Are We Really on God’s Team?

 In Blog

by Certified Church Consultant Dr. David W. Smith, D.Min.

Imagery plays a vital role in how we convey truth. We might illustrate truth using an actual picture or paint a vivid word picture as we speak or write. No matter the venue, when we convey truth, pictures delve deep into our psyche only to leave an almost indelible imprint.

I’ve noticed a shift over the last several years toward a particular portrayal of the church. The picture of a team arises again and again. As I peruse my own library, more recent works tend to speak about the church as a team and church leadership as team builders or coaches. I’m left asking, “Is this the best metaphor to use as we assist churches in their journey toward biblical health?”

It’s true, Scripture does use athletic metaphors (e.g., Heb 12:1, Phil 2:16, Gal 2:2 and 5:7, and 2 Tim 4:7). However, when it uses a sports motif, Scripture is addressing the individual believer’s sanctification, not referring to the church as a collective of believers. While the New Testament uses a handful of metaphors to refer to the church, we find two premier metaphors rise to the top in frequency and import: family and body.

The Church as the Family of God

The metaphor of family is replete throughout the New Testament. Paul specifically tells the church at Ephesus that they are “members of the household (aka family) of God” in Ephesians 2:19. That single verse notwithstanding, the New Testament uses the collective familial term brother(s) more than 100 times. A clear reading of the New Testament shows that the early church considered themselves and referred to themselves in familial terms.

Why’s the use of family so important in the way we consult churches? Family is a term that speaks of intimacy and acceptance. As flawed as our human families are, families should depend on each other for their health and well-being. A healthy church, as the family of God, should develop intimate relationships with each other and accept one another no matter the individual’s circumstances. Teams don’t function that way. While teams may grow close during a season, it’s generally short-lived and relatively superficial. Teammates have your back while you’re on the team but do something to betray that team and it’s a different story. Family is family no matter what. The family motif carries bonds that far out shadow what a team can provide.

The Church as the Body of Christ

No single metaphor for the church outshines the rest better than that of body. Paul eloquently uses the body metaphor in Ephesians 4:4, 12, Romans 12:5-6, and 1 Corinthians 12 to demonstrate the church’s unity, interdependence, functionality, diversity, and strength of fragility. Simply put, the church is a unity of interdependent diversity. Like our physical bodies, the church is a functional whole that can only be healthy if each independent part is not only present but healthy. Furthermore, the church is vitally interdependent. No single part can displace any other part. The diversity of the body is vital to the functional health of the body. In that way, her interdependence is key to the church’s success in her missional endeavors.

Perhaps the most poignant truth illustrated by the body motif is the strength of our fragility. 1 Corinthians 12 declares that every single part of the body is equally beneficial to and needed within the whole body. It doesn’t matter whether a body member is fully abled or lives with disability, both are equally vital and necessary to the health of the whole.

The team motif falls short in illustrating body truths. On a team, the most skilled become stars while the lesser ride the bench or get cut from the team. The team motif may lend itself toward unity and functional necessity, but not for those who display significant fragility. Team members who can’t run quickly, hit or field well, or out play their opponents never really shine. Not so in the body of Christ. In fact, the opposite is true (1 Cor 12:22-26) – the church’s most fragile parts become its most glorious.

There’s nothing wrong with a team motif, but Scripture is clear that the church isn’t a team. There are better ways to illustrate a healthy church and a successful team isn’t one of them. Let’s return to helping church leaders grasp the import of being God’s family and the body of Christ.

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