If the Assembly is the body of Christ, doesn’t that mean most of the members are now dead?
After nearly twenty centuries of the Assembly’s existence, it is quite certain that the vast majority of Christians are “fallen asleep in Christ” (1 Cor. 15: 18). It is also clear that the body of Christ and the Assembly are one and the same. For example, Colossians 1: 24: “I fill up that which is behind of the tribulations of Christ in my flesh, for his body, which is the assembly”. It would appear, then that most of the members of the body of Christ are dead, and that the answer to the question is therefore yes.
There are problems, however, with this conclusion. Take 1 Cor. 12: “And if one member suffer, all the members suffer with [it]; and if one member be glorified, all the members rejoice with [it]” (v26). Note the language: not some, not most, but all the members. Yet how can dead members suffer with those who suffer? How can they rejoice with the living members? How can they exercise “concern one for another” (v 25)? The simple answer, of course, is that they cannot. Again, if gift is given “with a view to the edifying of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4: 12) how can such ministry be delivered to those who have passed from this scene, and how can the dead profit by it? Can the dead “grow up to him in all things, who is the head” (v15)? The answer is self–evident.
Clearly, it is nonsensical to think of the body as part dead and part living. It is a living body or the figure Paul uses has no meaning.
In 1 Cor 6 the apostle stresses the importance of the natural body in the sight of God: “Do ye not know that your body is [the] temple of the Holy Spirit which [is] in you ….. glorify now then God in your body” (vs 19, 20). Furthermore, he makes a direct connection between our bodies and Christ’s body: “Do ye not know that your bodies are members of Christ?” (v15). He does not say ‘you’ (as we might have thought he would, but “your bodies”. This only serves to underline the fact that the body of Christ refers only to those in the “earthly tabernacle house” (2 Cor. 5: 1) and not to those who have died and are “with Christ” (Phil. 1: 23).
It is the responsibility of each of the members of the body to hold fast the Head (see Col. 2: 19)—that is, to maintain by the Holy Spirit a living link of direct responsibility to Christ in glory. How is it possible to hold fast in death? Death is described as a sleep (see John 11: 11–14) and it is no more possible for a dead saint to hold fast the Head than it is for a sleeping man to hold onto a branch. Again, in the natural body if a member is dead it neither receives anything from the head, nor communicates anything in return. I would not like to argue that those who have departed this scene are insensible of Christ, but, nonetheless, the figure of members of a living body does not fit their case. Rather, as being with Christ, they are where the Head is—in heaven—whereas the body is here on earth.
When in Col. 1: 18 the apostle speaks of the Assembly as being the body of Christ he clearly has in view the Assembly only as a practical, functioning entity. He means all the Christians alive at any one time. The body of Christ is not gradually becoming more complete as more and more souls are being saved—that would be to say that at the beginning the body lacked most of its parts! For a body to function properly it must be complete. Thus the body was complete at the beginning, is complete now, and will be complete at the end. The members, however, change constantly: those newly converted replacing those that have departed.
This principle is acknowledged (in an outward fashion) by Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 15: 29: “Since what shall the baptised for the dead do if [those that are] dead rise not at all? why also are they baptised for them?” As Christians die (either naturally or by martyrdom), their places in the testimony of the Christ are filled by persons freshly baptised. Like an army at war, the personnel are constantly changing, but despite the inflow and outflow of soldiers, the identity of the army remains. Now what is professed in baptism may or may not be real. However, the outward ought to reflect the inward, and so those being replaced in the outward profession (of which water baptism is the symbol) should be matched by those being replaced in the reality of the one body.
In conclusion then, the body of Christ is the Assembly viewed in its practical functioning on earth. It is the means by which Christ expresses Himself to the world. It therefore consists only of living saints.