In writing to a divided Corinthian church (I Corinthians 1:11), Paul stresses unity. The apostle assures the Corinthians that they have all been endowed with spiritual gifts and that though they do not exhibit the same gifts, this was not grounds for division (I Corinthians 12:1-11). He then makes the natural progression from spirit(ual gifts) to body (I Corinthians 12:12-27). In doing so, he equates living out Christianity to functioning as the body of Christ.
For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. (I Corinthians 12:12 NASB)The analogy of the body was not uncommon in antiquity though Paul was likely the first to translate the metaphor into terms of religious communion.
Gordon D. Fee (b. 1934) comments:
In I Corinthians 12:12-26 Paul reinforces ...by means of a common political-philosophical analogy—the “body” politic now viewed as the “body” of Christ. He begins with the analogy by highlighting the two essentials, unity and diversity (one body, with many parts; I Corinthians 12:12, 14), and by focusing on their common experience of the Spirit in conversion as the key to unity (I Corinthians 12:13). But the essence of the elaborations of the analogy (especially I Corinthians 12:15-20) is the need for diversity if there is to be a true body and not simply a monstrosity. By its very nature the analogy shifts focus momentarily from the gifts per se to the diversity of people who make up the community in I Corinthians 12:21-26. (Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (New International Commentary on the New Testament), 583)The metaphor stresses that Christians are all members of the same team. Anthony C. Thiselton (b. 1937) informs:
The so-called “weak” must not feel that if they happen to have not received certain gifts, they are somehow not a genuine part of the body [I Corinthians 12:15]...Paul reassures those who are anxious about comparisons with supposedly more “gifted” members, and underlines their role, status and welcome. On the other side, he rebukes “the strong” who seem to think that only those of similar social status and similar spiritual gifts are “real” Christians” [I Corinthians 12:20-21]. (Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (New International Greek Testament Commentary), 990)Marion Soards (b. 1952) asserts that “in Christ unity dominates diversity and makes diversity genuinely meaningful and constructive (Soards, I Corinthians (New International Biblical Commentary), 263).”
Watchman Nee (1903-1972) relays the practical application:
It means that the children of God at Corinth are the Body of Christ; so, both according to the spiritual principle and the spiritual fact, they should express themselves as the Body of Christ. The Body of Christ is the universal church, the church which is in all places and throughout all generations both in space and in time. However, the brothers in a locality must at least stand in the same position, applying the same principle to express the same fact. In other words, the minimum boundary of unity is the boundary of locality. (Nee, Further Talks on the Church Life, 109)Does a functional hierarchy exist in the religious institutions with which you associate? Should it? What analogy would you use to describe the church? What part of the body do you see yourself as serving? Are there any unnecessary parts of the Christian body, e.g. is anyone the appendix? What is the basis of the unity of the body of Christ?
God is the architect of both the human body and its metaphorical counterpart. The Spirit of Christ should be strong enough to make all other differences minor by comparison. Richard B. Hays (b. 1948) relays:
In I Corinthians 12:13 Paul recalls for the Corinthians the basis of their unity in the one body: all of them, at the time of their conversion and initiation into the community of Christ’s people, were “in the Spirt...baptized into one body” and “made to drink one Spirit.” (Hays, First Corinthians (Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 214)Joseph A. Fitzmyer (b. 1920) clarifies:
He [Paul] identifies the members of the community, first as “Christ” (I Corinthians 12:12), then as the “body of Christ” (I Corinthians 12:27), and eventually as “the church” (I Corinthians 12:28). As such, the many members of the Christian community must use all their diverse manifestations of the Spirit “to the good” (I Corinthians 12:7) of the whole, because Christ is the unifying principle of the church. (Fitzmyer, First Corinthians (The Anchor Yale Bible), 474)Though Christ is clearing seen as the glue that holds the unit together, there is a glaring omission from Paul’s analogy as presented in I Corinthians 12. Alan F. Johnson (b. 1933) writes:
Curiously, he does not call Christ the “head” of the body in this chapter (but see Ephesians 1:22-23, 4:15-16, 5:23; Colossians 2:19). This may alert us that Paul is here (I Corinthians 12:12-30) using the body metaphor differently than in Ephesians and Colossians. Here the point is not the head-body metaphor but that many parts form one body...In Paul’s mind there is some sense in which the divinely constructed union (I Corinthians 12:13) of the many diverse parts—organically interrelated, interdependently, harmoniously and functionally one body—constitutes now through the Holy Spirit the reality of Christ’s visible presence and activity in the world. (Johnson, 1 Corinthians (IVP New Testament Commentary), 230)Christ’s headship of the body of Christ is a prominent theme elsewhere in the Pauline epistles (I Corinthians 11:3; Ephesians 1:22-23, 4:13, 4:15-16, 5:23; Colossians 1:18, 2:19) including later in this particular letter. Jerome H. Neyrey (b. 1940) writes:
In I Corinthians 15:20-28 Paul speaks of Christ as the new Adam—the new head/source. On one level the argument simply states that as all die in Adam, so all rise in Christ (I Corinthians 15:21-22; see Romans 5:12-21). But the passage says much more...Like other Christians, Paul visualizes Christ’s headship by stating that “all things are put in subject under his feet” (I Corinthians 15:25, 27; see Hebrews 1:13, 2:6-8). Christ is head, both as source and sovereign. (Neyrey, Paul, in Other Words: A Cultural Reading of His Letters, 136)Paul sees Christians as the embodiment of Christ in the world with one spirit dictating the body’s movements. Jürgen Becker (b. 1934) argues that for Paul, this is not a metaphor but rather a description of the living solidarity of those who share the same spirit.
In Paul the figurative and comparative use of the body idea as unity in diversity is still largely dominant. Yet because his theology is determined by the new christological being of the eschatalogical church, for him the comparison becomes a statement on the nature of the church. Now the church is the “body of Christ” (I Corinthians 12:27), not just comparable to the body. Through the one Spirit who expresses himself in the diversity of spiritual gifts, all are baptized into one body which is Christ (I Corinthians 12:12-13). (Becker, Paul: Apostle to the Gentiles, 428)Is “the body of Christ” merely a metaphor or a reality? How does the church act as Christ’s physical presence in the world? Historically, why has Christianity seen so many schisms? Why have most Christian divisions been rooted in the writings of Paul when the apostle strongly stressed unity? Is Christ the head of your church? Is Christ the head of your life?
“Yes, I see the Church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.” - Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, Why We Can’t Wait, p. 104