Paul uses a metaphor to describe the church that is based on the human body. The comparison between the church and a body depends on the similarities that Paul assumes between them. He first makes the case that the body is a single unit, an integrated whole. A body functions and exists as a unit. But at the same time, as Paul observes, it is comprised of many individual parts. Although the body is a unit, it is made up of a great many smaller parts, that all function and work together, and support one another (cf. Eph. 4:16). Indeed, it is the interdependence, inter-functionality and interactivity of the parts that makes the body possible and a reality. There is some tension between the wholeness of the body as a single unit, and the fact that it is at the same time made up of a great many parts. But this tension is resolved by the fact that the body depends on the functionality of each part for its existence and survival, whereas each part depends on its position and attachment to the body for it to survive and function. For Paul, the body is a perfect picture for interchange and interdependence of unity and diversity in the church.

The church is a unity, it is the body of Christ, by which Paul means Christ and his ministry find manifestation and expression in the world through the church. The church is composed of a great many believers, or in Paul’s terminology, saints. These he calls parts of the body. Each of the saints have his place and function, has strengths and weaknesses. The church depends upon the diversity of its membership to supply all of what is necessary to provided a full and accurate representation of Christ in the world. So Paul views the church as a unity and diversity in tension, but with balanced harmony and inter-connectivity whereby it functions perfectly to fulfill the will of God in the world.

Paul takes this metaphor one step further, even in 1 Corinthians 12, and to its logical conclusion in Ephesians 4. Just as in the case of the human body and its constituent parts, the saints as members of the church owe their survival and functionality to their connection to the body, the church and to one another. The body cannot survive and function without its individual parts functioning correctly, so the church cannot be the church without each one doing their part. Similarly, each part is unable to continue to exist without its connection to the body, where it finds the supply that maintains life. In Paul’s minds believers are not merely individuals who have accepted Christ and serve God personally, but they are part of the church, the body of Christ, and derive their living, sustaining support from the body/church and one another. In other words, Paul argues that the church is not the church without a diversity of parts providing their diverse gifts to the body, and the parts cannot and must not function or exist without being connected to the body that feeds and sustains them.

In the early part of chapter 12, Paul discusses the diversity of the body in terms of the giftings of each part, but these gifts function under the rubric of a overarching unity supplied by God, the Lord (Jesus Christ) and the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:4-6). The relationship (connection) of the church to the godhead is what supplies unity to the body by supervising functionality and purpose under the headship and Lordship of Christ (Eph 5:23), and by resourcing it with gifts through the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:4, 7). However, the church depends upon the participation of the individual members, supplying their different gifts, to give expression to that functionality and purpose, even as the Spirit supplies the resources through them. The body does not operate independently of the parts, but neither can the parts give adequate and full expression to the will and purpose of God without working through the body. The parts, the saints, are interdependent on one another and upon their connection to the whole body/church.

In the later part of chapter 12, Paul explores the implications of this to the parts as individual members of the church. He concludes that not only does the body require the parts, all functioning as they are intended, to fulfill its purpose, but the individual parts themselves depend upon the body for their survival, function and significance. Indeed, the functionality of each part is only meaningful and possible in connection with other parts and the body as a whole. The eye can only be an eye if it is part of a body (1 Cor. 12:15-19). Any part not connected to the body, cannot be a body in and of itself, because the definition of “body” is a unity made-up of the diversity of functioning, interconnected parts . The implications are quite clear. Saints do not live isolated and personal lives, but are deeply interconnected with the rest of the church as a whole. Individual saints operating alone are not the church. Saints in connection and relationship to other saints, sharing, supporting, edifying and loving one another are the church. The model for such interdependent interconnectivity in the church is found in the godhead itself, God, the Lord and the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:4-6). The interconnected godhead, has created an interconnected church, using the same model of unity and diversity that exists in the nature and being of God himself. In any event, Paul’s implication is that individual members of the church require one another and the body for survival and to fulfill the will and purpose of God. Paul is simultaneously making the point that they also need the Spirit, the church’s connection to God, for effective operation of the gifts that empower the church to serve God (1 Cor. 12;1-11). But even the operation of the Spirit has the goal in mind that the diversity of gifts will move toward providing support to the common good of the church as a whole (1 Cor. 12:7). The gifts are not for individual benefit and enjoyment, but for the good of the church (1 Cor 14:26).

Paul is arguing against independence and selfishness in the church. And he is particularly arguing against any kind of hierarchy of importance, whereby one part is more important or significant than another, based on a perceived superiority of gifts. In chapter 14 Paul provides the corrective, that the one who prophesies is greater than the tone who speaks in tongues, reversing the order in the mind of the Corinthians (cf. 1 Cor. 14:5). In the Corinthian church, apparently this idea of significance and importance had come to a head in connection to speaking in tongues, where tongues speakers had somehow assumed a place of preeminence among the people, and in the worship. Paul’s corrective is firmly grounded in the context of corporate worship (cf. 1 Cor. 14:26-33). Prophecy is preferred, but tongues must not be forbidden altogether (1 Cor. 14:39). He was answering the question of whether tongues as a gift took preeminence, when he proposed that the function of the individual parts must be focused on edifying the body as a whole, and not on exalting the individual (1 Cor. 14:26). Paul, with irony, stated that prophecy was more important in the worship service because it was intelligible and edifying (1 Cor. 14:1-19).

We must hasten on to say, Paul is not making an absolute comparison between the greatness of prophecy over tongues, as many commentators have supposed and proposed. He is downplaying the significance of tongues in corporate worship, when it is not interpreted, because it does not edify the hearers, and therefore violates the principle of membership in the body, each part benefiting other parts and the whole through its operation (1 Cor. 14:23-25)! In other words, as each part of the body (each individual saint) serves God and the church, it is not the accrual of benefit to oneself, but to the body that counts. On the level of the individual parts of the body, the members of the church, it is a focus on benefiting and blessing others and the body as a whole that God expects, and that provides order in corporate worship (whereas the tongues-speakers faction was focused on tongues as a mark of their own personal superior spirituality, and were creating confusion in the worship (cf. 1 Cor. 14:33, 40))

The culmination of Paul’s argument in chapter 12 is that if everyone where alike, gifted with the same gift, and there was no diversity, there would be no body. A body requires diversity to qualify as a body, and function as one (1 Cor. 12:14-26). Recognizing that we have different gifts is not to admit that some are inferior, but simply to realize that we are all a vital part of the body. All of this leads to the final assertion in chapter 14, that the activity of the parts is to be focused on edifying, building up, the body. The power of the body comes from a fully functioning diversity of its interconnected parts.

In 1 Corinthians 12:12-13 Paul addresses how the unity of the body is formed, and on what basis it is maintained. First, he states that each believer has been baptized into the body. The figure of baptism here does double duty, as a metaphor for submerging or immersing members into the unity of one church, This submersion occurs in the context of salvation through Jesus Christ. Baptism is a rite that signifies repentance and forgiveness, and testifies to an expectation that there will be results from a moral and spiritual change, arising from a corresponding behavioral change. The fact, that this baptism occurs at the hand of the one Spirit (the Holy Spirit), means that membership in the church comes as a a result of a spiritual operation, one that harks back to Jesus conversation with Nicodemus about being born again (John 3:1-15). Secondly, baptism serves to describe the new relationship of the believer with every other believer in the church. He is submerged! Individuals have assumed a relationship and identity that has significance in the context of the body, and benefits from their membership that accrues to others, rather than themselves. Significance is not found in self-promotion or fulfillment, but in the promotion and blessing of others. Every gift, every effort, every ministry, every service is about others and promotion of the growth, and welfare of the church and its people.

But membership in the church is sustained by a common participation in the Spirit. Each member drinks from the one Spirit, meaning what Paul has said earlier, that the source of the giftings and power in the body, and among its individual members, is the One Spirit (1 Cor. 12:4). Baptized into the body by the Spirit, each member is sustained in his membership by his participation and experience of the same Holy Spirit, shared commonly by all of the members of the body! There is individual benefit derived from corporate participation through the Holy Spirit, which Paul calls drinking of one Spirit. Individual and personal benefit and enjoyment, certainly exaltation is not the goal of spiritual gifts. Nevertheless, the operation of spiritual of gifts is not entirely without personal benefit to the individual saints, as they drink deeply of his power, presence and fellowship. And it is the precisely the context of the church that makes it all possible, as the gifts are exercised for the benefit of others and for the church as a whole. The gifts of the Spirit, that give access to the experience of God’s provision and power, are made possible precisely because of the corporate context of the church in which they operate, for whose benefit of others.

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