(1Co 12:14-17 ESV) For the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell?
It’s a familiar lesson to anyone who’s spent much time in church, and as a result, we often don’t hear the fullness of what is saying. N. T. Wright offers some insights that carry us beyond most commentaries.
The most striking thing in this remarkable passage is the way he introduces it in verse 12. We might have expected him to say ‘as the body is one and has many members … so also is the church,’ or at least ‘so also is the body of the Messiah’. He doesn’t. He simply says ‘so also is the Messiah’.
Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 159–161.
We miss the impact of the statement because translators use “Christ,” which for most of us, has lost its original meaning as “Messiah” or, more fully, “God’s anointed King.” Thus, Paul declares that the Messiah King himself is a body made of many members.
When he talks about a human being, a human body, he is writing as a Jewish thinker for whom, with Genesis 1 and 2 in the background (and we know from elsewhere in the letter that he had them very much in mind), the question of God creating a new, true humanity in and through the Messiah, Jesus, was all-important. In chapter 15 verse 27 he will quote from Psalm 8, the passage in which God declares that human beings are put in authority over the world, and he will declare that this has now happened in Jesus the Messiah. So for him to choose the image of a human body to express what those who belong to the Messiah have now become, and how they are to live, is deep with significance. The church is to be the place where, together, we learn how to be God’s genuinely human beings, worshipping God and serving him by reflecting his image in the world.
Not obvious, but I think he’s right. The church is the body of Christ — a very human body, made like the bodies of Adam and Eve, to worship and to serve by being the very image of God in the world. Each of us, and most especially, all of us together in the church as a single body, show the world Jesus by being his image — which is a return to our original purpose when God created the heavens and the earth. By being the image of Jesus to the world, we are restored to God’s original intentions for us.
Therefore, when we fail to be united, we corrupt the image of Jesus seen by the world. Our division interferes with the lost finding Jesus.
When we say that, because we’re a foot, we’re not part of the body, we aren’t necessarily claiming a low opinion of ourselves. It could be quite the opposite: “Because I’m a foot, I can stand alone without the rest of you!” Sometimes we let our differences justify autonomy and separation, when just the opposite ought to be true.
After all, it’s only in the Churches of Christ where preachers and editors speak of the “grace-unity heresy” as though it should be obvious that grace and unity are bad things! Plainly, Paul is encouraging unity in diversity — exactly the thing that so many within the Churches of Christ oppose.
Now, Paul places boundaries on allowable diversity. Unity is only for those in Christ. You have to be part of the body. But within the body, there is room for considerable differences. Eyes don’t look much like ears, and they do very different things — as part of the same body.
(1Co 12:18 ESV) 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.
Paul now adds a critically important element: God himself created us to be different from each other. Our different gifts are a consequence of choices made by God.
On the other hand, what church leaders hasn’t noticed that his congregation is lacking in many important gifts? Who has enough teachers? Enough recruiters? Enough evangelists? And yet Paul says God arranged our gifts as God chose. How can this be?
In my opinion, the answer comes back to our disunity. We divide into scores of warring, tiny congregations, dividing the talents and gifts given us by God among several congregations, when God intended to provide enough gifts for a single congregation. The gifts we need are available; it’s just that we might have to learn to get along, share, and unite to be able to use them.
(1Co 12:19-21 ESV) 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”
In my experience, we are far more likely to say “I have no need of you” than “I do not belong to the body.” And we do this in many contexts. We readily declare the other denominations unneeded (while preaching from their commentaries and books). And we’ll even declare other congregations of our own denomination unneeded — as though our churches have everything they need and wouldn’t be stronger and healthier merged.
Then, within our own congregations, we deny women any leadership role, as though we have enough leaders. We might recognize that God has given many of our women gifts to lead or teach, but we figure our traditions are far more important than honoring the work of God among us.
The truth of the matter is that we need each other more than we are willing to admit. We need more gifted people. More talented members. We need more of the Spirit’s work within us, not less, and yet we often insist that the “safe” and wise course is to stand in the way of God’s giftedness among us.
(1Co 12:22-25 ESV) 22 On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, 24 which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, 25 that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.
The natural tendency is to figure that God rewards us with gifts, so that having more impressive spiritual gift indicates some sort of spiritual superiority. But Paul teaches the exact opposite.
In fact, Paul says that, just like for the human body, we tend to cover the less presentable parts. If I have an ugly gut, I wear loose clothing that conceals my ugliness. If my legs are scarred and knobby, I wear long pants. Just so, sometimes the church members given the most spectacular spiritual gift is the one who needs the most help, who is the weakest without the gift.
And so, rather than being jealous because brother X can speak well in public and I cannot, perhaps God gave brother X that gift to cover up his weakness. Maybe I didn’t get that gift because I have so much more to offer already.
(1Co 12:26 ESV) 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.
Surely, Paul was a prophet — as shown by his prediction of church announcements. I mean, in what weekly event do we more share in each other’s honor and in each other’s suffering as much as in the announcements?
Strangely, the one area the members most complain about is the weekly announcements– as though our time is too valuable to have to listen to the honors and sufferings of others. In fact, I believe our impatience with announcements sometime reveals just how little we care about each other.
Certainly, we should expect our leaders to communicate efficiently, so that we aren’t wasting time. But we really ought to care enough for our brothers and sisters that we are happy to hear about their prayer needs. We ought to care enough that requests for volunteers are considered blessed opportunities rather than interference with the “real” reason we’re assembled.
In fact, we’re assembled, to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works” (Heb 10:24 ESV) — exactly the purpose of announcements.