Gifted, Diverse, Fragile, Disabled and Scarred
It is fairly common to refer to the church as a body. This stems from the writing in the New Testament attributed to Paul which refers to the church as the ‘body of Christ’ (Ephesians 4:12). Paul’s use of the body as analogy for the church refers to the many members of the church having different skills, gifts, roles and functions and how each is to work together for the good of the whole body. Ephesians 4:1-16 speaks of different people being apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. Some suggest that these are the 5 roles that members of the church are gifted with (others suggest there are only 4 and join together teacher-pastor), whilst others suggest these are examples and that there are more than 5. There is then debate about what it is to be an apostle, a prophet and so on. These debates and discussions are important to help the church to grow, as we do so through debate, discussion, study and learning. However, for the sake of this post the important factor is that there are different functions, none more important than another, none over or above another, simply that there are different gifts, skills, functions or roles.
1 Corinthians 12:12-27 again uses the body analogy, this time highlighting the importance of each member or part. There is a wonderful passage that describes almost alien like bodies consisting of just an eye or an ear,
‘Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot were to say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body”, that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear were to say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body”, that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?’ (1 Corinthians 12:14-17)
So, within the church we need all people, with all the wonderful God given gifts and abilities we have been granted. I have lost count the number of times I have heard this preached or taught, a call to unity within a specific local church or perhaps a denomination. Yet, what I rarely hear about is that some part of the body are not designed to spend much or any time in close proximity. Of course the finger needs to be connected to the hand, the hand to the arm, the arm to the shoulder and so on. A human body requires the hand and foot to touch remarkably frequently – for the foot to be washed, nails to be trimmed, socks and/or shoes to be fitted. The hand needs the foot to walk the body to the place it needs to be to pick up or put down whatever is required. A hand does not however spend all it’s time connected to the foot. Imagine trying to walk! Try lifting something with your hands with them touching your feet… it’s all rather silly isn’t it. This is before we consider the problems a hand permanently connected to a foot would cause for the back and other parts of the body! Some parts of the body should be permanently connected, others need to come together for the benefit of the body for particular tasks and others should never meet, like the ear and the nose or the elbow and the spine. All are needed but not all need to try to be in close proximity. Different people with different skills also have different personalities. Again, the church needs them all, but we also need to know it’s perfectly acceptable to know some personalities will clash, there is a risk on conflict, the body may become inflamed.
I have the terrible habit of biting my nails. There are worse things in life I know, but it’s not great. I know that if my finger spends too much time between my teeth the nail will become too short and it will cause me pain. I know it will happen, I have tried to stop on various occasions but I am yet to break this habit. The point is when two parts of the body that are meant to spend a little time together (I need my fingers to but food in my mouth and to brush my teeth, etc.) end up spending too much time together it can lead to issues. The church can be a body, a united body, without everyone needing to get along in an unnatural harmonious accord.
A healthy body can also have a weakness or develop a weakness. Our bodies are fragile. The smallest splinter can cause the utmost agony, a speck of dust can make us blind and stubbing a toe can cause the strongest to crumple to floor. When one part of the body is damaged other parts of the body step in to help. The body doesn’t abuse the damaged part but seeks to mean it and make it well. The church needs to do the same. Don’t ignore the small splinter but find it, tease it out, remove the tiny fragment and eliminate the pain and risk of infection spreading. When we don’t address the smallest of issues we find that the problem spreads and part of the body ends up requiring amputation.
In all the teaching I have ever heard about the church as a body I don’t think I have ever heard a reference to a disabled body. Perhaps there is a sense that the body of the church as the body of Christ should somehow represent the ancient Greek image of perfection such as that depicted by Polykleitos in his sculpture Doryphoros. The idea of the church as disabled will be for some almost blasphemous, especially if the church is the body of Christ. Yet for many disability is a lived reality and to know the body or Christ as disabled makes it more real, easier to identify with, more honest that an unrealistic imaged vision of perfection. To be disabled is not a weakness, some would prefer the phrase differently abled. There are different streams of thought that speak of disability as biological or psychological or social or spiritual. Some argue that the body with a disability requires a cure, others suggest that the body is only disabled because the environment or society causes the body to be and it is the society that needs the cure. Much could (and will) be said about disability but it is my experience that engaging with the widest range of humanity, with all ability and disability, creates a richer life for all. So, would it matter if we realised the church is disabled? It might mean we realise there are some wonderful aids around to support us, it might mean that one sense can grow stronger if another is disabled, it might mean we can relate to and engage with the wider world with more compassion, it might mean we get a richer perspective on what it means to be whole and able, it might just mean we get to be church.
Finally, the body carries scars and bruises. I have a scar on my arm from an operation, one on my chin from falling off my bike and another on my fingers from slicing them on some sheet metal. The scars tell stories. For me they are mostly of my foolishness. For others scars speak of survival, of adventure, of life, of birth. The body of the resurrected Jesus bore the scars of his crucifixion (John 20:19-29). The church bears many scars from it’s history, some self inflicted from foolishness and others from laying itself down for the sake of God and the world. The body of the church should not be ashamed of its scars but should remember them as signs of its life.
The church is a body. It is not perfect and nor should it be. It is broken and it can be beautiful when we accept its gifts, diversity, fragility, disabilities and scars.