What’s a Body to Do? (Part 1)

(The following is the first part of an article I wrote several years ago that I think goes along with my recent thoughts on preserving and cultivating harmony between Christian brothers and sisters.  The remaining three parts of the article will be posted in succeeding weeks.)


“What’s a Body to Do?”

The Example and Teaching of Jesus

Tensions and conflicts within social organizations develop because people have desires and objectives that clash with each other. Because different groups and individuals feel that they have an absolute right to satisfy those desires and pursue those objectives, even at the expense of others, the outcome of such conflicts is usually determined by which group or individual most effectively exercises power over the others. In one vein of worldly wisdom, this enforcement of a hierarchy is the only way to bring order to the society. There is another vein of worldly wisdom, however, that is less cynical, and that, indeed, expresses a kind of egalitarian idealism, based on the humanistic principle that "all men [read 'people'] are created equal" and "are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights" as individuals. This Enlightenment ideal, soaringly and memorably expressed in our country's Declaration of Independence and associated with the throwing off of tyranny, has evolved in our society into a kind of free-standing, self-validating individualism that trumps every other value and concern. Although the principle of individual rights is generally seen as a noble challenge to the raw exercise of arbitrarily established power, its dominance poses a serious challenge to God's way of dealing with relationships between people in the church, the Body of Christ. God makes no apology for speaking of His people as His Kingdom, with an absolute ruler and subjects who are to submit completely to His authority and will. But how are we to deal with this uncompromising terminology for the society of God's people and the biblical principles that are drawn from it in an age where individual freedom and rights are assumed to be unchallengeable ideals? And how are the concepts of servanthood, obedience, and submission which are central to the New Testament church to be implemented without compromising the worth of individuals, which is also a vital part of the Gospel message?

An organism, not an organization

Perhaps close to the core of the problem is that the designation "church" has been attached to Christian societies in such a way as to define them as primarily political entities; it seems rather natural to speak of "Church polity," but it is awkward to speak of "Body polity." There is certainly nothing wrong with the word "church"--it is a biblical term that describes the aggregate of those who belong to Christ—but the word has been appropriated and applied in ways that picture the church primarily as an organization, and not as the organism it truly is, i.e., the Body of Christ. I think it is necessary to emphasize the Church as Body in order to correct the impression that the dynamic of politics that obtains in human social organizations is appropriate and applicable to the Body of Christ. Within Christ’s Body, people relate to one another according to the model of their Master and King, and not according to the wisdom of the world.

Let me set out first what I see to be the implications of New Testament teaching on relationships in the Body of Christ for dealing with the seemingly contradictory principles of hierarchy and submission to authority, on the one hand; and assertions of the equality of all Christians on the other.   In Part 2 of this article, I will make some applications of this teaching to practical difficulties commonly experienced in the Body of Christ, based on the primary principles in the headings below.  I shall begin, though, with the foundation truth upon which all of those applications are built:

Jesus is the model for free and positive submission and obedience.

When the boy Jesus was found in the Temple by his parents after a three-day search, he gently chided them for not knowing that they would find Him there; but afterward, "He went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them" (Luke 2:51). Even this early, He established the practice of being in voluntary submission in a circumstance where He had more understanding than those who had temporary authority over Him. I wonder if Jesus didn't find it increasingly incongruent to be under the governance of Mary and Joseph.   Although they had been chosen for their dedication to God, they were subject to human limitations which must have been apparent to Jesus as He grew up.  His obedience in this situation must have been preparation for the profound obedience to His Father in Heaven which, the writer of Hebrews tells us (Heb. 5:7-10), He had to learn through suffering, even though He was the Son of God.

Toward the end of His ministry on earth, Jesus had occasion to demonstrate graphically to His disciples the lesson of achieving greatness through being a servant. Having already remonstrated with them about their competing for superior position in God's Kingdom (see Matt. 20:24-28), He gave an object lesson at the Last Supper to underline His previous statement that "whoever wants to be first must be your slave--just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve"  (Matt. 20:27-28).  John tells us that

Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples' feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him!  When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. "Do you understand what I have done for you?" he asked them. "You call me 'Teacher' and 'Lord,' and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them. (John 13:3-5, 12-17)

The contrast between what Jesus was (the almighty Son of God) and what He voluntarily became (a servant to sinful mankind) is strikingly spotlighted in the prelude to the foot washing scene, which states that He was acutely aware "that the Father had put all things under his power." The fleshly mind finds it hard to understand and accept Jesus's lesson here: that voluntary submission to others in servanthood is not an act of weakness, but of strength; not a surrendering of individual worth, but an affirmation of it in a more profound way than any human exercise of power and prerogative could establish.

Jesus's final act of submission came in the Garden of Gethsemane, when He prayed to be delivered from the bitter cup that He was about to drink, but ended with the words, "Yet not as I will, but as you will" (Matt. 26:39). As Paul says in Philippians, though Jesus was one with God, He

did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death --even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:6-11)

Thus, Jesus's voluntary submission to the will of the Father, and His humble and obedient servanthood, led to the fulfillment of God's plans for Him and for mankind: that Jesus Christ be exalted and honored as God's anointed King and the savior of the world. Even at the end of time and the eternal consummation of all things, Jesus will "be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all" (I Cor. 15:28). He is both our model of positive servanthood and obedience, and the One who enables those who follow His example to experience the fulfillment of God's purposes in their lives--to be exalted in God's way, not in the way of the world.

The life of Jesus, then, is the foundation of biblical teaching on submission, and from this foundation flow several other theoretical principles of Body life.




Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)