This is part 4 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. Here I continue my exposition of 1 Corinthians 12.
Fourth, and getting more political now, Paul articulates a general principle that would seem to affirm that “Those ethnic parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the racial groups that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor” (v. 22-23). This suggests that weaker racial minority group has some indispensable role to play in or lesson to teach the larger Body. The stronger racial majority group in the church should not look down on more marginalized groups with pity, but rather show them special honor and seek to discover what makes the other “indispensable” for our spiritual growth and worldwide mission.
Next, some ethnic parts of the worldwide Body, at times, need “special treatment” to overcome certain disadvantages while other “presentable parts need no special treatment” (v. 24). I hardly need to connect the contemporary dots to show that certain strongly held political views (e.g., affirmative action, reparations, government subsidies, etc.) are challenged by the possible implications and application of this teaching.
In these days of deep-seated political division that unfortunately plagues the American church as well, Christians who claim to confess “Jesus as Lord” (12:3) and to share in the “one Spirit” (12:13) must let their earthly political convictions be subverted and transformed by the upside-down Kingdom politics of Jesus. At the heart of the Kingdom of Jesus or “Christoform life” is the call to each member of the Body—White Christians and Black Christians, Christians who vote Republican and Christians who vote Democrat, etc.—to “in humility consider others more important than yourselves” (Phil 2:3).
The royal law of love that can really catapult the Abrahamic Project into action is if “Each of you should look not only to your own [ethnic group’s] interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil 2:4)—including ethnic/racial others. Or, as Paul writes to an ethnically divided church in Rome: “We who are strong ought to bear with the shortcomings of the weak and not to please ourselves” (Rom 15:1).
Getting back to 1 Corinthians 12, we find Paul’s body metaphor coming to a crashing Kingdom crescendo with a sobering call to the racially divided church of 21st century America: “But God has put the [multiethnic] body together, giving greater honor to the [ethnic] parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its [different ethnic] parts should have equal concern for each other. If one [ethnic or racial] group suffers, we should all suffer with them” (v. 26). The traditional charge given to bride and groom at many a wedding is, “What God has put together, let no man put asunder” (Matt 19:6). There is a “sacramental” quality to the one flesh union created in marriage that is to be celebrated and preserved at great cost.
Similarly, Paul says, “God has put the [multiethnic] body together” (v. 26) as a kind of ecclesial sacrament to show the world the reconciling grace and power of the gospel. Sadly, this unified and interconnected body has been for too long torn asunder by various ethnic parts’ inability or unwillingness to “show equal concern for each other.”
In the American church, in particular, the cut runs deep from the tragic reality that the White Christian church that has enjoyed the power and privilege failed to “give greater honor to parts that lacked it.” Slaveholding church members, for example, in the Antebellum South—famous for reading Paul in ways that reinforced their racism—certainly overlooked this crowning passage: “If one [ethnic or racial] part suffers, we should all suffer with them.”
This is the task of the church today: for Christians of all ethnic and racial backgrounds to receive those of different backgrounds as a gift to broaden our perspective and deepen our love as we learn to not only understand each other’s experiences, but enter into each other’s pain and, God willing, to learn how to suffer in solidarity with them. This is how a church of all colors, bearing bruises of all colors but bleeding the same color, will heed the Kingdom call to: “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).
One recent prophetic call to this task is Jemar Tisby’s book The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism (2019). He challenges the White (especially Evangelical) saying, “Being complicit only requires a muted response in the face of injustice or uncritical support of the status quo.” Furthermore, “History demonstrates that racism never goes away; it just adapts.” He then gets specific:
Christian complicity with racism in the twenty-first century looks different than complicity with racism in the past. It looks like Christians responding to ‘black lives matter’ with the phrase ‘all lives matter.’ It looks like Christians consistently supporting a president whose racism has been on display for decades. It looks like Christians telling black people and their allies that their attempts to bring up racial concerns are ‘divisive.’ It looks conversations on race that focus on individual relationships and are unwilling to discuss systemic solutions. Perhaps Christian complicity in racism has not changed after all. Although the characters and the specifics are new, many of the same rationalizations for racism remain.
If Paul’s Body metaphor provides rich insights and powerful principles to consider, what are some basic first steps we can take down the road to living into this vision for ‘One Church with Many Ethnic Parts’?