This is a five part series on the Body of Christ. If you haven’t read Part 1 you might want to begin there.
Explanation of the “body of Christ” metaphor.
A metaphor draws a comparison between two things; it is different from a simile in that it draws the correspondence more bluntly. When a metaphor is used the words “like” or “as” are omitted, and it states straightforwardly “A is B.”
In addition to Paul’s body of Christ metaphor, the scripture is replete with many others, and it is a common method that the authors of the Bible use to emphasize particular points of spiritual truths. Even Jesus used metaphors when he referred to the disciples in Matthew 5 as being the “salt of the earth and the light of the world.” The question I want to answer is why does the Apostle Paul use this particular metaphor when addressing the Corinthian church? To best answer this question we must understand the definition of “body” and how would the people of the early church have understood what a “body” was.
The word “body” is the Greek word “soma” and it is used in the following manner: of a (large or small) number of men closely united into one society, or family as it were; a social, ethical, mystical body. I believe Paul uses this “body” metaphor because it allows him to view the church as a unit or unity made up of a diversity of parts much like our human body but yet, tied to and still a part of, Christ. The point he is trying to make is one of unity and diversity. He is striving to make the point, that what is good for the individual, naturally flows to what is good for the body (1 Corinthians 12:7). In doing this, he notes two important points about the body. First he makes the point that the “body has many members” (1 Corinthians 12:12a). Second he states that the “many members form one body”.
Paul takes a position where he doesn’t over “emphasize either diversity or unity. Rather the two statements together make a comprehensive description of the Body/Christ as being both diversified and unified without necessarily giving priority to one aspect over the other.” I believe he does that so as to not “bring attention” to any one person. If he emphasized the diverseness, then some might come to believe that he was giving special attention to certain ones who had special abilities, which is totally opposite of his and God’s intent. So to balance this, he gives equal consideration to both diversity and unity. The point isn’t “unity through diversity,” it is both unity and diversity.
Paul goes on to say in 1 Corinthians 12:12 that as a body is characterized by both unity and diversity, “so it is with Christ.” Notice he doesn’t say “so it is with the church”, but “so it is with Christ.” He is setting the reader up for his next argument that the church is the body of Christ.
There have been many ideas as to the source for Paul’s body metaphor. Some have suggested he drew this analogy from the Gnostic myth of a primeval man. Others think the roots can be found in the Hellenistic idea of the universe as a divine body. Still others look to a Stoic parable and finally some scholars believe he draws upon the Jewish past and that of a patriarch representing the whole present and future tribe. No matter which source you choose to embrace as the foundation of Paul’s metaphor, it is clear that Paul was using an analogy that his audience would have been familiar with and would have been able to understand. I believe Paul has two reasons for making this “body” analogy. The first is to address the problem of “factionalism” within the church. It is obvious, based on the preceding verses, that there was division within the Corinthian church. Paul uses the very appropriate analogy of the body, to emphasize the fact that just as the physical body can’t function properly as a unit if one part isn’t doing its job, neither can the church body function properly as one if every individual didn’t work in agreement when it came to the “common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7). The second point he was making is that each member was important and was needed to complete the unity of the body and that each member becomes a “part of the body” through the working of the Spirit. No one in the church, the body of Christ, is more important and more needed than any other person in the body. Each is of equal value. Although each has a different function, their value and importance to the body of Christ is the same.
Having established the logic behind Paul’s body metaphor, in my next post I want to look at the various “characteristics of the body of Christ.”