This is part 2 of a recent essay I wrote on Paul’s famous “One Body, Many Parts” metaphor as a practical guide for becoming a church that is unified across our ethnic and racial differences.
Scholars have long emphasized that the metaphor of the body for a society or state was very common in ancient political literature and certainly influenced Paul’s use of it. Margaret Mitchell’s work, Paul and the Rhetoric of Reconciliation, is especially relevant here. While Paul is clearly addressing social factionalism and inequality within the Corinthian church—worst of all, in the celebration of it’s most sacred cultic act (cf. 11:20)—much popular preaching on the ‘One Body, Many Parts’ leaves aside these social dynamics.
Preachers in my context and experience are often quick to jump to giving church members Spiritual Gift Inventories and helping church members appreciate the “gifts” of the parking lot attendants and nursery workers as much as they appreciate the gifts of the preaching pastor or worship leader on stage each Sunday.
Such treatments of Paul’s body metaphor tend toward a myopic application to a local congregational leadership system (focused on ministry gifts inside the church), and rarely invite a more global consideration of our worldwide Abrahamic call to be the reversal of Babel through the formation of a new ecclesial society, or Body, that is comprised of many ethnic and racial parts. My teacher calls it the Spirit-generated “fellowship of differents.”
So let us revisit the body metaphor and draw out key insights for more nurturing more harmonious multiethnic relations. As Christians navigating the divisive climate in the era of Trump, may we shudder at the thought of ever hearing someone say of our church community what Paul said of the Corinthians: “Your meetings do more harm than good….I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you” (1 Cor. 11:17-18).
The task of church leaders in an age of growing ideological tribalism and the instant amplification of social-political-ethnic-religious differences via social media type-casting, is not to melt all our differences away or strive toward a kind of “color blindness” (which I long thought was the solution). Instead, church leaders must work to heighten our sensitivity and appreciation for the “need for diversity within unity” in the Body. The goal is not that there be no differences in the body, but “that there should be no division in the body” and “that its parts should have equal concern for each other” (1 Cor. 12:25). In Mitchell’s words,
The metaphor of the body for the social organism in ancient political texts, as we have seen, is used to combat factionalism…There can be no doubt that 1 Cor 12, which employs the most common topos in ancient literature for unity, is a straightforward response to the factionalism within the church community.
The climax toward which our shared Story is heading, again, is the Eternal City populated by people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev. 7:9), the “new heaven and a new earth, where (racial and ethnic) justice abides” (2 Pet. 3:13). With this background in mind, let us look at our passage with new ethnically sensitized lenses and draw out some key insights we may have missed in the past.