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Body of Christ

Body of Christ

The body metaphor for the people of God is a powerful image that bespeaks the new historical reality brought about in Christ. It surfaces in only four New Testament epistles, but in a bewildering array of associations.

Relational Unity in Romans and 1 Corinthians Romans (12:4-5) and 1 Corinthians (10:17; 11:29; 12:12-27) reflect an earlier stage of usage. Paul's fullest treatment of the theme ( 1 Co 12:12-27 ) consists of an extended comparison between the human body (soma [sw'ma]) and the church in order to emphasize horizontal union among the members of Christ's body and to demonstrate dramatically both diversity within unity (12:12a, 14-19) and unity out of diversity (12:12b, 20-27). A church that was well known both for the giftedness of its members ( 1 Co 1:7 ) and its toleration of divisions ( 1 Cor 1:10-13 ; 3:3 ; 4:6 ; 6:6 ; 11:17-22 ; 12:25 ) needed to heed warnings against both groundless inferiority (12:14-19) and disdainful superiority (12:21-25). Each member of the body has an important (vv. 17, 22), although not always glamorous (vv. 23-24), contribution to make, and no member experiences humiliation or honor without somehow affecting the rest (v. 26 cf. 2 Cor 11:28-29 ).

Similar injunctions come in Romans 12. Instead of displays of arrogance (vv. 3, 16), each member of the body is called to employ his or her gift(s) in brotherly love (v. 10), recognizing both the diversity (vv. 4-5a) and the unity (v. 5b) that define their place in Christ. For Paul, the urgent need for humility, interdependence, and love within the Christian community is grounded in this dynamic horizontal unity between members of the body of Christ, a union that overcomes even the most imposing racial and social barriers ( 1 Cor 12:13 ; cf. Gal 3:28 ; Eph 2:16 ). But it is not at all clear that Paul took up the body metaphor simply as a memorable way to describe relations within the community. Horizontal, social relations between members are grounded in the vertical union each member enjoys with Christ ( Rom 12:5 ; 1 Cor 10:16-17 ; 12:13 ). That body of Christ language could apply both to the local congregation ( 1 Co 12:27 ) and to something more universal ( 1 Co 12:13 ) not only attests to the flexibility of the metaphor but also reflects an important element in Paul's ecclesiology: the local church is a localized manifestation of the church universal ( 1 Cor 1:2 ; 2 Cor 1:1 ).

Union with Christ in Ephesians and Colossians Ephesians and Colossians reflect a further stage of development. The imagery shifts from horizontal unity among members (one out of many) to vertical union with Christ (the many in the One). No longer is the head merely one body part among many, but Christ's role as head over the church entails organic unity ( Eph 4:15-16 ; Col 2:19 ), authority and supremacy ( Eph 1:22 ; 5:24 ; Col 1:18 ), self-sacrifice ( Eph 5:25 ), origination ( Col 1:17-18 ), provision of life ( Col 2:19 ; 3:3-4 ), and enablement of growth and sanctification ( Eph 4:16 ; 5:26-30 ; Col 2:19 ). Moreover, this head-body relationship between Christ and the church stands at the center of God's plan for the entire cosmos over which Christ has been established as sovereign ( Eph 1:20-23 ). But whereas Christ fills the cosmos in terms of his ultimate sovereignty, he fills his body, the church, as he supplies power (1:19), infuses life (2:5), secures exaltation (2:6), and showers kindness (2:7). Only the church is called Christ's fullness (1:23), and as the body of Christ, the church shares Christ's exaltation and session at God's right hand in the heavenly places ( Eph 1:20 ; 2:6 ).

Related Themes and Possible Influences Attempts to identify the background and antecedents of New Testament body imagery have not been totally successful. Least likely influences include Gnostic mythology (Schlier, Kä emann, Bultmann), ancient political theory (which drew parallels between the city or state and the human body; E. A. Judge, F. Mssner, W. L. Knox; J. C. Beker), and rabbinic speculation about the nature of Adam's body (W. D. Davies). Luke's description of Paul's experience outside Damascus ( Acts 9:4-5 ) suggests a close association between the exalted Jesus and his followers on earth, but actual "body" language is entirely absent. Similarly, Old Testament portrayals of God as bridegroom and Israel as bride do not stress unity nor do they portray the marriage as a "one flesh" relationship. And even when Christ's roles as head and bridegroom of the church converge ( Eph 5:23-32 ), the metaphors function independently.

A stronger case can be made for the influence of the Old Testament principle of corporate representation (Ridderbos, Clowney). If a representative could act on behalf of his group, it would be natural to identify the group with that representative. (H. W. Robinson's more complex notion of corporate personality, which all but obliterates the sense of individuality in ancient Hebrew culture, should finally be laid to rest.) Clearly, the New Testament ties the destiny of God's people to the faithful and selfless act of Messiah, and identification with Christ in his death is indispensable for Paul ( Rom 6:8 ; Gal 2:20 ; 5:24 ; and his "in Christ" formula ). Nevertheless, clear indications that Old Testament representation was the formative influence in Paul's concept of the body of Christ are lacking. Indeed, the idea that the one can represent the many is not at all limited to Hebrew culture (M. Barth, Ephesians, 195f.; S. Porter, 298). In the end, it is best to imagine Paul enlisting various themes and background ideas while forging a unique and versatile metaphor that served his own ecclesiological and christological purposes.

The Church and the Death of Jesus Significantly, in both 1 Corinthians and Ephesians, the metaphorical body of Christ is tied tightly to the physical body of Jesus in its death on the cross. Jesus' body is represented by the bread of the Eucharist ( 1 Cor 10:16-17 ; 11:29? ) so that those who share the single loaf of communion constitute a single body; their actions demonstrate both corporate inclusion into Christ and their membership in the Christian community that Christ's death brought into existence. But it is connection to Christ and his death that establishes connection to his people. In Ephesians, the bodily death of Jesus on the cross is what abolishes the enmity between Jew and Gentile (2:13-15), and replaces it with reconciliation and unity (2:16). Whether in one body (en heni somati) refers to the physical, bodily death of Jesus or, more likely, to the church that constitutes a unity, the effect is accomplished through the cross. And Christ's role as Savior of the body (5:23) is explained in terms of his sacrificial death on behalf of the church (5:25; cf. 5:2). In Colossians, the relationship between the physical death of Christ and the church as the body of Christ is less explicit, but foundational nonetheless (1:18-24; 2:12-3:4). The redemptive work of Christ, accomplished bodily on the cross, established unity among God's people. To call those people the body of Christ was to highlight dramatically the event and the person responsible for their very life and final destiny.

Bruce N. Fisk

See also Church, the

Bibliography. R. Banks, Paul's Idea of Community; J. C. Beker, Paul the Apostle: The Triumph of God in Life and Thought; E. Best, One Body in Christ; E. P. Clowney, Biblical Interpretation and the Church: The Problem of Contextualization; W. D. Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism; R. Y. K. Fung, EvQ 53 (1981): 89-107; R. H. Gundry, Somain the New Testament; A. T. Lincoln, Paradise Now and Not Yet; P. S. Minear, Images of the Church in the New Testament; S. E. Porter, SJT43 (1990): 289-307; H. Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology; H. Rikhof, The Concept of Church: A Methodological Inquiry into the Use of Metaphors in Ecclesiology; H. W. Robinson, The Christian Doctrine of Man; J. A. T. Robinson, The Body: A Study in Pauline Theology; R. Schnackenburg, The Church in the New Testament; E. Schweizer, TDNT, 7:1067-80.

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography Information

Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Body of Christ'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology". . 1997.