From the First Letter to the Corinthians:
The body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot were to 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 were to 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 the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? * * * If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – 1 Corinthians 12:14-17,28 (NRSV) – April 3, 2014.)
The “body analogy” is so deeply engrained in Christian theology through Paul’s use of it in his epistle to the Corinthians and elsewhere that it may be heresy to suggest that its usefulness in the modern world may have come to an end. It was, perhaps, an apt description of the church in a time when church communities were small and close-knit, but does it work in the modern age of the mega-church, or in an age of decentralization?
I ask the question because I truly don’t know . . . .
At a conference I attended recently, a speaker talked about the church as “hive” and described the way in which communities of bees and ants are similar and different, and how that model might be used to understand the modern church. I didn’t buy that argument. Churches are not colonies or hives.
For example, ants are simple creatures following simple rules, each one acting on local information; no ant sees the big picture. No leadership is required; no ant tells any other ant what to do. Even complex behaviors of the colony may be coordinated by relatively simple interactions. No generals command ant warriors. No managers boss ant workers. The queen plays no role except to lay eggs. Even with half a million ants, a colony functions just fine with no management at all. It relies instead upon countless interactions between individual ants, each of which is following simple rules of thumb. Scientists describe such a system as self-organizing.
In many ways, today’s church can seem like this. No single member sees the big picture; when the church community functions smoothly, no leadership is needed. Unfortunately for the analogy, however, human beings are not ants; they are possessed of individual identities and free will, so collections of humans, including churches, seldom run “smoothly.” Furthermore, the thing about ants is that they are pretty much interchangeable; an ant might be a nest worker one day, a trash collector the next, a forager the following day. And one ant can easily say to another, “I have no need of you” because there are plenty of replacements.
Beehives are a bit different from ant colonies, and the insects’ means of communication and “hive-mind” decision making differ, but as an analogy for the church, I think the beehive is as problematic as the ant colony.
More recently, another writer suggested the diffused process of creating computer code by several programmers all connected by a “tree” of files and directories, each working a peace of the bigger project, as an analogy for the church. This overcomes some of the objections to ant colony or beehive metaphors in that one programmer cannot easily take the place of another on the project. I’m not sufficiently familiar with the way teams of code writers work to engage the metaphor, however, so I don’t know how well it works.
Does the body analogy still work? Maybe . . . perhaps to a much less effective degree than when Paul first used it, however. Does the insect community work? Maybe . . . but not sufficiently to provide a true model. Does the programmer tree work? Maybe . . . it may speak to a new generation in ways analogies from nature do not.
What I do know is that each of these metaphors is limited (as any analogy is) and while any one of them may help us understand who we are as a community, they can also mislead us. What is common to them all, however, is that each points toward some form of organization, some type of communication, and a common purpose. Those are the hallmarks of entities — bodies, colonies, hives, communities, churches — that flourish.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.