I grew up in church, so it’s not like I lack exposure to the apostle Paul’s great metaphor for the church, the body of Christ. I’m quite certain I’ve heard more Sunday School lessons, sermons, devotionals, etc. than I can count regarding Paul’s assertion that each member of the faith family has been gifted to serve together, collectively and uniquely, for the building up of the church and the advancement of the gospel. Speaking on dispersion of giftings, the apostle poetically employs the body metaphor in Romans 12, saying:
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.
I’ve read this…over and over…numerous times.
So why do I still tend to reduce this metaphor down to a sweetly-phrased suggestion that might enable us all to just get along without going Cain and Abel on each other in our churches? Why do I reduce this great bodily unity to a lesson on how we might avoid spiritual jealousy?
This beautiful analogy that Paul draws for the church is no mere suggestion; it is a vision of what the unity of believers should look like. This is analogous to the assembly directions included in the tent I bought at Bass Pro the this summer; they are not suggestions*. Rather, they are the foundational principles that guide me to have the driest, most mosquito-free camping experience possible**. Outside of the creator’s vision for the tent, anything else is less than intended.
The gut-punching part of the passage above comes at the end when Paul states (as fact, not possibility) that those of us who are in the family of faith are “members of one another.” What could rub up against the last few hundred years of Western, individualistic, enlightenment-era thought than to tell people they belong to one another in the same way a hand and a foot belong to one another as part of a common body? What would threaten our sacred sense of self more than to hear that our individuality was made to be incorporated, not isolated?
The implications of Paul’s metaphor are staggering. I suppose I think of it like this: when there is discord among believers in community with one another, shouldn’t it feel to the us as the spiritual equivalent of severe, sickening illness? When a fellow brother suffers, should it not feel to our collective spirits as a lingering, throbbing pain? When a sister in Christ walks away from the communal life of the church, shouldn’t it feel the spiritual equivalent to having an extremity cut off?
The truth is that it’s far easier to channel our inner Cain and merely ask God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” It’s much more in our nature to fend for ourselves. But to do so is to reduce the high standard of unity alluded to by the apostle Paul (and prayed for through bloody sweat by our Lord Jesus Christ) to a nice idea, an optional ideal, a passive suggestion rather than a non-negotiable reality of what it means to actually be the very body of Christ.
* The instructions may have been suggestions; they were in French and Spanish, which I cannot read.
**If you are distinctly prone to the use of profanity, camping and assembling tents are not for you.