A Pepper Grinder Post

One Body, Many Parts

I remember an experience a few years ago with the pastor of a church my family and I were attending at the time.  We were visiting the pastor and his family and there was a guitar lying around and I picked it up and started playing.  I would class myself as a “not bad” guitarist and singer.  I have a pretty good feel for music but my rhythm is sometimes less than stellar and my manual dexterity and vocal abilities are moderate.  In any case, as soon as I started to play, the pastor became VERY interested.  The thing that struck me about the whole experience, though, was that it had also come out in conversation that I had graduated from a well-regarded evangelical seminary and had had experience preaching in and (in a couple of cases) leading churches.  This news brought absolutely no response.  Not one question.  Not one word.  It was as if the words had been swallowed up somewhere between my mouth and his ears.

DaVinci body pictureThis was ironic to me, because, while I think that God has given me a certain gift for music, I know that he has called me to study and teach about the Bible.  It seemed ironic that something that I saw as a minor gift created great interest, while the thing that was my calling, passion, and greatest gift was ignored.  Thinking back on this, I realized that there was a simple explanation.  This pastor had become interested in bringing guitar into the worship services.  He saw my guitar-playing as the way to accomplish his vision.  On the other hand, he already had a backup preacher.  This seems quite reasonable if you accept the basic premise that the way a church should decide how to use people is a simple two-step process:

  1. The pastor or leadership team decides what type of ministry the local church should be doing.
  2. People in the church get plugged into different ministries, preferably depending on where their gifts lie.

My question today is how well this process fits with the Bible’s teaching.  Let’s take a look at a well-known passage about the church from Romans 12:3-8 (my traslation).

For by the grace that was given to me, I say to everyone among you, not to think more highly of yourselves than you should, but to think of yourselves sensibly, according to the faith God has given each of you.  For just as we have many parts in one body and the parts don’t all do the same thing, so, in Christ, all of us are in one body and are connected together.  We each have different gifts to use in different ways depending on what was given to us.  If prophecy, in proportion to one’s faith.  If serving, in service.  If teaching, by teaching. If encouragement, by encouraging.  If giving, with single-mindedness.  If leadership, with diligence.  If acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.

I’m especially interested in the parts of this passage where Paul deals the analogy of the body and its parts, but I do want to touch briefly on the first verse quoted above.   The part about not having an overly high opinion of ourselves but thinking of ourselves sensibly seems logical.  He is getting ready to talk about people using their gifts and he wants them to start out with a humble position—not thinking they’re better than they are and realizing that, whatever degree of gift they have, it is a GIFT.

This morning, I read about a Christian baseball player who recently pitched a perfect game.  Reading about this gave me a certain longing for recognition like that.  However, I have to face the fact that God made me a nerd, not a jock.  What’s more, he made me a nerd with arthritic tendencies in my neck and shoulders that started in my twenties.  He just didn’t give me the gift of being a great pitcher.  I need to face facts and focus on the areas where he DID give me gifts, instead of pining for the ones I don’t have.

The part of the first verse that tends to confuse me is where Paul throws in “according to the faith God has given each of you.”  I have a simple suggestion for helping to understand this and many passages that mention faith.  Think of faith as seeing things from God’s perspective.  In passages that mention being saved through faith, we are able to be saved because we see both ourselves (sinners with no hope apart from God) and God (a loving creator willing to forgive completely all who turn to him) from God’s perspective.  In passages that mention miracles happening through faith, the miracles happen, not because we work up a feeling that they will, but because, looking from God’s perspective, we see that God is able to move a mountain as easily as we can throw a Kleenex in the trash.  In the passage above, I believe that when Paul says, “according to the faith God has given each of you,” what he means is that we should look at ourselves and God’s gifts to us from God’s perspective.  If we do this, we will KNOW that the gifts we have are GIFTS rather than some wonderful talent that we have developed, and this will keep us from thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought to think.

Now we get to the body analogy.  The concept of comparing a group of people or a nation to a body, with different parts doing different things but working together, was not original to Paul—it was found in other more ancient writings.  It also doesn’t seem like a very complex idea, at least on the surface.  However, I think there are two ways that we distort this simple message.  Let’s be really creative and call them fallacy #1 and fallacy #2.

Fallacy #1: There are lots of little bodies.
The first church my wife and I went to after we were married was a great church in some ways.  One quibble my wife and I had with it, though, was that they used a whole lot of jargon.  One of the pieces of jargon that especially annoyed us was, whenever people talked about that particular congregation, they referred to it as “the body.”  There are many other churches who may not refer to their local congregation as “the body,” but who seem to have the same attitude.  I often get the feeling that any general New Testament teaching about the church gets applied to each local congregation.  There is a very simple problem with this. Paul specifically says that all of us who are in Christ are in one body.  He doesn’t say we are in A body (in which case you might be able to argue grammatically that it doesn’t have to be only one) but he says, clearly, in the Greek, that we are in ONE body.  He doesn’t even say that all of you Roman believers are in one body, but he says US, thus including himself and whoever is with him.  Paul’s analogy is clearly that ALL believers EVERYWHERE are part of one and the same body.

Believing that your local congregation is the body of Christ for you is a comfortable view.  It protects us from having to be too closely associated with people who are too loud, too quiet, too enthusiastic, too stodgy, too casual, or too formal.  It gives us the luxury of selecting our own body of Christ.  We can pick one that doesn’t stretch us too much or force us to associate with people we’d prefer to avoid.

In some times and places, everyone who called himself a Christian in a village might go to the same church, and they might not have a lot of contact with people from other towns.  There probably still are places like that, and sometimes, I wish I lived in one.  For most of us, the exponential increase in communication and information means that we often feel overwhelmed.  A family in a pre-information age town might know of a few families in town that were struggling to put enough food on the table for their children.  For us, we know about tornado victims in the Southeast US, Mexican children who have lost fathers to drug cartel violence, malnourished families high in the Andes, Christians fearing for their lives in radical Muslim countries, people on the brink of starvation in South Sudan, and countless other situations around the globe where people in general, or Christians in particular, are in dire need.  We can’t turn our back on our brothers and sisters, but there are so many of them!  In this universal church there is a multitude of good teaching, a multitude of heresy, a multitude of blessing, a multitude of misery.  How can we possibly respond to it all without becoming calloused or burned out?

I will talk more about how I think we are called to deal with this later in this piece, but for now, I want to say that the way NOT to deal with it is to pretend that our local congregation is “the body of Christ.”  I’m not saying that many Christians shouldn’t spend a large amount of their energy on their local area.  However, when we deliberately close our eyes to needs outside of our own congregation, or when we don’t even consider being friends with someone because he or she “doesn’t go to my church,” I believe that we are sinning.  Christ has one body, not many, and we are wrong to pretend otherwise.

Fallacy #2:  Most Christians are interchangeable
I would call this the Lego fallacy.  Do you know how in a large set of Lego (as opposed to the little kits that are just designed to make one particular thing) there are a few specialized pieces, but the vast majority of the pieces are exactly like many other pieces?  It seems to me that many churches function in a way like this.  Someone comes into a congregation, and once they have decided to commit themselves, they are encouraged to find a ministry in the church to plug themselves into.  Granted, this gives a certain flexibility, especially in a larger church where there are more ministry possibilities, but it is still making the assumption that the new member or attendee has gifts that will fit neatly into one of the congregation’s defined slots.  It also seems that people are often encouraged to consider most strongly those ministries where the congregation is short-handed.  If we judged God’s distribution of gifts by the number of times churches ask for people to perform a ministry, we would have to assume that God had called a large number of people to be nursery workers and children’s Sunday School teachers.

I think that part of the reason this approach is so popular is that it fits in very well with the business leadership model that many congregations have adopted.  The pastor and other church leaders meet and discover that they must have a mission statement for the church.  After all, if you don’t have goals, you won’t accomplish anything, and we all want to accomplish things for God.  The leaders are encouraged to have the mission statement not be something vague (like “To see God’s kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven”) because church leadership gurus have proclaimed that it should be concrete and measurable.  That’s so that, at regular intervals, we can come back and look at how well we are accomplishing the goals we have set and decide if a course correction is needed or not.  Once the mission statement or vision has been defined, programs are planned that will accomplish the goals that have been set.  Last of all, people are plugged into those programs.

It all sounds very sensible, and it may be fantastic as a model for a business.  The problem I have is that it is backwards from the way Paul talks about the church.  Paul does not address the leaders and tell them to devise a mission statement or start church programs.  He speaks to individual believers and tells them to use their gifts to help the ONE church, which has ONE head, namely, Jesus.  Paul’s approach is bottom-up, not top-down.

I’m not saying that church leaders are not important.  Leaders have the crucial role of shepherding their congregations.  They need to keep them from straying in wrong directions, protect them from predators, and lead them to places where they can be nourished.  New Testament leaders are called to sacrificially give of themselves to help other believers.  It is a difficult and noble calling.  Too often, however, I think we have made pastors into CEOs, and elders or deacons into the Board of Directors.  Church leadership has changed from a self-sacrificing position to one that is approached in a sensible and professional manner.  We have made leaders into people who will either be in control or delegate control to sub-leaders of every aspect of church life.  I believe that Paul’s model of leaders is people who will keep the congregants out of trouble, so they can successfully carry out the mission and use the gifts they have been given by the one and only CEO of the Church—Jesus Christ.

I think that the business model so many congregations follow shows a basic lack of trust in God, or else a failure to believe that God really is in control.  If we don’t jump in with our plans and our programs, God’s purposes might be thwarted!  What?  Do we really believe that we are so important or that God is so feeble?  Let me assure you, we are not and he is not.

Almost any pastor I have ever known has easily been able to rattle off the list of programs his church has.  I would love to meet a pastor who, when asked what his church does, would get out the church directory and start going through it person by person.  “Adelaide is 78 and has been a widow for 10 years.  She has health issues that keep her at home, but has asked that we send her all the church prayer requests every week.  Simone is 20 and has dreams of being an actress.  She is talking to other people in the church about starting a drama troupe.  Miriam is 54 and is a yet-unpublished novelist.  Jack is 34 with 5 kids aged 12 and younger.  Providing for his family and being a good husband and father takes pretty much all his time…..”

Do you see the difference?  The pastor who was excited by my guitar playing but uninterested in my Bible teaching abilities and calling wanted to fill a gap in his plan for his church.  What Paul is encouraging is for people to see, in a God-centered, non-egotistical way, what each has in the way of gifts and calling, and then to do it.  Church leadership’s role then becomes, not to tell people what to do, but to help them discover what their gifts and calling are (if they don’t already know), and then to support them in doing what Jesus has called them to do.

Finding your own special gift and calling is also the way to guard against the kind of information overload we mentioned earlier, that comes from knowing about a myriad of needs and problems in the world-wide church.  Our job is not to fix every problem, feed every hungry child, or comfort every sufferer.  That is Christ’s job, and he does much of it through his body, the universal church.  The way the body will function best is if each part focuses on what it is supposed to do and is uniquely qualified to do.  Our job is not to meet every need, but to perform our role in the body, so the body as a whole can meet those needs.

You have a unique gift.  Others may have a similar gift, but I truly believe that there is no one else in the world who has the specific combination of abilities and experience and personality you have.  There is a calling that you are uniquely qualified to fill.  My encouragement to you is to find it and do it.


photo by Photos8.org