Part 7 of series: The Church as the Body of Christ
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In my last post I explained how the Apostle Paul uses the image of the body to describe the unity and diversity of the church. Moreover, according to Paul, God has formed the body of Christ so that the less obviously honorable parts get greater honor. “This makes for harmony among the members,” Paul notes, “so that all the members care for each other equally” (1 Cor 12:25). All the members care for each other equally! This sounds so idyllic, so democratic, so oddly unlike the extraordinarily hierarchical Roman empire . . . and so different from the church that many of us are so familiar with. Therefore, as we begin to think about the implications of mutual care, we may start wondering, “Paul, are you sure? All the members have the same care for each other? Is this really true? Aren’t some people uniquely gifted and set apart as caregivers? People like pastors or deacons?”

In order to grasp Paul’s point here, we must know something about the church in the first-century. The word “church” conjures up a clear picture in our minds: an amply-sized building with obvious religious symbolism, members sitting in rows facing an altar or stage, and identified leaders who do most of the ministry for the members who receive it. None of these features could have been found in the Corinthian church! Gatherings were held primarily in homes, with the maximum size determined by the house (probably fifty people or less). Members sat or stood so as to face each other, not in rows facing a stage, since there would be no stage in home. Leadership was shared by all the church members, with each expected to minister as empowered by the Spirit. There were no clergy in the earliest churches, none who did most of the minister while others received it. Every believer in Jesus was a minister in his body.
Consequently, when Paul calls all the members to care for each other equally, he does not envision an American megachurch with thousands of members and dozens of professional staff, or even the typical congregation with a couple hundred members and one pastor. Paul is picturing something much more like our contemporary small groups: intimate circles of people who worship, pray, and learn together.
Though our contemporary forms of church differ considerably from Paul’s, we ought not to dismiss his call for mutual care, even if this upsets our expectations for church. Many people go to church quite intentionally to receive professional care from professional clergy. They want excellent teaching, inspirational leadership, and tender pastoral care. As a pastor, I would say that these expectations are not unfair. But I would add that those who receive such benefits ought also to share them to others.
For sixteen years, my job as pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church was to provide pastoral care that equipped each member of the church to care for one another and to reach out to the world (Eph 4:12). We should evaluate my tenure as pastor not by how much people liked my sermons or liked me as a pastor, but by how much they were encouraged and instructed through me to be ministers of Jesus Christ. Now that I’ve been away from Irvine for just about a year, one of the things that gives me the most joy is hearing how people in the church are continuing to serve the Lord, and even moreso now than before.
When I was new to Irvine Presbyterian Church, I preached a sermon on the ministry of all of God’s people. Some who heard this sermon were excited, eager to get going in Christ’s service. But others weren’t so happy with me. One man objected after the service: “Hey, it sounds like you’re just trying to get out of doing your job! You want us to do it for you! But you’re the minister and were the people you’re supposed to minister to. That’s why we pay you.” (Photo: The fellowship hall of Irvine Presbyterian Church, where we worshiped when I first arrived at Irvine Presbyterian Church, before we built our sanctuary.)
As a part of the caring community of Irvine Presbyterian Church, I was not trying to get out of my job, but rather, to share it. I was seeking to draw others into the work of ministry, in faithfulness to the biblical truth that all members are to care for each other. Theologically speaking, that’s what I should have been doing as pastor. Practically speaking, I could never in a millennium have met all of the pastoral needs in my own congregation. How could I care personally for 750 members and their children?
As pastor of a church, I was not like the team on the field, working hard while being cheered on by my congregational crowd. Rather, I was like the player-coach of the team. I did get in the game, but my primary job was to help the team, that is, the congregation, play excellently, with each member contributing effectively.
Sometimes folks respond negatively to an obvious implication of Paul’s teaching on mutual care within the body. As I was lecturing on this subject in a seminary class, one of my students almost exploded with concern:
“Wait a just a minute!” she demanded emphatically. “Did I hear you right? Are you saying that we are dependent on each other spiritually? I don’t like that at all. What you’re telling me is that my spiritual well-being is dependent on other people. That means if they check out and aren’t involved, then I am hurt. I don’t like that one bit. I don’t want to be dependent on others that way.”
“I appreciate your honesty,” I responded, trying to keep my cool. “But, you know, your quarrel really isn’t with me. This isn’t my idea of church. As near as I can tell, this is God’s idea. This is the way God made the body of Christ. So if you’ve got a problem, you really need to take it up with God!”
I must confess, however, that a part of me agrees completely with my troubled student. I don’t like depending on others either, to be frank. I like to be tough and independent and self-sufficient. I prefer to control my own destiny. Like many of my gender, I don’t ask for directions when driving or seek help at Home Depot. The idea of needing others within the church makes me exceedingly uncomfortable.
But for those of us who want to be self-contained Christians, the truth gets even worse. I’ll explain tomorrow.

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