In 1 Corinthians 12, the Apostle Paul makes an impassioned plea for the unity of the body…a unity that can only built up in love, when the body itself is functioning properly (Ephesians 4:16). Love in the body is indeed the “better way” (1 Corinthians 12:31) toward which we should strive. To make his point, Paul reminds us that a body has many parts…there are eyes and hands and ears, etc… Because the body needs all of the parts to be whole, unity is that which must be striven for. Amen. For most of us who have grown up in Christian circles or in churches, this is an idea that is pretty basic to our existence. No matter what our personal gifts and passions may be, we need the whole to live out the Great Commission in this world.
I fear, though, in a society that has become as specialized as ours has become, Paul’s analogy is often misapplied. In today’s world, it seems, that there are specialists in just about every field. Medicine, Law, and Mechanics are all examples of areas where people specialize in a narrow field. Certainly, there is a base of knowledge that all specialists share in common (I’ll come back to that idea), but there are Dermatologists, Hematologists, and Cardiologists; there those who specialize in Criminal Law, Civil Law, and Business Law; and people also specialize in Motorcycle Mechanics, Heavy Machinery Mechanics, and Auto Mechanics — many even specializing only one a particular make of automobiles.
Even in my former trade there were specialists (I installed carpet for 11 years before entering the ministry full-time). My specialty was Residential Flooring and in that, I did a lot of custom work (borders, inlays, etc…). For several months, just after arriving in seminary, I worked for a Commercial Flooring company, laying tile and glue-down floors. While I knew the basics, the guys who did that kind of flooring for a living could work circles around me. At the same time, most of them had never used a carpet kicker before…something that is a mainstay of residential work. We were specialists — we had areas in which we overlapped, but there were things in which we each did particularly well, and it is in those areas that we each tended to stay.
So, how does this apply to the church? Certainly, there are specializations in the church. To some, God has given the gift of administration, and we need those who can wisely manage the resources that God has entrusted to the church. To others, God has given the gift of helping, which extends well past the work of the Deacons to the whole church body, who cares enough to reach out and meet the needs of others (as I write this, we have a team of people traveling home from Houston, who spent the last week doing just that). To others, God gives the gift of teaching, something that is essential in the process of discipling Christians as they grow in faith. Still, to others, God has given a heart for evangelism, and these members are wired by God to look for people with whom they can share the Gospel. All of these are specializations — we share a common basic set of skills (every Christian ought to be able to share the Gospel, but some are that much more zealous for it, etc…). And again, Paul’s analogy carries, we all are not gifted in the same way and so we need one another.
At the same time, there are things in the life of the body that keep the whole body healthy. For example, as I am closing in on 50, my family doctor has insisted that I start taking vitamins and be more intentional about daily exercise. And so, I take my “One-a-Day” and I ride my stationary bike 5 miles (or walk a mile) pretty much every day (pretty much, life gets busy). These actions do not just benefit my stomach or my heart, they benefit every part of my body, helping it to be more healthy overall. Further, I pray and spend time reading and reflecting on God’s Word, every day. This again, benefits my whole being.
Likewise, in the life of the Church, there are things that we do that benefit the whole body — they act like vitamins for our soul. Spending time reading and reflecting on the Bible is not an activity that belongs just to the specialist, every part of the body must engage in this to keep the body well. Some often say that they are not good at prayer. Of course, if you can talk or think, you can pray and it again is an essential part of the Christian life, something not reserved for a specialist. Sometimes people say that they don’t really need Sunday School, but being discipled is again something that is to be a part of every Christian’s life and without a commitment to discipleship (personal and corporate), the body will not be healthy. They are exercises and vitamins for our overall health. True, my ears may not directly benefit from time on a stationary bike, but that time strengthens my heart which circulates blood all over my body, which in turn not only helps the blood flow to the ears, but it improves the health of the body to which my ears are attached. And so, they benefit indirectly, but they benefit nonetheless.
Sometimes Christians think that they don’t need corporate worship. Here, the analogy changes a little bit because our worship is not so much something we do to strengthen our body (though our body is strengthened as a by-product), it is our service to God. Our worship is our drawing near to our Almighty God and Savior according to His Word and giving him the praise and honor for who he is and for what he has done. This is a big part of what the church was created to do.
So, to say that you don’t need to worship as part of the church body is really to say that you are not part of the body at all. You exist, perhaps, in connection with the body for your own reasons, but that is to be like a parasite, not a functioning organ. Jesus speaks of this as well when he describes the church growing like a large tree from a small seed (see Mark 4:30-32). Once the tree (the Kingdom/Church) has grown and developed branches and leaves, the birds of the air (which often represent the unbelieving nations), make their nests in the midst of the tree. The birds benefit from the tree’s presence, but are not part of the tree and are not fed by the root of the tree. And, they will only nest in the branches of the tree for a season. Worship — being fed by the tap-root of the Spirit — drawing near according to the Word — is what distinguishes the tree from the bird in its nest.
Thus, in things like worship, the study of God’s word, and prayer, it is not a matter of specializing. It is a matter of being and being healthy. What is the goal of this healthy living? It is being united and built up in love. How is this love achieved? It is achieved through the growing mature in our doctrine so that we are not blown to and fro by the winds of human cunning and deceit (see Ephesians 4:13-16). This cannot happen apart from the whole body attending to the Word of God. Yes, we specialize, but we are also a part of a whole. To understand Paul’s analogy in 1 Corinthians 12, you need to preserve this balance…how often, though, we miss the second while over-emphasizing the first.