Beliefnet
Mark D. Roberts

Part 6 of series: The Church as the Body of Christ
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series
So far in this series I’ve begun to explore what it means for the church to be the body of Christ. We’ve seen how Paul, in trying to instruct the Corinthians, used the image of the body. But he was not the first in his time to utilize body imagery in reference to human community.
The Roman historian Livy wrote a few decades before Paul. He told the story of a time when angry masses in Rome protested against their upper class rulers. One of these patrician leaders, Menius Agrippa, prevented a riot by using the analogy of the body to put the masses in their place. There was a time, Agrippa said, when the more notable parts of the body – like the head – tired of providing for the stomach. But when these apparently important parts stopped providing food for the stomach, the whole body suffered. So, according to Agrippa, the body only works best when the parts play their own role. Those who are on top must remain so; those who have less privilege must remain so as well. With this analogy the protest was quelled, the plebeians submitted to their patrician masters, and the hierarchical Roman order was upheld. (See Livy, History of Rome, 2.32.9-12.)
Paul also uses the metaphor of the body to defend the contribution of each part to the health of the whole. But then he adds an insight almost completely opposed to the reasoning of Menius Agrippa:

In fact, some of the parts that seem weakest and least important are really the most necessary. And the parts we regard as less honorable are those we clothe with the greatest care. So we carefully protect from the eyes of others those parts that should not be seen, while other parts do not require this special care. So God has put the body together in such a way that extra honor and care are given to those parts that have less dignity.(1 Cor 12:22-24).

For Paul, as for Agrippa, the stomach is necessary. But the writers part company with Paul’s observation that the weakest parts – the stomach, for example – deserve extra honor. If the Roman state is like a body, then the lower class stomach gives honor to the upper class head, the stronger, more presentable part. In the body of Christ, the opposite is true. That’s the way God designed it.
To those Corinthians who boasted in their spiritual accomplishments, therefore, Paul brings a word of rebuke. The ones they would consider less honorable are, in fact, worthy of greater honor. The weak and unworthy stomach gets the limelight while the apparently glorious head gets the shadows. Or, for those who picture the body with the head on top, the body of Christ is doing a headstand. From a worldly point of view, everything is upside down.
If you spend time in a healthy church, you’ll see this inversion again and again. When I was an associate pastor at Hollywood Presbyterian Church, I had responsibility for the educational ministries. Every now and then I’d wander around on Sunday mornings, checking on classes for all ages. I remember once peeking in a classroom for three-year olds. Sitting on the floor was an immaculately dressed woman who was reading a story to a group of children. In her professional life this woman was a vice-president of one of the country’s most prestigious corporations. But as she got down on a three-year old level, literally, only her clothing gave away her worldly success. Within the body of Christ this powerful, honorable woman was a humble servant of powerless, undistinguished children.
We will always feel the pressure to adopt the values of the culture around us, to get the body of Christ back into a more socially acceptable position. But the church of Jesus Christ must find a way to stand on its head, rejecting cultural norms in favor of the unique priorities of God.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus