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  • Writer's picturePaul Coulter

Body Works (1 Cor. 12) 2: Unity

In this series of three posts, based around 1 Corinthians 12, I am exploring three features of the body of Christ. The first post in the series was about diversity. This second one is about unity. That is the main point of verses 15 to 20, which ends with saying, “there are many parts, but one body”.

Unity sets limits on diversity. Diversity is a buzz word in contemporary culture. It is used to mean inclusion without judgement of people of every kind and with every belief and lifestyle. We should not think that way about diversity in the church. Diversity in the body is not for its own sake, but for a purpose – the common good and Christ’s glory. So, diversity must be held together with unity.

True Christian unity derives from the fact that there is one Head, Jesus. That reminds us that there should be limits to diversity in Christian service. Only people who acknowledge Christ as their head can serve for His glory. That means believers in Jesus who are seeking to live under His lordship. Refusal to repent of sin or rejection of core gospel truths are barriers to serving together. There must be no unity with those who are disconnected from the Head. Error in core issuesis a right and necessary barrier to unity and limit to diversity.

But diversity can also be limited in an unhealthy way: when humility is lacking. Sadly, Christians who agree on core issues still fragment for unworthy reasons like insistence on preferences about how things should be done. Disunity because egos clash is never good, and that’s what verses 15 and 16 warn against with a humorous image.

The foot decides it is not part of the body because it is not a hand and the ear wants to leave because it is not an eye.

I suppose there might be one of two things happening here. Perhaps the foot and ear feel they are not part of the body because the hand and eye dominate how things are done and overlook their contribution. I tend to think, though, that the problem is actually with the foot and ear. The foot thinks the ‘footish’ way of doing it is better than the ‘handish’ way. He won’t tolerate the hands anymore, and so, the First Church of the Feet is formed. The ear gets fed up with the eyes, so she gives up on them to found the International Mission of the Ears.

The sad thing is that, with any part missing, the whole body is less effective.

Imagine a body of hands and eyes. It will be faithful in one place at one thing, great at seeing what is in front of it and attending specifically to individual needs with great manual dexterity, but it will be unable to move when it needs to because circumstances have changed, and it cannot hear what’s coming further down the line.

Imagine a body of feet and ears. It will be restlessly moving all the time, unable to focus on immediate needs because it’s distracted by noises and lacks clear vision, capable only of generalised programmes and lacking detailed work just as a foot is no substitute for a hand.

Maybe you can think of churches or organisations who are like those two unhealthy bodies. Imagine what could be if the strengths of both were combined!

So, we must work hard against division in our teams and churches. The hands and eyes must work to involve the feet and ears. And the feet and ears must resist the temptation to walk away just because they aren’t getting their own way quickly enough. We must prize and preserve unity, sticking together because we are one in Christ, in the gospel and in our vision to reach those who are lost without Christ.

Wherever the fault lies, such splits deny reality. Paul writes that just because a foot or an ear declares independence, it doesn’t stop being part of the body. You can leave a church, but you cannot leave the Church. You can break fellowship in the sense that you stop meeting and serving with people, but you cannot dissolve the spiritual union you have with your fellow Christians even if you never speak to them. Ultimately, there’s only one Church, one Gospel, one Lord, one evangelism fellowship. When we act as if there wasn’t, we deny the gospel.

Separation, as I’ve said, is necessary over error in core doctrine or unrepentant sin. Sometimes separation is inevitable or even desirable for other reasons – emphasis on different aspects of the task, disagreement on secondary theological issues, or incompatibility of values. But in such cases, we must never act as if our church or fellowship is the sum total of God’s people or work. We must speak well of others who share our core gospel convictions. We should collaborate and coordinate with them whenever possible and we should pray for their blessing as well as our own. To fail to do so is like an ear pretending the foot isn’t part of the same body. It dishonours our Head and it's a manifestation of pride.

Unity in diversity is a deep challenge to the individualism that dominates our culture and affects us. I said earlier that individualism makes us think of gifts as mine to use in my ministry rather than grace gifts for God’s service. But individualism can also creep into our motivations for service.

As a teenager, many moons ago, biographies of people like singer-song-writer Keith Green and missionary martyr Jim Elliot inspired me to live a life dedicated to God. I’m thankful for that and I would still recommend these books. But I have a confession. Both of those men died aged 28. When I reached 29 and found I didn’t seem to be about to die, I genuinely struggled to know what I was going to do with the rest of my life. That might sound silly, but it’s true!

Anyway, the reason I’m mentioning this is that my younger self too easily thought about what I could do with my life –the impact I could have. Those book covers both show one man. Now, in more advanced years, my temptation is to think of the legacy I can leave. That’s not entirely bad. Whatever our age, we should think about how we invest whatever time remains before the Lord returns or we die. C.T. Studd’s famous line is true, “Only one life, ’twill soon be past, Only what’s done for Christ will last.” One of the reasons we don’t serve as we should is that we lose our focus on eternity and on Christ.

But we must be careful too. If I only think of my impact and my legacy, there are two problems.

Firstly, I become utterly self-focused. Many people have failed in Christian service because they were lured by a desire for personal fame and glory. Why should it matter to me to make an impact or leave a legacy? Should my passion not be simply that Christ is known and glorified? If that’s my desire, it shouldn’t matter if no one knows my name. I’m certain Elliot, Green and Studd would say ‘Amen’ at this point. They didn’t live for their legacy but for Christ’s glory.

Secondly, this way of thinking is too individualistic. Many people have dropped out of Christian service because they got this wrong. Burnout has many causes – I do not want to oversimplify things – but one of the fastest routes to burnout is trying to do everything yourself.

So, instead of being concerned for my impact and my legacy, I need to commit to our impact and God’s glory. I need to shift from being self-focused to being Christ-centred and from individualism to interdependence. That shift to interdependence is the theme of the third and final post in this series, coming soon.

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