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The Church as the Body of Christ

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Paul uses the phrase 'the body of Christ', or similar phrases, in three different but connected ways. Firstly, he refers to the physical body of Jesus which was crucified and resurrected to set us free from sin and death (Rom 7:4, Col 1:22, Phil 3:21). Secondly, at other times he writes about the physical body of Christ when describing the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist. To partake of the bread in the Lord’s Supper is to participate in the body of Christ (1 Cor 10:16). The third is his characteristic description of the church as the body of Christ which is uniquely found in Paul’s letters. This is used both to describe the local church as well as the world-wide church. It describes the close relationship between Christ and his church, while retaining a clear distinction between them.

Origin of the concept of the church being the body

There have been many suggestions by different scholars concerning the origin of Paul’s concept of the body of Christ. This would suggest that he is drawing from a number of different sources, creating an image that would be meaningful to both Jews and Gentiles.

The Jews would be familiar with the concept of 'corporate personality', an idea which is quite foreign to modern, particularly western, readers of the Bible, who come from a strongly individualistic culture. Corporate personality moves between an individual and a corporate identity, identifying a group of many individuals by the name of the person at the head. The personality and characteristics of the group are represented and affected by the actions of the person at the head. So what happened to Adam, Abraham and Moses in some way represented what happened to the whole people of Israel. For example, the blessing God promised to Abraham was passed down the generations to be claimed by all Jews. Paul uses this concept to explain the union between believers and Christ, their head, so the church becomes the body of Christ.

Greeks would be familiar with the Stoic understanding of the 'polis'. This was the Greek city-state which consisted of many independent members, and was described by a number of Greek writers as a body. For example, Seneca described the Emperor Nero as the head or soul of the body, meaning the Roman Empire.

The concept of solidarity between Christ and his followers was also implied in the teaching of Jesus. For example, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” (Mk 9:37), also in helping the thirsty, the naked, and prisoners, people are actually serving Jesus (Mt 25:40) because he is identifying himself with them. When Jesus appeared to Paul on the Damascus Road, he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” (Acts 9:5). In persecuting the believers, Paul was in fact persecuting Jesus himself. It is probable that this statement from Jesus identifying himself with his followers was a major inspiration of Paul’s idea of the church being the body of Jesus.

Development of Paul’s thought

In Corinthians and Romans, the main point in Paul’s use of the image is to show the unity and diversity of the church. He is describing the horizontal relationship between believers, showing their obligations to one another. The church is like a body with many parts which are all mutually interdependent. Since all believers are in Christ, then there is only one body. It is only in his later letters, Colossians and Ephesians, Paul develops the concept further to explain the relationship of the body to its head, Christ.

1 Corinthians (1 Cor 12:12-27)

The most extensive description of the church as the body of Christ is found in 1 Cor 12. He clearly identifies the church, and specifically the church in Corinth, as the body of Christ (12:27), and draws an extensive analogy between the human body and the church as a body. A human body has many different parts with different functions, which together make up the whole body, so the church is the same. Both the human body and the church has diversity within a unity. However unity does not mean uniformity. The church has many different members in the fellowship, who have different gifts, and who togther make up the whole church (12:14-16). This is the way God has designed both the human body and the church to function (12:18). All these different parts are necessary for the whole body to function effectively. It is absurd to think of any part of the human body being unnecessary, it is equally so in the church. There should be a solidarity between the different members, involving sympathy and rejoicing (12:26). No person in the church should feel inferior or unwanted (12:16), and no one should be excluded through the arrogance of others (12:21). Parts of the body which seem to be weak or less honourable are actually indispensable (12:22-24).

There are many important lessons to draw from this passage for us today as we seek to find our place in the church. All believers have God’s Spirit, and all are empowered with particular gifts through which they can serve the church. No two people in the church are the same, each has their unique contribution to make, whether this is prominent, or more in the background. There are many different gifts, and no single gift is universal to all believers. All are important to God, so no one should feel unwanted or excluded. Those with more prominent gifts should be careful to encourage others, and not reject them, as all gifts are necessary for the healthy functioning of the church. All gifts should be exercised out of a motivation of loving service to seek the unity of the church, not the selfish seeking of one’s own importance.

Romans (Rom 12:4-5)

Paul uses a similar but briefer analogy in his letter to the Romans. Again the church is the body of Christ. The church, like a human body, has different members with different functions, who need each other. Again Paul stresses the need for unity and diversity. The church is one body, but with a variety of gifts which are given by God. His practical application here is similar to the passage in 1 Corinthians, that the believers should not think of themselves more highly than they should (12:2). They need to avoid the temptation of comparison, but appreciate the variety of gifts within the church that are given for its common good.

Colossians and Ephesians

In Colossians and Ephesians, Paul develops the analogy of the church being the body of Christ into a metaphor to describe the relationship between the church and its head, Christ. The body now is described as a living and growing organism. In these letters he no longer has the focus of the mutual interdependence between believers.

Colossians (Col 2:19)

In Colossians, Paul is warning of the dangers of false teachers, and calling on the believers to avoid legalism and false worship, but to hold fast to the head. It is only in union with the head, Christ, that the whole body will grow together with a growth that is from God. Only by remaining under the control and direction of the head, Christ, will the church be able to steer clear of false teachings. The false teachers are not part of the body, because they are not in union with the true head, so they do not have any part in the church. It is only through their union with their head, that the body of Christ is able to function properly in unity and to grow as God intends.


In his letter to the Ephesians, written at the same time as Colossians, Paul further expands the metaphor of the church being the body of Christ, and shows some dramatic implications of that concept. As a result of his resurrection, Jesus is the head of the church, his body, which is the fulness of him (1:22-23). Christ is the head of all things in the universe, who fills his church, just as he fills all things in the universe. Through Jesus two previously hostile groups, Jews and Gentiles, are brought together in one body, making one new humanity instead of two (2:16). Both Jews and Gentiles are reconciled to God through Jesus, as well as being reconciled to each other.

The Ephesians are called to recognise the unity of the body, which is created through one Spirit (4:3-4). Again within this body are a variety of gifts, all of which are necessary for the growth of the church (4:11-16). This is a similar analogy to that found in 1 Corinthians chapter twelve and Romans chapter twelve. The aim of the growth of the church is to attain the unity of the faith, and the knowledge of the Son of God (4:13), and conforming to its head. This growth can only happen if the body is in right relationship with its head, drawing its nourishment from Christ. It also needs the members of the body to be in right relationship with each other, with each member making their unique contribution and being valued by others. This is a practical way of living out what Jesus said were the greatest commandments: to love God, and to love your neighbour. Again, as in Colossians 2:19, the church needs to grow up into its head, working together, and building itself up in love (4:16). In Ephesians, Paul also joins the image of the body of Christ together with other images for the church, including the church being the temple, and the bride of Christ (5:22-33). Christ is the head of the church, but also is joined in bodily union with her, just as in the relationship between husband and wife.


In his letters, Paul uses a variety of powerful images to describe the church, and its relationship with Jesus, as well as the relationships between the different individuals who are members of the church. The church is the temple of God where he makes his presence manifest through his Holy Spirit. The church is also the body of Christ, joined in unity with its head, Christ, but showing the same unity and diversity found in a human body. It is the challenge for believers to have the same understanding of church that God has, and to live and work together as part of the church by the power of the Spirit, so the church grows up into maturity in Christ.

The Bible

Pages which look at issues relevant to the whole Bible, such as the Canon of Scripture, as well as doctrinal and theological issues. There are also pages about the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha and 'lost books' of the Old Testament.

Also included are lists of the quotations of the OT in the NT, and passages of the OT quoted in the NT.

Old Testament Overview

This is a series of six pages which give a historical overview through the Old Testament and the inter-testamental period, showing where each OT book fits into the history of Israel.

New Testament Overview

This is a series of five pages which give a historical overview through the New Testament, focusing on the Ministry of Jesus, Paul's missionary journeys, and the later first century. Again, it shows where each book of the NT fits into the history of the first century.

Introductions to Old Testament Books

This is an almost complete collection of introductions to each of the books in the Old Testament. Each contains information about the authorship, date, historical setting and main themes of the book.

Introductions to New Testament Books

This is a collection of introductions to each of the 27 books in the New Testament. Each contains information about the authorship, date, historical setting and main themes of the book.

Old Testament History

Information about the different nations surrounding Israel, and other articles concerning Old Testament history and the inter-testamental period.

New Testament History

Articles which give additional information about the history and culture of the first century, giving helpful background knowledge for the Gospels and Paul's travels.

Old Testament Studies

A series of articles covering more general topics for OT studies. These include a list of the people named in the OT and confirmed by archaeology. There are also pages to convert the different units of measure in the OT, such as the talent, cubit and ephah into modern units.

More theological topics include warfare in the ancient world, the Holy Spirit in the OT, and types of Jesus in the OT.

Studies in the Pentateuch (Gen - Deut)

A series of articles covering studies in the five books of Moses. Studies in the Book of Genesis look at the historical nature of the early chapters of Genesis, the Tower of Babel and the Table of the Nations.

There are also pages about covenants, the sacrifices and offerings, the Jewish festivals and the tabernacle, as well as the issue of tithing.

Studies in the Old Testament History Books (Josh - Esther)

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the history books. These include a list of the dates of the kings of Israel and Judah, a summary of the kings of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and studies of Solomon, Jeroboam and Josiah.

There are also pages describing some of the historical events of the period, including the Syro-Ephraimite War, and the Assyrian invasion of Judah in 701 BC.

Studies in the Old Testament Prophets (Is - Mal)

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the OT prophets. These include a page looking at the way the prophets look ahead into their future, a page looking at the question of whether Satan is a fallen angel, and a page studying the seventy weeks of Daniel.

There are also a series of pages giving a commentary through the text of two of the books:
Isaiah (13 pages) and Daniel (10 pages).

New Testament Studies

A series of articles covering more general topics for NT studies. These include a list of the people in the NT confirmed by archaeology.

More theological topics include the Kingdom of God and the Coming of Christ.

Studies in the Four Gospels (Matt - John)

A series of articles covering various studies in the four gospels. These include a list of the unique passages in each of the Synoptic Gospels and helpful information about the parables and how to interpret them.

Some articles look at the life and ministry of Jesus, including his genealogy, birth narratives, transfiguration, the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and the seating arrangements at the Last Supper.

More theological topics include the teaching about the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete and whether John the Baptist fulfilled the predictions of the coming of Elijah.

Studies in the Book of Acts and the New Testament Letters

A series of articles covering various studies in the Book of Acts and the Letters, including Paul's letters. These include a page studying the messages given by the apostles in the Book of Acts, and the information about the financial collection that Paul made during his third missionary journey.

More theological topics include Paul's teaching on Jesus as the last Adam, and descriptions of the church such as the body of Christ and the temple, as well as a look at redemption and the issue of fallen angels.

There are a series of pages giving a commentary through the text of five of the books:
Romans (7 pages), 1 Corinthians (7 pages), Galatians (3 pages), Philemon (1 page) and Hebrews (7 pages)

Studies in the Book of Revelation

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the study of the Book of Revelation and topics concerning Eschatology (the study of end-times).

These include a description of the structure of the book, a comparison and contrast between the good and evil characters in the book and a list of the many allusions to the OT. For the seven churches, there is a page which gives links to their location on Google maps.

There is a page studying the important theme of Jesus as the Lamb, which forms the central theological truth of the book. There are pages looking at the major views of the Millennium, as well as the rapture and tribulation, as well as a list of dates of the second coming that have been mistakenly predicted through history.

There is also a series of ten pages giving a detailed commentry through the text of the Book of Revelation.

Inductive Bible Study

These are a series of pages giving practical help showing how to study the Bible inductively, by asking a series of simple questions. There are lists of observation and interpretation questions, as well as information about the structure and historical background of biblical books, as well as a list of the different types of figures of speech used in the Bible. There is also a page giving helpful tips on how to apply the Scriptures personally.

Types of Literature in the Bible

These are a series of pages giving practical help showing how to study each of the different types of book in the Bible by appreciating the type of literature being used. These include historical narrative, law, wisdom, prophets, Gospels, Acts, letters and Revelation.

It is most important that when reading the Bible we are taking note of the type of literature we are reading. Each type needs to be considered and interpreted differently as they have different purposes.

Geography and Archaeology

These are a series of pages giving geographical and archaeological information relevant to the study of the Bible. There is a page where you can search for a particular geographical location and locate it on Google maps, as well as viewing photographs on other sites.

There are also pages with photographs from Ephesus and Corinth.

Early Church Fathers

These are a series of pages giving biographical information about some of the more significant early church fathers, such as Irenaeus, Origen and Tertullian, as well as some important groups and events in the first centuries of the church.

Artifacts in the British Museum relevant to Biblical studies

These are a series of pages describing artifacts in each gallery of the British Museum, which have a connection with the Bible.

Biblical Archaeology in Museums around the world

A page with a facility to search for artifacts held in museums around the world which have a connection with the Bible. These give information about each artifact, as well as links to the museum's collection website where available showing high resolution photographs of the artifact.

There is also page of photographs from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem of important artifacts.

Historical documents

These are a series of pages containing historical documents which give helpful information for Biblical studies. These include Hittite suzerainty treaties with a similar structure to the Book of Deuteronomy, different lists of the New Testament books and quotations from Josephus and other ancient writers.

Life Questions

These are a series of pages looking at some of the more difficult questions of Christian theology, including war, suffering, disappointment and what happens to those who have never heard the Gospel.

How to Preach

These are a series of pages giving a practical step-by-step explanation of the process of preparing a message for preaching, and how to lead a small group Bible study.

Information for SBS staff members

Two pages particularly relevant for people serving as staff on the School of Biblical Studies (SBS) in YWAM. One gives helpful instruction about how to prepare to teach on a book in the SBS. The other gives a list of recommended topics which can be taught about for each book of the Bible.