If I had to do it all over again, there would be one thing to change: I would get married barefoot on the sand of the beach. I would wait there for my barefoot wife so that I could hold her hand. And holding hands we would hear the barefoot pastor ask, “Will you take this woman to be your wife? To have and to hold her from this day forward, for better and for worse; for richer and for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish, till death do you part?” And I would answer as I did eighteen years, three weeks, six days, twenty-two hours, thirty minutes ago, but barefoot looking at her. “I will.”
1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Corinthians 12 and 1 Corinthians 13 are part of a letter in the Bible written “to the church of God at Corinth.” This was a local church just as we are a local church. These three chapters act what feels like to be the heart of this letter. And the heart of this letter is about what it means to be a local church for better and for worse.
When You Come Together
And so, we need and want to ask two questions. What does it mean to be a local church? And what do we do when it is for the worse?
The heart begins in 1 Corinthians 11:17. “But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse.” Highlight those words when you come together. In the next few verses, this is something that Paul will continue to draw attention to (v. 17; 18; 20; 33; 34). And there is a reason for it. Believers are to gather together, regularly, with other believers. And when believers gather together it is to hear the Word of God (2 Timothy 4:1-2; Acts 2:42). When believers gather together it is to read the Word of God (1 Timothy 4:13). When believers gather together it is to sing the Word of God (Ephesians 5:18-19). When believers gather together it is to pray (Acts 2:42). When believers gather together it is to fellowship (Acts 2:42; Hebrews 10:25). But what if there is more? What if there is more to the preaching? What if there is more to the reading? What if there is more to the singing? What if there is more to the praying? What if there is more to the fellowship?
In 1 Corinthians 11:17, what does Paul say about the gathering together of this local church? It is not for the better but for the worse. Meaning, our gathering together is to be for the better, getting better and better. But here is a local church whose gathering is for the worse, maybe getting worse. So, how does a church’s gathering get better and better? Or to put it negatively, what does a local church do when its gathering is for the worse, seemingly getting worse?
My first reaction was that when this happens and continues to happen the church should just quit. Stop meeting; if it is truly for the worse, just stop. But there is a problem with that reaction. What could happen? What could happen if a particular church like this one, just quit, no longer gathering together for preaching and reading and singing and prayer and fellowship? What could happen if the members of this church stopped gathering and started gathering in other local churches? Each member would take the worse with them into the next local church. Quitting would fix nothing. And whatever ailed this church would spread to other local churches.
And it is just interesting then that this is not Paul’s instruction to a local church that is getting it wrong. Instead, Paul exhorts these believers to continue gathering together, but get it right. And the place he begins instructing them to get it right and make the gathering for the better so that it keeps getting better is the Lord’s Supper. And it seems from these verses, 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, that how we treat the Lord’s Supper affects all else that we do together. And it is because how we treasure the Lord’s Supper reveals how we treasure one another.
But What If There Is More?
But what if there is more? Paul only begins with the Lord’s Supper. He does not end there. His instructing continues on through 1 Corinthians 12. And although the words do not appear, 1 Corinthians 12 is still about when believers gather together, regularly, with other believers. He does not mention preaching. He does not mention reading. He does not mention singing. He does not mention praying. He does not mention fellowship, even though these are all things that are to be happening when a local church gathers. There is something more to all of these things. And what it is, is not separate from those things, but an integral part of those things.
Listen to 1 Corinthians 12:12. “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” Paul begins with a metaphor of the human body. Notice that it is singular. So, this is one human body. And notice what is true of just one human body. It is composed of many members. And those members include the eyes and the ears and the nose and the hands and the feet and especially, this will be part of Paul’s big point, those parts that are hidden parts like the appendix. It is these hidden parts that are really significant in 1 Corinthians 12. These hidden parts, covered up parts, are parts not given much attention. Their function goes largely unnoticed. But these parts are as important, as significant as the parts that seem we cannot do without. What is something commonly said about the appendix? The body can live without it. The body can function without it. It is a weaker part, but a part perfectly positioned by God. It is there as a protector, to help keep the body healthy.
And so it is with the church. Notice the rest of 1 Corinthians 12:12. “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” The body of Christ is a synonym for the Church. And when it comes to the Church, there is one Church, one body, it is composed of many members, perfectly positioned by God in the body for a particular function. The reason is so that the body functions properly. In the next few verses, this is something that Paul will continue to draw attention to (v. 14; 18; 20; 26; 27).
Now listen to verse thirteen. “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” This is a one time experience. Paul started with the metaphor, the human body. And then he quickly moved to how that metaphor points us to something that is fundamental and real and a spiritual reality. When a person becomes a Christian by the saving grace of God through faith in Christ alone, when we became Christians, we were immediately placed into the body of Christ, the Church. This is what verse thirteen is talking about. We became a member. We did not simply join a club. We were, rather, joined, we were united to Jesus Christ by the mysterious and powerful working of the Holy Spirit. And when we were connected and united to Christ, we were also united to every other Christian united to Christ. So that there is a most profound and fundamental unity, whether you see it, whether you feel it or not, between every single believer and the Savior, the Lord Jesus, and every single believer and every other believer in the Savior. It is as intimate and profound as the union of diverse members in the anatomy of the human body.
We, Though Many, Are One Body
So, what does it mean to be a member? This is just like asking, what does it mean to be a local church? Keep in mind who it is that Paul is writing 1 Corinthians 12 to. He is writing to the church of God in Corinth, a local church. So, how is 1 Corinthians 12 best expressed? How is it to be seen and felt and experienced? It is to be seen and felt and experienced in a local church by being a member of a local church. It does not mean that we then are disconnected or separated from other local churches. It does mean, though, that as Christians God perfectly positions us in local churches to be the church and to see and experience and feel what it means to be a member.
So, I need to ask and know what it means to be a member. And the answer is that it is glorious. To be a member of a local church is glorious and good. And I think the biblical understanding of this is what makes the regular gathering of believers better and what helps it to keep getting better.
Listen to 1 Corinthians 12:7. It is really important to 1 Corinthians 12:12-27. “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” To each is referring to us, it is referring to believers. Given is referring to gifts, spiritual gifts like discernment and wisdom and encouragement and giving and serving and teaching and exhortation and leadership and zeal and mercy and… The Spirit is referring to God. The same God who hovered over the waters in Genesis 1 and joined in the creation of the universe. Manifestation simply means to show. So gifts are given to each believer to show God. Common good is good that comes to people. Common good is the good that happens in our churches. We see God in the display of these gifts. We see God at work. We see him actively working and in charge. And how does it happen? It happens through people that God has perfectly positioned in each local church!
Some people are eyes and you can only have two eyes. Some people are ears and you can only have two ears. Some people are hands and feet and you can only have two hands and two feet. But who wants to be a foot? Some are the nose and you can only have one nose. And no one can say that since they are not the nose or the foot or the teaching pastor or an elder or a deacon or the worship director, these are very visible parts, that they are not needed. And no one can say since you are not the nose or the foot or the teaching pastor or an elder or a deacon or the worship director, these are very visible parts, that you are not needed (12:14-21). No! What about the plica semilunaris, the third eyelid? It helps with tears. We do not see it help with tears, but it does. And so it is in the church, in the local church. There is someone perfectly gifted and perfectly fitted and perfectly positioned by God to help with tears. How? Through comfort and through prayer and through listening and through notes and… Why is that? “But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.” “On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.” “But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another” (12:18; 22; 24-25).
This Is Local Church Membership
We need one another. We need preaching. We need prayer. We need giving (financial, time, attention, etc.). We need greeting. We need acts of grace. We need words of encouragement. We need words of rebuke. We need words of correction. We need insight. We need wisdom. We need discernment. We need big, God glorifying vision. We need big faith. These are gifts given to believers and empowered by the Holy Spirit individually as he wills. And so we need one another.
This is local church membership. It is not merely through weeks, months or years of regular attending. It is, though, by a prayerful and public expression and confirmation of God’s people that this is where God has set me down to serve Him and to serve others. It is by making that public promise, public vow, that for better and for worse, this is where I have been placed. Does the Bible teach this? Yes. It teaches it in Matthew 18:15-17 and 1 Corinthians 5:12-13 and Hebrews 13:7-17 and 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 and 1 Timothy 5:17 and Acts 20:28 and 1 Peter 5:2-3. It teaches it here in 1 Corinthians 12. It is a way of knowing commitment. It is a way of knowing who the pastor and elders care for. It is a way of defining who really belongs.
And so, I ask that we pray and think through these things and be in wonder at what it means to be a local church.