By Zdravko Plantak — We can think about the church in many ways and describe it by many picturesque metaphors. But it does seem quite pertinent to think of the church in the way that Apostle Paul, at least in one of his significant descriptions of the church, thought of the community of believers as a body—a healthy, growing body. And the passage in 1 Corinthians 12:11-26 is his fullest explanation of this picture of a church as a human body. Because here, using this image, he makes four points about the communal aspects of the church. For me, it describes the church in a very imaginative way.

Firstly, he describes the church as one despite the differences. This is surely describing a church that is united. And a united church does not imply a uniform church. Paul does not disguise the differences among the faithful. For example, he has just explained in Verse 4 that people are gifted in different ways. And these gifts are used for different responsibilities within the church. There are in Verse 5, varieties of service; Verse 6, varieties of working; and then, in Verses 7-10, Paul goes on to give a list of different gifts given to individuals so that not all members of the church are gifted in the same way. So, he freely acknowledges the differences in gifts. But then he goes on in Verse 11: All these different blessings are inspired by one and the same Spirit who apportions to each one individually as the Spirit wills.

Again, Paul does not deny that there are differences in cultural background: there are Jews and Greeks; or differences of social background such as slaves and free (13). Paul would be the last person to say that differences are to be ignored. But they are nothing beside the great unifying factor which is a common experience of the Spirit—Verse 13: For by one Spirit, we were all baptized into one body, Jews or Greeks, slaves or free, and all were made to drink of one Spirit. Whatever our cultural or social background may be, we all, each one of us, has been brought into the body of Christ, into the church. And all of this is mirrored in the human body—Verse 12: For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body”. The human body has many limbs but is still one entity.

The church is one despite its differences. And this, the Corinthians needed to know. They raised the gift of tongues to an importance that it never deserved. Some were jealous that they didn’t get it. They felt distant from those who had it. And Paul says: There are differences, but there is one body. How much we need to be reminded of this truth. It is easy for us to look at people more gifted than ourselves and be jealous, or feel they are miles above us. But Paul is adamant that all these gifts whatever they are, all these gifts, however seemingly humble, are inspired by one and the same Spirit (11). And it is up to Him to apportion the gifts as He chooses. Perhaps you are very conscious and aware in our church of cultural differences.

Or you are aware of social or economic differences. And yet, Paul says in Verse 13, Don’t you see that all these things pale into insignificance beside our common experience of the Spirit. And that first taste of the Spirit is like a refreshing drink which each one has access to. Yes, says Paul, the church is a motley bunch, with many very different people in it, but it is one despite the differences. United, but never uniform.

It’s a picture, secondly, of the fact that the church is made up of various members. This is the argument of Verses 14–20. Verse 14 says: For the body does not consist of one member, but many. And then Paul imagines the less prominent limb of the body feeling it has no real significance in the body: the foot feeling inferior to the hand, the ear feeling less important than the eye. And out of the inferiority complex, one begins to form the opinion that one doesn’t really matter to the body. Paul says: “That’s ridiculous!” (15). Just take for a moment any one organ in the body, however valuable it might be. If that was the only organ, the body would be infinitely impoverished. “If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing, if the whole body would be an ear, where would be the sense of smell.” (17) In fact, there would be no real body at all. “If all were a single organ, where would the body be?” (19).

Indeed, an organ that feels unimportant, wasted, with no significant part to play in the body, is rebelling against God Himself. In Verse 19, as it is, God arranged the organs in the body, each one of them as He chose. And so Paul sums up the whole argument in this section: “As it is, there are many parts, yet one body” (20).

And this is a lesson much needed today: there are many in our communities who feel inferior and unimportant. And sometimes, these other body organs push their importance so much that it may be almost natural for some to feel pushed to the margins. Paul reminds us that this is a complete misunderstanding of what the ideal church should be like.

Suppose, for example, that the church consisted entirely of preachers and there was no one to make a hot drink afterwards or to collect our offerings. That would be a very great impoverishment of our life as a body. Suppose everybody was an organizer, everyone in church was running groups, and no-one had the time or ability to invite members of these groups for a meal. We would perhaps be a well-run machine, but there would be no warmth, no humanity. And, as Paul says in verse 20, there would be no body. No body of Christ. Indeed, to feel unimportant, to feel it wouldn’t matter if we did nothing and just slipped away from the church, to feel we don’t really belong to the Christian body, is to rebel against God. You did not choose your place in the body, God did. Verse 18: God arranged the organs in the body, each one of them as He chose. And Paul uses this picture of the body to urge the important truth that the church is made up of various, that is to say different, members.

Thirdly, the church must respect the contribution of each part (21-22). Now Paul turns from those who feel inferior, who think they have gifts not worth talking about, to those who know very well they are gifted, to the more prominent members of the body. And he tells them not to imagine they could do without the others. Verse 21 says: “The eye cannot say to the hand ‘I have no need of you.’ Nor again head to the feet ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable. Take the hand, for example—it seems a fairly unimportant appendage to the body, much less vital than the eye. But just imagine the vast range of things that we couldn’t do if we had no hands. Or take the feet. Sometimes they seem just as like ugly lumps of flesh, very quick to sweat, prone to diseases like athlete’s foot or developing bunions. But just think how much your life would be restricted if you had no feet. No, says Paul, these parts may seem weaker or less important, but for a full healthy life they are, according to Verse 22, indispensable. We should never underestimate the power and importance of the seemingly less important limb of the body.

Finally, the interdependence is essential to flourishing in the Body of Christ. God has created the human body in such a way that it has the instinct to lavish a great deal of care on what might seem the least worthy part (vv. 23-24). And we could see this in action, in Verse 26: If one member suffers, all suffer together. If the stomach is upset, the whole body is thrown out of joint with it. If one member is honored, all rejoice together. If arms or legs have been involved in some athletic activity, and have done well, maybe lifting weights or running fast over a distance, the whole body feels good as a result. Because in the human body, all the limbs know very well that they are not independent entities, but that interdependence is a significant and necessary posture. They belong together in one body. And there are people in our communities that seem weak. They are decidedly less honored in the world’s eyes: those who will never have prestigious jobs, who might never become leaders even in a small church. There are even, in recent times, members who push for different realities of the world we live in. They are on the opposite side of the spectrum on politics or understanding the pandemic, vaccination, or other public health measures, or just disagree with us in the way we think about environmental responsibilities or social, economic, or racial justice.

But the whole point of this passage of Paul is that we belong to each other because we are one body. We are not independent entities. We belong together. Of course, we struggle with this. Of course, we may even think, should we really stay connected to that body? And yet, we are invited to think about such a community that God creates, despite vast differences within its parts, as ‘e pluribus unum’, out of many, one.

Yet, God’s priorities are exactly opposite of the world’s and are mirrored in the human body He has made. Verse 24: God has so composed the body, giving great honor to the inferior part, so that there may be no discord in the body but that they can have the same care for one another. If some weak member pours out their suffering to the group, our reaction cannot be: “Not again. We heard all this last week.” This would only be possible if we belonged to two separate worlds. But we don’t. We belong to the one and the same body.

It’s a rich picture, this picture of a church as the human body. And Paul uses it to make important points. But, in a way, it’s all summed up in Verse 20: There are many parts, yet one body. The ideal church is an extraordinary collection of different people. I have only to look around the church (or even the family) that I belong to. And in the ideal community of the faithful, we must allow people to be different, nay we must celebrate our differences, and then, especially, care for people in their weaknesses, the entire time never losing sight of this important fact that we are one body!

–Zdravko (Zack) Plantak, PhD, is professor of religion and ethics at the School of Religion at Loma Linda University. Email him at: [email protected]