The Bible uses several metaphors to describe the church. All of Paul’s extended descriptions of God’s gifts give attention to various concepts I like to think of as the giftwrapping. Prominent among them is the metaphor of the human body. The church, that is, is not a building or a random group of people but the body of Christ.
The most extensive description of gifts (1 Corinthians 12-14) includes the most extensive description of the church as the body of Christ. Let’s take a careful look (quoting from CSB).
1 Corinthians 12:12-14
12 For just as the body is one and has many parts, and all the parts of that body, though many, are one body—so also is Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and we were all given one Spirit to drink. 14 Indeed, the body is not one part but many.
A body shows both unity and diversity
As Paul and his readers knew very well, although he doesn’t mention them, a body has numerous internal organs that, ordinarily, we can’t see. His readers would have regularly seen the entrails of sacrificial animals. They might have been familiar with human organs through war, murders, or other acts of violence.
Paul and his readers knew nothing about the cellular level. We do, and what we know fits Paul’s narrative as well as any of the more visible parts. The body has many parts that differ from each other, but together they constitute a single body. Muscles, bones, lungs, or fingernails are all very different in structure and purpose, yet none of them is in any sense a different body from the others.
In the same way, Paul points out Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor within the church as very different yet united. He doesn’t mention male and female in this passage, but from other passages, we know that he considered them equally part of the body of Christ. Whatever distinctions the world uses to divide some people from others do not matter within the church.
1 Corinthians 12:15-19
15 If the foot should say, “Because I’m not a hand, I don’t belong to the body,” it is not for that reason any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I’m not an eye, I don’t belong to the body,” it is not for that reason any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But as it is, God has arranged each one of the parts in the body just as he wanted. 19 And if they were all the same part, where would the body be?
We mustn’t envy anyone else’s part
All of the parts of the body are necessary to its proper function. We have various sense organs, hands to grasp and manipulate objects, and feet to move us from one place to another. Some parts of our bodies enable us to eat and digest food. Other parts enable us to think and then speak to communicate with others.
In our bodies, a toe is content to be a toe. A tooth is content to be a tooth. No part of the body wants to be some other part of the body. So why, in the body of Christ, should we be any different?
Single-celled beings can do many things that higher beings require many parts to do, but they are so small that no one can see them with the naked eye. Neither the human body nor the body of Christ is a gigantic amoeba!
Although Paul doesn’t explicitly mention it, blind eyes, deaf ears, and crippled limbs are still part of the human body. Anyone can see that a blind, deaf, or crippled person has body parts that do not function as they should. No one decides that blind eyes must therefore be removed from the body.
Today, we like to call people “differently abled” rather than disabled. Indeed, our society encourages them to live to the fullest. We can fit amputees with prosthetics. Oscar Pistorius, a double-leg amputee, sprinted in the 2012 Summer Olympics. So far, we have no comparable technology to give sight to the blind, but I have several times watched a blind friend outplay numerous sighted friends at cornhole.
We probably all know Christians who seem somehow spiritual cripples who can’t do what we expect Christians to do. We might even consider ourselves spiritually blind, deaf, or lame. But that doesn’t make anyone any less a part of the body of Christ. We are who we are. We have the aptitudes and ineptitudes we have. No one can’t be anyone else, no matter how much we might desire it.
But that brings up another point:
1 Corinthians 12:20-21
20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” Or again, the head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you!”
We mustn’t be arrogant to the apparently less valuable
No part of the body has any right to consider that any other part of the body doesn’t belong. The eye can’t exclude the hand. The head can’t exclude the foot.
It’s all too easy for some who consider themselves extraordinarily gifted to look down on others whom they consider less gifted. And it’s all too easy for some who consider themselves to be hard working to look down on others who don’t seem to do as much for the church.
The parts of the body that seem to be less gifted or otherwise less important (at least in the eyes of some) are nonetheless part of the body. Those who are superior in their own minds have no right do disdain anyone else.
Now, let’s take a closer look at Paul said about the head. Jesus is the head of the body. By analogy, Paul seems to be saying that Jesus cannot exclude anyone from his body.
How can we say that Jesus can’t do something? He is all-powerful, but that simply means that he can do anything that can be accomplished by exercise of power. Acting in a way contrary to his nature is not a matter of power. God gave Jesus because he loved the world so much that he is not willing that any should perish. And it is Jesus’ nature to call all humans to him, and then when any come, no one can snatch them out of his hand. He will not reject any who offer their lives to him.
Jesus modeled humility. If Jesus, the head, can’t say to another part of the body, “I don’t need you,” then we who are other parts of the body can’t, either.
1 Corinthians 12:22-24a
22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that are weaker are indispensable. 23 And those parts of the body that we consider less honorable, we clothe these with greater honor, and our unrespectable parts are treated with greater respect, 24 which our respectable parts do not need.
We mustn’t be embarrassed about any part of the body
Here, the word Paul uses for “weak” could be translated as sickly or feeble. It takes on the additional connotation of being unimportant. But Paul does not say only that the weak ought to be welcomed but that they are indispensable. The body of Christ can’t do without them. Earlier (1 Corinthians 1:27), he wrote, “Instead, God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen what is weak in the world to shame the strong.”
Paul contrasts our honorable and unpresentable parts and points out that we clothe our less respectable parts. That is, we can expose “honorable” parts of our body without shame. We might cover our arms and legs for protection from weather or insects, for example, but not for being unpresentable.
At different times and different places, people have kept varying amounts of their bodies always covered with clothing. But we don’t get dressed merely to hide parts of our bodies. Clothing is an attractive adornment.
Not since Eden have people routinely gone naked. In every society I know anything about, people have at least clothed their buttocks and genitals. That is, the lower part of the torso. The body could not function without the torso, even though parts of it are kept out of sight.
1 Corinthians 12:24b-27
Instead, God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the less honorable, 25 so that there would be no division in the body, but that the members would have the same concern for each other. 26 So if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.
27 Now you are the body of Christ, and individual members of it.
Visible and less visible members at worship
Spiritual applications are numerous.
For one thing, within the church, some people have highly visible roles. At worship services, everyone sees the pastor(s), the music team, even the ushers. They cannot perform their part without people serving in invisible roles.
Someone has to prepare the bulletin, the communion elements, the slides projected within the service. Someone has to count and deposit the offering and keep a record of everyone’s contributions. And some congregations have a team of intercessors who pray in a separate room throughout the service. Even without such a team, the church staff surely gathers for prayer at some time before the service. No one else sees them.
These unseen workers are certainly not unpresentable, but it’s not a stretch to say that the church treats them with modesty and that the visible parts of the service could not happen successfully without them.
All parts of the body of Christ are necessary for its functioning
Perhaps more important, whether we consider a part of our body weak or unpresentable, we can’t do without it. In the same way, the weaker and/or more embarrassing parts of the body of Christ—such as unpopular people or people who seem unable or unfit to carry out visible roles––are nevertheless indispensable. God has made them and chose just where to put them in the body, whether any of the other parts of the body of Christ like it or not.
The church has fractured into numerous denominations simply because one group of Christians has decided to reject some other group of Christians. There may be some very good reasons for the divisions, humanly speaking, but they are not God’s plan. Still less part of God’s plan are factions and cliques within congregations.
Honorable or less honorable is a human concept. God has put the body together, and every part is honorable in his sight. Unity in the church matters.
There should be no division or dissention that prevents members from having equal concern for all the other members. Thus, Paul concludes, all members suffer when one member suffers. All members rejoice when one member receives honor. We were, after all, baptized into one body by one Holy Spirit, regardless of how we might be distinguished from each other as denominations or individuals.