In numerous places in the New Testament the apostle Paul refers to the church using the metaphor of the “body of Christ.” For example, he addresses the church at Corinth saying, “you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” (1 Cor. 12:27). In Ephesians he says, “the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior” (Eph. 5:23). And elsewhere he declares, “my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God” (Rom. 7:4).
In using this metaphor, Paul deploys the standard teaching methodology of Jesus, who constantly used figurative language (e.g., “born again,” “light of the world,” “living water,” sheep and shepherds, etc.) to convey deep moral-spiritual truths. Like all recurrent biblical metaphors, the “body of Christ” concept warrants close attention. What are the features of a literal body and what are the implications for this metaphor used by Paul?
- A body is composed of many parts working together. The same is true of the church, as it is a collection of individual persons who work together to do God’s work on earth;
- A body’s parts (e.g., hands, feet, lungs, kidneys, etc.) perform a variety of functions. Similarly, the various people in the church serve different functions (teachers, prophets, administrators, etc.);
- The parts of a body must be nourished to grow and function properly. Each individual Christian must practice the disciplines of the faith (i.e., prayer, study, worship, fellowship, etc.) in order to effectively function in the work of the church;
- If a body part fails or is damaged, the whole body suffers. Just as tissue damage in one part of our physical body compromises the ability of our body as a whole to carry out its functions, when an individual Christian suffers or struggles in some way, the church suffers as a whole;
- Tensions between parts enable growth. Just as pressure and tension are important for the building of muscle, the different parts of Christ’s body—individual people—grow through suffering; this may even include conflicts with other people (cf. Pr. 27:17—“iron sharpens iron”).
The “body of Christ” metaphor also suggests some significant parallels between Christ’s body and the Church which we should find encouraging. First, as Christ suffered, so must his body (the church) suffer. As Christians in this world we tend to regard our troubles and difficulties as nuisances that get in the way of our primary occupations in this world. But what if our suffering is actually the better part of our business here on earth? As the prophet Isaiah tells us, Jesus was the “man of sorrows,” purposefully stricken, afflicted, and oppressed for a greater good. As members of Christ’s body, we should take a similar perspective on our own suffering. After all, James tells us to “Consider it pure joy, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4). Apparently, our trials are essential to our spiritual maturity, an immense good to be sure.
Secondly, as Christ’s body died and then rose again, so too will his metaphorical body (the church) die but rise again. The great promise of the Gospel is that those who are in Christ—who are members of his body—will live eternally with the Lord and his people. This is precisely because of our being united with him in his death. As the Apostle Paul says, “if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been set free from sin” (Rom. 6:5-6).
Thirdly, our being united with Christ in this way, as members of his body, implies that a premium must be placed on personal repentance, as Paul emphasizes in that Romans 6 passage. If we are united with Christ, and thus crucified with him (cf. Gal. 2:20), then our lives now should reflect this. As Paul says, “do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life” (Rom. 6:12-13). This means daily renewing our resolve to resist temptation and honor God in all of our thoughts, words, and deeds. And this, of course, requires that we pray faithfully, remain steadfast students of Scripture, and practice other spiritual disciplines as well (e.g., fasting, confession, meditation, fellowship, etc.).
These are just some of the lessons we can glean from the biblical metaphor of the church as the body of Christ. Rich and inspiring stuff!