In our cell-phone, Internet, Facebook world, connections are important. We connect with family and friends, even strangers. The goal is to link, to find out what others are doing and to let others know what we are doing. When we are deprived of our media outlets, the world stands still. We want to connect and be connected.
The body of Christ
No image speaks to our connectivity more than the picture of the church as the body of Christ. This metaphor is rooted in a number of New Testament passages that use the term, or point in its direction. The aptness of the image in describing what is most essential about the church of Jesus Christ has led to its wide usage from the New Testament period till today. If you ask church members to list descriptions of the church, “body of Christ” will be one of the top choices.
This well-known phrase is in Paul’s description of the church in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31.1 The passage portrays the church as one body with many members. There is a unity and a diversity: “All the members of the body, though many, are one body” (12:12). It is the “one Spirit” into which all church members are baptized, “into one body.” Jews, Greeks, slave, and free are “all made to drink of one Spirit” (12:13).
There is a need for variety in the body. In the physical body, we have different body parts: ears, eyes, hands, feet. So in the body of Christ, an assortment of persons with a range of gifts and functions are needed to carry out what God intends through the body of Christ. A whole body cannot be made up of only “eyes” or only “ears.” We need the entire cast of body parts.
Paul’s description here is similar to what he says in Romans 12:4, 5. There he writes: “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” Here are the same images: one body, many members, different functions, united in Christ, members joined with each other.
Notice some key themes found in this image of the church as the body of Christ, and how they speak to the connectivity we have in the church: with Christ, with each other, and with the world.
- The church as the body of Christ reflects the need for diversity and for interdependence. We need different parts of the physical body. For the church, too, we need the different persons and personalities that make up the body of Christ. We need a kaleidoscope of persons with their gifts, all using them for the “common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). Yet these diverse people direct their personalities and gifts into an interdependence that connects them deeply with others. We are all baptized into one Spirit and “drink of one Spirit.” So in the church we are able to trust and depend on others, as they trust and depend on us. This happens in a physical body and happens in the church because of the deep, theological conviction that we are united in baptism and united in Christ. This common unity creates community.Paul indicates that “individually we are members one of another.” In the church we are united around the deepest reality we know in life: Jesus Christ. In the “one Spirit” we are “all baptized into one body” (I Cor. 12:13). So church is where our deepest fellowship and “connections” with others take place. These happen because we are in union with Christ and participate in each other as sisters and brothers in faith. No deeper connections can be known than our unity in the church. We live in union with Christ and connected with others. This is the connection of love, which Paul extols in the next chapter, 1 Corinthians 13.
- The church as the body of Christ is to eliminate schism and establish mutual care. The diversity and interdependence of church members is not for “dissension” or “division” (Gr. schisma) in the body, but so “members may have the same care for one another” (1 Cor. 12:25). We care for the diverse cast of characters in the church as sisters and brothers in Christ. We recognize the diversities and honor all the gifts of others. As John Calvin said, “There is no such person as a useless member of the church.”2 We do not argue or “posture” or claim our gifts and abilities are greater than others.Instead, we live as people who care for others. We feel the pain of those in need; just as they feel our pain: “if one member suffers, all suffer together.” We share the joys of others, too: “if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:26). We are “members of one another,” we share their lives as they share ours. The goal is “no schism.” We practice the mutual care inherent in being disciples of Jesus Christ, members of his body.
- The church as the body of Christ is a fellowship of love with Christ as its head. The New Testament refers to Jesus Christ as “the head of the church.” (Col. 1:18; Eph. 1:23). Those who are baptized are united with Christ by faith (Col. 2:12; cf. Rom. 6:1-11). We have a union with Christ by faith that is the strongest possible bond. In the body of Christ, we share this bond with the head of the church and with one another as members of the church. This is an unbreakable spiritual union in which, as Calvin puts us, Christ “ingrafts all of us into His body, so that He may live in us, and we in Him.”3 The bond of faith between Christ and the body of Christ is expressed as a fellowship of love. The head of the church is the savior (Eph. 5:23) who “loved the church and gave himself up” for the church (Eph. 5:25). Now the body of Christ shows this same love in its care for its members (1 Cor. 12:25), the command for which goes back to Jesus himself (John 13:34; 15:12, 17; cf. Rom. 12:3-10). In the broadest sense, the church as the body of Christ shows love to the world, which God loves, and to whom Jesus Christ was sent (John 3:16).
The church is not like the other groups to which we belong. Our “connections” in the church as the body of Christ are intrinsically deeper than those in all our other relationships. They are established in faith, and “rooted and grounded in love” (Eph. 3:17). They are love connections. We share the love of Christ with the world and love one another in the church. Together, we are the “body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27). Thanks be to God!
1All Scripture references are to the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).
2John Calvin, Commentary on 1 Corinthians 12:27, trans. John W. Fraser. Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., rpt. 1980), 9:269.
3Calvin, Commentary on 1 Corinthians 10:16; Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, 9:216.
Donald K. McKim is editor for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Being Reformed: Faith Seeking Understanding. He is also executive editor for Theology and Reference for Westminster John Knox Press and editor of These Days.