The Body Politic and the Body of Christ

Though the compilers of the lectionary probably did not have the Presidential primary season in mind when selecting this week’s passage from 1 Corinthians, it is difficult for me, as a resident of South Carolina, to read these words from Paul without thinking of electoral politics. With the Republican primary last weekend and the Democratic one this weekend, campaigners have cajoled me with flyers, phone calls, billboards and commercials, all with the intent to get me to vote for their candidate. To use Paul’s language, they want me to belong to their camp. After a brief opening, Paul addresses the problem that plagues the Corinthian congregation--factionalism. Each person defines himself or herself according to personal allegiance. One can almost hear Paul’s exasperation: "I mean that each of you is saying, ’I belong to Paul,’ or ’I belong to Apollos,’?or ’I belong to Cephas.’" (1:12). (The final group--with mocking condescension perhaps? --simply states, "I belong to Jesus.") This hyperindividualism, in which each person desires a distinct status, permeates the letter. Eventually Paul will use the vivid metaphor of the church as body (12:12-26) as a means to jolt them away from their wrong-headedness. Rivalries and factions dissolve when and if the Corinthians can think of themselves as an organic whole. Individuality is not lost of course--each person has a unique function within the body--but unless the individual finds her or his place within the body, the cross of Christ is "emptied of its meaning" (1:17). Paul is not, I think, a Pollyanna who thinks that "united in the same mind and in the same purpose" means that everyone will agree. He does not simplistically urge the Corinthians to all just get along. He does expect, however, that individual differences of opinion or personality will be subordinated to the purposes of the church as a whole. In an election cycle, the two-party system tempts the electorate not only to attach our loyalty to one candidate but also to disdain those who make choices different from ours. Within the church, this urge can be pernicious. I fear we sometimes define ourselves primarily by the party we vote for rather than the Lord we serve. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is a healthy reminder that we are not baptized into the Republican or Democratic Party but into the one body of Christ.

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