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Bodies and Members (part I)

October 4, 2010
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When Paul calls the church “the body of Christ”, what does he mean? Does he mean that the church is like a body? Does he mean that the church is the same physical body that died on Golgotha and was resurrected three days later? Or is “the body of Christ” just a really good metaphor? Or just a way of saying that we have different functions and should work together? Or a kind of official nickname?

Before we can properly address any of these questions, we first need to know what kind of body Paul is referring to. The problem is that in English there are lots of bodies in addition to the physical human body. There are heavenly bodies and bodies of water. There are bodies of knowledge, bodies of work, and bodies of evidence. Government is filled with bodies (which will not surprise the more cynical of you) – but I am referring to governing bodies, legislative bodies, fact-finding bodies, public bodies, and even general bodies, as in “a 55-member general body can convene an extraordinary meeting.” And that most ludicrous of all bodies, the student body.

My point in mentioning all these kinds of bodies is to clarify that none of these kinds of bodies are what Paul means when he refers to the “body of Christ”. In English, “body” seems to be able to mean something like a mass, conglomerate, or group. It can also mean a group of people working in an organization, council, or committee. But when the apostle Paul wrote his New Testament epistles he wasn’t using English, he was using Greek. Paul actually says that the church is the σωμα (soma) of Christ – and σωμα did not mean a conglomerate, or a mass, a council, or even an organized group.   (Also, it is always possible that some of these ideas have come into English from Christianity, just like we got the word “talent” meaning “ability” from the parable of the silver talents.)

Now how could we check this claim? None of us are fluent speakers of the kind of Greek spoken in the 1st century AD. However, one really useful way to find out what a word means is to see how it is used. Let us conduct a thought experiment. Let us pretend that we are in the position of an alien that is about to visit earth. This alien has very little background knowledge – it doesn’t even know that when you fall down, your body falls down too! If we can put ourselves in the position of this alien, we may be able to avoid relying too heavily on our preconceptions about what the answer to our question should be. So, what is a σωμα? (Don’t forget that σωμα is pronounced “soma”.)

Based on usage in the New Testament, a body (σωμα) is the kind of thing that has eyes (Matt 5:29, 6:22-23/ Luke 11:34), hearing (1 Cor 12:17), hands (Matt 5:30, 1 Cor 12:15), a stomach (1 Cor 6:13), a tongue (Jas 3:5-6), a head (John 20:12), and feet (John 20:12). Each of these is called a μελος (melos), which is sometimes archaically translated as “a member”, but is really just a “body part” (Matt 5:29, Jas 3:2-6). The members of the body are involved in sexual activity (1 Cor 6:15, 1 Cor 7:3-4). A body is the whole of which the members are parts (Matt 5:29-30, 6:22-23/ Luke 11:34-36; 1 Cor 12:14-20; Col 2:19; Jas 3:2-6).

The body does not refer to the whole person: instead the whole person is often referred to as “body and spirit” (1 Cor 7:34) or “flesh and spirit” ( 2 Cor 7:1) or “spirit and soul and body” (1 Thess 5:23).

A body is the kind of thing that needs to be cared for — each person usually takes care of his own body, but sometimes needs help from others in order to do so (Eph 5:28-30). Some of the things the body needs include warmth (James 2:15-16), food to eat (Eph 5:29), and clothing to wear (Matt 6:25/Luke 12:22-23).

A body is the kind of thing that can be killed (Matt 10:28) or die (Phil 1:20; Col 1:21-22). Wounds to the body may leave visible marks (Gal 6:17). Bodies generally do wear out (Rom 4:19) and die (1 Cor 15:53), eventually. Animals have bodies too, although  I found only one reference to this usage (Heb 13:11).

Interestingly, the New Testament rarely uses the word (πτωμα) for “corpse” or “carcase” (e.g. Mark 6:29, Mark 15:45) but instead refers to bodies (Matt 27:59, Mark 15:43, Luke 22:19, John 19:31, Acts 9:40). The body can be buried, usually in a tomb (Luke 23:52-55). It was customary to anoint bodies with oil (Matt 26:12/Mark 14:8) and spices and then wrap them in a linen cloth (John 19:40). Bodies normally decay after being buried (Acts 2:29-32). Dead bodies also normally stay where they are put. (Luke 24:3,22-23; John 20:12).

But Jesus was an exception!  The body is (at least part of) what is resurrected (Matt 27:52, 1 Corinthians 15:35).

In the next part of this series, we will look at ways that the New Testament does not use the words for bodies and members.

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