Jesus Christ, Head of the Church and its practical implications

Jesus Christ, Head of the Church
And its practical implications

There is one undeniable and all-important truth—Jesus Christ is Lord over all.  And He alone is the Head and Supreme Commander of His people, His body.

(See Col. 1:17-18a, “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  And he is the head of the body, the church…”)

Who are we, His people?  We are all members of His body, that is, if we have genuinely repented from our sin, have placed our faith solely in the sacrifice of Christ on our behalf, and live out our lives in obedience to Christ.

As members of Christ’s body, our personal and corporate relationship to the Head is our foremost responsibility in life.  He is the Source of life, of wisdom, of strength and power, and of every resource needed in life – for living and for ministering.

This relationship between the members of the body and the Head is also described in the terms of a “Master-servant” relationship.  Jesus Christ is the absolute Head, Ruler, Master, Commander-in-chief, Leader and King.  As members of His body, citizens of His kingdom, servant/slaves in His household, we have no rights.  Our only calling is to serve our Master and do His bidding.

This truth has profound and many implications, touching upon not only our personal lives, but also our corporate or church/fellowship life.

The most important requirement or demand upon us is to understand how Christ, the Head, leads His body, and to fall into line with this.  In other words, as servants of God, our supreme obligation is to do what the Master requires of us – understanding that we shall all give an accounting to God one day of our obedience or disobedience to His commands (for example, see Romans 14:12).

How, then, does Christ exercise His headship over His body?

Firstly, through the instructions and counsel given us in His inspired Word – the Bible, which as Paul says to Timothy: “…is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

This implies for our corporate life as a local assembly of believers that we take with utmost seriousness what Christ has instructed His church to do.  In fact, we are to read such books as Paul’s epistles to Timothy and Titus (commonly called “The Pastoral Epistles”) as if they are addressed to our fellowship today.

Thus Christ, the Head, “heads up” His people by instructing them according to such teaching as He gave through Paul to his servants so many years ago.  We are also under obligation to follow these instructions because it is Christ, the Head, speaking to us and directing us through them.  To disregard them is to reject the Headship of Christ.

We need to guard ourselves from several secularising trends in the world around us.  One is “rationalism”, which says in essence:  “By our own reasoning powers we can work out for ourselves what is best and right for us now.”  Some Christians who fall prey to the error of rationalism fail to realize that unless our minds are being continually transformed by the cleansing work of God’s Spirit, they easily delude and deceive us (see Rom. 12:2; Eph. 4:23-24).  Thus, as Christians, we cannot say automatically that our thoughts, what our minds reason are right, is in accord with the thoughts and mind of Christ.  (Compare Paul’s bold assertion in I Cor. 2:16b, “But we have the mind of Christ.”)

Another common unsuspected fault among some Christians is the worldly philosophy of “pragmatism”—“What works, that’s right for me!”  So instead of repeatedly going back to Scripture to understand what our Head says about a particular matter, what has worked for us in the past, or what works for others, becomes the basis for decision making.  What “works” may very well be in keeping with God’s mind.  In the ultimate sense, God’s truth always works perfectly!  However, we can only ascertain whether an idea or plan is right if it is checked against the one and only standard and Word of truth, the Bible.  Thus all experiences that we have or others have, our ways of doing this or that, are not necessarily right for the church, even though they might work in the world.

Yet another way Satan uses to weaken the impact of God’s Word for today is to get Christians caught up in debates over “what is still culturally relevant in the Bible for the church today.”  Thus even unconsciously Christians fall into a selective approach in their reading and interpretation of Scripture.  In essence, this means that they accept what they find acceptable, and reject as “no longer culturally relevant” what they find offensive to their current cultural practices and sensitivities.

All passages indeed are to be interpreted in light of their particular background, including their cultural background.  But to state that some parts of God’s Word are a mere reflection of a cultural bias of the author is to say that at such points Scripture is in error.  To make such an assertion is to say that God’s Spirit was in error when He inspired the biblical writer to write such an instruction.

An illustration of this line of reasoning is:  “What is written in the book of Acts and the Epistles about the Early Church was just relevant for them.  We should merely read it as a historical record of the life of the early church and its development.  Our cultural situation dictates an entirely different approach to church life.”  The end result is that the words of Jesus, our Head, are relegated to a past era.  Instructions given by the apostles are essentially disregarded as being out-of-date.

We return to this fundamental truth: Christ, our Head, speaks to us and instructs us through the Word that His Spirit inspired.  Our obligation is to know it and to follow it, regardless of how old-fashioned it may sound to the ears and minds of some people.  In the end, all the latest philosophies of man that appeal to many Christians eventually fade away.  Only the Word of God abides forever!  (Isaiah 40:8)

Secondly, our Head leads His church through the divine action of His Spirit.  By seeking to listen carefully to His voice, and by submitting ourselves to that voice, we follow the direction of our Head.

Modern man, operating from his belief of possessing superior knowledge, acts in the church as if he really doesn’t need the Holy Spirit.  Thus, it is thought that all we really need is to have a pooling of all our ideas together and we will inevitably come up with the right solution to the problem.  But the pooling of ideas in a meeting offers no guarantee that the end-result will be “the mind of Christ” as directed by the Spirit.

Therefore, it is clearly most important that we understand how we are to ascertain the mind of Christ through the working of the Spirit in a particular situation.  To start with, we need to hold firmly to the Word and the spiritual truths and principles taught in it that cover all possible situations or problems that arise, both in our personal lives as well as in our church life.

Furthermore, we will need to follow the example of the early church who listened to God’s direction through worship, prayer and fasting.  For example, in the Antioch Church – Acts 13:1-4.  They received the direction of God’s Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, their Head, as they were unitedly on their knees before God, not as gathered together in order to pool their ideas.  They humbled themselves, asking God for His divine direction.  Prayer is the stance of brokenness and humility, of utter dependence upon God.

Thus we practice the headship of Christ as a body by coming together in worship, prayer and fasting – not even with the multiplication of wordy prayers, but with a listening spiritual ear.  At such times God will speak to such a gathered people through whomever He chooses.  And the responsibility of the whole body is to both check the direction upon the basis of God’s Word and then to obey it, not to rationalize it away as being just the ideas or opinions of men.

We note in Acts 13:1ff how unquestionably the Antioch congregation followed the directions of their Head, Jesus Christ, and sent Barnabas and Paul off on their first evangelistic journey.  We also see in other passages in Acts, how individuals such as Philip (8:29), Peter (10:19,20) and Paul (16:6-7) experienced this dynamic guidance of Christ, their Leader, in directing them in what they should do.  And they invariably obeyed.  And much blessing and growth came through their obedience.

Thirdly, Jesus Christ, our Head, leads His people through human leaders whom He chooses and equips with spiritual gifts for leadership.  God delegated His authority to Christ, for the ministry that Christ performed on earth. (cf. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” – Matt. 28:18).  Christ then delegated His authority to His servants to perform in His name all that He was commissioning them to do.

Thus as they led, for example, as Peter and the early apostles led the first Jerusalem congregation, it was Christ leading through them.

These were Spirit-filled men.  As they walked in the Spirit, they were able to lead the church aright, in keeping with the plan and mind of Christ, the Head.

This, however, did not mean that in all situations they were without error or difficulty.  Paul and Barnabas, both Spirit-filled men, had a sharp misunderstanding or disagreement concerning John Mark (Acts 15:36-41).  Peter needed to be rebuked by Paul for his double standards, even though he was a man who had received the gift of the Spirit and was being greatly used for the expansion of the early church, especially among the Jews (Gal. 2:11ff).

It is fundamentally important, therefore, for the whole body of Christ to recognize the leadership or headship of Christ through those whom Christ has appointed as His representatives (see Acts 20:28).

Therefore, to listen to and receive this leadership, exercised under the guidance of the Word and the Spirit, is to submit ourselves to our Head, Jesus Christ.  And conversely, to reject that leadership is to reject the headship of Christ.  (cf.  Matt. 10:40, “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me.”)

The responsibility and accountability of those who are called to exercise this authority delegated by Christ is indeed immensely weighty.  Not only does the writer to the Hebrews encourage the members of Christ’s body to obey and submit themselves in the Lord to their leaders, but he adds:  “…they keep watch over you as men who must give an account.” (Heb. 13:17)  James adds a similarly grave note in ch. 3, v.1, “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”

It is obviously for these and other reasons that Paul spells out for Timothy and Titus strict qualities of life that need to be manifested in the lives of those whom he was to appoint to share the task of “overseeing”.  (“Bishop” in 1 Tim. 3:1 means “overseer” – cf. Titus 1:6,7)

However, though the responsibility of the task of leading the congregation of God’s people appears to be too “risky” lest this authority goes to a man’s head, it must not only be understood as a delegated authority but also a limited authority, limited to the ministry entrusted by God.

It has been a serious and detrimental fault in the institutional church in the past that the leaders, including pastors, elders and deacons, have been seen as “the workers/ministers”.  This has resulted in a passivity among most members of God’s people who either see themselves as spectators or as people unskilled and untaught, and thus unable to minister.

We praise God that over the past several decades, God’s Spirit has been moving in  many parts of Christ’s body around the world, correcting this unbiblical outlook.  Consequently, much emphasis is now made upon the eldership as “equippers”, in keeping with

Eph. 4:11-12.

This partnership ministry which emphasizes the charismatic nature of the church (i.e. church life based upon a Scriptural use of the gifts of the Spirit for the building up of all members of Christ’s body) has brought new life to thousands of congregations.

Thus, in their leading God’s servants, pastors and elders, are not to take over the ministries of God’s people, but God holds them responsible for the oversight of all the ministries in their local church over whom God has placed them as “overseers.”  We must then come to a fourth sphere of the operation of the headship of Christ among His people.

Fourthly, Christ our Head leads His people in a variety of ministries through those whom He equips with ministry gifts for each task.  (We need to read the passages on “spiritual gifts” carefully to understand what kind of ministry gifts Christ gives – Rom. 12:3-8; I Cor. 12:7 – 11; Eph. 4:7-13; I Pet. 4:10-11.  These do not always match with the “gifts” that many churches and Christians consider as being primary ministry gifts, especially due to the focus upon the Sunday morning worship service in the life of many modern-day churches.)

Christ gives these spiritual gifts for the edification of the whole body.  Each is responsible to God for the exercise of their gift(s) for this purpose.

Thus the carrying out of various ministries through a local church is by a group of “co-labourers,” serving together as partners under the one Lord, each humbly recognizing the other’s worth and spiritual gifts for his/her own blessing.  Welcoming and submitting to the exercise of a brother or a sister’s ministry in some sphere of Christian service is another way of submitting to Christ, our Head.

In practice, all are to accept the tasks, functions and ministries which God’s Spirit has given to each one. To some, God has given the tasks, responsibilities of equipping the saints for the work of the ministry.  To all members of His body, Christ has given some spiritual or ministry gift(s).

For an effective and orderly use of these gifts, God gives the “equippers” the responsibility to direct and lead the body’s expression of these gifts, for which they are accountable to God.

When we come to understand these important truths, we need no longer feel afraid or sense a spirit of competitiveness in the ministry.  Such a spirit of competition is incompatible with God’s Word and how the church is to function together.

In other words, leaders to whom God has given the various gifts of leading, shepherding, overseeing, guarding God’s people, etc. are to be released by the body to lead, to get on with their tasks of leading.  And the leaders are to release the body to minister to each other.

Herein lies the secret of a growing church, because it is the pattern that Christ, the Head, has ordained.  This pattern stands in contrast to the ideal of each and all members wanting to be involved in all the affairs and ministries of the church.

God’s pattern certainly calls for a sense of order (cf. I Cor. 14:33).  God’s pattern is not for arms and legs and the different parts of the body to be flying around in all directions, doing their own thing.  This brings dishonor to Christ the Head.  Thus coordination and direction is necessary and is to be accepted by the members of the body as being a part of Christ’s plan.

It is clear, then, that the exercise of our ministry one to another and to the world is not a free-for-all, each doing what he or she thinks needs to be done.  To the leaders, namely the pastors and elders (cf. I Tim. 5:17), God has given the responsibility to direct the affairs of the church and its ministries.  Their direction is to be seen, therefore, as a “covering” that will prevent the enemy from coming in among the flock to harm God’s people and cause confusion and dissensions.

Another implication to be considered concerns the meeting together of God’s people to listen together to the Spirit’s guidance through prayer and worship, to discuss certain matters that pertain to larger issues, e.g. the setting apart of people for ministries, the use of monies in God’s work, the understanding and establishing of priorities and goals for ministry, etc.  Whereas the general oversight both of the overall ministry and of the specific ministries is to be entrusted to those to whom those ministries have been delegated.

However, in the final analysis, it is both leaders giving general oversight and direction, together with the body making decisions within the framework of their specific ministries, that enables the body to function effectively.

Finally, it is important to recognize that in the exercise of all our responsibilites in keeping with God-given spiritual gifts, all are required to grow in spiritual maturity.  It is by no means true that because God has chosen a particular brother to be an elder or a pastor that he is automatically the spiritually mature member of the congregation.  In God’s church there are to be no double standards – one standard of spirituality for leaders who equip, guard the flock and direct the affairs of the church, and a lower level of spirituality for those called to minister either in the world or to the body in one way or another.

God’s requirement for all is that we are to be SERVANTS – brothers and sisters who submit ourselves to the reign of Christ, our Head.  And to the extent that we submit ourselves to His headship and leadership in the body, we reveal our true spiritual maturity.

Graham Roberts

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