There are some really, really difficult passages in the Scripture. Some are hard to understand, some are hard to live, some are hard to remember. Some are all of those things. I find 1 Corinthians 12:13 one of the hardest on all points:
For also in the power of one Spirit *we* have all been baptised into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether bondmen or free, and have all been given to drink of one Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:13, JND)
As far as I've been able to tell from Scripture, this is the only statement we have about how one becomes part of the One Body. That puts a lot of pressure on this verse, so to speak. Contrary to what I hear so frequently, the Church is not made up of all true believers between Acts 2 and 1 Thessalonians 4. That statement is flatly contradicted by this verse: the Church is made up of everyone who's been baptized into it in the power of one Spirit. Now I admit that the two groups may well be identical, but the Scripture very carefully distinguishes between them: we believe and are justified, we are baptized in the power of one Spirit and are thus put into one Body. We must be careful to distinguish what Scripture distinguishes.
It's a hard verse to understand, because it's frankly pretty mystical. I keep talking about justification, and that's a lot easier to get our arms around: we believe God and He declares "not guilty!". That's justification. But baptism into one Body is harder to describe. We believe it, but we might not understand it.
Perhaps the place to begin as far as understanding it is concerned, is with the very important acknowledgment that the Church of God on earth is explicitly described as being made of those who "have been given to drink of one Spirit." At the very least this gives me a very different perspective of the Church than I might otherwise have. The Church is defined by the presence of the Holy Spirit on earth. That was the promise the Lord Jesus gave the disciples in John 14, it was actually fulfilled in Acts 2. This is a wholly new thing, as John 7 insists (v. 39). God's presence on earth in the Holy Spirit is a big deal: it's such a big deal it logically has to have an effect; one of the results is this thing called "the Church," which Paul describes in Ephesians 2 as "an habitation of God in the Spirit" (Ephesians 2:22).
Practically, the recognition that the Church is defined by the presence of the Holy Spirit, both in the Church as such and in the individual believers (who've been "given to drink") should affect me. It should minimally make me walk respectfully of the believers, and of the Church on earth. These aren't just really annoying people who happen to believe [more or less] the same things I do, they're not just people who identify as Christians, they're not even merely God's children; they're people who carry around the Holy Spirit.
Wow. Just writing that out is pretty convicting.
1 Corinthians 12:13 isn't only hard to understand, it's really very hard to live. Note carefully the exact words of the verse: "we all". Let's consider for a moment what those words mean: everyone who's been made to drink of the one Spirit has also been baptized into the one Body. That's everyone who's got the one Spirit. So I, who remember the Lord with a pretty rag-tag bunch of Christians in a tiny building in Tacoma, am part of the same "one Body" as the staunch Presbyterian across town, or the devout Anglican down the street. Of course not everyone in the Presbyterian church is truly born again, nor is everyone in the Anglican church, nor is everyone who meets in a rag-tag assembly like I do. My point is not to say that everyone who cries "Lord, Lord" actually knows Him, but that there are people scattered all through various ecclesiastical gatherings who are baptized into the same "one Body" that I am.
And pointing that out pretty much makes my point for me. We're not baptized into "many Bodies", we're baptized into "one Body". I am part of the same Body as everyone else who's been "given to drink of one Spirit". It doesn't matter where they sit on Sunday morning, or what name is over the door they darken. Honestly, it doesn't even matter if they're involved in some things I can't be involved in with a clear conscience: the fact is that I don't get to decide who's in and who's out. The Holy Spirit has already made that decision and I need to respect it.
In practical terms, there is the constant problem of sectarianism. And to be honest, sectarianism often starts with genuine conviction. I look at some of what I've seen in various ecclesiastical groups and I think "I can't have fellowship with that," and there is a Scriptural basis for that. We can't walk in fellowship with known sin, right? But when we look at the Epistles and we limit their applications to our little group, we've crossed a line. Let me give an example: if a brother (or sister) is excommunicated at the Baptist church up the road and he (or she) comes knocking at the door where I am, how do I respond? Do I say, "Well, what happens over there is their business, here you get a fresh start." Isn't that really denying the unity of the Body? Shouldn't I respect the one Body enough to at least respect that (whatever my concerns with the Baptist church, and whatever excellent reasons I may have for not fellowshipping there) this brother (or sister) has been disfellowshipped from the Church of God on earth? It's entirely possible we might look into a matter and realize these Baptists were wrong, but we need to at least begin with the acknowledgement that they acted as the assembly of God on earth.
In practical terms, we need to try and see the Body as God sees it. Members of the Body of Christ are scattered all over the place: this is not what was supposed to be, it is the result of man's meddling in holy things. But whatever the ruinous state of the Church on earth, we must endeavor to acknowledge this truth: those who are baptized by the one Spirit are fellow-members of the one Body with me.
I think the hardest part of this verse is in the remembering it. It's difficult or impossible to understand, and it's so very difficult to live out, but remembering it might be the most difficult part of all. I hear myself (and others) deny this verse all the time in our speech: we're not remembering it. We say things like "local body". What is that but a flat contradiction that we have been baptized into "one Body"? We're not in multiple bodies: there is only one. I quote some verse about the Church, thinking only of the small gathering where I remember the Lord, or maybe of the slightly larger "circle of fellowship," but certainly not of the various members of Christ's Body that are spread around this area. Or maybe I make a snide comment about the Baptists or the Anglicans or Presbyterians in this town, completely forgetting that they too are part of "one Body" with us.
Now, I know there are very good and important reasons not to be part of some gatherings. I walked away from a "brethren" group in 2007 for all sorts of reasons I've outlined on this blog, then I spend some time with a continuing Anglican group, some time with various "churches", some time with some Presbyterians, and finally a year with some "open brethren" before settling into the small gathering where I am now. I'm not at all saying there's not better and worse places to be. But what I am also saying it this: everywhere--- everywhere--- we went to remember the Lord, there were true believers. In every one of those places, from the most lax to the most strict, there were those who have been made to drink of one Spirit. I met Presbyterians whose theology appalled me, but they truly loved the Lord. I met Anglicans who were more than a little confused about some really important doctrines, but they're the Lord's. I know people from every group shy of bona fide cults who know, love, and walk with the Lord Jesus. Every last one of them is a fellow-member of the Body of Christ with me.
Is everyone who calls himself "Christian" truly born again? Of course not! But everyone who is, no matter how much I might shudder at his or her ecclesiastical position, is part of the one Body.
I need to remember that.