Your living body is marvelous and magnificent. You may be so familiar with your body’s defects, disproportions, disorders, and diseases that you can hardly see its astounding glory. But it is truly wonderful.
Your body is unity in diversity incarnate. The one you is comprised of an almost incomprehensible number of unique parts that all function together. And every member of your body, strong or weak, prominent or obscure, is necessary. You would be overwhelmed if you could see a comprehensive list of what all the diverse parts of you do to make it possible for you to move across a room, or teach a class, or eat a meal, or play catch with your son, or dance to a piece of music. You are one body, but it takes every individual member of your body working together to make it possible for you to do what you do every day.
And so it is with the body of Christ, the church. It is marvelous and magnificent, though we may struggle to see its astounding glory because we’re so familiar with its defects, disproportions, disorders, and diseases. We also may wonder, perhaps with frustration, why other members of the body aren’t as compelled to address the needs we’re compelled by, or why they prioritize things that seem like lower priorities to us. And yet, this is part of what makes the church truly wonderful: every member of this body, strong or weak, prominent or obscure, is necessary precisely because of its unique, God-given role.
One Body, Many Members
The description of the church as a body is more than simply an analogy. It is the revealing of a mystery. The church isn’t a mere organization; it really is an organism. Christ’s body is alive. And like a human body, it is an incarnation of unity in diversity:
As in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. (Romans 12:4–5)
To grasp this reality — the church as a living body — is to see a beautiful balance between the crucial importance of the collective and the crucial importance of the individual. Both are indispensable.
“The church isn’t a mere organization; it really is an organism. Christ’s body is alive.”
The church is “one body.” What does that mean? A body is a singular unit created by God to do certain things. The individual members on their own cannot fulfill all the purposes for which the body was created. Those members of the church must function together as a collective whole in order for the body to do all it was created to do.
But the church is also “many members.” There is no collective whole, no body, without its countless crucial individual members. God’s design of the body of Christ, like a human body, is a large-scale interdependency of diverse members functioning in complementary roles to make it possible for the body to function.
This is simply (and complexly) glorious. In this spiritual anatomical design, God bestows profound dignity and honor upon both the collective whole, the entire church, and the individual members — each individual member, in fact.
Every Member Indispensable
Most of us don’t struggle with understanding how the entire church, the collective body, is necessary to God’s purposes in the world. And most of us can see how particular members of the body are also necessary. But we might harbor doubts that all the members, particularly ourselves, are really necessary. To address this common doubt, the Spirit, through Paul, says of Christ’s body,
If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. (1 Corinthians 12:15–18)
In other words, we cannot trust our self-assessment when we think ourselves unimportant. And we cannot trust our assessment when we think anyone else unimportant:
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable. (1 Corinthians 12:21–22)
Indispensable is a strong term. God is saying through Paul that in his assessment every person is necessary. It is “God [who] arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.” Every member has a God-given role to play in the well-being and function of Christ’s body. And this is just as true for “those parts of the body that we think less honorable” (1 Corinthians 12:23) as it is for those parts of the body we are conditioned to esteem.
Empowered by the Same Spirit
One important reason God considers each individual member indispensable is because each member is indwelled, animated, and gifted by the Holy Spirit.
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. (1 Corinthians 12:4–7)
“It is a great gift to know that we don’t have to perform functions in the body for which we aren’t equipped.”
Christ is the head of the church-body (Colossians 1:18). And analogous to how the nervous system empowers the individual members of our bodies to carry out the will and desires of our heads, the Holy Spirit empowers us to carry out the will and desires of our Head within our unique functions in the church. God gives to each member of the body “the manifestation of the Spirit,” a gift and the power to exercise it, “for the common good.” And each gift, though empowered by the same Spirit, manifests as “varieties of service” and “varieties of activities.”
Varieties of Causes and Priorities
All of this means that different members are going to be compelled to do different things. And it means different members are going to feel differently about priorities: what needs to be done and what needs to be said. For example, some will feel an urgency to focus on countering false teaching in the church, and others an urgency to care for vulnerable people in need, and others an urgency to actively work to end the evil of abortion, and others an urgency to create more effective administrative structures so that many can be better served, and others an urgency to address painful racial divisions and social injustice, and others an urgency to give themselves to intercession and prayer ministry.
This is where we need humility and faith. All of these things (and many more) matter greatly, and our Head and the Spirit care about them. But none of us as individuals can give ourselves to them all at all times. Each of us is called to perform a limited role (or roles) depending on what the Spirit is empowering us to do for the common good. Our roles might change in different seasons of our lives, but whatever role we find ourselves in for our current season, we must be careful not to pridefully assume others should be feeling our level of urgency or doing what we’re called to do. Likewise, we should be careful not to pridefully step into roles the Spirit is not empowering us to perform. We must prayerfully trust our body’s Head and Spirit to provide what is needed for the common good at the times and places that seem good to them.
Stewards of Varied Grace
A robust understanding of and trust in God’s glorious design of a unified body comprised of very diverse members is meant to produce profound gratitude — gratitude to God for his incredible grace toward us all, and gratitude for the indispensable gifts others are to the body. It is a great gift to know that we don’t have to perform functions in the body for which we aren’t equipped. And it is a great gift for us to know that we have received an indispensable function to contribute for the common good of the body.
The body of Christ is marvelous and magnificent. It is a real body, a living organism, unity in diversity incarnate. It is wonderful that we “are one body . . . and individually members one of another” (Romans 12:5). Therefore,
As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies — in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 4:10–11)