The Ideal Church
A Sermon on Ephesians 4:12-16 by Coty Pinckney, Community Bible Church, Williamstown, MA, 10/5/97
What characteristics come to your mind when you think of the ideal church?
In Ephesians 4:12-16, Paul gives his picture of the ideal church. Notice that he doesn't say anything about:
What is Paul's picture of the ideal church? We might summarize it like this: In the ideal church those with leadership gifts are equipping everyone, so that as each person does his part the whole body grows up in love into Christ, avoiding false teaching.
That is the ideal church: Equipping, growing, exercising. We will elaborate on that picture later this morning. But first, let us remind ourselves of where we are in our journey through Ephesians, since we've been away from this series for a few weeks.
In the first three chapters, Paul tells of the glorious truths which hold for all Christians:
In chapter 4, Paul asks: If all this is so, how should we then live? He answers this first of all for our life in the church, in the passage we are discussing today. Then from the middle of chapter 4 to the middle of chapter 5, he discusses how we should live out these truths in our interpersonal relationships. Toward the end of chapter 5, he emphasizes the need for the Spirit's filling to live this out fully, and then discusses how being filled with the Spirit changes us in our most intimate relationships: in our homes and in the workplace. Finally, he warns of the battles that await us as we try to live out the Christian life, emphasizing that though it may appear that other people are our enemies, our real adversary is Satan, and we will only defeat him by using God's armor.
Now, back to chapter 4. In earlier sermons we have discussed Paul's prescriptions for our proper attitudes towards each other, and our essential unity. But there are different types of unity. A brick wall is a unity of sameness: every brick is very similar to every other brick. But the unity of the church is more like the unity of a well-running car. A car consists of many different parts that are completely different from each other. But when it functions well, this car performs its task beautifully, with each part doing exactly what it was made to do. There is a unity in the midst of diversity.
Beginning in verse 11, Paul focuses on the leadership gifts. So this morning, I want us to consider the purpose, method, and impact of these leadership gifts. Consider these as I read the passage, beginning with verse 1 of Ephesians 4:
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I entreat you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, showing forbearance to one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit-- just as you were called to one hope when you were called-- 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
7 But to each one of us grace has been given according to the measure of Christ's gift. 8 Therefore it says: "When he ascended on high, he led captive a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men." 9 (What does "he ascended" mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? 10 He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) 11 It was he himself who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints unto the work of the ministry, unto the building up of the body of Christ 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become a mature man, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. 14 As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; 15 but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head, even Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by that which every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.
The Purpose of the Leadership Gifts
In verse 11, Paul says Christ himself gave leadership gifts to the church: apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor/teachers. Now, we usually call these "spiritual gifts," and they are indeed spiritual: God gives them through the power of the Holy Spirit working in us. They are spiritual in origin. But we could as well term them "ministry gifts," because the gifts are ministerial in purpose.
We sometimes call full-time workers in the church "Ministers." Now this passage discusses the "work of the ministry." But does the passage say that the leaders are to do the work of the ministry? That is the way many churches work, but that is not the prescription Paul gives here. Instead, Paul says the ministry of the leaders is to equip "the saints."
Now, who are "the saints?" Do the leaders need to wait for the saints to come marching in before they begin their equipping? No -- recall that Paul addresses this letter to "the saints in Ephesus;" we pointed out in our first sermon in this series that the word "saints" includes all of us, as it literally means all who are called to be set apart, all who are called to be holy and blameless in God's sight. So everyone here this morning who trusts in the shed blood of Jesus for salvation is a saint. And, if you are a saint, Ephesians 4:12 says you are to do the work of the ministry.
The leadership gifts are given, then, to "equip the saints" for this work. What does equip mean? The Greek word translated "equip" can mean to make one what one ought to be, to shape up, to complete, or to perfect. So the leadership gifts are given to the church in order to make each saint what he or she is intended to be. The leaders are to shape up the rest of the body, so that all members of the body are then able to exercise their particular gifts.
The Method of the Leadership Gifts
How does this equipping take place? How can the leadership gifts lead to the equipping of the saints? To answer this question, we have to skip forward a bit, but we'll come back to those verses we skip. Consider verse 15:
but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head, even Christ,
Paul tells us we are to speak the truth in love, and this will lead to growth.
If you look at the original language, you will see that the word for "speaking" is not there. Instead, Paul takes the word "truth" and makes it into a verb. So literally, the verse reads, "But truthing in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him . . ."
Now, certainly the leaders are to speak the truth in love; we are to teach, to exhort, to preach the Word faithfully and fully. Speaking the truth is one important part of the method of equipping the saints. And how true this is today when so many supposed ministers of the gospel have abandoned true biblical teaching, and instead fill Sunday mornings with moral stories which are the modern equivalent of Aesop's fables. Consistent, expository preaching of the word builds up the body of Christ, so that all who hear may learn these truths and put them into practice.
But I suggest that "truthing in love" means more than "speaking the truth in love." Another way to translate the idea behind this phrase might be "displaying the truth in love." The leaders are not only to speak the truth with their mouths, but also to live out the truth in their lives.
Paul himself is a wonderful example of this. Listen to him as he, knowing he is about to die, reminds young Timothy of the ways he has displayed the truth in love. Paul contrasts himself with the false teachers he has just described:
But you know all about my teaching --(you see, he did speak the truth, but note what else he says) -- my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings. (2 Timothy 3:10)
Paul's way of life, his patience, his endurance -- all of these display the truth to Timothy and the wider world. Paul taught the word verbally and also lived out that word in all situations, thereby teaching the truth to Timothy and to everyone else he encountered.
So leaders equip the body for works of service primarily through teaching the word and by living out the truths of the word in their lives. This fact -- that the teaching and living out of the word is what equips, builds up, and completes us -- is laid out clearly in numerous other Scriptures. Consider these:
And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, (Acts 20:32)
We proclaim Christ, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, that we may present every man complete in Christ (Colossians 1:28)
Though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk, not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food is for the mature who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil. (Hebrews 5:12-14)
God's word of grace builds us up, the proclamation of Christ completes every man in Christ, the solid food of excellent teaching leads to the discerning of good and evil. Teaching and preaching the word build up the body.
But this idea is laid out most clearly in the verses in 2 Timothy that follow Paul's citing his own example, which we read above.
All Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, adequately equipped for every good work. I solemnly charge you . . .preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with great patience and careful instruction. (2 Timothy 3:16-17, 4:2)
Do you see what Paul is saying? The pastor/teachers of the church are to focus on displaying the truth through their words and actions, patiently and carefully expounding the truths of God's word, whether it is popular or not, so that the body of Christ might be equipped, complete, built up, and able to discern good and evil. That is the method for the use of the leadership gifts.
Now, if this is the primary purpose of the pastor/teachers of the church, we need to ensure that they have the time and energy to play this role. We need to give our pastor/teachers the opportunity to study God's word, to prepare to speak and teach. We need to give them -- and ensure that they take -- sufficient time with their families so they might model these truths in their homes. We might need to separate the administrative responsibilities of the church from the teaching and doctrinal responsibilities. Many pastors today are overwhelmed with administrative burdens, counseling needs, home visits, political meetings, and so many other activities. Each of these may be good, but they can combine to crowd out time for study and preparation for teaching; they can crowd out family life and time spent discipling future leaders. We must not divert our leaders from their primary responsibility; instead, let them focus on teaching the word and setting an example for the flock, for this is the way God equips the saints for the work of the ministry.
So we've looked at the purpose and the method of the leadership gifts; let's turn now to the impact of those gifts.
The Impact of the Leadership Gifts
The proper exercising of the leadership gifts both protects the church and builds up the church. Let us first examine the protection. Consider verse 14:
As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming;
Paul says that as a result of the proper working of these gifts we are "no longer to be children." But wait a minute; doesn't Jesus tell us to be like children? Yes, indeed, for Jesus says unless we "become like children, we will not enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 18:3) So are we to be like children, or unlike children?
As in so many cases, the meaning of each part of this apparent contradiction becomes clear when we consider the context. Jesus says we must have the faith of a little child, a simple faith, a genuine belief in Him. Little children can be completely trusting, and we are to trust Jesus with a similar faith. Also, we must have the humility of a little child, knowing that we are weak but our Father is strong. These are desirable qualities for Christians; we should imitate little children in these ways.
But anyone who has been around children knows that they undesirable qualities in addition to these desirable qualities. And with six children of my own, I've had a lot of exposure to both! Here are some of the undesirable attributes of children:
(1) Children tend to follow the crowd.
With so many children in our household, the dinner table can be chaotic. So we have a rule: If Mommy or Daddy raises a hand, every child must raise a hand. And when the hand goes up, the mouth shuts. You might think this would be hard to teach a two-year old, but when Joel sees all his brothers and his sister raising their right arms, he always wants to raise his right arm too. In fact, he usually raises both arms!
Joel's following his brothers and sisters is positive. But children tend to follow their peers in negative ways, too. And we as Christians can do the same, chasing fads, following the latest "new" teaching. Paul calls this being "carried about by every wind of doctrine," every new teaching that comes along. But the truth of God's word doesn't go through model years. When the leadership exercises their gifts properly, the church is protected from the fads of teaching that tend to sweep over the country.
(2) Children are easily diverted and distracted
Like following the crowd, this is not always a negative characteristic of children. Our children have all been great travelers, but those car seats can get hard and hot after many hours of travel. So we've occasionally had a screaming child in the back. But on such occasions, we start looking for a particular type of large red vehicle. If we can then call out, "Look, a fire truck!" the child will almost always snap out of his tantrum. Airplanes work almost (but not quite) as well. Young children are easily distracted.
But in the Christian life, if we are not built up we too are easily distracted from the truths of God's word and our specific calling. Paul says the equipping of the leaders keeps us from being "tossed here and there by waves," keeps us from being distracted, keeps us from losing our focus. Our leaders teach us these truths again and again, reminding us of what we already know, and then live out these truths in their lives so that we might not lose focus.
(3) Children are easily deceived
Unfortunately, we have to warn children that not everyone who looks kind and nice is so. Children are naive -- and are in great danger because of that naivete. Paul is very explicit about the dangers here, saying the leaders must equip the saints so that they are not taken in "by the trickery of men, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming." Satan is subtle, appearing even as an angel of light, and he tries his best to deceive us. If he can't get us to reject the Bible outright, he will try to twist our doctrine in subtle ways, or to change our emphasis. We only avoid these problems if we have leaders who teach the whole counsel of God, who know the Word, teach it faithfully, and live it out in their lives.
So we are to have the simple faith of a young child, but we are not to follow the crowd, we are not to be distracted, and we are not to be gullible. The proper use of the leadership gifts protects the church from these childish errors. But the leadership gifts also serve in a positive way to cause us to move up from childishness to full maturity; the leadership gifts build up the church, as discussed in verses 13, 15, and 16:
13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become a mature man, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. . . . 15 but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head, even Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by that which every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.
We might summarize these verses by saying that the work of the pastor/teachers results in a growth in Christlikeness in the body. Note the images: We the body are to become one mature man; we are to reach the height, stature, or measure of the fullness of Christ, becoming more and more like him; we are to grow up into him. To use a different image, we are all to display the fruit of the Spirit so fully displayed by Christ: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
Now, this isn't a promise that the church will be perfect after a few months or years or decades of service by leaders who teach and live out the Word. There will be immaturity in the church until Jesus completes his work and establishes a new heavens and a new earth. But we should be able to look back and see that the prerequisites for growth are present, and hopefully to see growth itself.
Note also that all parts of the body are working in harmony under the headship of Christ. When the leadership equips the saints and all saints are exercising their ministry gifts, we don't have fingers twitching on their own, apart from instructions from the head; we don't have parts of the body failing to function at all, like a diseased organ; we don't have one foot going one way and the other foot trying to go the other way. Rather, with "the proper working of each individual part," the body grows and builds itself up in love. Note that at this stage, after the leaders have done their job, each part of the body builds up every other part of the body! When each part does its work, the whole body grows up in love. And, as all parts work together, this unity in diversity moves in the direction that its head, Christ, leads.
So this is the picture of the ideal church. Wouldn't you like to be part of the ideal church?
But a church in which the leaders are equipping the saints through teaching the word of God verbally and by example, where each person is thus being built up, where false teaching is unknown, where each person is then contributing to the building up of every other through playing his part in the body.
Wouldn't it be exciting to be a part of such a church?
Well, guess what? You are in such a church! You are in the body of Christ, the church, if you are a Christian:
You are the body of Christ, and individually members of it. (1 Corinthians 12:27)
There is only one body of Christ, and everyone saved by the blood of Jesus is a part of it.
Since all of you who know Jesus as Lord are a part of this ideal church, I want to close by raising two issues with you:
Are you feeding on the word, letting it infuse you, meditating on it day and night? Is your delight in the law of the Lord (Psalm 1:2)? Are you keeping these words on your heart (Deuteronomy 6:6)? Are you letting the word of Christ dwell in you richly (Colossians 3:16)? Are you taking advantage of the teaching you receive here, taking notes, asking questions about things you don't understand, figuring out how to apply this Word to your life? Are you watching the lives and learning from the examples of the leaders God has given to you?
Second, are you building others up through playing your unique role in the body? You can't do this effectively unless you answered YES to the first set of questions. You are not equipped for ministry unless you are feeding on the word, and are doing your best to learn from the leaders given to you. But if you are, know that you are uniquely gifted, uniquely qualified to help the body of Christ grow until all are perfected and summed up in Christ
God's unfailing promise is that He will bring his church to perfection in Christ, as he sums up all creation in Him. And YOU, my brother, and YOU, my sister, have a part to play in that glorious process.
So devote yourself to His word; soak up the teaching you receive; step out in faith by the power of God to exercise your gift.
This sermon was preached at Community Bible Church in Williamstown, MA on 10/5/97.
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