Image: "Acervo Museu Do Senado" by Senado the Commons via Wikimedia Commons
The body of Christ. It’s an odd phrase. Insert any other name—the body of Steve—and it just sounds wrong, self-absorbed, slightly morbid. However, in many Christian fellowships ‘the body of Christ’ is a common phrase, and usually in contexts that are not about the physical body of the man, Jesus—at least not directly. So what does it refer to?
In Romans 12:4-5, Paul addresses the following to the saints in Rome:
For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. (NRSV)
It is this group of Christians who are referred to as the body of Christ. Since he is writing to the local church (or body) in Rome, the primary application here is to unity in the local setting., Paul use the imagery of a physical body to stress the cohesiveness of the varied parts, despite their differences. In the ‘body of Christ’ Christians have many different roles or functions, yet are inextricably joined together as ‘members of one another’ (Rom 12:5).
Paul’s next words carry this theme further as he mentions the variety of ‘gifts’ that God has supplied for the guidance, instruction, interaction and general health of the church:
We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully. (vv6-8)
The image of ‘body’ for a group of people who have something in common is not an unusual one: the body politic inhabit the same state, the body corporate share an apartment block, the student body attend the same school. Is the connection between church members just friendship (or sometimes not even that)? Are they just part of the same club?
Paul does not merely refer to the church as a religious body, but very specifically as the body of Christ. The spiritual connection between members is very deep, describing a spiritual reality that transcends what we can see and touch. Paul also writes of the church as the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12. The passage follows a discussion of the Lord’s supper, in which he rebukes the Corinthians, ‘for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk’ (v21). In doing this, they effectively ‘despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing’ (v22). He warns them that ‘anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgement on himself’ (v29). There is an inherent inconsistency in participating in a meal commemorating the sacrifice of Jesus’ physical body in a way that is self-seeking and disregards the needs of other participants. Those who wish to recognize Christ’s physical body, must also recognize his metaphorical body, the church:
For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Cor 12:13)
We are united in Christ by his Spirit, irrespective of culture, race, station in life, or nationality.
How, in practice, do we live out this connectedness in the body of Christ? To begin with, we must not grieve the Holy Spirit that unites us by mistreating each other:
Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. (Eph 4:31f)
But there is much more to being the body of Christ than avoiding self-harm.
The ‘one body’ language indicates greater intensity of relationship than a perfunctory once a week worship service attendance. Sadly, much modern church worship is very spectator driven. The ‘show’ predominates, with the members entrenched in the pews, eyes straight ahead, focused on the ‘stage’. For many, there is more personal interaction at a sporting event! Yet New Testament Christianity was far from a spectator sport. The earliest Christians thought about church quite differently to the way most people do today. They thought, ‘be the church’; we think, ‘go to church’. To be what God intended, we have to radically change the way we think of church.
Another difference between the early church and many churches today is the emphasis on the individual’s relationship with God. It’s all about me and God. There's no doubt that our relationship with God needs to be intensely personal, but we distort the New Testament’s teaching if we focus on this to the exclusion of the corporate relationship between God and his people. This was more obvious in the Old Testament, as God dealt with Israel as a nation. But in the New Testament it remains important. We see it in the centrepiece of the Sermon on the Mount—the Lord’s Prayer. This is not a personal prayer, but a corporate one: our Father, our daily bread, forgive us our sins, rescue us.
To ‘be’ the body or church that God intended, and have the impact he intended as the risen Christ’s earthly and Spirit-filled presence, we need to understand that the depth of our relationships in the body are a tangible demonstration of the depth of our personal relationship with God himself. These are inseparable, and neither should be neglected.
Romans 12 begins with Paul focusing our attention on the mercies of God and then calling us to ‘real worship’, a total sacrifice of ourselves in service to God. He challenges us not to be conformed to the way this world thinks: ‘Don't let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould but let God remould your minds from within’ (Rom 12:2, trans. JB Phillips).
Significantly, in this context, Paul goes on to talk about our relationships in the body. Connecting the dots, we must not let the world around us determine how we treat one another, but accept God's will and purposes as determinative of our actions. The world moulds us to be highly individualistic. God’s will moulds us to be involved intimately and intently in each other’s lives.
Verse 3 brings up the important question of how we view ourselves. How we relate to others so often hinges on how we see ourselves, so Paul starts there. He uses the term ‘sober judgment’. Most of us have a tendency to err to one extreme or the other—to either think of ourselves as better than we are or constantly put ourselves down. We are all different. Yet we all have value because the Creator of the universe assigned value to us in the way he made us. The challenge is to accurately assess our strengths and weaknesses, and work out how we can serve in the body with those characteristics.
To ‘be’ the church and not just ‘go’ to church, we must also understand and practice God’s plan for transformational relationships. In verse 9, Paul talks practically about the love members of the body should have for each other. The call is to genuine love. Nothing is worse than fake love. But genuine love is not always easy. Genuine love goes far beyond a warm greeting at a church service.
James gives one example of a failure of love within the church in the second chapter of his letter. He takes the Christians of his day to task for showing partiality toward those who were better off financially. Prejudice is not new, whether socio-economic, religious or racial. The sad fact is that from Jesus’ day to ours, this kind of discrimination has been a part of church—but when we are all united in one body, it is clear that this should not be.
Another feature of genuine love is honesty with one another. I just got back from a meeting with the men who lead a church in Ecuador. Even though we like each other and work well together, these times of baring our souls to one another are not easy. I feel the wearisome temptation to be guarded. I steel myself to once again risk exposure and judgment. Thankfully what I experienced was the gift of acceptance and embracing love, because of the Spirit that unites us. But that's the kind of love we are talking about. It's not easy. It's not neat (in fact it can be quite messy) and it takes a lot of work.
The last part of verse 10 challenges us on another level in our relationships in the body, to ‘outdo one another in showing honor’. For most of us, our natural tendency is to be critical. We even pride ourselves on it. However putting this verse into practice means we have to take our eyes off the shortcomings we see in others and stop seeking our own honour (which is often our motivation for putting others down). Instead we are to focus on the value each person has as a member of Christ’s body—regardless of how good someone may be at this or that—and honour one another accordingly. This aspect of our life in the body should be one of the great attractions of Christianity. Where else do we see people competing to give honor to each other?
How deep are your relationships within the body of Christ? When was the last time you confessed a sin to someone at church, or asked for help with a struggle? When was the last time you sat down and asked, ‘How can I be more like Jesus?’.
Isn’t it time to stop merely ‘going to church’ and start ‘being the body of Christ’?
 This was probably much more complex than we might imagine; note the reference to house church groups in Romans 16:5 (and perhaps vv. 14-15 as well).
 I would argue that Paul also viewed the whole universal church as one body (Eph 4:4-6). This is demonstrated constantly in his letters as he works tirelessly to build unity and repair rifts between Christians in one place and another, one socio-economic group and another, one culture and another.
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