From the Letter to the Romans:
For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Romans 12:4-5 (NRSV) – February 12, 2014.)
Paul’s use of the “body” metaphor is so well known it’s almost a cliché, but it was brought into clear focus by an article published (apparently) nearly a year ago by the blog Viral Christ, but brought to light on Facebook the past couple of weeks.
In a nutshell, the story is that he shared with his class this quotation: “Christianity started in Palestine as a fellowship; it moved to Greece and became a philosophy; it moved to Italy and became an institution; it moved to Europe and became a culture; it came to America and became an enterprise.” He added, by way of explanation, that “an enterprise” here means “a business.” One young woman in the class then commented, “A business? But isn’t it supposed to be a body?” Prompted, she continued, “But when a body becomes a business, isn’t that a prostitute?” The professor, in his article, remarked, “There is only one answer to her question. The answer is ‘Yes.'”
I immediately thought of the comment made by Dorothy Day, the Roman Catholic social justice advocate, who wrote, “As to the Church, where else shall we go, except to the Bride of Christ, one flesh with Christ? Though she is a harlot at times, she is our Mother.” I was reminded also of the line spoken by actor Harold Gould, playing Salvadoran aristocrat Francisco Galedo in the biographical movie Romero; blaming the church for violent uprisings in El Salvador he mocks the archbishop, “The Church is a whore who will spread her legs to the highest bidder.”
So although the author of the article seemed shocked by his student’s suggestion, it wasn’t all that original. Nonetheless, his essay has sparked dialog among church folk. Several of my clergy colleagues on Facebook have been discussing the piece and in one such conversation, a colleague took issue with the professor’s blanket affirmation of his student’s comment. “No,” she said, “not necessarily. A body that becomes a business can also be a professional athlete, a dancer, a model, or a number of other things. The leap to prostitute as the only way in which a body can become a business is just that, a leap.”
Thank you, I said, bravo! She’s absolutely right. Body-to-business doesn’t necessarily imply prostitution; the alternatives she suggests, and many others, provide more positive metaphors for our consideration. And even if we decline to accept the shorthand history of Christian religious development from ancient Near Eastern fellowship to modern North American business offered by the professor, these metaphors provide instructive insight into Paul’s initial metaphor of church-as-body.
Paul’s point in using the metaphor was to illustrate how all who are members of the church have need of one another even though all are not of equal social standing or equal ability, or called to equal ministries: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.'” (1 Cor. 12:21) But my friend’s objection to the prostitute metaphor is a reminder that bodies are more than the sum of their parts, and that bodies need things and do things. That, in turn, should speak volumes about the church. The church, like any body (but especially if the church is a professional athlete or a dancer), needs nourishment; it needs exercise; it needs rest; sometimes it needs treatment of injuries or diseases.
If we understand the church as a body, not just as a metaphor for the connection of the members one to another, but as a body that needs the same care and attention that our own physical bodies need, how would that change the way we “run the church”? How would that change the way we deal with issues, conflicts, and challenges within the church? How would that change the way we encourage and promote stewardship?
I intend to work on this some more, and work this broader, more holistic understanding of the body metaphor into my theology, into my preaching, and into my ministry of church leadership. The church as dancer, in particular, is an image that appeals to me. Church as Isadora Duncan, church as Nureyev, church as Fred and Ginger, church as Gene Kelly . . . We’re dancin’ already!
A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!
Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.