The "Body of Christ"

Paul uses the term "body of Christ" many times in his letters. In a few of those places he is referring to Jesus' actual body, but most of the time he is applying the term to the church--the local church. You see, Paul loved the house churches that he founded on his missionary journeys, and had a very definite idea as to how they were to behave in order that they would enjoy the full power of the Holy Spirit. If there is a uniform theme in those "body" passages, it is that the individuals in the churches needed to yield to the corporate body. These passages would not have been so necessary had Paul's churches been comprised of Hebrew thinking peoples who had been nourished in the synagogue, as Paul himself had been. But these were largely Gentile house churches, and Paul often complained of their "boasting" and other behaviors that magnified the individual rather than the corporate. So he used the metaphor of the body, frequently expressing the absurdity of one part of a body wishing it was another.

Robert Banks brings out an important aspect of Paul's use of the "body" metaphor in the Corinthian correspondence:

The community at Corinth is not said to be part of a wider body of Christ nor as 'a body of Christ' alongside numerous others. It is 'the body of Christ' in that place. This suggests that wherever Christians are in relationship there is the body of Christ in its entirety, for Christ is truly and wholly present there through his Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13). (Banks, 59).

Banks also suggests that the "discerning the body" warning concerning the Lord's Supper (1 Cor. 11:29) is best understood as being in proper relationship with the other members of the local church (ibid.)

In letters to three separate destinations, Paul used the "body" metaphor while discussing spiritual gifts. Why? It was because the spiritual gifts were the source of the power of the church, and these individual-centered churches were not gaining the full value of those gifts because they were interpreting the gifts in an individualistic, rather than in a corporate, way. In short, these Gentiles would have had God recognize and gift them as individuals so that they could each go out into the world and do great works with the Spirit's power and claim the credit for themselves. But Paul had to tell them again and again that the gifts were always given in the corporate context, no one individual being given all the gifts. So God had set up the rules in such a way that the gathered people had to cooperate with each other, work corporately in order to discern God's will, appreciate the gifts of the other members of the church, and, especially, to practice love within the church--something so important to Jesus that he made intra-church love a "New Commandment" in Jn. 13:34, just before his trial and crucifixion. When the church functioned in this manner, all the credit for its accomplishments would go to God.

1 Corinthians

While Eph. 4 has a very short summary of the corporate nature of gifting, the largest and most helpful passages are 1 Cor. 12-14 and Rom. 12-15. Consider the Corinthians passage first--it is comprised of three chapters:

This structure tells us right away that 1 Cor. 13 is part of--indeed the very center of--a larger exposition on gifting within the church--it is not an isolated discussion about Christian love or marital love as the passage is used so often today. In Chapter 12, Paul uses the "body" metaphor to ridicule the Corinthian's individualistic understanding of gifts. As he moves to the start of 1 Cor. 13, he dismisses their actions as being "a resounding gong or clanging cymbal." He then tells the church that the correct behavior in the church is that of love, contrasting the love God intends for them with their present, boastful attitudes. As he moves into Chapter 14 he concludes his discussion of the gifts and goes on to discuss the need for order within the church, focusing particularly on the disorder that arises through the excessive and prideful use of the gift of tongue speaking.


The discussion in Romans is for a slightly different purpose. Paul has just given the Roman house churches a message that the Christians of Gentile and Jewish descent needed cooperate with each other. The Roman churches had been founded years earlier (perhaps by the Romans present in Acts 2:10) as a group of synagogues that embraced the gospel of Christ. Those assemblies began to dispute other synagogues that rejected the gospel, and the dissension that arose became so acrimonious that it soon came to Emperor Claudius' attention, who had the Jews expelled from Rome (Acts 18:2). With the synagogues closed and the Jews gone, the Gentiles moved their worship into their homes and modified their worship appropriately. After Claudius' death, many of the Jews returned to Rome, but found themselves treated as second-class citizens. When Paul got wind of this while wintering at Corinth, he composed Romans for Phoebe to bring to Rome and preach to the churches while he began his fateful trip to Jerusalem where he was arrested (Acts 21).

The central message of reconciliation climaxes in Rom. 9-11, and ends in a doxology (Rom. 11:33-36). Paul then pleas for the obedience characterized by "living sacrifices" (Rom. 12:1-2) and then begins his treatment of spiritual gifts and the love that should be practiced within the church. As you review this passage, note in particular Rom. 12:10, 12:13a, 12:15, 12:16, and 13:8--all of these clearly intended to apply to relationships within the church. This is not to say that love should not be practiced outside of the church, but the particular character of love that Paul speaks of in the 1 Cor. 13 and Romans 12 passages is directed to the relationships that are appropriate within the church. Again--see Jn. 13:34.

A full exposition of this may be found in The Book of Romans: A House Church Manifesto (see the Resource page).

The Gifts

Many have searched the New Testament for a full enumeration of gifts, and have then devised schemes for individuals to find "their" gift. This sort of thing misses the point completely.

The astute interpreter of the gift passages will recognize Paul's intent to push the churches away from individualistic behaviors and toward the corporate behavior that absolutely requires right relationships within the church. This kind of relationship can only be possible when the church is small enough for those relationships to thrive (See Birkey, 104-110).

Why are the gift catalogs different in the various books? The best explanation is simply this: Paul listed the gifts that he felt were lacking in the churches to which he was writing.

Here is the key. The church at Corinth had many problems--they needed 17 gifts for them to be the people of God. Rome, to accomplish what God wanted, needed but seven gifts. Peter addressed a scattered and freightened people of God and said that hospitality, speaking, and serving were the gifts needed for them to be the people of God. Paul wirtes the church of Ephesus that they needed four gifts to do the work God would have them do. (Nelson, 274).

The House Church Family

These passages are the best passages we have in the whole Bible about the kind of relationships that ought to be in the family. Indeed, all the natural families in the Bible, including those of the Patriarchs, fall far below the standard Paul applies here. It is the house church that is to be the model family--not the biological family. Consider Jesus' words in Mt. 12:46-50, "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?" The answer is this: Jesus' mother and brothers are his disciples, and it is the same today. Once we get it right in the church, then we can try to bring it into our human families.

So one of the duties of the house church is to become the ideal family, with ideal relationships between each member. Why? Certainly, that is the way that the church best appropriates the Spiritual gifts and therefore is most effective in carrying out is mission. But there is a bigger reason: Consider Eph. 3:15! We in the house church are being trained to sit at God's table. It is fundamental to house church theology that we understand ourselves as being in the kingdom now--a foretaste of heaven--and we need to get our house church family in shape so that it will not be a resounding gong or clanging cymbal.

What the "Body of Christ" Is Not

It is very common in evangelical circles to see the term "Body of Christ" used to somehow embrace all believers, living or dead, or some form of "universal church." But where Paul's use of the term "body of Christ" in a broader context, he is is better to understand him as speaking of a "heavenly church that is permanently in session that, though it meets regularly, is intermittent in character" (Banks, 39-41).


Robert Banks, Paul's Idea of Community, Revised ed., (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994). (1)

Del Birkey, The House Church (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1988).

Stanley A. Nelson, A Believers' Church Theology (San Rafael, CA: House Church Central, 1996).

(All of the above are listed on the Resource page).