The Word in the Wings

The Word in the Wings  > From the study: where is the body?

From the study: where is the body?


After the company studied the “Tower of Babel” narrative in Genesis 11:1-9, many of us were left wondering, why would God confuse and scatter humanity, making them speak different languages and abandon their coordinated building project? What purpose is God driving humanity towards by generating cultural difference that interrupts their facility of communication?

In one of Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth, he addresses their questions about how to navigate differences. In 1 Corinthians 12:12-31, Paul compares the church to a human body in order to describe how members with different abilities work together cohesively and how this unity of difference accords with God’s creative design.

12 For just as the body is one and has many members–

though all the body’s members are many, the body is one–

thus also is Christ;

13 for also we are in one spirit, we were all baptized into one body,

whether Jew or Greek, whether slave or free,

and we’ve all been watered by one spirit.

Paul begins this section with a thesis: the body of Christ is like a physical body, which is characterized by having a variety of distinct parts that together form a cohesive whole. The repeated juxtaposition of descriptors “one” and “many” points to diversity within the whole and unity among the diverse members.

The diversity among believers is clear in the varied ethnic backgrounds and social classes represented in the church, but Paul makes a case for unity among diverse believers based on the common ritual of baptism that marks each person’s entry into the community, as well as the one spirit–God’s Holy Spirit–who energizes and animates the faith of each individual.

The rest of the passage is structured around repetitions of this image–a single body composed of many parts–articulated in slightly different ways to build Paul’s argument for the necessity of diversity and the givenness of unity in both the body and the church.

14 For also the body is not one member but many.

15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I am not of the body,”

on account of this is it not of the body? Not so.

16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I am not of the body,”

on account of this is it not of the body? Not so.

17 If the whole body is an eye, where is the hearing?

If the whole thing is hearing, where is the sense of smell?

18 However, God placed the members, each of them in the body just as he willed.

19 But if everything is one member, where is the body?

Paul restates the image in verse 14 in a way that emphasizes the multiplicity of members in the body. No body part is able to exclude itself from the body because of its distinctiveness from another part of the body. By the same token, a body missing any part would be missing a necessary function, to the extent that if every part were identical, there would be no body at all. A body, by definition, is composed of many distinct parts. This arrangement of various members to form a system, Paul says, is God’s intentional design, and this stands in contrast to an undifferentiated, single-purpose entity.

20 Now though, the members are many, but the body is one.

21 So the eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you,”

or again the head to the feet, “I don’t need you;

22 but the members of the body which seem to be weak are all the more necessary,

23 and the parts of the body we think to be without honor,

on these we bestow greater honor,

and our unpresentable parts have greater presentability,

24 but our presentable parts don’t need it.

But God composed the body giving greater honor to the needy parts,

25 but the members might care for each other the same.

26 And if one member suffers, all the members suffer together,

or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice together.

Paul restates the image again in verse 20, this time to emphasize the unity among the body’s diverse members. Just as one part of the body cannot discount itself for being distinct, one part of the body also cannot discount its own need for the other parts. An eye may fulfill its function by seeing another person, but the eye doesn’t reach out with a compassionate touch; that’s a job for the hand. The eye is invested in the purpose of the whole body and in what each other member contributes. In a body of diverse members, each individual member’s needs are tied up in the flourishing of the whole, which depends on valuing and coordinating with the distinct abilities of each member.

Paul describes various ways in which God and the individual members work actively to navigate the different characteristics and capacities of the diverse members, not to mold all the members into the same shape, but to securely integrate each member in its distinctiveness.

27 But you all are Christ’s body and individually members of it.

28 And these God put in the church:

first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then powers, 

then gifts of healing, helpers, counselors, kinds of tongues.

29 Not all are apostles, are they? Not all are prophets, are they? Not all are teachers, are they? Not all are miracle workers, are they?

30 Not all have gifts of healing, do they? Not all speak in tongues, do they? Not all interpret, do they?

31 As for “seek the greater gifts,” I’m yet showing you an even greater way.

In verse 27 Paul restates the metaphor one last time to bring together diversity and unity and to make explicit the connection between the image of the human body and the reality of the church. He identifies his readers collectively as “Christ’s body.” Individuals are characterized by belonging to the whole, yet individual identity is not lost within the collective. 

Paul lists the members of the church according to their different gifts, paralleling the various members that make up the body. As the body includes both ears and eyes, so the church includes both apostles and teachers. Paul then restates each of the gifts in the form of rhetorical questions that underscore the distinctiveness of different individuals’ gifts, in parallel to the different abilities of each part of the body. Just as an ear is not discounted for its inability to see, a teacher is not discounted as vital to the church because of their inability to prophesy or heal. People of all gifts and abilities are included and honored within the church.

To wrap up this section of his letter, Paul hints at something that stands over and binds together all the different gifts of individuals in the church. In the following chapter, Paul explains that the common purpose of all these individual gifts, the way of being that allows the whole body to work together, is love.

Paul’s comparison of the church and the body in 1 Corinthians 12 reveals how difference does not have to compromise unity, nor unity erase difference. In light of this passage, it seems that even in Genesis 11, God is guiding humanity to pursue a variety of vocations and creative means so that their common purpose is characterized not by automatically agreeing or by discouraging differentiation but by actively working to understand and navigate differences through love. A differentiated, integrated body does more than an isolated eye would do; in a similar way, a church that values people for their different backgrounds and abilities can participate more fully in God’s mission in the world than a humanity striving to sustain homogeneity or hierarchy.


You’re invited to join GPA to celebrate our 5th birthday and see our short ballet Babel on May 20, 2023! RSVP here.

Scripture quotations in this post are my own translation.

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