The church is the body of Christ. As Christians, we’ve probably heard the metaphor so many times we don’t even think about it anymore.
That’s why I was brought up a little short recently by a comment from N. T. Wright on these words from Paul:
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. …You are the body of Christ and parts of each other. (1 Cor 12:12, 27, NRSV)
Wright observes that we might have expected that first sentence to end, “so it is with the church.” And indeed, knowing what’s coming, I tend to read the sentence as if the word “church” were there. That’s not wrong, as far as it goes, but it’s not what Paul says: he says “Christ,” not “church.”
That seemingly odd bit of phrasing is brought out even more strongly by the Common English Bible’s recent translation:
Christ is just like the human body—a body is a unit and has many parts; and all the parts of the body are one body, even though there are many. …Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (1 Cor 12:12, 27, CEB)
Not “the human Jesus had a body,” but “Christ is just like the human body.” It may be, as Gordon Fee has suggested, that Paul is using metonymy here, that is, using one word to symbolically stand in for or represent something related. In other words, he may be saying “Christ” when what is meant is “body of Christ”—thus, “The body of Christ is just like the human body.”
That certainly makes sense.
But I wonder.
Throughout his letters, Paul goes well beyond “Jesus taught and did this or that, so we should behave or respond this way.” The relationship between Jesus and his church is much more intimate. We are in Christ, as Paul is fond of saying, and Christ is in us. We are united with him in death, so that we will also be united with him in new life (Rom 6:5).
We are not just a body, but Christ’s body, one with him. Whatever Paul’s intent, we shouldn’t read the passage as if he were just a business consultant talking about the importance of interdependence in work groups. As he’s already made clear in the earlier part of the chapter, the church does not exist independently as a religious organization—it owes its very existence to God’s will and purpose. To fail to “discern the body” (1 Cor 11:29) is not merely to make an organizational error, but to dishonor our union with Christ and decapitate the body of which Jesus is head (Eph 4:15-16; Col 1:18; 2:19).
A bit grisly of an image, perhaps. But we may need to shock ourselves awake now and again.