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January 1976 · Vol. 5 No. 1 · pp. 27–29 

Hearing the Word

The Body and Its Members

John Regehr

It takes an act of will to really listen to Bible passages we have become accustomed to hear in particular ways. It is disconcerting to discover how easily we can “program” their messages instead of coming to them fresh, open, uncluttered, all antennas out.

Listening intently and unconditionally is an art indispensable for us if our Bible reading is to be vital. It is essential for any one who wishes to be a disciple. Only those who hear well can follow well.

This column of Direction will seek to demonstrate such listening. We hope that it will encourage all of us to leave safe and comfortable interpretations and risk new listening to old truth. We would like all our readers to share with us our hunger and thirst for turning ancient truth to current practice.

Of course, this is an art we never finish learning, an act of the will which can never be a once-for-all act. The complacent have ceased to listen.


The Passage: 1 Cor. 12:1-31

Acknowledging the Grid

I have through long usage become accustomed to see this passage strictly within the framework of the local congregation. Even the term “local” has been modified. It has come to mean that body of believers who motor in from a variety of localities and regularly gather in a particular building on Sunday morning. “Local” has reference to eleven o’clock on Sunday. In the city we scarcely know where other members live during the rest of the week. We hardly care.

Thus I have limited the text. I have prescribed the limits within which it can speak. If it should perchance be saying something more than that, I cannot hear it.

Transcending the Grid

1. We hear Jesus’ prayer: “Keep them in thy name which thou hast given me, that they may be one . . .” (John 17:11). That prayer encompasses infinitely more than the twelve disciples. Jesus prays the same prayer for those who will believe in him through their word (v. 20): “. . . that they may all be one” are his words, “so that the world may believe.” And again, “. . . that they may become perfectly one so that the world may know “ (R.S.V.). Nor does it help to argue that Jesus is here thinking of an invisible church, since the New Testament knows of no such thing. (See Direction July, 1975, “The New Testament Church as Ekklesia,” V. George Schillington.) Can it really be that in Jesus’ prayer he is suggesting the world-wide scope of his body? That could be risky! {28}

2. We hear the Spirit of God in the words of Paul: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall . . .” (Eph. 2:13-14). The farther I read in the chapter the more immense the concept of the church becomes, and the more inadequate my grid.

3. Are we now ready to hear whatever the text wants to say? Listen first to the grand finale: “Worthy art thou to take the scroll and to open its seals, for thou wast slain, and by thy blood didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9).

Hearing the Message

1. The first basic principle is not difficult to accept (vv. 1-3), namely, that Jesus is the dividing edge of mankind, and that he is the criterion by which to discern whether or not a particular manifestation is of the Spirit. However, in the actual affirming of fellow Christians, I wonder if that criterion doesn’t feel too broad. Can I speak of an Anglican as my brother? A narrower doorway makes it easier for us to cope with those who enter.

2. The second basic principle is that in the church there is a variety and unity commensurate with that in God himself (vv. 4-6). The Spirit gives a multiplicity of gifts, the Son prompts a variety of service ministries in response to needs, the Father infuses power which bursts forth in myriad working forms.

Certainly this applies to the local congregation. But does the text not shout a wider application? God, the Lord, and the Spirit are not restricted. Nor is their work shut up in small, divorced, isolated and unrelated units. Perhaps we are working against God when we seek smooth sailing in the church by providing for theological, denominational and cultural homogeneity in the local congregation and developmental homogeneity in our teaching programs (specifically the Sunday School age categories).

3. The third basic principle of God’s intention for the church (v.7) is easily understandable for the house church or a relatively small covenant group. Each sees his gift as a way to serve the entire group. With some difficulty we can stretch it to fit a congregation of 600. To see it in relation to our Canadian Mennonite Brethren Conference, however, is already a gymnastic feat; but to pull it beyond that to encompass Christians in various denominations is staggering. Yet how can the Spirit of God think of “church” without thinking world-wide?

4. And then the list of gifts (vv.8-10). It is significant that another list is given later (vv.28-30) with a deliberate ranking. Clearly the lists are not intended to be exhaustive or definitive. This is the more evident in view of the list in Romans 12 which is different still. Stupendous variableness! Perhaps it is not scientifically valid to speak of a molecule as being a minute solar system (or some such thing). But is it appropriate to speak of a local congregation as being a miniature church? Are the needs and the gifts of a functional local body of believers the same as those to be found in the world church? Certainly! People are fundamentally the same everywhere. All are made in the image of God. All are distorted by sin. All are given the one Scripture. All have one God-man as redeemer, Jesus The Christ. {29}

Surely, then, the Spirit of God is thinking big in his words in this text. Is it then legitimate, or even mandatory, to think of denominations as being members of the one great body of Christ? We believe that the Mennonite Brethren serve as a significant member in the Anabaptist anatomy. We have a gift by which the Holy Spirit seeks to meet the needs of the whole. Why not think of the Anabaptist organ as being a part of the entire body, capable of meeting a particular need with its particular gift?

The corollary (namely, that other denominational groups have gifts with which to meet our needs) is somewhat threatening, to be sure. But then, the truth has never backed off when it discovered that its acceptance and implementation would require some uncomfortable change. I cannot imagine Jesus saying that if thinking big is too difficult, we are free to restrict our vision and continue to think small, using differences as a means of excluding those we find distasteful or disturbing.

There’s the Crunch (vv.12-26)

a) The gaps which the gospel bridges are large gaps. Ethnic and national distinctives are not valid distancing elements in the church. Nor are economic differences.

b) No Christian (or group of Christians) can say to another member (or group), “I (we) don’t rate, so we don’t belong together.”

c) Nor can any Christian or group of Christians say, “You don’t rate, so we don’t belong together.”


Our local and denominational grids are too small. Jesus thinks bigger than that. So must we. Certainly our striving for homogeneity in the church has been misguided. The very nature of the church is its diversity and complementariness. Locally, this truth may have something to say about our panic for separating people into small homogenous groups (in Sunday School and in church buildings). Beyond that it certainly speaks to our exclusivistic denominationalism.

The students of the Pastoral Care class of the Mennonite Brethren Bible College, Winnipeg, serve as chaplain trainees in the Winnipeg Health Science Centre. Some of the supervision is done by a hospital chaplain who is Anglican. Halfway through last year’s program he said to a group of our students, “You have taught me something. You have shown me what it means to make one’s Christian faith a vital part of every day. But I think I can teach you something too.”

He is right.

John Regehr is Associate Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Christian Service at the Mennonite Brethren Bible College and College of Arts, Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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