I’m teaching 1 Corinthians in Sunday School, and I’m constantly being challenged and enlightened by this wonderful letter. Paul is worried by a church dividing, and in love he confronts, teaches, and encourages unity. He teaches tolerance, bearing with one another. He tells us to care for those who are weaker, deferring our freedom for the good of others. All of this with the goal that the church be healthy in it’s inner relationships as well as in it’s testimony to those outside of its walls.
Recently, however, I was struck by this verse.
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.
The teaching of the church as the body of Christ is nothing new to me. It’s one of Paul’s preferred metaphors for the church and it is a common and necessary teaching for all of us. We all form part of the Body, each with our gifts and talents. Each of these gifts and talents should be used for the good of the community. Just as it is with the human body, it is with the church. Each part is important; every person is necessary.
That is a powerful teaching that all of our churches need to remember from time to time, but while I was preparing for this class, the study I’m using (N.T. Wright for Everyone) pointed out something I had never before noticed. The way we normally teach the above verse goes like this, “The human body has many parts that work together to form the one body, and that is the way it is with the church.” That teaching is true, but it isn’t exactly what the verse says. Paul writes that the human body has many parts that work together in unison, and so it is with Christ.
When Paul speaks of the church being the Body of Christ, he isn’t speaking metaphorically, he’s speaking ontologically. Another way of saying that is that the church as Body of Christ is not an image that Paul is using to teach us about the church, it is his theology. The church is Christ. The church is the presence of Jesus in the world. The church is Christ’s body, not metaphorically but literally.
That is why, for Paul, the things that happen within the the church are so important. At one point, after reminding the Corinthians that the church is the temple of the Holy Spirit, he says that anyone who works to destroy the church will be destroyed by God.
That’s pretty strong language.
But it’s precisely because of this fact that the church is Christ, the church is the temple of the Holy Spirit. The church isn’t just a group of people. We aren’t some religious club. We’re not a few people who get together every now and then to worship, study, or pray. Paul has a much higher view of the church.Instead of being church members, we are members of Christ’s body. We, together as church, are to be the visible, physical presence of Christ on Earth.
What, I wonder, would happen if we truly began viewing our churches in this way? What if we stopped thinking church were just a group of people with similar beliefs, and instead took seriously the fact that the church is the body of Christ?
I think it could be quite revolutionary. What about you?