There is much discussion today regarding what the church is “to be.” What does a biblical church look like? How does a biblical church operate? We have been asking such poignant questions since the book of Acts. However, among the many answers that are varied and unbiblical, God has not left His church to grope about in the darkness and wonder what they are to be and do. He has provided clear and poignant answers in His Word.
One such place that defines the church and her task is the words of the apostle Paul in Ephesians 4. From this revealing text, we learn that God is not satisfied that people simply attend a local church. He’s not satisfied that they are respectable, moral, or decent people. He demands that believers be full-grown spiritual adults, strong, Christlike, mature and that they be unified, peaceful, loving, and built up into the body of Christ. Nothing short of that. We are to be just as perfect as Christ. That’s is God’s desire, and that should always be our goal as His people.
It is only when we are what God desires us to be––mature, Christlike, unified––that we have our greatest impact upon a watching world. Lest we think the church is to beat unbelievers over the head with a Bible, Paul identifies love as being a defining characteristic within mature believers. In Ephesians 4:15, Paul writes that we are to speak “the truth in love.” In other words, one of the preeminent purposes of Christian maturity is so that we may be equipped to speak the truth in love.
It doesn’t come as a shock to anyone who frequents certain social media platforms or those involved in wider Christian circles that there are many who do not speak the truth in love. They brow-beat, slander, ridicule, mock, and treat the truth as nothing more than a club to bash their opponents. Such an attitude automatically marks a professing Christian, if they are a Christian at all, as an extremely immature one. Paul is clear that it will be those who speak the truth in love will be those who are characterized as mature in the faith.
I am reminded of the zealousness of the apostle Peter during the ministry of Christ. Again, and again, Peter had to be rebuked because he took the truth in his own hands and often dispensed it in an unloving manner. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter was so zealous for the truth that he took up the sword and aimed for the head of Malchus, cutting off his ear instead (John 18:10). It would be years later, after much maturing in the faith that same sword-wielding Peter could write, “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8).
Those who are mature in the faith, unified with the body, and speak the truth in love will inevitably communicate the gospel in a more effective way. Immature, fractured, fighting Christians have no platform for proper evangelism and truth spreading. Believers not only speak the truth in love, but they also demonstrate sensitivity and a loving attitude toward everyone. Something lost in our day is a common decency toward how we treat others, even those who are not fellow believers. Paul is saying that we are not only to speak the truth in love, but we ourselves are to be loving people.
The natural outgrowth of such love expressed in speaking and acting will result in the expansion of the church. Interestingly, when the church is described in Acts 2 as those who met together for prayer, communion, fellowship, and the apostles’ doctrine, it never mentions anything about evangelism. However, we know from reading that “The Lord added to the church daily” (Acts 2:47). Throughout the book of Acts, we read of the tremendous growth of the church as they were equipping the saints and instructing in sound doctrine. The lesson is clear: evangelism is a by-product of Christian maturity. This was God’s pattern when the church was birthed in the first century, and it remains God’s pattern today. There is no short-cut or new methodology that will achieve the same lasting success. Lasting church growth and success comes from following God’s prescribed pattern––maturity, sound doctrine, and love.
In Ephesians 4, Paul points out a logical progression for the church––the gifted men equip the saints, the saints do the work of the ministry, the body is built up, the results of a grown-up body are unity, deep fellowship with Christ, Christlikeness, the knowledge of sound doctrine, and a dynamic, loving, caring evangelism to the world.
Then, so we are never confused as to whether God is growing the church, or we are, Paul reminds us that it is from the Lord Jesus Christ that all of this properly flows. In verse 15, Paul says, “into Christ.” Christ is the head from whom the whole body functions and operates. Paul writes that it is from Christ that the whole body is held together by Christ, the whole body is equipped by Christ, the whole body grows into Christ, so that it may build “itself up in love” (Eph 4:16).
What God requires He also provides. The power for all of this, the source of all of this, is not ours, but Christ’s. All the parts come together because of His power. All the workings of every part are due to His power, the increase of the body is upon Christ. Ephesians 4, up to this point, has been about the body of Christ and our function, work, gifts, and responsibility within the body. After tracing these streams of thought, Paul now goes to the fountainhead from whom it all flows and says, “Christ will be honored as the one who builds His church.” Ask yourself the next time you are speaking the truth, “Am I speaking in a loving manner that honors Christ? Am I communicating the gospel in such a way that this individual genuinely thinks that I love them?” This love, ultimately flowing through us from Christ, will always mature believers and build the church.
Dustin Benge (Ph.D., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY) serves as Executive Director for Reformanda Ministries. He is currently lecturer, senior fellow, and administrative research assistant at The Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies. In addition, he is a visiting lecturer at Munster Bible College in Cork, Ireland and serves as the editor of Expositor Magazine. His books include: A Journey Toward Heaven, Lifting Up Our Hearts, Sweetly Set on God: The Spirituality of David Brainerd, and others. He has also served as a pastor in Kentucky and Alabama. He writes for Reformation21, Christward Collective, Tabletalk, and Expositor Magazine. Dr. Benge is married to Molli and they live in Louisville, Kentucky.