The apostle Paul, in several of his letters, uses the metaphor of a body to refer to the church (Key passages 1 Cor. 12:12-30, Eph. 4:11-16 and Rom. 12:3-8). It appears to be a uniquely Pauline way of speaking of the church (except for Heb. 13:3). The use of the metaphor is to make important theological points and practical applications to the Christian life, which we will discuss here.
Paul describes the church as a body, with Christ Jesus as its head. He writes in Colossians 1:18, “He is the head of the body, the church.” In Ephesians 5:23 he describes this headship as one that “nourishes” and “cherishes” the body, which Christ does for the church, “because we are members of His body” (Eph. 5:30). A body that is cared for and nurtured will grow and mature.
Paul uses the body metaphor in a far more detailed way in 1 Corinthians 12. There is however no reference to Christ as the head of the body in this chapter. This slight variation is used by Paul to make an important point about unity, diversity, equality, and ministry among the members of the body regardless of the position they occupy within the body.
Membership In The Body
How does a person become a member of the body of Christ? In one sense, membership in the body is something that is foreordained by God before time began. In Paul’s discussion of the mystery, hidden for ages in God (Eph. 3:9), he speaks of the church as being made up of both Jews and Gentiles in one body. Paul writes in Ephesians 3:6, “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
In fulfilment of God’s purpose in election, an individual becomes a member of the body of Christ at the moment of conversion when the Holy Spirit places them into the body. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12:13, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.”
Purpose Of The Metaphor
The reason why Paul uses the metaphor of the body is to teach important doctrine and to make vital points of application for the Christian life. Here are five points of application for your consideration – unity, diversity, equality, ministry, and maturity.
The unity of the church is wonderfully expressed through the oneness found in a body. In 1 Corinthians 12:12 Paul writes, “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.” Now, the universal church is that one body, composed of all believers, past, present, and future, from all over the world. The local church is a visible expression of that universal reality. A believer expresses unity with the body through their commitment to the local church they attend. It is based on this truth that churches practice church membership.
Unity is also expressed in the fact that an individual’s ethnicity, language, gender, intellect, wealth, age, etc. have no bearing on their membership in the body of Christ. This is made clear for instance in Ephesians 3:6 where Paul speaks of Gentiles as “fellow heirs, members of the same body…” In 1 Corinthians 12:13 he says that “Jews or Greeks, slaves or free were baptised into one body.” As the members of a church lovingly fellowship with one another in humility, they will create a community characterised by unity.
Another important aspect of the body metaphor is that the church has diversity just as a human body does. In discussing this, Paul describes the necessary diversity in the body in 1 Corinthians 12:14–19 (cf. Rom. 12:4, 5). He says in 1 Corinthians 12:18–19, “But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be?” God has designed the body of Christ with diversity in it. While we might sometimes desire uniformity, the diversity we see in the church gives a grand expression to God’s own creativity. Moreover, unity that is borne in the midst of diversity is real unity.
Practically speaking, every church will have people who have differing views, thoughts, ideas, ways of functioning, personalities, experiences, abilities, gifts, and passions. This is God-given and must be celebrated. It should not be a cause for disunity, but an opportunity to practice unity in diversity.
One of the issues that diversity in the church may create is a feeling of inequality. Some people may think that position or gifting determines value in the church. Paul deals with this in 1 Corinthians 12:21– 26 where he makes it clear that our position in the body of Christ does not determine our worth. A person’s ears, which occupy a less honourable position than the eyes, are as important as the eyes to the proper functioning of the body. Or the feet, which are usually covered up are not less valuable than the hands, because of their position or the fact that they are covered.
In the same way, every member in the body is equal in worth and value because each one bears the image of God and has been redeemed by the blood of Christ. None of us have earned our position but have been graciously given our place to serve the body (1 Cor.12:18, 24). In fact, spiritual gifts are given to each member, not as a manifestation of themselves, but rather “as a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7).
One of the crucial reasons why Paul uses the metaphor of a body is to depict how the interconnectedness of the members of the body enables each part to feel the pain of the other (1 Cor. 12:26). Each part can therefore minister to the needs of the other. In every passage where this metaphor is used, there is always a discussion of ministry. For instance, in Ephesians 4:11 and 12 we read of how Christ gifted the church with certain offices in order to “equip the saints for the work of ministry, for the building up the body of Christ.” And then in verse 16, we read of how the body is built up in love when “each part is working properly.” Or in Romans 12:6–8, Paul urges us to use the gifts God has given us according to His grace. In Hebrews 13:3 we read of a specific example of ministry in the body. The writer of Hebrews says, “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.”
Finally, the great goal of our unity and ministry is the growth and maturity of the church. Paul writes in Ephesians 4:13 that ministry must take place and the body built up, “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ…” Our ministry of speaking the truth to one another in love will protect us from being misled and deceived by “every wind of doctrine” (Verse 14, 15).
Growth is a sign of health. A body grows when it is properly nourished and cared for. Similarly, the church grows when meaningful ministry takes place in the context of a unified and committed community of believers in a local church.
A local church that is characterized by unity, diversity, equality, and ministry will enjoy maturity.
Chandran Samuel Kadambavanam serves as the pastor of Delhi Bible Fellowship (DBF-Dwarka), New Delhi. He is married to Sharon Michelle Kadambavanam and they have four children.