The Body of Christ

Now ye are the body of Christ, and severally members thereof (1 Corinthians 12:27).

Christians not only represent the Lord Jesus Christ; they are to understand themselves as His body.

The Christians in Corinth were able to exercise spiritual gifts; it was evident they handled these gifts with great immaturity, using them to show off and to presume a greater level of spirituality than that of others. Paul attempted to explain to them another way: the way of love, the exercise of spiritual gifts to encourage and build up the whole as opposed to the elevation of the individual (1 Corinthians 12:1-14:40). As part of that exhortation Paul sought to focus the Corinthians on their participation in and as the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31. Paul goes well beyond suggesting the metaphor; he elaborates on the connections and applications at length. A body has many individual parts but remains a coherent whole; so with the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-14). The individual parts of the body have different, unique, and important functions, and each is necessary to the well-being of the whole; so it is with the body of Christ, in which God has put every part according to His pleasure (1 Corinthians 12:15-18). Different parts of the body need each other to work most effectively; so it is with the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:19-21). In fact, many of the most necessary functions of the body are the most hidden and “modest,” and given greater honor on account of their “humility,” and so the body of Christ is to maintain care and concern for its members, with each suffering and rejoicing along with those who suffer and rejoice, so that no division may exist in the body (1 Corinthians 12:22-25). In short, the human body is sustained because its constituent parts perform their individual roles while supporting the roles of others in an organic unity; it could be said that the parts have care for each other, recognizing the importance of all for proper function, and so it must be in the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:26).

Paul manifestly used a metaphor to describe the church as a body; we are not physically interconnected with each other. But we should not deprecate what Paul says as “mere metaphor,” as if its metaphorical nature denies its substantive reality: Paul expected the Christians in Corinth to work together as a body, to care for each other as a body, and to give each member the respect and honor in valuation as critical parts functioning to build themselves up as a body. This is not a one-off message, either; Paul elaborated in similar ways in Romans 12:3-8 and Ephesians 4:11-16. In 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 Paul spoke of the Lord’s Supper as communion, a joint participation in the body and blood of Christ, because we who consume the one bread and cup are the one body of and in Christ. It is possible to literalize Paul’s metaphor to the extreme in damaging ways, but it is hard to overstate the importance and the power of the image: Christians are the body of Christ. They do well to act like it.

Our age is a hyper-individualist one. Everyone seems to glorify and advance the standing of the individual. Western philosophy has led us to the point in which man is the measure of all things, and his or her individual judgment is elevated above all else. Over the past few hundred years we have seen a consistent pattern of advancing the interests of individuals along with a corresponding denigration and thus weakening of communal bonds and norms. “Middle class values,” especially as expressed in America, exalt the individual’s ability to rise above their station and to carve out a more prosperous life for him or herself and the “nuclear family,” yet without concern for the effects of such elevation on a local community, the larger community, or the environment. Political partisans argue about where individual rights, control, and power are to be exercised, but underneath never truly question the assumption. Likewise, for some reason or another everyone decries and laments the loss of community and shared values, yet none prove willing to question or challenge the cult of the individual to a sufficient extent to stem the tide. Some seek to hold on to both at the same time, and yet time and again we see that such is impossible. One can seek the interests of each individual, or one can seek the best interests of a community as a whole; the two at some juncture will always be at odds.

We are thus stuck in a similar predicament to that of the Corinthian Christians: the glorification and advancement of the individual comes at the cost of the betterment of the whole. The Corinthian Christians could use the spiritual gifts God gave them to exalt themselves and advance their selfish purposes, or they could use them humbly to serve one another and build up the body; they could not do both. This challenge was originally laid at the disciples’ feet by Jesus in Matthew 20:25-28: the world is always about glorification and advancement of one’s individual or small tribal interests to the expense of all others, but in the Kingdom of God in Christ this cannot be so. Those who would be in God’s Kingdom in Jesus must seek to serve and better others, as Christ Himself did. They must put the interest of others before their own (Philippians 2:1-4). One cannot seek the welfare of the body of Christ while seeking to exalt and glorify oneself.

Christians therefore must be careful regarding the elevation and exaltation of the individual. It is true that far too often communities have gone aside to the doctrines and spirits of demons, turning into cults or religious institutions which suppressed and did not advance the truth. As individuals we must come to God in Christ for salvation; we have our individual roles and functions in life that are independent of the work of the corporate collective of the people of God (Acts 2:38-41, 1 Timothy 5:16). But we must not miss the overriding emphasis of the New Testament: salvation is only in the body of Christ; God works through His people, but has always worked through His people for the sake of the whole. We may come to Jesus to be saved as individuals, but we cannot find salvation independent of His body; instead, we are to become one with each other as we become one with God in Christ (John 17:20-23)!

As long as the individual is elevated the community will suffer. As long as the individual insists on his own way, he or she is still of the world, and not acting according to Christ. We are members of the body of Christ; we have our individual efforts, but all our efforts are to be unto the benefit and advancement of the purposes of the whole. We must care for each other and value each other. Such is easier said than done; such is often quite messy and complicated in practice. People are hard to love. But that’s what God in Christ is all about: loving people and bringing relational unity where there has been alienation. May we seek to build up the body of Christ above all else, and sublimate our interests to that of the whole so as to glorify God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Christ Our Sufficiency

And such confidence have we through Christ to God-ward: not that we are sufficient of ourselves, to account anything as from ourselves; but our sufficiency is from God; who also made us sufficient as ministers of a new covenant (2 Corinthians 3:4-6a).

Few things are as dangerous as when the instrument begins to vaunt itself over its designer and operator.

We see this happen sometimes in the movies. The Terminator series and the Matrix series all presuppose such a situation: humans make computers/robots, computers/robots get too smart, computers/robots try to take over. We have this feeling, deep down, that if our creation to take us over, it would be a very bad thing. We perceive that something is out of place in that condition.

The Apostle Paul understood this danger in his own life as it related to God his Creator and Christ his Savior, and it was a good thing. His ministry featured signs and wonders; many converted to the Lord on at least two continents based on his preaching and teaching. As he writes for at least the second time to the Corinthians, he has spoken of them as a living “letter of Christ,” through Paul’s ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:1-3). In that sense, the Corinthians themselves are commendation for Paul, and in that work he has great confidence (2 Corinthians 4:4).

What would happen if Paul rooted this confidence in what he could perceive in the physical realm? What if Paul thought that it was by his own strength, cunning, and persuasive ability that the Corinthians were converted to Jesus? It would be very tempting; it would satisfy the natural conceit that dwells within us all. He could feel quite important, vaunting in his position. In short, his pride could quickly undo all the work that had been done!

And that is why Paul hastens to declare that whereas the conversion of the Corinthians is his confidence in Christ toward God, it was not from his own strength or power; indeed, he declares that he has no sufficiency in himself (2 Corinthians 3:4-5). His sufficiency is from God; God is the one who made him sufficient to minister in this new covenant through Christ Jesus (2 Corinthians 3:5-6). Paul recognizes that he is the instrument; God is the power and provides what is sufficient to accomplish His purpose (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:7).

Paul’s declarations have become controversial since he established them. Some have taken his words to mean that the believer is able to do nothing at all, becoming entirely passive agents of God. Others, in seeking to avoid this extreme, go the other way, and over-emphasize the free will of mankind and come dangerously close to declaring their own sufficiency, albeit in a limited frame. What, then, are we to understand from what Paul has declared here?

We can all confess as true that everything we have and are come from God; we did not create the universe, we did not give ourselves life, and we did not make this creation for our use (cf. Genesis 1:1-2:3, Acts 17:24-29). Beyond that, since we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, there was nothing we could do in order to save ourselves; God did what we could not do in reconciling us back to Him through Jesus His Son (Romans 3:20-23, 5:6-11, 8:1-3). Therefore, every spiritual blessing comes from God through Christ, and we do not deserve them (Ephesians 1:3).

And yet God expects people to serve Him in Christ, to seek after His will (Romans 6:16-23, Philippians 2:12, 2 Peter 1:3-11). This cannot be forced, for that is not the way of love (John 3:16, 1 Corinthians 13:4-8, 1 John 4:8). People must turn from sin and submit themselves to God, seeking His paths, walking as Jesus walked (Galatians 2:20, James 4:7, 1 John 2:6).

But is there any sufficiency in us to accomplish this through our own strength? We still fall short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23); we still are beset by sin (Hebrews 12:1-2, 1 John 1:8); left to our own devices, we still wander off onto the wrong path (Jeremiah 10:23). Therefore, it is good to agree with Paul: as he understood that he did not have any sufficiency in himself, but only received sufficiency through Christ, we are not sufficient in and of ourselves for anything, but must find our sufficiency through Christ.

That is why the concept of the believer as servant is so consistently maintained throughout Scripture (Luke 17:7-10, Romans 6:16-23, etc.). The slave does all things at the behest of his Master. Another image that indicates as much is that of the instrument (Acts 9:15, Romans 6:13): the tool may accomplish a given work, but only because it has been directed by the One wielding the tool.

So we ought to understand ourselves. Do we work and labor for the Lord? Absolutely. But do we labor by our own sufficiency? Our “sufficiency” always proves insufficient in every respect. Instead, Christ must be our sufficiency. We must do all things according to His direction (Colossians 3:17); we must be strengthened with the strength that comes through Him (Ephesians 3:16-17, Philippians 4:13). Our thoughts, feelings, and actions– our entire being– must be laid at His feet for use to advance His purposes (Galatians 2:20, 2 Corinthians 4:7, 10:5, Philippians 4:8). We may have confidence in Christ toward God for what is accomplished for His purposes through us, but it is no reason for us to glory in ourselves– all praise, honor, and glory are to go to God in Christ, because He is our sufficiency! Let us serve the Lord and use our energies toward His purposes; let us be His instruments to be directed according to His good purpose!

Ethan R. Longhenry