One fruitful way to see how the New Testament makes that point is to consider the major metaphors it uses for our union with Christ. None of them are individualistic. They all focus on a community of people who are united in Him. So, for example, in John 15, Jesus uses the image of the vine and the branches. He is the true vine, He says. We are the branches. We must abide in the vine and so bear fruit. If we abide in the vine, we will be pruned by the vinedresser, God the Father, who will train and discipline us by His Word and Spirit and in His sovereign providence. If we do not abide in the vine, we will be cut out, thrown away, and burned. It’s a sobering picture, but we miss essential truth if we miss the fact that this image was used with the disciples, who are “branches” together united to one common vine. The sap of the vine, the same life, the life of Christ, flows from the vine to each of the branches.
Another image of our union with Christ is the temple. Jesus said, in speaking about His death and resurrection, that He is the true tabernacle, which if it were destroyed would be rebuilt in three days (John 2:19). He is the true temple where God came down to meet with us. The Apostle Peter in 1 Peter 2 adapted the metaphor. Christ is the stone the builders rejected that God makes the capstone. We are living stones, and as we come to Him we are being built up into a spiritual house. The heart of the image is the doctrine of union with Christ. We are stones fitted into Him, finding our dimensions in reference to Him. But we are all being fitted to one another as well, as we are made to fit into Christ. So, the whole edifice, this temple that God is building, is the church—not the physical church building, but the lives joined together into Christ, a dwelling place for God by His Spirit.
Or, try another key metaphor for union with Christ. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul uses the image of the body:
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many. (vv. 12–14)
In union with Christ, by the Spirit, the church is one body with many members. When Paul develops the image, he describes two absurdities. The first is the absurdity of one body part ruling itself out, declaring, “I don’t belong, because I’m not a hand, or I’m not an eye” (vv. 14–19). The second absurdity is each body part denying a place to the others because the others are different (vv. 21–26). A body that is all ear or all foot would be absurd. There is diversity and pluriformity and complexity—a place for all sorts of people with all sorts of gifts and personalities and backgrounds in the body of Christ. Paul concludes his argument in verse 27: “ Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” We are the body of Christ. We are one, and we belong together in Christ, only because we are in Christ.
We could go on piling up New Testament images and expressions that highlight our union with Christ and with one another, but the basic point is clear. If we come to know Jesus, the Bible cannot conceive of us as refusing to belong to His church, which, of course, is one important reason that refusing to join a local church is so wrong. We don’t get to say Jesus: “I love you—but the church? Not so much!” To be sure, the church is a messy place, full of screw-ups and failures. It will often let us down, it’s true. But isn’t it clear that Jesus loves that church? This Jesus whom we say we love and want to follow, haven’t we seen in the Scriptures how committed He is to His messy, sinful, compromised church? He loves His church and calls her His bride. He gave Himself up on the cross for her (Eph. 5:22–32). It’s really not possible to say we are committed followers of Jesus Christ and not to be committed members of the church for which He lived and bled and died and rose again.
To be united to Christ is to be united to the whole church, on earth and in heaven. It is to be called into fellowship with Jesus and in Him with all His people. We are to love and be patient with the church, all her faults and failures notwithstanding, knowing that we ourselves belong to her, and Christ, who loves His bride, is patient with us. Union with Christ creates true community, and this doctrine calls us to love the church.
Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on union with Christ Previous post. Next post.