1 Corinthians 12:12-26
Paul now introduces an image that he has been alluding to throughout the letter: the Church as Christ’s body. He uses this analogy to illustrate the point that he made in the previous passage, namely that everyone possesses spiritual gifts because there is one Spirit. Through this same Spirit, Paul argues that every member of the Church was baptized into one body, regardless of ethnic origin (Jews or Greeks) or socioeconomic status (slaves or free). In other words, diversity and difference give life to the Church of God, even as they cause division within the world. Paul makes this clear as he continues the illustration. A foot, for instance, cannot say, “because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body;” it is a part of the body regardless. In the same way, an ear cannot say “because I am an eye, I do not belong to the body.” Indeed, Paul asks, where would the hearing be if the entire body were an eye? Where would the sense of smell be if the entire body were an ear? There are two suppositions one can draw from this analogy. One is the conclusion that Paul articulates: every part of the body, every member of the Church has a critically important role to play; no part of the Church can function without every member. This goes both ways. The logical extension of Paul’s initial conclusion is that membership in the body of Christ is not a sometime proposition. A foot cannot decide that it does not want to be a foot anymore; it exists for the sake of the body. In the same way, those who have been baptized into Christ are members of Christ regardless of mood or preference.
Paul goes on to explain that no part of the body can say to the other “I have no need of you,” because every part of the body is necessary for wholeness and health. In verse 22, Paul begins a somewhat perplexing discussion about how the “weaker” and “less honorable” members of the body are indispensable and clothed with greater honor, whereas the “more respectable” members do not need this special attention. One can assume that he is referring to the idol meat discussion, where the “strong” were encouraged to give up their rights for the sake of the “weak.” Whatever his point, the overall thrust of the argument indicates that the distinction between “weak” and “strong” members of the body is irrelevant. Indeed, Paul notes that God has arranged the body so that there might not be dissension within the body, but so that members might care for one another. So if one member suffers, the whole body suffers; if one member rejoices, the whole body rejoices. Paul’s primary purpose is to encourage the Corinthians to purge division and schism from the church community, not by removing those who hold unpopular positions, but by realizing that they cannot exist without each other.
“The most precious thing to a human soul is every other human soul.” — George MacDonald
My wife and I have spent the last two days doing yardwork. We have been turning beds, planting herbs and flowers, and, most importantly, mowing the lawn, which had achieved savannah-length over the past several weeks. One of the things that I have noticed is that I do not have the same attitude toward lawn care as other Texans. While most of my neighbors are very careful to ensure that their lawns consist of only one species of carefully weeded and manicured grass, my philosophy is much more casual; as far as I’m concerned, it is a lawn when it is short and green. And so, our lawn consists of a dozen or so varieties of grass that most homeowners would consider weeds. On one hand, I can certainly understand that perspective. Mowing our lawn is always an adventure; I never know how long it’s going to take or how effective it’s going to be because I have no idea how our lawnmower will deal with each species of grass. Some are thick and lustrous, having retained every drop of water that has fallen on them since the last time I mowed, while other stiff and brittle varieties are pulverized by the whirling blades of our mower. When I finally finish, however, I am always struck that our lawn, for all of it’s niggling biodiversity, looks like a lawn. It may not have the manicured perfection of a putting green, but it has the inviting appearance of a place that is perfect for backyard cookouts and whiffle-ball games. In spite, or perhaps because of it’s vegetative diversity, our lawn looks and feels like a lawn.
This is, admittedly, an imperfect analogy, especially since I don’t want to suggest that those who devote more effort to lawn care somehow have unchristian lawns. I think, however, that our backyard is a good illustration of Paul’s point in this passage. In the Church, we can often get stuck in a mode where diversity, especially ideological diversity, is a bad thing; it is simply easier when people share the same political or theological perspective. We may be tempted to encourage those who have differing views to find another community, one whose perspective is more in line with their own. And yet, when we remove unpopular viewpoints from the church community, we leave a gaping hole in our proverbial lawn. We fail to appreciate that the variety of perspectives, while occasionally frustrating, can be an enormous gift to the Church. Several interpreters have regarded this passage as evidence that Paul considers schism to be theologically impossible. While I am not entirely sure this is true (if you’d like to hear more, give me a call), I think that the strength of this assertion is just right. Our unity in Christ is far more important than our differences of opinion and worldview. We must remember that the Church is not another social club, where everyone gets along so long as conversation doesn’t get too heated; the Church is the Body of Christ. No one member of the Church can legitimately decide that another member is irrelevant. The Church is not an organization of people whose loyalty to each other can be dissolved by a two-thirds majority. We have been bound by a connection far deeper and more lasting.