It is little surprise that the Apostle Paul, who spent so much time in the company of the disciple known as "the beloved physician",¹ should use the anatomy of the human body as an illustration of a deeper spiritual reality. It has been suggested that it was on the road to Damascus that the truth of the unity of Christ as head and the church as His body was first hinted at: such was the closeness of the Lord and His people that Saul's persecution of them was actually a persecution of Him. Whether this is the case or not, it is true that this is one of the most vivid metaphors that Paul uses. In the New Testament, it is used to bring two profound realities before our minds.
The unity of Christ and His church
This is one of the great truths of the Bible, found particularly perhaps in the Epistle to the Ephesians. The God whom we serve and worship is not a distant, austere God, but (in the person of the Son) has a link with His people that is so close that it is describable only in such terms as "head" and "body" (Col 1.18), or "vine" and "branches" (Jn 15.5). In one sense the Lord Jesus is so infinitely far above us that words could never define it; in another sense He is as close to me as is my own body: the same life that is in Him is in me. In the natural realm, there are perhaps three different aspects to the relationship of head and body. First, the head has authority over the body - it controls it; second, the body exists to carry out the wishes of the head; third, the experiences undergone by the body will affect the head. These have their parallels in the spiritual sphere.
First, the authority of Christ over His church is absolute - it must be subject to no-one but Him. Then, the church exists on earth not to function as the servant of human governments - it is to be the means by which the will of the Lord Jesus (now in heaven) is put into practice on earth. Are these things true practically in my Christian life? Do I subject myself to the wishes of the Man who died for me, and live to carry out His purposes? Finally, the experiences of the church on earth are perceived by its divine Head in heaven. This was the truth that Paul glimpsed on the Damascus Road - whatever we as believers go through on earth, the Lord is aware of it and feels it as if it were His own experience. Let us revel in the wonder of this - it is not just that He knows what is happening to me, but that He is able to enter into the experience in a way that no-one on Earth can. He is not untouched by the feelings of our infirmities. What grace this is!
The relationship of believers within the one body
In 1 Corinthians 12.12-27 Paul likens the relationship between believers to that of the various parts of a human body, and shows that there are two great characteristics of such a relationship. First, there is unity, and second, there is diversity. This very simply means that while the members of the body have differing roles, each member is essential to the harmonious working of the whole: the members may be many, but the body is one. As believers in our Lord Jesus, we all form part of the one body, because we have all been baptized by the same Spirit. There is not one form of Christianity for the Jew and another for the Gentile, nor is there a different Spirit in men as compared to women, or in bond as compared to free. In that sense there is complete unity between believers - we all form part of that one glorious body. Not only that, but there is complete equality between believers - no believer has a greater or lesser Spirit than another. However, this does not mean that believers are all to be clones of one another; indeed, quite the opposite is true. It is very easy for us to fall into the trap of thinking, "If only everyone were more like me, the assembly would be far better off", but this of course is nonsense. God Himself has "tempered the body together" (1 Cor 12.24), and has given differing functions to different members. In the human body, even the most minor organ has a role to play, and this is also true spiritually. There is a danger in thinking that those believers to whom God has given prominent and public gifts are somehow of greater value than the old sister who is quietly faithful in her godly living. Scripture is clear: "those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary" (1 Cor 12.22). We cannot do without even the most seemingly insignificant saint, any more than we could afford physically to do without an arm or a leg.
Furthermore, one of the most remarkable features of the human body is its interdependence - the way that every organ is dependent on the others for its function. For example, the kidney is dependent on the heart for its blood supply, but if the kidney fails to clear the blood of various toxins, the heart begins to fail also; the kidney depends on the heart, and yet the heart depends on the kidney - neither can do without the other. This is true in an assembly context also: that quiet brother who rarely says very much may be depending on a more public man for his spiritual teaching, and yet it may be that the man on the platform is sustained by the prayers of his less well known fellow-saint. None of us is able to function independently: every member of the body, every member of each local assembly is needed for the functioning of the body in the way that God intended. There are perhaps two great practical implications of this mutual dependence. The first is that we must beware of a spirit of pride in our hearts, of thinking that, because I have been given some ability to serve God, I can do without those who have not been given a similar gift. In this regard it has been pointed out that, when it comes to the human body, no externally visible organ is necessary for life - every vital organ is hidden from public view. It would do no harm for those of us who take a public role in the local assembly to remember this! No member of the body can say to another, "I have no need of thee" (1 Cor 12.21). We all need each other.²
The second practical implication is this: if I fail to fulfil my role in a local assembly, however humble that role may be, it will have a detrimental effect on my brothers and sisters. Take a Scriptural example: in Acts 6 there is a need for believers to supervise the practical work of feeding the widows, and so the apostles in their wisdom appoint men to attend to it, rather than seeking to do it themselves. Consider what might have happened if Stephen or Prochorus or any of the others had neglected their duties on the basis that what they were doing was too insignificant to matter: Peter or John would have had to leave the study of the Scriptures and deal with the problem. Thus, their ministry would have been diminished, the people of God would not have been fed, and the whole body would have suffered, simply because one believer felt that their contribution was of no importance. It is not difficult to imagine a similar circumstance in assembly life today.
In summary, then, the metaphor of the body teaches us a number of things. It reminds us that not only do we have a living and eternal link with the Lord Jesus, but also with every other believer in history. Practically, it tells us that each of us has a part to play, and the proper functioning of each local assembly requires that every one of us fulfil the role for which God has fitted us. Let us see to it that we each do so, for His glory.
To be continued.
¹ Colossians 4.14. Remarkably, this is the only time in Scripture when a physician is described in an overtly positive light!
² It has been quaintly put this way: when the Devil comes as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour, the head cannot say to the feet, "I have no need of you"!