As I explained in the “Introduction” of this series, I am stepping through the passages in the New Testament in which the authors (primarily Paul – perhaps only Paul) use the term “body” in a metaphorical sense. As I read through these passages, I’m going to be asking these kinds of questions: What is Paul comparing to a “body”? What comparison is he making? At what point does it seem the comparison ends? How is this usage similar to or different from other usages?
Now, the term “body” is found often in Scripture. It usually refers to an actual body… that is, a person physical body. But, there are a few times when the term “body” does not refer to a person’s physical body, but is used in a metaphorical sense.
The first instances (in canonical order) of the metaphorical use of “body” is found in Romans 12, within a passage in which Paul is writing about spiritual gifts:
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For 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. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. (Romans 12:3-8 ESV)
I’m sure that some will disagree with me, but Paul does not actually refer to a “body of Christ” (that is, “Christ’s body”) in this passage. Instead, he says that we are a body “in Christ,” which is different. According to Paul, he and his readers are a “body” together because they are all in Christ together.
So, this appears to be a more general metaphorical use of “body,” much like we find in other literature of the same time period. “Body,” in this case, refers to a “community” or “corporate personality.” (See my post “The Body Metaphor in Paul: Familiar and yet unique” in which I examine Robert Bank’s discussion of the term “body” in different religious, philosophical, and social contexts in the first century.)
In fact, there is no suggestion in this passage of Jesus’ relationship to the “body.” Paul does not refer to Jesus as the head of the body, which he will state in other passages. Instead, he only says that the body exists because “we” are “in Christ.”
In this passage, then, the “body” metaphor reminds the readers of their connection to one another because they are “in Christ.” The focus is on their unity with one another and their connection to one another. Similarly, Paul uses the “body” metaphor in this passage to remind his reader that their unity is made of a collection of diverse (different) parts. Their diversity does not damage or deny their unity. (We’ll find that Paul often uses the “body” metaphor to reinforce this idea of unity with diversity.)
So, in Romans 12:4-5, Paul uses the “body” metaphor to remind his readers that they are a corporate unity or community in Christ with one another even though they are different (specifically, even though they have been given different gifts).
“Body of Christ” Metaphor Series
- Romans 12:4-5
- 1 Corinthians 10-11
- 1 Corinthians 12
- Hebrews 13:3