In 2017, I became frustrated that I couldn’t seem to drop any weight, so I decided to lean into the extra poundage and see if I could bench press 350lbs. Despite my undergraduate degree in Kinesiology and my five years of experience as a personal trainer, I went after my goal of benching 350 lbs in what was possibly the dumbest way possible.
I chose to bench three times per week and add 5-10 lbs per week to the weight I was lifting. While I eventually hit my goal, it came with a price. My elbows and shoulders were consistently sore and my upper back and neck were under pretty heavy strain because of the posture I’d developed and the imbalances in the strength of my muscles around the shoulder joint.
It wasn’t that I had hurt myself…though I did aggravate an old shoulder injury…it was that I had focused so much on my chest that I neglected everything else. I developed a stronger chest, but it was at the expense of the muscles needed to ensure good posture and the stability of my joints.
In 1 Corinthians 12 and some other places (e.g. Rom 12; Eph 4), Paul applies the analogy of the body to the church. The church is made up of different members united in Christ who is the head of the body. This analogy entails several important aspects of what it means to be the church and how we might develop the skills to practice the delicate art of Christian community.
- We can’t build up one member (or group of members) at the expense of others– Because the body is a connected whole, we cannot isolate and privilege one member or group of members. Growth and development in one area may create strains and tensions in other areas that, if not addressed, will be detrimental to the body as a whole. If we spend all our time developing the muscles needed for the bench press and ignore the muscles needed to protect the shoulder, it is likely that all the work we’ve done to build our chest will be negated by a chronic shoulder injury. For the church, the basic premise is that because we are connected, we can’t simply consider building up one member or group of members within the body…we have to think through the ways in which building one member or group of members up will impact the whole. We have to coordinate our efforts and take care to ensure that benefits for one group do not result in deficits for another. We have to grow together.
- We need to act like we believe that the hand can’t do the foot’s job (and vice versa)– The muscles of the chest are designed to bring the upper arm closer to the midline of the body. While they can do that at various angles, that’s their basic function. They can’t extend your hip, flex your knee, or pull your shoulder blades together. They have a particular role and function. Unlike body parts, we are capable of working outside of a specific role and function. We can overcompensate for another member of the body that isn’t performing their role. We can tap into our inner control freak and just take over someone else’s role. We can even design systems and processes that give us a wider span of control while diminishing the participation of others. The problem is that we don’t have endless capacity…we are limited and in need of the body’s diverse members to accomplish the mission of the church. Diversity is given to allow us (collectively) to coordinate our individual capacities and compensate for individual weaknesses.
- We need to avoid the temptation to privilege the “beach muscles”– As a general rule, Monday (every Monday…without exception) is “international chest day.” Chest, arms, shoulders, and, if you can pull off that elusive six-pack, abs are “beach muscles.” They are the traditionally coveted muscles that guys seek to develop in the gym. I think we also have “beach muscles” in the church. Talented preachers, writers, and performers become more than parts of the body…they become the “most important parts.” They speak for us (whether they should or not), they become the face of ministries (whether they should or not), and they get the glory (and pain) of “fame” (whether they should or not). It isn’t that we should stop valuing these folks…it’s that we shouldn’t overvalue them while undervaluing others. Trust me, all the books in the world aren’t going to care for and share the gospel with a three year old in the church nursery. No sermon is a good substitute for the sort of discipleship that happens between a youth pastor and the young men and women under her or his care. No amount of “fame” is going to deliver groceries to a local food pantry. We aren’t a community of “beach muscles”…we are a body with a host of useful members that should not be taken for granted.
I’m sure there is more that could be said, but as I consider the community of faith and some of the conversations we are having about topics like the gospel and social justice, I believe we need to tap into the rich resources ecclesiology. We need to understand deeply the contributions other members of the body bring to the community of faith, the contributions we ourselves bring, and the necessity of coordinating the body’s members to showcase the manifold wisdom of God.