He is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence. Colossians 1:18 KJV
Throughout the New Testament, there is a subtle distinction between the headship of Christ and the lordship of Jesus.
The headship of Christ virtually always has in view Christ’s relationship with His body (Eph. 1:22–23; 4:15; 5:23; Col. 1:18; 2:19). The lordship of Christ virtually always has in view His relationship with His individual disciples (Matt. 7:21–22; Luke 6:46; Acts 16:31; Rom. 10:9, 13; 1 Cor. 6:17).
What lordship is to the individual, headship is to the church. Headship and lordship are two dimensions of the same thing. Headship is lordship worked out in the corporate life of God’s people.
A believer may truly submit to the lordship of Jesus in his or her personal life. He may obey what he understands in the Bible. She may pray fervently. He may live self-sacrificially. Yet at the same time, these people may know nothing about shared minis- try, mutual submission, or corporate testimony. To be subject to the headship of Jesus is to respond to His will regarding the life and practice of the church. Submission to the headship of Christ includes obtaining God’s mind through mutual ministry and sharing, obeying the Holy Spirit through mutual subjection and servanthood, and testifying to Jesus Christ collectively through mutual sharing and corporate witness.
Submission to the headship of Christ incarnates the New Testament reality that Jesus is not only Lord of the lives of women and men; He is also Master of the life of the church. One of the examples in which this became strongly apparent to me was through the life of a young brother in Christ who visited one of our open-participatory church meetings. The young man was saved before he visited us. And from what I could tell, he had a strong devotional life. But he would show up once in a while for our meetings, and when he did show up, he was quiet through most of them.
He continued to visit our gatherings on and off for several months. Then he moved away to another city to attend college there.
Several months later, he returned. Through a series of poor choices, frustrating events, and personal convictions, he had ended his academic career. With a broken voice, he com- municated that more than anything he simply missed being a part of the church. I found this interesting, as he wasn’t exactly devoted to the group when he was in town, and he never really participated or functioned much.
The next week, however, he threw himself into the life of the church. If there was a practical need, he was helping with it. If there was an opportunity to pursue Christ with others, he showed up. If there was a decision-making meeting, he was there and he participated. He even started to function in our open meetings, and his contributions were edifying. Then slowly, we began to see his friends coming to the meetings. His friends were inspired by his story of redemption, faith, and community. And they were drawn to “come and see.”
This young man’s life was changed forever when he simply saw a group of people responding to a Jesus he didn’t know too well. He was seeing Jesus in corporate expression. But it took his going to college, having a bad experience there, and coming back again to realize he needed Christ and His body. He was awakened to the fact that he needed face-to-face community.
This little story is so familiar and common that it can be multiplied by many who have been part of churches that are strong on intense community and mutual sharing. The young man’s story is an example of what it means to make Christ head over one’s life.
Interestingly, Paul said that when Christ’s headship is established in His body, He will become head over all things in the universe (Col. 1:16–18).
Five aspects of christ’s headship today
1. As the Head, Jesus Seeks to Express His Character and Nature through His Body
The purpose of a physical body is to express the life that’s in it. It’s the same with the body of Christ. It exists so that Jesus can express His personality in a visible way.
The local body of Christ is called to gather together regu- larly to display God’s life through the ministry of every believer. How?
One of the normative ways in the New Testament was through open-participatory meetings where every member of the believing priesthood functioned, ministered, and expressed the living God (1 Cor. 14:26; 1 Pet. 2:5; Heb. 10:24–25).
God dwells in every Christian and can inspire any of us to share with the church something that comes from Him. In the first century, every Christian had both the right and the privilege of speaking to the community. This is the practical expression of the New Testament doctrine of the priesthood of all believers.
The purpose of the open-participatory gathering is to edify the entire church and to display, express, and reveal the Lord through the members of the body to principalities and powers in heavenly places (Eph. 3:8–11).
The Greek word for church that I’ve been using through- out this book, ekklesia, literally means “assembly.” This meshes nicely with the dominant thought in Paul’s letters that the church is Christ in corporate expression (1 Cor. 12:1–27; Eph. 1:22–23; 4:1–16).
From a human perspective, the purpose of the church meeting is mutual edification. But from God’s perspective, the purpose of the gathering is to express His glorious Son and make Him visible.
Put another way, we gather together so that the Lord Jesus can manifest Himself in His fullness. When that happens, the body is edified. Note that the only way that Christ can be prop- erly expressed is if every member of a church freely supplies the aspect of the Lord that he or she has received. The Lord Jesus cannot be fully disclosed through only one member. He is far too rich for that (Eph. 3:8).
So if the hand doesn’t function in the gathering, Christ will not be manifested in fullness. Likewise, if the eyes fail to function, the Lord will be limited in His self-revelation.
On the other hand, when every member of a local assem- bly functions in the meeting, Christ is seen. He is made visible because He is assembled in our midst.
Consider the analogy of a puzzle. When each puzzle piece is properly positioned in relation to the other pieces, the puzzle is assembled. The net effect? We see the entire picture. It’s the same way with Christ and His church.
2. As the Head, Jesus Continues His Earthly Ministry
Luke began the book of Acts with this remark:
The first account I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when He was taken up to heaven. (1:1–2)
Notice the word began. The “first account” Luke was referring to is the gospel of Luke. The implication of this sentence is that Luke’s new volume, Acts, is a record of what Jesus continued to do and teach from His ascension onward.
Consequently, the theme of Acts is Christ’s continuing presence, already found in the name Emmanuel (“God with us”), as a present reality.
No longer visibly present to the human eye, Jesus is still at work in His people by the Spirit. The story of Acts is the story of Christ’s work on earth through His servants as they are energized and directed by the Spirit of Christ.
When Jesus Christ ascended into heaven, He chose to express Himself through a body of believers to continue His life and ministry on earth. That ministry is spelled out in Luke 4:18–19 (NIV):
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
We meet it again in Acts 10:38 (NIV): “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and … he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.”
Throughout His ministry, Jesus showed what the king- dom of God was all about by loving outcasts, befriending the oppressed, healing the sick, cleansing the lepers, caring for the poor, driving out demons, forgiving sins, and so forth. If you peel back His miracles, the common denominator underneath them all is that He was alleviating human suffering and show- ing what the future kingdom of God looks like.
When Jesus did His miracles, He was indicating that He was reversing the effects of the curse.
In Jesus’ ministry, a bit of the future had penetrated the present. Jesus embodied the future kingdom of God, where human suffering will be eradicated, and there will be peace, justice, freedom, and joy.
The church, which is His body in the world, carries on this ministry. It stands on the earth as a sign of the coming kingdom.
The church lives and acts in the reality that Jesus Christ is the Lord of the world today. It lives in the presence of the future—in the already-but-not-yet of the kingdom of God.
For this reason, the church is commissioned to proclaim and embody the kingdom now—to bring a bit of the new cre- ation into the old creation, to bring a piece of heaven into the earth—demonstrating to the world what it will look like when God is calling the shots. In the life of the church, God’s future has already begun.
This dimension of the church’s mission has to do with how she displays the Christ who indwells her to those outside of her. It has to do with how she expresses Christ to the world.
Jesus fulfilled the mission of Israel in His earthly ministry (Gen. 18:18). But since His resurrection, He has commissioned the church to continue that mission.
Hence, the church exists to fulfill Israel’s original calling to be a blessing to all the nations (Gen. 22:18), to bring good news (the gospel) to the poor (Isa. 52:7), and to be a light to the world (49:6).
The church stands in the earth as the new Israel (Gal. 6:16). And she shows forth that the Jesus who walked this earth is the same Christ who has taken up residence within her members.
3. As the Head, Jesus Directs Both the Church and the Work
Jesus is the Commander-in-Chief of His church and His work. Following are some examples of how Jesus directs both His church and His work by His Spirit as the head of each:
- The Spirit of Jesus led Philip to join a chariot where a man was reading Scripture (Acts 8:29). • Jesus appeared to Paul and called him into apostolic ministry (Acts 9:1–10).
- Jesus appeared to Ananias in a vision and instructed him to help Paul (Acts 9:11–16). The Spirit of Jesus spoke to Peter about three men who were looking for him (Acts 10:19).
- The Spirit of Jesus told Peter to go see Cornelius in Caesarea (Acts 11:12).
- The Spirit of Jesus showed Agabus the prophet that there would be a great drought coming to the world (Acts 11:28).
- The Spirit of Jesus instructed some men who were praying in Antioch to set apart Barnabas and Paul for the work (Acts 13:2). The Spirit of Jesus forbade Paul to preach the gospel in Asia (Acts 16:6).
- Jesus gave Paul a dream, directing him and his team to go into Macedonia (Acts 16:9–10).
- Jesus appeared to Paul in a vision and told him to speak boldly in the city of Corinth (Acts 18:9–10).
- The Spirit of Jesus witnessed to Paul in every city that he would be in chains and suffer afflictions (Acts 20:23).
- The Spirit of Jesus spoke through Agabus the prophet about Paul’s future in Jerusalem (Acts 21:10–11).
- Jesus appeared to Paul while he was praying in the temple in Jerusalem and told him to leave the city (Acts 22:18–21).
- Jesus stood by Paul when he was on trial, encouraged him, and told him what was to come (Acts 23:11).
- Jesus said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for [my] power is perfected in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).
- Paul received direction, reassurance, and encouragement from Jesus (2 Tim. 4:16–17).
- The Spirit of Jesus called and sent out workers (Acts 13:1–3; Gal. 1:1; 1 Cor. 1:17; 12:7–11; Eph. 4:7–16; 1 Tim. 1:12).
- Jesus worked with the members of His church, confirming their message with signs (Mark 16:20). In the book of Acts, we find the phrase “get up and go” repeated several times. Jesus said it to Ananias in Acts 9:11. He said it to Peter again in Acts 10:20. Ananias went, and so did Peter. As head of the church, Jesus still says, “Get up and go,” to His disciples today.
4. As the Head, Jesus Nourishes His Body
The way we feed our bodies is through our mouths. Jesus does the same with His body, of which we are a part.
Christ, then, is our Caretaker. He nourishes and cherishes His body:
No one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church. (Eph. 5:29)
Christ the head feeds His body through the ministry and functioning of each of its members (Eph. 4:16). For this reason, it’s important to be dependent on the body of Christ, allowing “every joint” to supply its portion to us.
In like manner, it’s critical that we function also, feeding the other sheep in the Lord’s fold.
5. As the Head, Jesus Is the Source of the Church’s Life
Jesus supplies all that His body needs, and we derive our life and being from Him.
“Christ … is our life,” as Colossians put it (3:4).
The head in heaven dispenses His life through His Spirit, who empowers the members of His body on earth.
The Jesus of the Gospels may appear remote and unavailable, but He lives inside every believer by faith and is as close to us as is the breath of our mouths.
No longer I … but Christ lives in me. (Gal. 2:20)
What Christ has accomplished through me. (Rom. 15:18)
I can do all things through [Christ] who strengthens me. (Phil. 4:13)
As followers of Jesus and children of God, we can live by His indwelling life. Jesus was “crucified in weakness” but now “lives by the power of God” (2 Cor. 13:3–4 ESV). He does this within His people.
the Eternal purpose
The eternal purpose of God is centered upon making Jesus the absolute head over all things. God’s goal is the establishment of the complete sovereignty and supremacy of His Son.
His driving passion is to make His Son preeminent over everything. All of God’s activities are toward this end. Hence, the chief work of the Holy Spirit in this age is to establish the headship of Christ in His body, to the uttermost.
Accordingly, the Holy Spirit will break down and dev- astate everything that opposes, obstructs, and hinders the Lord’s sovereign rule in the hearts of His people. He will stand against all that gets in the way of God’s ultimate intention of establishing the centrality and supremacy of His Son over all things. Strikingly, before Christ can be made preeminent over all things, He must first have the preeminence among His own people. Colossians 1:18 puts it this way:
He is the head of the body, the church … that in all things he might have the preeminence. (KJV; see also Eph. 5:23)
The great need today in the body of Christ is to reinstate the headship of Christ. Tragically, all sorts of things have replaced Christ’s headship. Church boards, committee meetings, church leaders, church programs, man-made rules and regulations, and so on, have often supplanted the headship of Jesus Christ.
Whenever there is a decision before us regarding the Lord’s work or the Lord’s people, the salient question should not be, “What do we think should be done?” or “What can we agree upon as spiritual leaders?” Rather it should be, “What does the Lord want in this situation?”
With respect to the church, when two people make a decision independent of the head, it constitutes conspiracy.
Christ alone has the right to rule His church—not any human or committee. It is His body, not ours. We all belong to Him. He has purchased us with a costly price, and thus He alone possesses full rights over us.
When Christ has His full and rightful place as head and absolute Lord over His people, then so many problems are resolved.
Consider the profound problems that the church in Corinth faced—carnality, divisions, envy, self-absorption, blasphemy, pride, immorality, strife, civil discord, and rivalry. Chapters 1–11 of 1 Corinthians paint a pitiful picture of the corruption in that assembly. What a tremendous burden for Paul—the man who planted and cared for that church. But what was his answer to it all? What was the all-inclusive solu- tion that he shared in 1 Corinthians? It was simply this:
I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified…. For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ. (2:2; 3:11 KJV)
The answer was quite plain: that Jesus Christ be given His rightful place in the church. Can you see the force of that?
When God’s people get ahold of the greatness of their Lord and put Him in His rightful place, all of their troubles are dealt with. When Christ is presented in power and life, our problems get resolved.
God’s aim in this hour is for us to make Christ’s headship a practical reality in our lives and in our churches.
Such a way, however, is costly. It is a hard thing to yield our rights to the Lord, to wait on the Lord, and to put the absolute rule, authority, and decision-making rights into the hands of the Holy Spirit.
It tests whether we are going to put our hands on things or yield all rights to Christ. We must understand, however, that if Jesus Christ will return to reign on this earth in His fullness, His people must first give Him the preeminence in their midst.
In God’s plan, all things begin with the church. James told us that we are the “firstfruits of all he created“ (1:18 NIV). That includes this business of Him reigning over all things.
holding Fast to the head
Make no mistake about it. Holding fast to the headship of Christ (as Paul put it in Colossians) is not something that we are to practice as a last resort. Too often the mentality among Christians is, “I will do whatever I can, using my own clever- ness, gifts, and abilities, and only rely upon the Lord when I cannot do any more.” This is foolish thinking at best. Our human ideas and philosophies cannot fulfill one fragment of God’s work.
A great deal of our ecclesiastical traditions and programs are nothing more than wood, hay, and stubble. The church is a spiritual organism. Only that which comes out of God’s indwelling life can accomplish His purpose.
Under the old covenant, Moses commanded that no oil be “poured on man’s flesh” (Exod. 30:32 NKJV). So, too, the Spirit of God cannot anoint that which comes out of our human fleshly ideas. Recall the words of the Lord Jesus: “Without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5 NKJV).
All of this will meet nodding heads from most Christians. But is it a reality? Is Jesus Christ truly the head of your church, or is someone else? Does the structure of your church allow for Jesus Christ to lead and direct His people through His body, or does it prevent that from happening? And how about your life?
God desires to sum up all things in His Son. That which originates from fallen humanity’s ideas, traditions, and systems will not last. Only that which comes out of Christ can find God’s highest blessing.
Even now, the Lord is awaiting a people to give Him that place of preeminence. When God’s people put themselves under His direct headship, the result is unity (Ps. 133). One day Christ will indeed be the “head over all things to the church” (Eph. 1:22 ESV), nothing excluded. His present-day ministry as head of the church is moving the world in that direction.
This article is excerpt from Frank’s newest book, Jesus Now.