Unity isn’t sameness

If you’ve ever been part of a fractious congregation, the idea of the church as a harmonious whole, as one smoothly functioning body, may seem like an unrealistic pipe dream.  Is it that everything was hunky-dory in the first century, and we’ve been going downhill ever since?

Hardly.  Read Paul’s letters from a sociologist’s point of view: even in places where the Holy Spirit was clearly at work, Christians could still have confused ideas and distorted relationships.  The church in Corinth, apparently, was just such an earnest but confused congregation, one that tended toward divisiveness and pride.

As we’ve seen in recent posts, Paul had to repeatedly sound the theme of unity: there is one Spirit, one Lord, one God — and one body.  But Paul also needs to speak to the other side.  Just because the church is one body doesn’t mean that everyone has to be or look the same: there will still be Jews and Greeks, slaves and free persons.  And there will be different gifts, different ways in which God will use individuals for the good of the whole and for his work.  Paul writes:

Certainly the body isn’t one part but many.  If the foot says, “I’m not part of the body because I’m not a hand,” does that mean it’s not part of the body?  If the ear says, “I’m not part of the body because I’m not an eye,” does that mean it’s not part of the body?  If the whole body were an eye, what would happen to the hearing?  And if the whole body were an ear, what would happen to the sense of smell?  But as it is, God has placed each one of the parts in the body just like he wanted.  If all were one and the same body part, what would happen to the body?  But as it is, there are many parts but one body.  (1 Cor 12:14-20, CEB)

It’s easy to imagine people dejectedly thinking that if they don’t have specific identified and valued gifts, they don’t “belong” or don’t have a role to play.  You may have known churches in which believers were almost desperate to have the “right” gift, lest they be relegated to second-class status.  Reading between the lines earlier in Paul’s letter, it seems that something like this may have been happening in Corinth around a number of spiritual issues.

But Paul isn’t necessarily implying that the “foot” or “ear” that says “I don’t belong” is depressed or suffering from low self-esteem.  It may simply be that the Corinthians really wanted to know: “Paul, is it true?  Some people here seem to think that speaking in tongues is the only gift that really matters.  Is that right?”

Paul’s answer is to push them to think about the body metaphor.  “That’s not the way bodies work, is it?  You can’t have the whole body be made up of an eye, or for that matter, an ear; if you did, you’d lose other vital senses.”  (Interestingly, if you follow Paul’s progression, the next question would have begun, “If the whole body were a nose.”  Eventually, he would have come to the fact that the whole body can’t be a tongue.  Was that somewhere in the back of his mind?  We’ll never know.)

But the basic point seems to be this: God is the one who created our physical bodies.  That one body has many parts, and they can’t all be the same.  Every part has a place and a purpose.  So it is with the church, the body of Christ.”  And having said that, he transitions the argument back in the other direction again, from the many parts to the one body.

What would it mean for a believer today to say, “I’m not part of the body”?  Maybe it’s something like: “Wow, I really admire all the gifts and talents they have at this church.  I can’t do anything like that.  I guess I don’t belong here.”  Whatever the case, the answer seems to be just saying or thinking that doesn’t make it true: God is the one who has put the body together according to his own specifications.  Any understanding of gifts that loses track of that fact is missing the mark.