On Wednesday, 11th October, the elders, deacons and some ministry leads spent an evening eating a simple (but delicious) meal together and then briefly exploring the team-like nature of the church (‘Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is part of it’, 1 Corinthians 12:27). Following on from that evening I want to take some time in this article to talk about the anatomical (or bodily) conversations that Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 12 to help us understand how thrilling and challenging church life really is when it comes to working with and alongside other people for the sake of the gospel.
Two observations that will hopefully help you understand why this is so important for us all to grasp:
- My observation from almost 20 years in ministry is that it is very rare for people to fall out over theology (within a church community) but it’s more common than we would want to admit that relational challenges can be the cause of pain and upset between people.
- A growing church means that we cannot rely upon our history to mark out ‘how we do things around here’, because new people don’t have that information available and so growing churches need to understand and live out gospel-shaped communities.
Hopefully, you will agree with me that one of our goals this coming season is to maintain a healthy community where people don’t fall out and to invite many (maybe even hundreds?) new people into this wonderful good news (gospel) community. If we’re going to do this we probably need to revisit Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 12 where he uses comical anatomical conversation to highlight some of the dangers to community life.
Shall we take a look?
1 Corinthians 12:15-20
15 Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19 If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body.
1. The danger of comparison
“Because I am not a [fill in the blank]… I do not belong to the body”
Because I’m not a musician, good at public speaking, young, old, able to work with kids, married, friendly, pastorally sensitive, organised, Bible literate or so on… I do not belong to the body. In fact, the list is probably as long as every human characteristic, because really what Paul is highlighting here is the language of comparison, insecurity and a deformed view of our true identity which is found in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17).
What about you? Does Paul’s anatomical language ever play out in your head and, more importantly, heart? If you’re anything like me, the answer will be yes! However, Paul is wanting us to see the devastating impact this type of comparison and insecurity can have upon the church community. Tim Keller said ‘the essence of gospel-humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less’. The whole truth of Paul’s argument here in 1 Corinthians 12 is that we’ve been called to a bigger mission than me-myself-and-I and that is to belong and participate in Christ’s mission through his unified body.
2. Do we really believe in the sovereign purpose of God when it comes to … that person
But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be (v18)
This verse has huge ramifications for how we view church and, in particular, other people. Firstly, in our heart it forces to the surface the issue of the sovereignty of God in the construction and development of team life here at Emmanuel Community Church. We may want a Michael Jordan or Serena Williams type of musician, kids worker, or [fill in the blank], yet, this verse always leads us to see that this group of people are the people ‘God has placed’ in the church. This verse really challenges belief in the sovereign purposes of God. Has God really got it right or do we actually know better than him?
Secondly this verse, through the word ‘every’, leads us to see the importance of the individual and not just the crowd. God is carefully and deliberately arranging the parts of the church and that involves every single person who is a member of Emmanuel Community Church. So this leads to a probing question: do you believe that every person here is part of God’s good care for this church (yes … every person who is a member)?
3. Do you love and cherish the beauty of diversity and glorious unity?
‘As it is, there are many parts, but one body.’ (v20)
This verse is a beautiful picture of diversity and yet a glorious God-created unity. Friends, this is the picture of the church that we’ve been called to hold on to. Not uniformity, or everyone looking and sounding alike. No – massive diversity because that is the picture of a body (see also Revelation 7:9-10), and yet at the same time this incredible unity of purpose and commitment to working together for the good of the gospel.
4. The Lone Ranger syndrome
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” (v21)
Let me tell you a story from a previous church. When I first arrived, there was a wonderful couple who had, for years, been beating the drum for social action type of projects in the church. When I met with them, I, as carefully as I could, said to them that we would be involved in lots of social action activities, but my greatest fear for them was that they would miss out because they had been a lone voice for so long and I wondered if they knew how to play in a team. Sadly, the whole time we were in that church, they never managed to find their place, because they didn’t know how to play in a team. This is the Lone Ranger syndrome. The Christian world is littered with Lone Ranger initiatives. However, Paul here is showing us that a grace-shaped life is one that recognises our need for one another, which is another way of saying that we need to participate in team life!
5. Special Honour is needed in a church
‘On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honourable we treat with special honour.’ (v22-23)
These verses are deeply provocative. It speaks into our heart dispositions. Do we genuinely see those who are weaker as indispensable? The culture that we inhabit is one where the strong are needed and the weak may well be cared for but are certainly not indispensable.
However, these verses go even further! They speak about the need to give special honour to those parts of the body that are less honourable. In a growing church that could be those who are on the fringe, it could be those who are single or couples without children in a church where so much air time (rightly so) is given to marriage and family life. It could be those who come from a different culture to that of the majority culture in our church. To give special honour means to take the time and give deliberate focus to ensuring people are truly welcomed, included and honoured in the body.
Here’s my prayer and longing… Over the coming months and years, we would become a church of increasing diversity and almost every Sunday we would have newcomers among us. However, this wouldn’t weaken the body of Christ, rather, it would teach us to lean into gospel-shaped community and through that Christ who is our head would be glorified through us.