JAMES  ADETORO MINISTRY        

"Keeping the Faith, Sharing the Faith and Praying for Harvests"


 

                THE CHURCH AS THE BODY OF CHRIST

           

There is a vast amount of literature on the Christian church. My attempt here is to carry out a research on one of the images that has been frequently used to describe the people who avowed Jesus Christ the Savior of the world in order to understand the profoundness of this image, especially its uniqueness to our understanding of ecclesiology.  Shirley Guthrie portrays the church as a community of people called out of the world to belong to God and to be God's people.  Hence, the church is God's creation; it has its origin in God's love.   Guthrie articulates two all-embracing purposes for the gathering of the people of God: “First, they receive God’s judging, forgiving, renewing grace.  Secondly, they come together in order to be sent out again to be God’s agents of judgment, forgiveness, reconciliation and renewal in the world.”[1]  According to James M. Boice, "The church (1) is founded on the Lord Jesus Christ, (2) is called into being by the Holy Spirit, and (3) is to contain people of all races who thereby become one new people in the sight of God."[2]  Thus Jesus Christ is the  “Petra, the bedrock" of the church, particularly, in His calling disciples to be associated with Him in life of faith and love. 

           The church can also be described as a congregation of saints and sinners.  This assertion implies that, when Christians are gathered together to worship God there is always in their midst a group of "seekers" or non-Christians who would respond to the call of God as the gospel is proclaimed by the power of the Holy Spirit and, eventually, be transformed to serving the Living Lord.  This concept was  brought forth explicitly in the writings of Augustine, Luther, and Calvin.  Richard McBrien noted that Luther "distinguished between the church as a visible fellowship including saints and sinners and the church as a hidden community of true Christians."[3]  John Calvin would say the invisible church consists of the elect only.

            The word "church" is derived from a Greek word, ekklesia, "an assembly, or the  called out ones."  The word was not primarily used exclusively to describe a people of God but as a gathering of plebeians in a Greek city-state of Athens for public and political issues.  After the end of their public deliberation, the people would disperse until the next public gathering.  In essence,  ekklesia was never used to refer to a building or physical structure.  This Greek word was used when the Old Testament was translated to the Septugiant to replace the Hebrew word, qahal, referring to the congregation of the Isrealites, "the people of God."   According to John Macquarrie, "The Church (ekklesia) was the assembly that God had summoned, just as Israel was the nation that he had chosen."[4]

            In the New Testament, ekklesia assumes the definition of the community of those who accepted the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ, who were baptized and sealed by the Holy Spirit, and, therefore, continued to participate in the symbolic life, death and resurrection of our Lord through the common worship and celebration of the Eucharist. This definition resonates with the three biblical usages of ekklesia proffered by C. Marvin Pate: "First, predominantly ekklesia (both in the singular and plural) applies to a local assembly of those who profess faith in and allegiance to Christ. Second, ekklesia designates the universal church (Acts 8:3; 9:31; 1Cor. 12:28; 15:9; especially in the later Pauline letters, Eph. 1:22-23; Col. 1:18). Third, the ekklesia is God's congregation (1Cor. 1:2; 2Cor. 1:1; etc)."[5] 

 Several images or metaphors have been used to analogize this ennobled "entelechy"[6] of Christ, the church—a symbol and an entity of reconciliation to our Triune God.  Essentially, the church is a process of sanctification which will culminate in the glorification of Christians in eternity.

Paul Minear discusses ninety-six analogies used for the church in the New Testament. One of these images, the Body of Christ, is an all-encompassing image, hence my interest to examine the metaphor in order to grapple with the nature and function of the church, and consequently develop my personal philosophy of ministry.  Writing on Paul’s usage of the body-metaphor in his epistles, Minear avers:

 . . . the term “body” enabled him (Paul) to convey, almost in shorthand fashion: (1) the universal solidarity of all persons in one man, whether the old or the new, (2) the particular selfhood of each person with his separate decisions, (3) the diverse acts by which a person was transferred from one humanity to another, and (4) the overarching promise and hope of a single consummation for the whole creation.

        This use of the term “body” also underscored the identity between the people-creating work of Jesus Christ and the people-empowering work of the Holy Spirit.[7]

 

As a metaphorical construct for the church, ‘the body of Christ’ cannot be examined alone.  In this light, I agree with Ernest Best that, “The phrase is interlocked with other Pauline phrases concerning the relationship of believers to Christ.”[8]    Consequently, an in-depth study of 1 Corinthians 12 is germane to appreciating the usage of “the body of Christ” analogy in the Pauline epistles.  According to Timothy N. Boyd, “The strongest presentation of this analogy comes in 1 Corinthians 12:14-27.  The ‘body’ is one of those analogies in which more than one element is applied to the illustration.”[9]  The ‘head’ imagery in Colossians will also be examined, specifically Colossians 1:18 and 2:19 where the head-imagery balances Pauline picturesque personification of the congregation of God which accentuates soteria in the person and atoning work of Jesus Christ in order to explicate with vividness the mystery embodied in the worship and service of God.

            Apostle Paul wrote his First Epistle to the Corinthians to deal with the beguilement, narcissism, and debauchery that stigmatized the Corinthian Church.  Corinthian Christians had become heretics per excellent and flagrantly digressed from the teaching of the apostle Paul who planted the Church.  They took their freedom in Christ as license to commit abominable sins, while parading themselves as ambassadors of Christ.  Every doctrine of the Christian faith was flouted by the Church at Corinth.  The ethics of the Corinthian Church had become Epicurean and libertine rather than Christian.  Within three years of Paul’s absence from Corinth, the Church went haywire.

There is a limit to appraising the whole gamut of problems that occasioned the writing of 1 Corinthians in this paper, but the image of the body of Christ, alluded to in Chapter 12 by Paul to combat their cantankerousness, revealed that the Church was in dire need of biblically-based ecclesiology as well as sound Trinitarian theology.  I am convinced that the concept of Trinitarian theology is embedded in 1 Corinthians12:4-6.  In verse 4, the source of spiritual gifts is identified as the Holy Spirit, in verse 5 as the Lord Jesus Christ, and in verse 6 as God the Father. These verses support the theology which undergirds the doctrine of the Trinity.  Thus, the-body-of-Christ imagery expatiates the nature and functions of the church.  In as much as I subscribe to Paul Minear’s view that whenever the apostle Paul “appealed to this figure it was the contours of the church’s confusions that made that image especially germane,”[10]  however, I strongly disagree with his assertion that, “Neither Christological nor ecclesiological nor liturgical questions stood at the center of  Paul’s concern in I Corinthians.”[11]  Nothing can be farther from the gospel truth.   In other words, the purpose of Paul’s use of this analogy is to address the deteriorating situation in the church. If it is “neither Christological nor ecclesiological” issue, what else could that be?

The attempts to reconstruct the origins and antecedents of Paul’s use of this figure of speech have been an exercise in futility among the scholars.  Authors of various persuasions have traced this metaphorical expression, the Body of Christ, to Gnosticism, Mysticism, “the temple of Asclepius with its many clay replicas of ‘dismembered’ parts of the body,”[12] Stoicism, Philo, Seneca, Qumran community, Menenius Agrippa,[13] and “the Jewish idea of corporate personality.”[14]  For instance, one author writes: “The Church as a body, of which the individuals were members, was derived from the Stoic commonplace of the state as a body in which each member had his part to play.”[15]  John Polhill agrees with this author when he writes, “In speaking of the church as a body, Paul used a common metaphor from the popular philosophy of his day, particularly Stoicism.”[16]  Nevertheless, Best debunks those assertions. He makes a case for Pauline authenticity of the imagery. According to Best, “Paul does not compare the Church to a ‘body’ but to the ‘Body of Christ’ (I Cor. 12: 27). There is a great difference between these. When the Church is called ‘a body’, or even ‘the body of Christians’ attention is focused solely upon the community; when it is called ‘the Body of Christ’, Christ becomes the centre of attention.”[17]  Hans Kung agrees with Best’s argument and asserts that, “only in the Pauline writings and in the writings directly influenced by him does the expression (the Body of Christ) occur.”[18]  So also is Gordon Fee, an authority on Corinthian Correspondence.

             The metaphorical construct, ‘the body of Christ,’  is used in 1 Corinthians 12 to stem the tide of schism and friction that have become a cankerworm that has eaten deep into the fabric of the Corinthian church. The metaphor reveals the monstrosity of their lackadaisical attitudes toward one another. In essence, Paul is dismantling their erratic theology of charismata. Thus, Paul’s intent is to infuse in the church corrective[19] form of discipline by forcing them, through the use of analogy (the body of Christ), to examine their exhibitionism in light of the purpose of the manifold gifts with which the church has been endowed.  The purpose of the gifts is for the edification of the church; these gifts are not meant to cause rifts in the church, which is the body of Christ. The body-of-Christ imagery expresses the unity and diversity that must be the hallmark of Christ’s Church.  According to Fee, “Paul’s primary concern with this imagery is not that the body is one even though it has many members, thus arguing for their need for unity despite their diversity.  Rather, his concern is expressed in v.14, that even though the body is one, it does not consist of one member but of many, thus arguing for their need for diversity, since they are in fact one body (italics author’s).”[20]

            Paul argues further that our basis for unity is the reception of the Spirit through baptism by immersion after our profession of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.  It is along this backdrop that I pitch my tent against Pentecostal and charismatic churches which lay strong emphasis in speaking in tongues as a physical manifestation of being baptized in the Holy Spirit, and whose officious leadership coerced its followers to believe that glossolalia is evidence of being spiritual or Spirit-filled Christians.  The idea that those who speak in tongues are superior to others is debunked by Paul in this chapter.  The personification of the bodily parts pictorially depicts that no Christian should consider him/herself inferior in the church.  Although Gordon Fee would have us believe that the tongues-speaking Corinthians had neither “elitist view” nor consider “themselves superior to others,”[21] the use of the analogy suggests that their exhibitionistic posture during worship services cowed others who do not speak in tongues to believing they are inferior, even if the tongues-speakers did not explicitly say so.  (As Yoruba people say, “action speaks louder than words.”)  The tinge of inferiority complex displayed by those members who did not speak in tongues prompted Paul to argue definitively that other gifts are just as important as the gift of tongues, with the gift of love considered the most excellent Christian virtue.  In all intents and purposes, Paul is saying that love is “the context for all gifts.”[22]  As Gordon Fee noted: “The way they are going is basically destructive to the church as a community; the way they are being called to is one that seeks the good of others before oneself.”[23]  The conclusion, then, is, since the body has many members and one member cannot literally devalue the function of another member in the body, therefore, Christians are admonished to respect each other’s gift(s) and role in the church and in the world of which Christ came to reconcile to His Heavenly Father.  In the words of Owen Thomas, “. . . the church is the body of Christ in that the Spirit of Christ gives gifts to the members so that they may function in the way that various parts of the human body function in relation to the whole body.”[24]

            Paul emphasizes the interconnectedness, interrelatedness, independence, and interdependence of members of the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12 with the explicit purpose of underscoring the Sovereignty of Christ who is the Head of His body. However, we glean the meaning of this identification of Jesus Christ as “the head of the body, the church” from Colossians. The Colossian epistle was written to assure the believers in Colossae that there is no salvation in any other name in heaven or on earth.  Jesus has made the only and final sacrifice for humankind’s sins.  According to Best, “The Colossian heretics admitted that forgiveness of sins was obtainable through Jesus but that in itself it was not sufficient for salvation.”[25]  Consequently, Paul wrote this epistle in order to nib this heresy in the bud.  

            The gist of Colossians is that divine powers do not reside in “principalities and powers” (the supernatural evil beings), and, therefore, have no control or authority whatsoever over those who have been redeemed by the Blood of Jesus Christ. As Best noted, “God has made the fullness of divine powers to reside in Christ’s (glorified) body, and since believers are his Body, they too are filled with those powers, now his, who himself is the head of every heavenly power.”[26]  The use of head imagery in Col. 1: 15-20, inevitably, connotes sovereignty, supremacy, and pre-eminence of Christ not only in the church but also in the cosmos. As Christ is the second person in the Godhead, He is the Creator and not a creature.  Thus Christ has delivered Christians from the rulers and powers of darkness. According to Best:

The headship of Christ is conceived in at least two ways, as over the Church, and as over all creation, including the heavenly powers; but the headship over all creation is an overlordship; the headship over Christians, while implying that, is also a headship of source. Christians as the Body are united to the Head and drew their life therefrom.[27]

           

Summoning all the literary arsenal at his disposal, Paul, in Col. 2:18, 19, argues with characteristic force to debunk the diabolical teachings of the Colossians heretics that are contrary to the Christian gospel of which the Colossians Christians have committed to live for and propagate to the lost people. Paul was earnestly warning the Christians not to be inebriated with this errancy that will inevitably derail them from enjoying “the joy and spiritual benefits of the relationship to Christ who is the head.”[28]  The worship of angels is surely an aberration of Christian worship 

It would not be too far-fetched to say that the concept of church growth is intrinsic to the head metaphor in Col. 2:19. The head of the body is a vital part of the person’s growth and development.  If the head is severed from the human body that one is no longer existing.  Other “members” of the human body have been removed, but not the head, to prolong a human life. The head is a vital organ, the elan vital, of human growth and existence. So also is Christ to the existence and growth of His Body, the church.  Best graphically exegetes this verse when he writes:

Paul’s point is merely that through the ligaments, nerves, muscles, etc., as we should call them, the body is supplied with energy and nourishment and held together as a unity. The head is thus both the source of the sustenance by which the body lives and the source of the unity by which it is enabled to be an organic whole. . . The government of the Head is set forth here as an internal government producing unity and thus, eventually, growth; it is a direction of the members of the Body in their relation with one another that a direction of the whole as over against the world.[29]

 

It must be recognized here that Best, in his interpretation of the head-metaphor, limits church growth to the internal, spiritual growth of the members rather than extending it to external, physical, numerical growth. But I seriously questioned that dichotomy. Best chose to stick with the denotative level of the metaphorical language at the expense of the connotative level, which is how one, most of the time, would explain a figure of speech. There is no way a Spirit-filled-and-controlled church would not want to obey the Great Commission.  Therefore, for Best to conclude that,  “It is thus not a numerical growth but a growth towards perfection,”[30] seems shortsighted. 

It is crystal clear that Paul is not endorsing self-complacency of Christians through this analogy at all. These words, “ligaments and joints”, extend the metaphor to locate growth in God’s providence. Some scholars speculate that they refer to church officers, teachers of the word, or just the word of God.  In Petr Pokorny’s understanding:

. . . the joints and ligaments . . . depict the communication within the church through the word, the sacraments, and brotherly love (3:12-15). The opponents are ‘puffed up without reason’ because they underestimate the church as the social structure of life in the faith. Phenomenologically their attitude was similar to that of those who were ‘strong’ in Corinth who ate the food sacrificed to idols and thereby disrupted the unity of the Christian community.[31]

 

Eduard Schweizer seems to be liberal in his hermeneutical inference:

 

“At no point are officers of the church appealed to in the attempt to come to terms with the danger threatening in Colossae . . . Perhaps the idea here is of the part played by the apostle and his fellow workers in mediating the message . . . These fellow workers have a function which historically is unique in the growth of the church; but they do not on that account become officeholders as distinct from laity.[32] 

 

These two interpretations are very pointed.  There is no basis for me to disagree with Schweizer’s interpretation , however,  Pokorny’s squares with mine.

Based on this study, my theology of evangelism and church growth stands on the solid Rock, which is Jesus Christ; a theology that is not centered on asceticism, exhibitionism, or angelic worship. 

Application to ministry: Excursuses on the implications of church as the Body of Christ and Christ being the Head of his church are constrained in this paper due to its limit.  The most important thing to be gleaned from this research is the need to ground church planting, evangelism and church growth on the undiluted Word of God rather than on excesses of individual spiritual perfection.  My ministry vision is to recover these New Testament images of the church as launch pads for believers’ “communal experience and solidarity they seek.”[33]  The church as the Body of Christ is an empowering and sustaining presence in the midst of beatific potentialities available in God’s creation for our common good.[34]  I consider ‘the Body of Christ’ image as a foundational process of building up the community of faith to becoming “joint heirs” with the Lord. My greatest focus in ministry is leading a church to becoming a family of God that unequivocally believes that God’s presence and power are the basis for ministry to the lost world. God’s presence is the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit is the dynamo that energizes each believer to carry out a specific ministry for which he/she has been endowed. After each member has discovered his/her spiritual gifts, through intentional spiritual inventory, it is incumbent upon me as the under-shepherd to encourage and even persuade the flock of God not to quench the spirit or neglect the gift they have (1 Timothy 4:14).

            This research has further revealed to me the awesomeness of the grace of God. Consequently my personal philosophy of ministry is grounded in the saving grace of God through Jesus Christ, in whom the pleroma of God in-dwelt. Like the apostle Paul, I considered myself the worst of all sinners and God’s all-sufficient grace delivered me from the wrath to come. This experience of forgiveness of sinners by an unconditionally loving God acquiesces with the view of an author who describes the church as “the Community of Forgiveness. It is the Community which knows in its own life and mediates to the world something that apart from the Church would not be known in its true meaning and power.”[35]  As Martin Luther succinctly puts it: “Where forgiveness of sins is, there is life and blessedness.”[36]  In other words, the unconditional expiation of our sins by the Blood of God’s Son necessitates that life will be lived to the fullest while enjoying the peace and blissfulness that come from God and at the same time looking forward to spending eternity in paradise. This life in Christ also propels us to carry out the Great Commission.

            In sum, Pauline imagery provides us with both formative and corrective forms of church discipline for combating church diseases that hinder evangelism and multiplication of healthy churches in almost all cultures of the world.

Written by Rev. G J Adetoro

September 20, 2001. Louisville, Kentucky, USA,



 

[1] Shirley C. Guthrie, Jr., Christian Doctrine (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1968), 353.

[2] James M. Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1981), 568. 

[3] Alan Richardson and John Bowden, eds. The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1983),  s. v. “Church,” by Richard P. McBrien.

[4] John Macquarrie, Principles of Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1977), 387.

 

[5] Walter A. Elwell, ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), s. v. “Church, the,” by C. Marvin Pate. 

[6] John Macquarrie, 390.

[7] Paul S. Minear, Images of the Church in the New Testament (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, MCMLX), 177.

[8] Ernest Best, One Body in Christ (London: S. P. C. K, 1955), 93.

[9] Timothy N. Boyd, “Paul’s Use of Analogy,” Biblical Illustrator (Winter 1989), 26.

[10] Paul Minear, 189.

[11] Ibid.

 

[12] Gordon D. Fee, 602.

[13] Timothy N. Boyd, 26.

[14] E. Schweizer, “The Church as the Missionary Body of Christ”, New Testament Studies 8 (1961-1962)1-11

[15] Best, 83.

[16] John B. Polhill, Paul & His Letters (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999), 246.

[17] Best, 83.

[18] Hans Kung, The Church (New York: Image Books, 1976), 294.

 

[19] Gordon D. Fee, 599. (Dr. Lawless told me in class that corrective form of discipline is the main focus of 1 Cor. 12 in answer to my question before I read this in Fee’s Commentary.)

[20] Ibid., 601.

[21] Ibid., 612-613.

[22] Ibid., 625.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Owen C. Thomas, Introduction to Theology, rev. ed. (Wilton, CT: Morehouse Publishing, 1983), 230.

[25] Best, 115.

[26] Ibid., 118.

[27] Ibid., 123.

[28] Richard R. Melick, Jr., Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, The New American Commentary, vol. 32 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1991), 269-270.

[29] Best, 127-128.

 

[30] Ibid., 128

[31] Petr Pokorny, Colossians: A Commentary, trans. Siegfried S. Schatzmann (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991), 151.

[32] Eduard Schweizer, The Letter to the Colossians: A Commentary, trans. Andrew Chester ( London: SPCK,1982),164-165.

[33] James H. Evans, Jr., We Have Been Believers: An African-American Systematic Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 131.

[34]Ibid. Evans says the church “is to be a sustaining presence amid the distorted potential for good in the world.” That statement is garbled. It implies that the church is sustaining the distortion of human potential rather than redeeming it. I do not believe that the church exists to condone “the distorted potential for good”, or to sustain it. That thought is too radical and unbiblical.

[35] Truman B. Douglas, Why go to church? (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957), 42.

[36] Ibid., 43.