Everything about the church points to participation—from the biblical metaphor of the church as the body of Christ to the way in which Christians remember the sacrificed body of Christ every Sunday. Unfortunately, participation is not always the norm for Christians when it comes to making progress in the work with which God has tasked the church. The language Paul uses in Ephesians 4:15–16, however, clearly indicates that God’s intention, regardless of the way churches typically function, is for every member of the body to participate diligently in the work of the body.
In the context of Ephesians 4:11–16, Paul defines progress as the growth of the body, but the growth of the body is contingent upon the growth of its members. To that end, Paul says that Christians who are “speaking the truth in love” will “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (ESV). To whom is Paul referring? Who is it that Paul has in mind as he urges growth in the body? “We are to grow up,” Paul says, “in every way” (ESV). There is an emphasis on “we” and, consequently, a significant principle that flows from Paul’s statement. “We” means everyone—as in, not a single Christian is exempt from the need to grow up. To suggest otherwise is to assume that there is a single member of the body that fully resembles Christ in every way, everyday. Nothing about the way Paul urges growth implies that the process of growing will be completed in this life. Therefore, to refuse to participate in the work the church does is to trade constant growth in Christ for self-satisfied complacency.
Paul continues to use the image of the body to illustrate Christ’s vision for His church. Whenever we see a body with parts that are not working properly, we correctly conclude that there is a problem. Whether the solution is medicine, rehabilitation, or even amputation, the fact remains that a healthy body is one in which every part is working, working properly, and doing so by following the direction of the head. This is exactly Paul’s point, that “the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (ESV). The body is supplied with body members to help the whole body be what Christ wants it to be.
Paul’s teaching about the process of growth in the body of Christ is at the heart of biblical progress, and his teaching unavoidably points to participation. All Christians are connected to Christ and to each other. The whole body thus includes every member of it. This means that every member is responsible for helping the body grow, not just church leaders. And since church leaders are specifically given to the body to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (ESV), it only makes sense that Christ expects every member to work. It is imperative that every member work properly in order to build up the body.
Perhaps it is because participation of this sort is not the norm for churches that so many are dying. If churches are to avoid the death of the body, then leadership must not only make decisions; leadership must cultivate a culture of participation in the Lord’s work. And if churches are to avoid the death of the body, then Christians must not only assemble; they must be willing to participate in all the work with which Christ has tasked His body to accomplish. Only then can churches truly make progress.