The Church: The Body of Christ (Excerpt from "Unfettered Spirit:)

 Our Wednesday Bible Study Group has finally reached 1 Corinthians 12, which is an important contributor to our conversations about spiritual gifts and the nature of the Church. With this in mind, I am sharing an excerpt from my book on Spiritual Gifts:  Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening, (Energion, 2012, pages. 159-162). As you'll see, 1 Corinthians 12 figures into this conversation in a fairly significant way. 


            The body of Christ has many members, each is different in nature and in function, and yet this body is united in purpose. This body is knit together by the head, Jesus Christ, in whom all things hold together. Each member of this body is equipped and enabled to work together for the purpose of building the body in love (Eph. 4:15-16; Col. 1:18-20). Ultimately, in the mystical reality that is the church’s existence in the world, Christ is both head and body.[1]
            As a living body each member is dependent on the other:

If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eyes, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?  .  .  .   If all were a single member, where would the body be?  (1 Cor. 12:15-19).

Since our own gifts only represent a portion of the whole body, we must recognize that we’re incomplete without the other members. We need each other to fulfill our calling as the body of Christ. This idea is borne out in system’s theory, which suggests that healthy communities are connected and interdependent. We all live in relationship to others -- spouses, parents, children, siblings, co-workers, and neighbors. Healthy community is related to the way we relate and interact.[2] With this in mind a healthy congregation – as an expression of the body of Christ – must be more than simply a collection of autonomous individual Christians. As I say this, I recognize that much of our church life is designed to facilitate that autonomy we so desire.   

            Turning to a medical analogy, we know that heart attacks often result from blockages of the arteries. These blockages keep the blood from circulating, and the body suffers. In the same way, if the conduits through which the Spirit moves are blocked, the church suffers spiritual heart attacks. It divides, it fights, and it fails to fulfill its calling to bear witness to Jesus’ love for the world. And what are these blockages? They include but aren’t limited to race, ethnicity, gender, language, age, perceived disability, class distinctions, economic factors, and sexual orientation. These blockages can be removed if we’re willing to let God have access to our lives through Christ. In other words, in the body of Christ there are no aliens or strangers. All are citizens and saints, members of the household of God (Eph. 2:15-20).

            As we consider the ways in which spiritual gifts serve as expressions of Christ’s living body, we must realize the temptation to seek spiritual experience and even spiritual ecstasy at the expense of common good. This happened at Corinth, where people sought after gifts such as tongues, believing that this experience of the Spirit put them on a higher spiritual plane. Paul attempted to counter this temptation by reminding the Corinthians that as members of the body of Christ their own spiritual health depended on the health of the body as a whole.  In doing this, according to Hans Küng, Paul made it clear that "the church is never--as some in Corinth seem to have supposed--a gathering of charismatics enjoying their own private relationship with Christ independently of the community."[3] It may have been a gathering of charismatics, but Paul expected them to be living in relationship with Christ in community.

            By thinking of the church as a body, Paul makes it clear that everyone in the church has value. There are no vestigial organs, no appendices, in this body. What may appear to us as insignificant or even inferior, God highly values. No part is unimportant and no part of the body stands above any other (1 Cor. 12:14-26). As we contemplate the image of the body of Christ, and our place in this body, we need to take into consideration that human bodies come in many sizes and even forms.  In Paul’s analogy of the body, when parts are missing, especially the parts we deem less significant, the whole body suffers. Such a body must compensate for missing members (1 Cor. 12:26). There is wisdom in this message, but as we hear it we need to remember that such a vision can have the effect of excluding or dismissing the contribution from the person who has disabilities – perhaps sight or hearing. So, in our vision of wholeness, let’s remember that bodies experience wholeness in a variety of ways.[4]

            By using an organic metaphor to describe the church, we can envision the church growing, changing, adapting, and evolving, just like the human body. It’s not static – like a rock or a fortress. This metaphor also accents our interconnectedness as church, through the head -- Jesus Christ (Eph. 4:15-16). Whether or not our faith communities have the look of institution, it’s clear that a detached individualistic faith doesn’t match well with the faith envisioned by Jesus or Paul. It might be flat as some have suggested – the form is less the issue than the reality that a truly growing faith/relationship with God requires partners on the journey.

            This need for partners or community, whether small or large, is reflected in our call to be engaged in serving the broader community. It’s good to remember that while Paul received a call to service on the Damascus Road, he was commissioned by the church in Antioch to engage in his mission work. He went on the first journey in the company of Barnabas and John Mark (Acts 13:1ff), and later he traveled with Silas, among others.[5] 

            It’s good to remember that even Jesus lived in community. As he took up his itinerant ministry, he invested himself in a company of disciples to whom he imparted divine wisdom. It wasn’t an easy life – Jesus told his potential followers that while “foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Lk. 9:58-59; cf. Mt. 8:20). Jesus also reminds us that this community of the faithful transcends the human family: “let the dead bury their own dead” (Lk.9:60; Mt. 8:21). The true family of Jesus are those who do “the will of God” (Mk. 2:35). Community is the end of discipleship, but it’s something the church has found it difficult to create. 

            In Paul's use of the metaphor of the body, he encompasses both the unity and the diversity of churchly existence, for the church is composed of many members while remaining one body.   This church is healthy when all its parts are healthy and working together in harmony (1 Corinthians 12:12-26).  Although the church as we often experience it may appear to be more institution than “body of Christ,” the metaphor suggests that there is a deeper reality underlying the church’s external existence.  Because the organic tends to be harder to manage, we have a tendency to domesticate the church by focusing on institutional needs rather than on organic relationships. It will be a constant struggle, but it’s not an impossible one. In seeking to hold this vision, we’ll want to keep in mind the Reformation motto of “always reforming.”

[1]William Robinson, The Biblical Doctrine of the Church, rev. ed., (St. Louis: Bethany Press, 1955), 70.
[2]Peter L. Steinke, Healthy Congregations:  A System's Approach, (New York:  Alban Institute, 1996), 3.
[3]Hans Küng, Church, (New York: Image Books, 1976), 296.
[4] Amos Yong, The Bible, Church and Disability: A New Vision for the People of God, (Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2011), 82-117.
[5] Howard Clark Kee, Good News to the Ends of the Earth: The Theology of Acts, (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990), 100-1.


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