Chad D. Mullinix
The congregation that I pastor recently enjoyed the privilege of a visit from Short-Term Missions and Disaster Response Coordinator David Nakhla. Knowing that Mr. Nakhla was scheduled to report on opportunities for service in the OPC prompted me to reflect upon obstacles we might encounter to serving the body of Christ. What excuses come to mind personally or corporately, for example, when presented with the opportunity for disaster response or a short-term missions trip? What keeps us as individual Christians or as congregations from “rolling up our sleeves” in service?
Some of the excuses that come to your mind may be similar to those that came to mine, such as: lack of time due to your already brimming schedule, lack of “manpower” because you are part of a church plant or “smallish” congregation like the one that I serve, and lack of finances in these troubled economic times. I have no doubt that your own circumstances may bring additional challenges to mind.
Although we certainly cannot afford to ignore these real-life barriers, the apostle Paul reminds us of a deeper, more fundamental obstacle to Christian service in Romans 12:3–8. More impeding to Christian service than a full calendar, empty pews, or limited resources is the obstacle of pride. Shortly before urging the Christians in Rome to use their various gifts in service (Rom. 12:6–8), Paul says, “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment” (v. 3). This exhortation to humility also follows on the heels of his call to “present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service” (v. 1 NKJV). Sandwiched between two appeals for Christian service, in other words, the apostle focuses on our need for humility.
So the question is this: how can the hurdle of pride and its resulting misstep of indolence be overcome? The apostle Paul shows us how to do so in verses 4–6 of this passage, where he says that we who are one body in Christ are to humbly serve the body as God gifts us.
After issuing his call to humility (v. 3), Paul introduces an analogy to prepare his readers for the path of humble service: “For as in one body we have many members” (v. 4). The analogy draws our attention to a single human body with many parts. In each human body there are eyes, a nose, feet, a mouth, ears, hands, etc.
Even though these varied members are wonderfully joined together in one body, they “do not all have the same function” (v. 4). We see with our eyes, smell with our nose, walk with our feet, speak with our mouth, listen with our ears, and perform a host of other tasks with our hands. The diverse functions of all these parts are carried out within just one human body. How fearfully and wonderfully God has made us (Ps. 139:14)!
At this point, we may be wondering, why the anatomy lesson? What does the human body and its numerous parts have to do with humility or service in the church? Notice how Paul immediately proceeds—with the words “so we” (Rom. 12:5)—to show that this anatomical analogy sheds light on the identity of the church.
The beginning of verse 5 says, “So we, though many, are one body in Christ.” Apparently this letter was written to and about a group of people. And by using the pronoun “we,” Paul (who was likely across the Ionian Sea in the vicinity of Corinth when he penned these words), even includes himself with the geographically distant Roman Christians.
And what does Paul say to this group of believers, with whom he includes himself? He indicates that though we are many, we are simultaneously “one body.” That was no small claim. Like many large cities today, Rome was a melting pot. The church in Rome consisted of both Jews (Rom. 2:17–29; 16:3 with Acts 18:2) and Gentiles (Rom. 11:13, 19–31; 15:8–29), and Paul’s statement effectively erased centuries of social, cultural, and religious barriers.
Now Paul’s analogy of a single human body with its varied parts begins to make sense. He applies this analogy to the church in order to remind us of our unity in diversity. In other words, some of us are the eyes, some are the feet, some are the mouth, some are the hands, etc. While various members of the church body are genuinely different in form and functions, we are still one, unified body.
Furthermore, Paul emphatically states, “We ... ARE one body” (v. 5). This must not be misunderstood as a command (e.g. “try to be” or “make it your aim”), as if this unity could be achieved through our common social bonds, denominational connections, or some human effort. To the contrary, this unity has already been achieved by Christ and is presently true of those “in Christ.” This declaration, in other words, tells us our Christian identity as those collectively united by faith with the one Savior, Jesus Christ.
Is that how we typically view our identity as the church? Or, more often, do we see ourselves as fractured? Are we disheartened by so many denominations, even within the Reformed community? Do we develop a case of “out of sight, out of mind” with congregations in the OPC dispersed among other states, presbyteries, and even countries? Do we allow annoyances, disagreements, or oversights to give us a dismembered view of our very own congregations? Paul tells us that that is not who we are in Christ—we are one body!
This analogy that reminds us of our Christian identity brings into view the necessity of humbly serving the body of Christ. When we are part of the same body, we cannot help but serve the other parts, just as the various parts of our physical body help the rest of our body. For example, our eyes help us see where to place our feet and send our hands. Our ears give us a sense of balance. Our hands and arms assist our mouth and stomach to receive nourishment. Our teeth, lips, and hands keep bugs from entering our mouth (a serious problem where I live in the South Florida swamps). The analogy Paul uses makes his point wonderfully! If we are members of the same body, we will—we must—serve the other parts!
As we truly understand our Christian identity (various members joined into one body), humble service will necessarily replace proud idleness. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’” (1 Cor. 12:21). “For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body” (Eph. 5:29–30).
Furthermore, Paul stresses the necessity of humility, because any capability we have for service is a gift from God. “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them” (Rom. 12:6). Any good that we may be to the body of Christ comes only from God’s grace—there is no place for pride.
What keeps us from serving the body of Christ? What barriers hold us back from eagerly volunteering for disaster response, short-term missions trips, or other opportunities for service? Paul does not focus on our busy schedules, limited personnel, or lack of resources. Instead, he addresses our need for humility. When I am filled with thoughts about myself—my job, my comforts, my hobbies, my vacation—humbly giving toward, praying for, or even taking a trip to serve other parts of Christ’s body will likely get crowded out.
Paul’s solution to our proud lack of service is found in Christ. If we are joined to Jesus’ body by faith, our identity will necessarily conform to Christ, who “made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant” (Phil. 2:7). The choice between pride and service cannot be reduced to anything less than the choice between pride and Christ.
The author is pastor of Holy Trinity Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. New Horizons, December 2014.