The Spiritual Anatomy of a Church

Church health is developed by applying Biblical teaching to the spiritual anatomy of a body of Christians.


John M. Crowe, M.Div., D.Min.

I. A New Approach to Church Health.

How to bring healing and wholeness into churches is probably the most important ecclesiological question of our day. Earlier research on church health approached the subject like a mechanic working on an engine. Today's research on this subject views church health organically through the eyes of Family Systems Theory with sprinkles of Christian lingo. Even so, the body of research has remained virtually silent on the role of doctrine in improving church health.

II. The Church as the Body of Christ.

The Apostle Paul's primary analogy for the Church was the body of Christ. His epistles view a healthy church in terms of differentiation or separation, harmonious community, equipping the saints, and the use of spiritual gifts. At the heart of this focus abides the basic gospel of salvation and a biblical world view that takes into account the realities of the spiritual world.

Without the gospel, churches easily fall into a Christian behaviorism that is inherent in a rational, mechanical approach like that of an engineer. Thus, churches experience burnout and defeat by trying and trusting the latest technique. Like blindfolded warriors who do not know who the real enemy is, congregations can harm themselves when they lack true spiritual discernment. This self-harming happens whenever biblical teaching about the realities of spiritual resources in Christ and spiritual obstacles outside of Christ are either absent or remain intellectual abstractions instead of personal wisdom.

Any serious attempt to approach developing church health as a living system in Christ by the Holy Spirit begins with the study of the biblical nature and mission of church (Ecclesiology). Applying the New Testament teaching about being and doing church as the apostles did for the unhealthy problems in those various congregations then is what developing healthy churches is about today.

We see examples of this in the those church leaders who came after the apostles whom we call the early church fathers They reminded churches of biblical teaching in addressing these issues in their day.

Their writings illustrate and expand upon biblical principles of church health. First, churches can become unhealthy after regaining their health if they stray from living by the biblical principles that support and define the body of Christ. Second, church health involves an ongoing battle to mature. Third, the unity of the Spirit is broken when unloving attitudes and actions destroy the bond of peace. Fourth, previously healthy churches that have become unhealthy can regain health by means of God's Spirit working through the Word of God.

Although the apostle Paul did not know systems theory, the image of the church as "the body of Christ" forms the foundation model for a systemic approach to church health. As a spiritual system made up of Christ's disciples, the church consists of several interrelated subsystems (See I Cor. 12-14 and Ephesians).

For the purposes of the Body Anatomy Church Health Development site, they may be thought of as analogous to the four researcher-designed anatomical dimensions of the human body. Starting with the outer dimension and working toward the inner dimensions of a congregational body of Christian disciples. My research identified five subsystems composing the spiritual anatomy of a church

III.  A Spiritual Anatomy of the Body of Christ.

 A. The Head.

The head provides the body three important functions. 1. Identity. 2. Life. 3. Direction. Sometimes, we forget our vertical relationship with God in our pragmatic haste for an active body that is doing good works in the world. 

 B. The Musculoskeletal System of Muscle and Bones.

The musculoskeletal system (muscles, bones, and joints), and internal organ system represents relationships of holy Christian love between members of the body of Christ.

C. The Nervous System

The nervous system connects the skin, muscles, bones, and internal organs of the human body in terms of action, direction, and coordination. Likewise, within a church system there is a very small but important part of the congregation's inner life. It involves wholesome relationships between the pastor and the leaders which each fulfilling their biblical roles. The NT teaching about church offers guidance to the relationships between those involved in congregational leadership.

D. The Circulatory System.

The circulatory system energizes and defends the various subsystems of the human body. The red blood cells carry oxygen and nutrients. The white blood cells to fight disease or infection. Apart from the circulatory system, the human body cannot live. The skin, bones, muscles, internal organs and the nervous system all depend upon the blood cells of the circulatory system. In the same way, the soundness of individual Christians is crucial to the sound health of the whole church body. Church health not only involves the corporate life of the church but also the individual members of the body of Christ. As it concerns overall church health, biblical teaching concerning the church touches the spiritual, moral, relational, behavioral, emotional, and physical fitness of each Christian.

E. The Skin.

While developing the health of the church body is a goal, it is not an end in and for itself. The last spiritual subsystem of a church is the skin. The skin is the largest and the most visible subsystem of the human body. It covers the connection of our hands, arms, feet, legs to our torso, and to our head.

The importance of healthy skin for the body of Christ reminds us that through the church, Jesus Christ continues his ministry in the world today.

Doctrinally speaking, this focus on the skin points to the Church as a continuation of Jesus' incarnation in the world or continuing ministry in the world through the Church as God’s Healing Community mending broken lives.

The spiritual empowering of a church's health leads to healthy ministries or healthy skin for a hurting world as we are sent forth to witness and serve.

IV. The Handmaid of Ecclesiolgy-Family Systems Theory.

Biblical literature provides a primary organic lens for viewing the health of the body of Christ. Systems theory furnishes another organic lens for conceptualizing the dynamics of congregational health.

One major process governing the elements of the systems theory involves each part functioning according to its position in the whole system. Each dimension is systemically linked. Thus, any change, positive or negative, in one will influence the overall health of the church system. For example, if a pastor fails to declare sound ecclesiology or if an individual church member refuses it to some degree, the body of Christ will lack soundness to that degree. This lack of soundness will show itself either in unloving relationships, lack of harmonious teamwork, underdeveloped ministries, or deficient individual wholeness. Such hindrances to the wholeness of the body of Christ and the healthy fulfillment of its mission require a healing process that seeks to treat the system as a whole.

Sometimes our study of the New Testament leads to only see the church described as the body of Christ. Thus, we often miss how the writers of the New Testament used this biblical image in two ways. They used it prescriptively to improve a congregation's health as well as descriptively to define Christ's church.


The content of this article comes from my dissertation: “PREACHING FOR A WHOLE PERSON RESPONSE IN DEVELOPING A HEALTHY CHURCH.” Diss. Asbury Theological Seminary, 2001. The contents are protected