The Body of Christ: Unity in Diversity

Light of Truth

Benny Nalkara, CMI

“Body of Christ” is the imagery used by Paul in his letters to denote the Church and to specify the mutuality and harmony among its members. More than focussing on the institutional dimension of the Church, Paul highlights the communitarian dimension of it. In the context of charisms in the community, he uses the imagery of the body and its different organs. Though there are different assumptions about the adoption of concept of body, it is the view that it was taken from the Stoic concept of soma politikon (political body) gets prominence. Paul understood the Christian community as a body with many members. His thoughts about community as a body and the role of charisms are found mainly in 1 Cor 12: 12-31; Rom 12:3-8; Eph 4:7,11. In Corinthians and Romans he uses it as a simile and in Colossians and Ephesians as a metaphor. The distinct usage, “body of Christ” is found only four times in the Pauline letters: Rom 7:4; 1 Cor 10:16; Eph 4:12; 1 Cor 12:27.
While comparing the Church with the body and its different organs, Paul illustrates the unique characteristics of the functioning of the body (1Cor 12: 12-26). According to Paul, plurality, order, mutuality, unity and uniqueness of each organ in a body hold the body together in a harmonious and healthy manner and generate synergy. The body doesn’t consist of one member, but many (1 Cor 12:14). This plurality and diversity provides not only beauty but also order to the body. It’s same with the body of Christ. We cannot demand for the uniformity of members of the body, we cannot also demand for the uniformity of the faithful. The poignant question of Paul “If all were a single member, would the body be?” points finger to a predominant factor in the existence of Christian communion that diversity and plurality are essential things in the building up of the community and sustenance of its harmony.
As the mystical body of Christ, the People of God represent a diverse unity. All are called to serve complementary roles in building and strengthening the body of Christ. Christian unity is more than adherence to a common belief. It is manifested in the exalted Christ’s gift to individuals to serve so as to make the community more Christ like. The uniqueness of each member in the body consists in the fact that God has adorned each member with great honour and has shown a special favour for the inferior ones (1 Cor 12:24). Paul underlines the purpose of the diversity and uniqueness of the different members of the body and emphasizes that it is in view of removing dissensions within the body and this should be an inspiring model for the members of the Church to take care of others. This mutuality would result in the sharing of the sufferings and honour of the members in a communitarian manner.
In 1 Cor 12:27-30, Paul applies the image of body again to the Church as a whole and again to its members and specifies the diversity of functions found in the Church. Different charisms, according to Paul are meant for a specific purpose without any prominence to a particular one. The Church as the body of Christ is a living organic unity composed of a multiplicity of members, each necessary to the other and to the growth of all. Each person has a certain unique role to play in building up the Church, Christ’s mystical body. Like the various parts of the body, all of the faithful should work in harmony, and none should feel superior to any other or reject the gifts of the another. As members of Christ’s body, the faithful share a communion, a solidarity in which everyone shares in the joys and sufferings of every individual member. Because the Church is one body, every action of its members can have a positive effect through virtuous deeds or a harmful influence through sinful actions.
Paul clearly asserts that Christ as the head of the Church, the body unifies and hold together all other members. The “horizontal” dimension of the unity is based on the “vertical” unity between the Church and Christ. The source of Church’s unity and her inspiration to have a communitarian witnessing is Christ and his Spirit (Eph4: 4-5).
The Pauline imagery of “the Body of Christ,” is a clarion call for the communitarian witnessing role of the members of the Church. It demands mutual acceptance of the individuality and uniqueness of all. “Bearing with one another” (Eph 4:2) is the key for the growth of communion. The diversities existing in the Christian communities in relation to the cultures, customs, languages etc are to be respected. The Church is a cross-cultural reality. The diversity should help us to grow into the maturity of Christ with unity. Any forceful attempt for uniformity will be at the risk of agapeic unity. More than tolerating the other, we should learn to celebrate the difference. The harmony created by the synergy of different people and different gifts in the Church is the identity marker of the Church in the world.

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