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A GPC Vision Sermon from 1Corinthians 12:7-21
In the Bible there are many models and images used to describe the church: a flock, a body, a house, a temple, a family, a kingdom, an army, etc. But this morning I would like to focus on two models in particular: the church as a flock and the church as a body, as a way of getting at a certain balance the Lord desires in His church.
The Flock Model
The NT often uses the flock as an image of the church. In this picture, the people are sheep, the leaders are the shepherds (the word pastor actually means shepherd and is closely related to the word pasture), and Christ is the chief shepherd.
1Peter 5:1-5 is one of the passages which uses this image: “So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 2 shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; 3 not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. 4 And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. 5 Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’”
Another passage where the flock image can be found is Acts 20:28-29 “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock.”
There are important lessons the Lord wants us to learn from the flock image: 1- Christ’s people have a tendency to wander away. Therefore, they need oversight. 2- This oversight is the responsibility of the church leaders, as seen in 1Pet.5 and Acts 20 above, as well as Hebrews 13:17 “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” 3- These shepherds, of course, are to be working for Jesus Christ, the Chief Shepherd.
However, no analogy is perfect, and there are pitfalls to this flock model. First of all, the sheep don’t appear especially needed (which is a contradiction of 1Cor.12:21 which forbids one member from saying to another, “I don't need you!”). Secondly, the people of God don’t seem to have much in terms of a goal in this model. What do sheep live for? To be eaten? To be sacrificed? To bear more sheep? To be sold? To be sheared for wool? To be milked? None of these are very pleasant or glorious to the sheep. The only real benefit is to make the chief Shepherd richer. Thirdly, this model falsely suggests that the gap between the people and the leaders is significantly larger than the gap between the leaders and Christ. This model also suggests the church members are dumb: they don’t have much wisdom to offer, that they are the receivers while the shepherds are the givers, and that there is a large gap between under-shepherds and the sheep in terms of competence and intelligence. This might enable the shepherds to have an arrogant attitude toward the sheep necessitating warnings like in 1Peter 1:5 “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’”
The Body Model
The NT also uses the human body as a model of the church. In this model each member of the church is a member of the body, and Christ is the head of the body.
There are also important lessons to learn from this model. It teaches us that there is a very large gap between the members of the body and the head. It teaches us that the head is in charge and operates the body, not the leaders. (The leaders of a church cannot run the church. If they do, the church will fail. Only Christ can ultimately run a church.) It also teaches us that every member of the church is needed. Everybody is supposed to be doing something. As they say: “All hands on deck!” No one can say, “I’m not needed.” No one can say, “We don’t need you.” Every part helps the other parts. Each part is designed in special ways to benefit the whole. It teaches us that the diversity of the church is a part of its glory, like a symphony combines many different instruments into one glorious sound.
However, there are pitfalls with the body image as well. There is no mention of the leaders’ role. It gives the impression that apart from Christ, there is no authority in the church. It also doesn’t give us an answer to the question of who is supposed to do the hard jobs no one wants to do.
Comparison of the Flock and Body Images
These two images have both overlap and distinctions. Some of the distinctions put them in a kind of tension with one another. I would argue that it is important for any healthy church to follow both models and not cling to one to the neglect of the other. Similarly, I would argue that the best understanding of how the church should function is derived from thinking about the church with both models rather than with just one.
Some people like flock-oriented churches and others prefer churches which are more body-oriented. Active leaders often prefer the flock model because it defines their role more clearly. It is much harder to figure out how to run a body than a flock. Active members often prefer the body model because it better recognizes and defines their role and secures their importance. But both models must be used to protect against the pitfalls of the other.
One of the models emphasizes offices (the flock model) and the other emphasizes gifts (the body model). The fact is that both are important.
Offices are important because in human affairs leaders are needed, oversight is needed, authority is needed. Human society can’t work by merely respecting people because they are so worthy of respect. People must also respect those who hold office. For example, parenthood is an office, not a gift. We are to honor father and mother irrespective of how deserving they are. We don’t look for the most loving, nurturing people around us and call them Mom and Dad. Mothers and fathers might be naturally good at their calling or they may have to learn to get good at their job. But either way, their parenthood is not dependent on their giftedness. Mothers and fathers have a role to fulfill toward their children, whether or not they feel gifted to do so. In the same way, being a spouse is more like an office than a gift. Husbands and wives are to love and respect one another whether or not the other is loveable or respectable. As you can see, everything can’t be done according to gifts. There are roles to fill and responsibilities to meet, whether or not anyone feels gifted to fulfill them.
Gifts are important because God works in and through ALL His people, not just the leaders. Gifts are important because God has given every believer a spiritual gift to be used to build up the church (1Cor.12:7). There is something more that God has gifted each person to do than to fill a seat on Sunday morning. The Holy Spirit is the One enabling and directing the functioning of the church, and He does so in such a way that ultimately the church is not two-level but symphonic. Gifts are important because the body grows “when each part is working properly” (Eph.4:16). That means that if you are not using your gifts in order to build up the body, the body is not being built up as it should.
1Peter 5:4-5 says “You who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’” The “all of you” is key here. It’s not just those who have to submit to the elders who must be humble. It is the elders themselves.
I believe that there was a time in our church’s past when the elders (myself included) undervalued the importance of the gifts of the people in the congregation and overvalued the role of the officers. To the extent this is true, it needs to be repudiated. And on behalf of all the elders, let me say strongly and clearly, “We need you.” We need every one of you. We need your input. We need your feedback. We need your help. We need your gifts and talents. We need your ideas. We need your efforts. We need your initiatives. We need your ministry. We also need your prayers and your encouragement and your patience. Please, please, please don’t think that “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” or “Because I am not an elder, I am not needed in this body,” or “Because I am not an intellectual or a theologian or a presbyterian, I am not needed in this body.”
Let us strive to uphold both the gifts of the body and the offices of the church. Let us view the church as both a flock and a body, and appreciate the benefits and safeguards of each model.