Which part is which in the 'body' of Christ?

Do you ever wonder what Paul was getting at with that whole 'body of Christ' metaphor for the Church? He mentions it not once, but on five separate occasions, in Romans 12, Colossians 1, Ephesians 3 and 5, and most substantially in 1 Corinthians 12.

Given the number of times he brings the idea up – writing to four different corners of the Church – it's clearly something he wants us to grasp and take on board. Yet if we're honest, the familiarity of the phrase tends to make it wash over us. We don't necessarily think of 'body' as meaning anything more than a substantial amount, as we would in the context of a 'body of work' or a 'body of water.'

Luc Viatour/Wikimedia Commons'Vitruvian Man', Leonardo da Vinci's drawing of what he believed was the perfect body.

I don't think that's what Paul is getting at however, and if we miss the metaphor, then I think we also risk missing the important message contained within it. The passage in Corinthians is explicit in comparing the Church to a physical human body, and goes into some detail about the idea – even breaking it down into its component parts. Overall, Paul's point is about the unity and diversity of the Church, and the fact that while we're all different and carry varied gifts, we all need each other. But I wonder if he also gives us an opportunity to consider a more granular series of metaphors, as we think about those different body parts and what they might represent.

Paul writes: 'Now if the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason stop being part of the body' (verse 15) and 'If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?' (verse 17). So what is the foot of the Church, or the hand, eye, ear or nose? Are those an irrelevant extra layer of meaning? I don't think so. At the end of that same passage, Paul refers to the component parts of the Church more directly: as 'apostles,' 'prophets', 'teachers' and 'miracle workers'. So which 'body part' corresponds to each of these? And what does that deeper layer of analysis tell us about the church? Without any claim to know the mind of Paul, here's what the various parts of the human body might correspond to in Paul's great church vision.

Brain: Theologians

In an age when persuasive web articles (yes, I know) and even tweets are setting the tone and direction of popular theology, the Church needs its brain more than ever. Academics, thinkers, and perhaps more importantly normal, everyday people who are committed to reading and studying God's word are vital if the Church is going to continue to understand what God is saying through the most direct form of communication he's given us. 

Nose: Prophets

This one might feel a little odd, but then prophets usually are. These are the people who are able to catch the scent of what God is doing in the world today, and can then reflect it back to the wider Church. This is true – as with all of these examples – on both a local and national scale. We mystify prophets as Old Testament-style weirdos eating locusts and pronouncing judgments on evil cities; in fact the 'nose' of the Church is just those people who are able to sense what God is saying and doing.

Eyes: Visionaries

Alongside the theologians who interpret God's word, and the prophets who sense where he's already at work, the church needs visionaries who are able to look ahead to see how the Church needs to act and change in response. These are the eyes of the Church family, able to read and assess the culture around them, and to see where the Church might be able to make an impact.

Ears: Listeners

When it comes to prayer, most of us are pretty good at speaking and less good at listening. Yet if we only ever adopt that posture, we miss the other half of the conversation that prayer is meant to be. Similarly, the ability to sit and listen to individuals, or indeed to the needs of a whole community, seems to be a fairly rare gift. The ears of the Church are the people who are listening, ears metaphorically extended, for the needs around them, for the unheard voices of individuals and indeed culture, and for the voice of God, perhaps even speaking through those things.

Mouth: Intercessors

If we lose our connection with prayer as a Church, we lose our power. All the great revivals, missions and social justice phenomena of Church history were underpinned by prayer, and we're crazy to believe that we can change the world without it. Prayer is the herald of transformation, and the Church desperately needs its mouth – those individuals and communities who are committed to interceding – if it's going to make a dent on the problems it faces.

Heart: Children

Jesus talks with fierceness and fondness about the role of children in his Kingdom. He says it's their simple, trusting, honest faith which the rest of us should look to imitate. If you spend much time around children in a worship context, you soon begin to understand what he was talking about; their compassion, enthusiasm and (often) unrestricted joy are infectious. A church that doesn't welcome children might as well be thrown into the sea – and those are Jesus' words!

Guts: Young people

Revolutions are sparked from a deep-seated conviction that all is not right with the world – an unshakeable realisation in the very pit of the stomach that something must change. In the history of the Church, and wider culture, those moments of revolution have so often been led by young people. Their clarity, idealism and passion are absolutely vital to driving the forward momentum of the Church as it seeks to usher in the Kingdom of God. Without these things – without the guts and glory of our young people – we slow to an uninspiring walking pace.

Hands: Activists and 'helpers'

The church is perhaps most obviously Jesus' 'body' when it is rolling its sleeves up and helping people. Perhaps this is the part of the Church that has become most palatable to modern culture – as witnessed when the Church became part of the first response team to London's tragic Grenfell Tower fire recently. That's no bad thing, and as part of the wider body described here is a fantastic witness to the beauty of the Christian faith. St Teresa of Avila once famously said that 'Jesus has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours,' and she was right: the Church is often the way that God physically responds to need.

Feet: Missionaries

The world is still a gigantic place, and many of the people living on it still haven't heard the Good News of Jesus. That's why it's vital that – continuing a tradition begun by Paul and his friends – those in our churches who are called to mission continue to answer that call. Incredible, normal people who have heard God's voice and given up everything to serve him overseas or in unfamiliar parts of their own country are the feet of the Church, running off to join in with God's work right around the globe.

Legs: Older people

Propping the whole thing up are our older and elderly people. Sometimes we might bemoan our ageing congregations (because the statistics reveal our failure to reach younger people), but actually these incredible Christians are people who have walked the journey of faith for the long-term. They are a fount of wisdom and knowledge, are often deeply committed to prayer, and in many cases have a devotion to Scripture. Sometimes we fail them by not realising the resource that they continue to be, but there's no doubting that their long-standing commitment to our churches is what gives them so much of their stability.

Reproductive organs: Evangelists

And of course, I've left the slightly awkward one until last. Paul talks in 1 Corinthians 12 v 23 about how 'the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty,' and I think he's making a little self-deprecating joke about his own role. Paul often remarked that he was the worst and least of all believers, and I think he's at it again here. Yet there is a good point being made: just as humanity needs reproduction in order to have long-term life, so does the Church. Not all are gifted in that way, but our evangelists are vital if we're going to keep growing. It might not be particularly aspirational, but they are the reproductive part of Paul's great body metaphor.

The overall point is that all the parts of the church are important, and what this way of talking about them does is illustrate a couple of key concepts that we might otherwise miss. First, that every part is important and has its own particular function and job to do, and second, that no one part is more important than the others. We might sometimes undervalue our children, or our older people, or people who mainly serve the church through praying for it, but in this context it's impossible to do so. You wouldn't want to do without your heart, your legs or your mouth, would you? That's the genius of Paul's illustration, and perhaps why he repeated it so many times. Is it time for a fractured Church to rediscover it?

Martin Saunders is a Contributing Editor for Christian Today and the Deputy CEO of Youthscape. Follow him on Twitter @martinsaunders.