The Body of Christ as a Self-Fulfilling Metaphor
This past summer I read a book about metaphors. I know, that probably sounds about as interesting as reading a book about Labradors. But the book was actually quite engaging and perspective-altering. In Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue our conceptual system is largely metaphorical. They are working against the common idea that metaphors are merely a function of language; metaphors, they say, are also a function of thought and action.
The essence of a metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another. Lakoff and Johnson argue our thought processes are largely metaphorical and thus metaphors create reality because changes in our conceptual system affect how we perceive the world and act upon those perceptions.
I find this a helpful way to think about the Scriptures. God has conferred authoritative and trustworthy metaphors to live by. He is shaping our imagination, our conceptual system, and consequently constructs reality for us by using language. In a sentence, metaphors in Scripture both describe what is real and create it through the metaphor itself. In this article I want to explore the metaphor for the church as “the body of Christ” in 1 Corinthians. But before I do that, a little more about metaphors.
An example may be helpful to illustrate that metaphors not only describe but create realties. The expression “time is money” is a metaphor we use in the United States. But this metaphor is not just a matter of language. It describes the way we conceptualize time and creates structures for how we treat time. Because time is somewhat abstract, we view it in comparison to a resource. We communicate its value to us by comparing it to money.
Our language not only displays how we think of time, but crafts how we treat time. We speak of wasting time, of saving time, of borrowed time, of giving time, of something costing an hour, and even of investing time. Every occasion we use time as a resource metaphor we reinforce this perspective.
So I assert, in agreement with Lakoff and Johnson, that metaphors are not simply a matter of language but a matter of thought and action. In the Scriptures they both describe and create reality. In this sense they are self-fulfilling prophecies.
Metaphors may create realities for us, especially social realities. A metaphor may thus be a guide for future action. Such actions will, of course, fit the metaphor. This will in turn reinforce the power of the metaphor to make experience coherent. In this sense metaphors can be self-fulfilling prophecies (156).
LIVING THE BODY OF CHRIST
So what happens if we rope these assertions together with “the body of Christ”? Throughout the history of the Christian church, there has been debate about what this metaphor means. Is it a metaphor, or is it a statement about reality? Hopefully you can now see that this question is making an assumption about metaphors. The phrase “the body of Christ” is a metaphor, a reality, and it fashions a reality. This is how language functions. It is not only descriptive, it is world-forming.
Paul uses the metaphor “the body of Christ” in 1 Corinthians to both describe and create a reality in Corinth. He engages this specific metaphor to describe and produce at least three things.
First, Paul uses the metaphor to encourage the church and build the reality in them that they are sharers in Christ. In 1 Corinthians 10:16 Paul says that when believers take the Lord’s Supper they are participating in the body of Christ. The Greek word behind “participating” is koinania. The church therefore is partnered with Christ, tied to Christ, a sharer in Christ, in fellowship with Christ. Paul is using a very physical image (body) and an economic image (koinania) to illustrate the unity between Christ and the church. He uses this metaphor to structure how they interact with one another. This metaphor is a reality, a reality that is reinforced as we eat and drink the blood and the body. The metaphor is a depiction of another order violating our current system. It is breaking in through both ritual and metaphor.
Second, Paul uses the metaphor to show that the church is unified. Paul asserts that the church collectively is unified in the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:27). There are different members but there is one body. He wants no division in the body of Christ, but rather that care be taken for each member (12:25). Corinth was in danger of breaking this division so he gave them the metaphor of “the body of Christ” to create a reality within them. A body should not be separated, so they need to fulfill the prophecy that Paul has asserted as a reality. They are to so shape their thoughts and actions around this metaphor, because if they do, it will be unthinkable for them to divide the body of Christ. For if a body is divided, it is no longer flourishing.
Third, the metaphor implies that the church is Christ to the world. If the church shares in Christ and is unified in Christ, then the church is to be a picture of Christ to the kingdoms of the earth. The church is the eyes, hands, heart, and feet of the Messiah, yet is also called to be these things. Paul uses the metaphor “the body of Christ” to both describe and shape this reality in the people of God.
When the Scriptures speak in metaphors they are both describing and creating in the people of God how to think and act. And when the church does act out the metaphor, this in turn reinforces the power of the metaphor. In this sense, “the body of Christ” is a self-fulfilling metaphor. It is a means. It is an imperative wrapped in an indicative. It has illocutionary and perlocutionary force. We fulfill the prophecy as we live the truth, and the truth shapes how we live.
The Scriptures give us narratives to shape our narrative, but within these narratives are metaphors to live by. The body of Christ is a metaphor, and when you understand metaphors, you understand the power contained therein.