I play in a touch football team with my friend, Steelo. Australian touch footy is like rugby, but without the rough and tumble (no broken bones or dislocated shoulders). Our whole team is made up of Steelo’s friends—he’s one of those people who just seem to gather others around him. Though I didn’t know anyone else when I joined the team, this group of strangers became a unified whole—because of our shared connection to Steelo.
A similar thing happens through union with Christ. People who are complete strangers become connected to one another because of their mutual connection to Jesus. Our union with Christ means we are united with one another.The New Testament uses a powerful image for this union—together, believers form the body of Christ.
Paul uses this image in several places in his writings, but the most detailed use is found in 1 Corinthians 12:12–31. He begins by reflecting on the nature of a human body. It’s one body, but it has many parts. Its many parts do not divide the body, but work together to enhance the functioning of the whole. And, he says, “so it is with Christ” (12:12). Everyone “baptized by one Spirit”—that is, all genuine believers in Jesus—“form one body” (v. 13).
Paul then reflects on different parts of a human body—a hand, an ear, an eye—and affirms the importance of each for the body (vv. 15–16). If the whole body were an eye, he says, “where would the sense of hearing be?” Or if the whole were an ear, “where would the sense of smell be?” (v. 17). All the different parts are needed for the body to function, and God has placed them “just as he wanted them to be” (v. 18). While we might (unwisely) value some parts of the body more than others, they are all indispensable (vv. 21–22).
As for the body of Christ, all believers are a part of it, and God has given certain roles to certain people—some are apostles, some are prophets, some are teachers, and then there are various other gifts for the benefit of the body (vv. 27–28). Since the body cannot be made up of one “preferred” part, not all will be apostles, or prophets, or teachers. Not all will have the same gifts, and this is entirely appropriate and necessary (vv. 29–30). He goes on in the next chapter to show that the most important thing for all members of the body—regardless of their role in it—is to show love to one another (1 corinthians 13).
When we think about union with Christ, it’s easy to focus on the individual side of it. It’s about my relationship with Jesus, my sharing in his death and resurrection, and what he has done for me.While we should reflect on those things, we cannot think that union with Christ is all about the individual experience of knowing Jesus. If I’m in Christ, and you’re in Christ, then we are in Christ together. We have both become members of the one body of Christ. We are joined together in him.
Our shared union with Christ means we can no longer treat each other as strangers. We’re not strangers. We are blood relatives, bound together by the blood of Jesus. We share in his Spirit together. And so we need to pull together as one team—centered around our Captain, Jesus. We’re on his team. We have the same purpose. We share the same direction and destination. And we are all equally valued and precious parts of the body.
We need to keep this in mind as we relate to one another. What dynamics get in the way of our unity in Christ?Are unhealthy divisions creeping into church on Sundays? What’s behind those divisions, and is it worth dividing over? Do you treat everyone at church the same, or do you prefer certain people—or certain ttypes of people? Do you give special attention to those with “status” in the church, or do you regard everyone as equal?
And what about the church in the next suburb that does things a little differently? Does your church partner with other churches—even those different from yours? How good are our churches at fostering unity, even if we have some theological differences?
Unfortunately, we tend to let relatively insignificant things divide us. Some churches like liturgy; others don’t. Some churches sing with hands in the air; others don’t. Some churches belong to a denomination; others are independent. Some churches are politically active; others are not. Some churches emphasize the sacraments of communion and/or baptism; others don’t. But none of these differences undermine our spiritual union in Christ. We are all members of his body, and we therefore belong to one another. So, we ought to find ways to express this unity in our relationships within the church.It doesn’t mean we need to agree on everything all of a sudden, but let’s recognize our essential oneness despite our differences.
The key phrase here is together in Christ. If you’re in Christ, and I’m in Christ, then we are in Christ together. We are members of the same body of Christ. And while the body is one, it has many parts. These parts are different from each other, but all are essential. We ought to express our unity as members of the same body in the way we treat each other, showing honor, respect, and love to all who are in Christ.
And more than that, we’re untied together in Christ to accomplish Christ’s mission. Paul writes in Ephesians 4 that the unity of the church is all aimed at the mission of the church (4:12–14). The church as a whole is called to make disciples of the nations, and we contribute to that mission by offering our unique skills and resources to the united people of Jesus. And it’s the unified love that Jesus’s people have (or should have) for each other than argues most strongly for the worthiness of Jesus (john 13:35).