...in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.Here, the apostle Paul is talking to a church that had come into being through his proclamation of Jesus Christ as the way to salvation and new life with God.
But since Paul left the Corinthians, unchristian ideas and practices had taken root in their church. Among them was the notion that the possession of some spiritual gifts made a person superior to others in the church who didn't have that gift. (You still hear nonsense like this from some Christians today. Paul responded to such smug lovelessness among the first century Corinthian Christians with 1 Corinthians 13.)
In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul compares the Church to the human body. In fact, in many other places in the New Testament, Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, does more than compare the Church to a human body. Paul asserts that the Church is the body of Christ in the world. While the crucified and risen Jesus has ascended into heaven, the Church is Jesus Christ's physical presence here and now. For example, Paul says in different places:
Now you are Christ's body, and individually members of it. (1 Corinthians 12:27)And that's just a sampling.
For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. (Romans 12:4-5)
He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything. (Colossians 1:18)
...no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body. (Ephesians 5:29-30)
As radical as the Bible's teaching that Jesus is the second Person of a triune God (one God, three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) is its insistence, voiced often by Paul, that the Church is Christ's body, every disciple a member of Christ's body.
That person with the annoying cackle, the pastor who talks too much, the man with moral failures, the woman who seems to measure her worth by what she does rather than by what Christ has done for her on the cross...all who turn to Christ in repentance and faith are members of Christ's body, children of God the Father.
And each of them, Paul would say, is irreplaceable. When members of Christ's body at any given place fail to exercise their spiritual gifts, parts of the body die and individual congregations are at risk of dying.
On Monday, it struck me how truly revolutionary this whole business would be for the Church (and the world) if we would take Paul's words seriously. God impressed four major points on me as I read 1 Corinthians 12:18:
1. We must not doubt that by whatever agency--be it history, circumstance, mistakes--that the parts of the body possessed by any given congregation at any given time are precisely what God has decided that congregation needs to fulfill its Christ-given mission.
This means no more searching for the "ideal" church. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his fantastic little book, Life Together, warns Christians against falling in love with their ideal church, the church of their imaginations, lest they fail to appreciate the church they're already in, the church where God's Holy Spirit is already active.
This also means no more church of the fantasized future. It's God's future that we are meant to discover through lives of faithfulness, not a future born of the empty well of human wisdom and sin.
Jesus says that no truly wise person begins something without counting the cost. But He also tells a parable in Luke 12 about a man who had so much that he decided to build big barns to store everything and simply live a life of ease. He had big plans born of his own view of things.
Jesus' fictional man's smug self-satisfaction (there's that smug thing again) came to an abrupt end when, Jesus says, God came to him and said: "You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?" (Luke 12:12) In other words, it's fine for people (and congregations) to make plans; but we'd better be prepared to trash them when God throws up walls or calls us in different directions. James 4:13-15 puts our fantasized futures in perspective when he writes:
Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 12:18 also tell us no more lamentations for what our congregation is not, but celebration for what it is when Jesus and the Word of God hold center place, as well as prayerful faith in God that He is providing and He will provide what we need in gifted people to do, not what we want to do, but what He is calling us to do.
2. We must not allow other disciples' quirks to get in the way of recognizing their God-gifts that must be exercised for our congregations to do what God is calling us to do.
Everybody has quirks. (Even you!) There are no quirkless humans.
And it's through humans who make up Christ's body, with all their peculiarities and particularities, that God does His work in the world. The Church is called to "make disciples," internally and externally. God has given all the parts needed for any congregation needed to do this. And all of those parts will be imperfect, idiosyncratic, quirky.
It's always been that way. Paul had a volcanic temper, it seems. Peter was impulsive. James and John had to learn to get over looking out for number one. David had an eye for the ladies. Naomi was self-pitying. No matter. God used them all with their quirks. So, who are we to mentally disqualify people from doing the part in Christ's mission for His Church to which God has called them?
I've always remembered a wonderful bit of advice given by Alan Loy McGinnis in his book, The Friendship Factor. For any relationship to thrive and be all that it can be, each person must make allowances for the peculiar insanities of the other person. That's true in friendships, in marriages, and in the most sacred of all relationships, the Church, this organic body of Christ, the only relationship in this world that will continue to exist in eternity.
3. We cannot overestimate nor underestimate the value or necessity of any spiritual gift or the baptized believer in Christ who possesses the gift. We in the body of Christ all need each other.
4. We must encourage every Christian disciple to know and exercise their spiritual gifts, with mutual accountability to Christ and to the Church.
Congregations need to work hard at getting rid of gatekeepers who prevent some members from doing the ministries to which God calls them through their gifts.
Congregations need to discourage the "humble pie" excuse-makers who claim they can't do anything for the mission of the Church because, "I have no gift." People who ply such nonsense are calling God a liar, because God's Word insists that the Holy Spirit has given every believer in Christ a spiritual gift by which the Church fulfills its calling.
1 Peter 4:10 says: "Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms." Peter assumes that "each of you" in the churches he addresses in first century Asia Minor has been allotted at least one spiritual gift. For a Christian to say that she or he missed out on a spiritual gift is a humble-sounding way of dodging our calls to play our part in Christ's great commission of all Christians.
Help me to live out these insights as a Christian disciple and as a servant-leader in Your Church, Lord. Amen
[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]