The previous post celebrated the triumph of teamwork in this year’s NBA Finals, and wondered what lessons there might be for the unity of the church. I suspect the metaphor might generate some interesting discussion.
But I also want to be clear: I don’t think that Paul’s image of the church as the body of Christ is a metaphor in the same way. In other words, “body of Christ” is not just a nice verbal illustration, but an attempt to put into words a profound truth about the church.
To begin again with basketball: teamwork is not an end in itself. The players aren’t trying to tighten up their friendship network, but striving together toward a goal — a trophy and a championship ring. There is a mutually reinforcing relationship between trusting each other and suffering adversity together; if they come in with a team mindset, the latter will build the former.
Thus when in 1 Corinthians 12 Paul talks about unity in the church, it’s not simply about having a warm fellowship of people who understand and meet our needs. Hopefully, that’s part of it, but that’s not the end goal.
As we’ve seen, Paul has twice used the imagery of the church as a body already in the letter, both times referring to sharing the Lord’s Supper together. In 10:16-21, Paul teaches that the loaf represents the body of Christ, and sharing in it together therefore makes the people into one body. In 11:29, he warns that taking the Supper “without correctly understanding the body are eating and drinking their own judgment” (CEB). Interpreters differ on what Paul meant, but I would side with those who believe that Paul means “without discerning that all of you who are taking the Lord’s Supper together are one body in Christ,” a truth the Corinthians were ignoring and even desecrating by their poor treatment of one another.
Thus, Paul doesn’t come to chapter 12 saying, “So if you want to understand Christian unity, here’s an illustration. Think of how the human body works…” He’s already used the image twice, assuming its importance.
Of what significance is it, then, to say that the church is Christ’s body, if it’s not just a metaphor?
Just this, I think: that while the resurrected and ascendant Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father, it is our job as the church to represent his continued physical presence, continuing his mission, empowered by his Spirit. As many have said in different ways, we are his hands, his feet, his voice. The body must function well, not simply so that it can enjoy its ease, but because it has a job to do.
It is only with that larger vision that we can come to the matter of spiritual gifts rightly — it’s about God distributing the talents needed to get the job done.