The New Testament Is Plural (Us) Not Singular (Me)
by Jon Zens
As folks listen to local and media Bible teachers, most miss the fact that Christ’s body is missing from their use of the New Testament. More often than not the approach taken is individualistic – “how can Christ help me live the Christian life?” However, the NT was not written to individuals but to groups of believing people in various cities and regions. This does not come across in English translations for the most part because the word “you” in the Greek can be singular or plural. For example, the “you” in “Christ in you, the hope of glory,” is plural, and has in view the Body of Christ.
Think about it. The NT letters were sent to ekklesias (assemblies) – “when you come together as an ekklesia.” Even the letter sent to an individual – Philemon – still has a corporate (body) dimension to it – “to Apphia our sister, and to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the ekklesia in your house.”
This is the crucial missing element in the bulk of today’s Bible teaching. The Lord intended the life of Christ to be lived out among the disciples in community, not in isolation. Consider how upside-down we are in our practice. The NT has at least 58 “one-another’s” that are meaningless without the reality of close, deep local relationships. The call to be longsuffering and forbearing with others implies day-to-day involvement that simply cannot take place by seeing people a few hours a week at controlled religious meetings.
But where do we put the emphasis in what people call “church”? It pretty much revolves around “the pastor.” He is the one with the ordination, the school training, the vision, and the sermons. Without a “pastor” people would generally conclude that you don’t have a church yet. No church is seen as complete unless it has a “pastor.” If a “pastor” leaves a church, then you have to quick find another one.
What have we done? We have elevated that for which there is not a shred of evidence in the NT – that there must be a “pastor” to lead the church – and by doing this most church structures then suppress the life of Jesus coming to expression through the 58 “one-another’s” that are clearly in the NT.
Since the “one-another” perspectives are pushed into the background, the “pastor” must then spend a lot of his time helping the flock live the Christian life as individuals.
In the NT we see the life of Christ in each believer come to expression as they gather in an open meeting and edify each other (1 Cor.14:26). The NT knows nothing of “worship services.” In the gatherings of the early church there was no one, or no group, “up-front” leading the time together. It was a body meeting led by the Holy Spirit to be an expression of Jesus Christ.
But what have we done? We bring individuals together who haven’t seen each other since last Sunday to sing a few songs, put some money in a plate, listen to a pastoral prayer, hear a sermon, and go home to their roast in the oven and afternoon football. “Church services” climax with the sermon and perhaps an altar call. People can go through what is ordained in a church bulletin, and not have an ounce of loving commitment to anyone. Families can be sitting in the pews week after week that are about to explode or end in divorce and their needs fall through the cracks of church machinery. Oversimplification? I think you know in your heart that the essence of what I’m describing is reality for most people in “church.”
The early church came together in a way in which all the parts could be an expression of Christ on earth. For the most part we now come to “church” to see one person function and hear a sermon that is supposed to help us live better lives in a fallen world. Can you see the disconnect? The former is Christ flowing like living water out of his people in a life of interdependence; the latter is institutional and fosters dependence on one part – “the pastor.”
Consider the matter of repentance. Generally this subject is approached individualistically – “What do I need to repent of in my Christian life?” But in Christ’s words to the ekklesias in Revelation 2-3 we see that he called the whole body of believers in a city to repent of various sins. This is we-repentance not me-repentance. When have you ever heard of a body of believers repenting for anything?
This illustrates how we have completely missed the fundamental body dimension of the NT. One of the key reasons why the “us” has been replaced by “me” is because of all the human traditions that have buried the living Christ and exalted “churchy” stuff.
Indeed, the ekklesia consists of unique individuals. But in the Lord’s building of his ekklesia these individuals only find meaningful existence together, not apart. He wills for his vine-life to be fruitful in each and every branch, for the health and growth of the whole plant.
Our life is just a vapor. Are we going to expend our energies oiling religious machines or pursuing life – “Christ in us the hope of glory.”
(For further reflection on this theme and related ones see the author’s A Church Building Every ½ Mile: What Makes American Christianity Tick?)