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.