy of grace. (132-133)”
Such a church has a weak prayer life. Brewer writes a very bleak description of such unhealthy congregations.
When God's healing is not a living reality through prayer, the church can become a back ward of chronically ill people waiting to die. This form of spiritual illness is subtle but deadly. People bring crippling fear and enormous control needs into the life of the church. In such a situation, the church may become more of a leper colony than a hospital. Without the power of God through prayer, ministry to the sick and dying may become little more than compassionate commiseration with their suffering. Instead of making the sick well, churches that do not pray condemn themselves to catching the illnesses they are commissioned to heal. (13)
The headship of Jesus over his body-the church brings a clear focus to the church’s identity in five major ways. First, the church is of God. Second, the church is of God because of the resurrection life of Christ in the church by the Holy Spirit who gave birth to the church on the day of Pentecost. Third, we are more than just a body or gathering of believers created by human decision or planning. No, we are Christ’s body. Fourth, we are completely dependent upon Christ for life and growth as the church which is the instrument of Christ in the world. Fifth, Jesus has determined the nature of the church’s call to proclaim the gospel of Christ and no other. Holding fast to our head as a church impacts our identity to the point of shaping how we conduct ourselves, how we relate with one another, how we conduct both our meetings and our ministries.
How does a church body acknowledge Jesus Christ as head of the church? We have already mentioned that the body of Christ, the church, derives its life and its identity from Jesus Christ. What about direction? The foundational direction given to the church is the Bible and in particular the NT.
First of all, the church body accepts the Bible as the authoritative guide for faith and practice.
Second, it accepts the Bible’s living testimony of the apostles that brings the body to life as a body of believers who respect, believe, confess and seek to follow the apostolic foundation of the church.
Third, it comes to the view that to not pay attention to the teachings of the apostles is to not pay attention to the head of the church. The authority of scripture is primary. Reason, tradition and personal experience all have their place, but none of them is above scripture. “In this sense, being apostolic and being biblical are identical in meaning” (Oak 92.)
Fourth, scripture shapes the worship, evangelism, discipleship, and the ministries of a church body.
At the very heart of this spiritual anatomical model of the church as the body of Christ is the claim that a church either has sound health in its various subsections or lacks sound health to the degree that it has sound biblical teaching and such teaching is received and lived out by those who hear.
Brewer, Guy. The Effect of Metanoia, A Forty-Day Season of Prayer, on Heart Attitudes of Murray Hill United Methodist Church. Diss. Asbury Theological Seminary, 2000.
Bruce, F. F. “The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians.” The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984
The Holy Bible: The New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978.
Oak, John. H. Healthy Christians Make A Healthy Church. Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2003.
Peterson, Eugene H. Working the Angels: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987
The United Methodist Hymnal: Book of United Methodist Worship. Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989.
The contents of this article comes from chapter 3 of my book, Church Health For The Twenty-First Century A Biblical Approach.