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

Imitating Christ

Be ye imitators of me, even as I also am of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1).

It has been said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Nevertheless, it is rarely fashionable to be an imitator. People do not tend to like imitation foods, imitation clothing, and especially people who are more imitation than “real.” Many in society crave some sense of individualism, an idea of non-conformity. “Imitation” is seen as the ultimate in conformity.

And yet, somewhat ironically, there is very little out in our world that is not an imitation of something or another. Teenage children (and sometimes older) who want to look “different” still look like their peers– it is more an issue of whom it is that they imitate more than imitation itself. Even the search for individualism and non-conformity is still a following after, or an imitation, of others who have previously sought the same things.

In reality, we all learn by imitation. We learn language as small children through imitating the sounds we hear our parents and siblings and others make. The play of children often involves an imitation of what they see the “grownups” and themselves doing in real life– playing “house,” “church,” “school,” and so on. This is a trend that, perhaps to our chagrin, does not end with childhood. As we grow up we pick up all kinds of cues from our compatriots in life– clothing styles, food preferences, colloquial language, and even various forms of body language. In the end, we are all grand imitators of something.

The question, then, boils down to who it is that we are imitating. It is natural to begin our lives as imitators of our parents. As we grow up, it is easy to begin imitating our peers. If one lives in the world today, one is then easily suggested into imitating celebrities and their ilk. Without any diligent effort to the contrary, we easily become conformed to the image of the world (Romans 12:2, 1 John 2:15-17)– if all we ever do is look around us and never upward, we will look and be entirely like what is around us.

This is why Paul desires to set up a different standard for Christians. He calls believers to imitate him as he is an imitator of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1).

Paul’s example is quite profound, as is recorded in Acts 9:1-31, Galatians 1:10-2:18, and in other passages. A former persecutor of the church, he changed his entire way of living and began to preach Christ to any and all who would listen. He received beatings and endured all kinds of shame for the name of Christ. Yet in all things he attempts to set forth a good example of the Christian to imitate– he suffers for righteousness’ sake, is not slack or idle, and strives to do what is right while avoiding the wrong (cf. Romans 12:9, 2 Thessalonians 3:7-10).

But Paul is himself an imitator of the Ultimate Model– Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is the Son of God and God the Son, the very image of God (John 1:18, Hebrews 1:3). When we see Jesus we see God, and therefore we have the model to which we should all aspire (cf. John 14:5-10). There can be no higher compliment than to be seen as an imitation of Christ!

We have to come to terms with the reality that we live in a world full of imitation. We should be wary of imitating that which is of the world and is vanity; we must instead seek after Jesus and imitate Him in all things. We must be able to discern that which is really worldly and exhort all people to avoid it, no matter how seductive it may be or how supposedly empowering it might seem. Since we must imitate, we would do well to imitate the Author and Completion of life and faith, Jesus Christ (cf. Acts 3:15, Hebrews 12:2). Therefore, since we imitate, let us accept no substitutes or frauds– let us imitate God in the flesh, Jesus of Nazareth!

Ethan R. Longhenry