The human body is a wonderful thing, so complex and yet so well designed that all its diverse components work together and are interdependent on one another. The whole is indeed more than the sum of its parts. And the same can be said of the Church. “For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” (Romans 12:4,5)
Diversity in unity
This picture of the Church teaches us that there is diversity as well as unity (I Corinthians 12:12-28). Each member has an important and individual contribution to make; every part is vital, and none can be dispensed with if the body is to function properly. Individual fulfilment is less important than progress towards the common goal. A healthy church doesn’t exist solely to worship, just to evangelise or merely to undertake social projects; it will be doing all of these things (and more). It will have different people performing different tasks, according to their gifts: leaders, preachers, teachers, evangelists, welcomers, musicians, coffee servers, administrators, and so on ad infinitum. Like the various parts of the body, we are all different and yet interdependent, and we should be working in harmony together – not in competition – to advance the Kingdom of God. Everyone should have at least one role (do you really want to be the appendix – only noticed when you grumble?); but no-one should be called upon to do too many, or to take on a task for which they are not suited.
Individuality is thus recognised and affirmed, but individualism is ludicrous (I Corinthians 12:17). We do actually need each other; no one person can embody the Kingdom of God on their own. A solitary Christian is an aberration – like a disembodied eye or an amputated foot. Such an organ may be able to function on its own for a while, after a fashion, but for how long can it survive – let alone flourish – without the support and input of other body parts? Meanwhile, the body that it should be part of is deprived of its contribution.
The Head of the Body
The Church is not just a body; this description could probably be applied to many organisations. It is specifically Christ’s body – and He is the Head. “From Him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” (Ephesians 4:16) It is from Him and Him alone that a church derives its power, direction and sustenance – and no human church leader should be allowed to usurp that role!
‘The body of Christ’ is more than a metaphor; there is a sense in which it is a profound reality. As His body, we are His presence on earth for the rest of this age, until He returns. He does His work through us (Romans 15:18); and when we are abused, He Himself suffers (Acts 9:4).
Just as our physical bodies can suffer from malnourishment and disease, so can churches. “Limbs may suffer from atrophy as they fail to receive nourishment, from paralysis because they never exercise themselves, or from cancer as they enlarge at the expense of every other limb. Some bodies are afflicted with palsy as every limb jerks into independent action. Some bodies suffer arthritis: the connections between the members don’t function. And some are afflicted by asthma: inspiration is almost non-existent.” (Donald Bridge: Spare the rod and spoil the church)
Such things can cripple a church, or even (in extreme cases) cause it to die. For the sake of the whole church, leaders must be watchful and ready to deal with them at an early stage (such as by disciplining offending members if necessary). We are also responsible for looking after each other (Galatians 6:1,2), to help and encourage those who are struggling or under spiritual attack (Hebrews 3:13). If one part of the body is damaged or diseased, all the other parts of the body will be in some way affected – and sometimes these ‘knock-on’ effects are worse than the original problem!
Fortunately, just like human bodies, the Body of Christ is remarkably resilient. Even damaged and disabled bodies can achieve great things (think of the Paralympics); and likewise churches do not have to be perfect in order to advance the Kingdom of God.