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The Body of Christ Metaphor: 1 Corinthians 12

Posted by on Oct 18, 2012 in community, scripture, spiritual gifts, unity | 1 comment

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. I’ve already discussed the usages of “body” in Romans 12:4-5 and 1 Corinthians 10-11, and in this post I’ll look at the uses of the term body in 1 Corinthians 12.

This passage contains the most extensive and most descriptive use of the “body” metaphor yet:

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many. 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. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. 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, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (1 Corinthians 12:12-27 ESV)

This passage is very interesting, jumping back and forth between referring to a physical body and a metaphorical body.

First, in the previous section, Paul had been talking about the diversity of spiritual gifts and the unity of purpose in God. He begins the body references in 1 Corinthians 12:12 to illustrate this diversity in unity. In that verse, Paul refers to a physical body and the members of that physical body. Then, at the end of 1 Corinthians 12:12 (“And so it is with Christ”), Paul transitions into the metaphorical use of “body” in 1 Corinthians 12:13. The Spirit baptizes (immerses) people into a body, referring once again to a corporate unity / community as before.

Beginning in 1 Corinthians 12:14 through 1 Corinthians 12:26, Paul again returns to the physical body illustration, further explaining what he meant in 1 Corinthians 12. In this long passages, he discusses the relationships to physical parts of a body to other physical parts of a body, and their mutual relationship to the body itself.

Then, in 1 Corinthians 12:27, Paul returns to the metaphorical use of the term “body” calling the Corinthians by the phrase “body of Christ.” (This is the first time so far that we’ve seen “body of Christ.”) Thus, the descriptions previously of the relationships of physical members to a physical body were given in order to help the Corinthians understand their relationship to each other in Christ.

So, most of the usages of the term “body” in this passage are not metaphorical but instead refer to a physical body for purposes of illustration. Only the occurrences of the term “body” in 1 Corinthians 12:13 and 1 Corinthians 12:27 refer to a metaphorical “body,” i.e., a community or corporate unity. The physical body illustration, however, are important in understanding the relationships among those who make up the community / corporate unity.

Although Paul uses the term “head” in 1 Corinthians 12:22, he does not use it in the sense of Christ being the “head of the body.” Instead, in this passage, “head” is simply used as another example of a member of the body, along with the hand, eye, ear, foot, etc. So, while this metaphorical body (community / corporate unity) is created by the Spirit and belongs to Christ (“body of Christ”), the metaphor is primarily used to indication the relationship between the various members to one another and to the group as a whole. Nothing else is said about the members’ relationship to Jesus Christ or to the community’s relationship to Jesus Christ.

So, in 1 Corinthians 12:12-27, while we find out that the community is created by the Spirit and belongs to Christ, the “body” metaphor is once again primarily used to indicate how the individuals should relate to one another as a community (i.e., diversity in unity).


“Body of Christ” Metaphor Series

  1. Introduction
  2. Romans 12:4-5
  3. 1 Corinthians 10-11
  4. 1 Corinthians 12
  5. Ephesians
  6. Colossians
  7. Hebrews 13:3
  8. Conclusion

One Comment

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  1. 12-29-2012

    It is interesting that Paul has the ear saying, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body.” These days we usually hear the ear say, “Because you are not an ear, you do not belong to the body.”
    Also, I noticed Paul said that saying “I do not belong to the body.” does not make a member any less a part of the body. I wonder if that works for church members??
    Anyway, it looks like you are going somewhere with this series, Alan.
    I’m off to Ephesians.