Ecclesiology 101: How To Be The Church (According to 1 Corinthians 12 & 13)
How is a church supposed to work?
Most churches tend to be run by a few over-functioning leaders while everyone else is relegated to being passive audience members or workers in service to the organization. There is usually a hierarchy that values certain traits and gifts over others. Those who match that set of qualities get to be on the "inside" while those who do not, watch from the periphery.
Having been on the "inside" for many years, I understand that organizations require structure and leadership. I also understand that organizations must value efficiency and say 'no' to things in order to function well. No organization can be all things to all people, and it only makes sense for them to choose the needs of the many over the few. As a result, these types of churches tend to be good at serving the majority "ninety-nine" but not "the one." People in the margins or those who don't fit the program tend to be ignored, forgotten, or even discarded.
When an organization runs smoothly, we sometimes call it a "well-oiled machine." Because that is essentially what it is – a machine – and its parts have value in so far as they help keep the machine running. The parts that do not or cannot contribute to the mission in some way are deemed more or less expendable. That is simply the nature of how organizations work.
The question is: Is that how a church is supposed to work?
What if a church is not supposed to be an organization but an organism – a body? What if a church is supposed to function more like community and less like a company? It would operate under a completely different set of values and expectations.
"Church" according to 1 Corinthians 12 & 13
In 1 Corinthians 12, the apostle Paul paints a picture of the Church as "one body, many parts." I am not the body. You are not the body. We are all just body parts. In a body, there is no hierarchy, competition, or division. Its parts are designed to work together in harmony, mutuality, and interdependence, such that every part is indispensable.
No part can say to another, “I don’t need you.” If we are parts of a body, then I need you and you need me. Every part belongs and every part matters. That is why Paul says with such emphasis that the most excellent way is LOVE – not any of the impressive gifts we tend to measure ourselves and others by – just love.
According to Paul, without love, we are nothing. Why? Because without love we are but severed parts. Love is the connective tissue. It’s what binds us together and makes us a body. And if the most important thing is love, then doing church must primarily be about relationships. If love is what matters most, then EVERY part (no matter how big or small) has an integral role to play.
We see in part, not the whole
1 Corinthians 13 says we know only "in part" and we see “only a reflection as in a mirror." In other words, none of us have the full picture and most of what we see is just our own reflections looking back at us – our own assumptions, experiences, cultures, traditions we’ve inherited, etc.
Therefore, I do not see clearly and neither do you. I do not possess the whole truth and neither do you. We each see only in part, usually with tunnel vision and planks in our eyes! This is why we need the body and why we need EVERY part, especially those in the margins and those who see differently from us.
The way we see more clearly is by putting childish ways behind us and practicing the way of love, which is what spiritual maturity always looks like. When we love, listen, and learn from one another, we might have a chance to see beyond our own narrow perspectives and in greater fullness.
Imagine if every tradition, denomination, church, pastor, and Christian saw themselves as incomplete, merely a part, not the whole! We might approach each other with less judgment and more humility, less certainty and more curiosity. We might see those different from us as having something to teach us and having gifts that we don't.
Imagine what it would look like to actually BE the Church in this way. Not as divided, exclusive, competitive teams, but as one body. Not as dismembered parts saying to the other, “We're better! We know best! We’re right, you’re wrong! We don’t need you!” And not as homogenous groups based on conformity and compliance either, which is like having many of the same body part all huddled together.
Rather, imagine the Church as simple, relational communities based on love, mutuality, and non-judgment, where genuine diversity and unity are possible; communities in which every part has equal concern for the other, where everyone belongs, and no one is left out. Imagine churches that value every voice, not just a few, giving greater honor to the parts that are lacking. Imagine such oneness and solidarity that "if one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it." No hierarchy, competition, or division – just love.
I believe such a way is possible. In fact, it is what we were meant for. There is a better way to be and do "church" that can actually change us, not just as individuals but as collective societies. It involves embodying a better alternative to the competitive, exploitative systems that dominate our world.
In her beautiful book "This Here Flesh," Cole Arthur Riley describes the kind of community many of us hope and long for:
"Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, "In a Christian community everything depends upon whether each individual is an indispensable link in a chain. Only when even the smallest link is securely interlocked is the chain unbreakable. A community which allows unemployed members to exist within it will perish." When he uses the word "unemployed," I don't believe Bonhoeffer is talking about employment in the economic sense but rather as a fostering of purpose. He meant that each part of a community would have agency to affect the whole, in whatever way that may be–that the community's survival would depend on each link. I have a friend who calls this mutuality, the truth that says, We don't just welcome you or accept you; we need you. We are insufficient without you. One part's absence renders the whole impoverished in some way, even if the whole didn't previously apprehend it. In mutuality, belonging is both a gift received and a gift given. There is comfort in being welcomed, but there is dignity in knowing that your arrival just shifted a group toward deeper wholeness.
People talk about God as three distinct people in one. If this is true, it means the whole cosmos is predicated on a diverse and holy community. And if we bear the image of God, that means we bear the image of a multitude. And that to bear the image of God in its fullness, we need each other. Maybe every culture, every household, every community bears that image in a unique way."
Read 1 Corinthians 12 & 13 for yourself and ask:
What is "church" supposed to look and feel like?
What would it take for that vision to become reality?
(Photo by Jackson Simmer on Unsplash)