The Proper Relationship: Unity in Diversity
For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. (12:4–5)
In verse 1 Paul urges his fellow believers to present their physical bodies as “a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.” Now he uses the figure of the body to represent the church, the Body of Christ, of which every believer is a member. He focuses on its unity in diversity—one body (mentioned in both verses) representing its unity, and many members that do not have the same function, representing the diversity. Just as it is in nature, unified diversity in the church is a mark of God’s sovereign and marvelous handiwork.
A football team may have forty to fifty men on the roster. If all of them decided to be the quarterback, the team would have no unity and no effectiveness. True unity arises when each team member is willing to play the specific position assigned to him.
Paul now focuses specifically on the diverse uniqueness and importance of each member to the body’s proper performance. He points out the obvious truth that, although we have many members in one body, nevertheless all the members do not have the same function.
Function translates praxis, which has the basic meaning of a doing of something, that is, a deed. It later came to connote something that was ordinarily done or practiced, a normal function.
Spiritual gifts do not always correspond to what we commonly refer to as church offices—such as apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor-teacher, or deacon—as the King James rendering suggests (“all members have not the same office,” emphasis added). Most church members do not have a specific office or title. But every believer, from the youngest to the oldest and from the newest to the most mature, has a Spirit-given ability to minister to the body of Christ through some spiritual gift. It is the use of the gift that is his God-ordained function in the kingdom.
In the spiritual organism that is Christ’s church, every constituent part—whether obvious and important, such as the arm, or hidden and unnoticed, such as the small blood vessels and glands—is critical to its proper functioning as a whole. So we, who are many, Paul explains, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. It is diversity working in unity and in harmony that enables Christ’s Body to be and to do what He directs it to be and to do.
Because it is so normal and dependable, the great wonder of the proper operation of our bodies is seldom appreciated or even noticed. We have but to think, and our hands, feet, or eyes immediately do what we want them to do. Because we have trained them to respond in certain ways, they do many things almost automatically. Our most critical bodily functions—such as our hearts’ beating and our lungs’ breathing—require no thought at all. They simply do their jobs, performing their divinely-designed functions minute after minute, day after day, year after year. The interrelationship of the parts of our bodies is so unbelievably intricate that medical science continually discovers new functions and relationships. It is often only when our bodies cease to function properly that we appreciate how marvelously God has designed them.
In his book Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, the internationally renowned surgeon Dr. Paul Brand writes of the amazing diversity and interrelationship of the parts of the human body. Speaking of the body’s cells, he says:
I am first struck by their variety. Chemically my cells are almost alike, but visually and functionally they are as different as the animals in a zoo. Red blood cells, discs resembling Lifesaver candies, voyage through my blood loaded with oxygen to feed the other cells. Muscle cells, which absorb so much of that nourishment, are sleek and supple, full of coiled energy. Cartilage cells with shiny black nuclei look like bunches of black-eyed peas glued tightly together for strength. Fat cells seem lazy and leaden, like bulging white plastic garbage bags jammed together.
Bone cells live in rigid structures that exude strength. Cut in cross section, bones resemble tree rings, overlapping strength with strength, offering impliability and sturdiness. In contrast, skin cells form undulating patterns of softness and texture that rise and dip, giving shape and beauty to our bodies. They curve and jut at unpredictable angles so that every person’s fingerprint—not to mention his or her face—is unique.
The aristocrats of the cellular world are the sex cells and nerve cells. A woman’s contribution, the egg, is one of the largest cells in the human body, its ovoid shape just visible to the unaided eye. It seems fitting that all the other cells in the body should derive from this elegant and primordial structure. In great contrast to the egg’s quiet repose, the male’s tiny sperm cells are furiously flagellating tadpoles with distended heads and skinny tails. They scramble for position as if competitively aware that only one of billions will gain the honor of fertilization.
The king of cells, the one I have devoted much of my life to studying, is the nerve cell. It has an aura of wisdom and complexity about it. Spiderlike, it branches out and unites the body with a computer network of dazzling sophistication. Its axons, “wires” carrying distant messages to and from the human brain, can reach a yard in length.
I never tire of viewing these varied specimens or thumbing through books which render cells. Individually they seem puny and oddly designed, but I know these invisible parts cooperate to lavish me with the phenomenon of life.…
My body employs a bewildering zoo of cells, none of which individually resembles the larger body. Just so, Christ’s Body comprises an unlikely assortment of humans. Unlikely is precisely the right word, for we are decidedly unlike one another and the One we follow. From whose design come these comical human shapes which so faintly reflect the ideals of the Body as a whole?
The Body of Christ, like our own bodies, is composed of individual, unlike cells that are knit together to form one Body. He is the whole thing, and the joy of the Body increases as individual cells realize they can be diverse without becoming isolated outposts.
Dr. Brand also describes the unity of the seemingly endless diversity of the cells.
What moves cells to work together? What ushers in the higher specialized functions of movement, sight, and consciousness through the coordination of a hundred trillion cells?
The secret to membership lies locked away inside each cell nucleus, chemically coiled in a strand of DNA. Once the egg and sperm share their inheritance, the DNA chemical ladder splits down the center of every gene much as the teeth of a zipper pull apart. DNA reforms itself each time the cell divides: 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 cells, each with the identical DNA. Along the way cells specialize, but each carries the entire instruction book of one hundred thousand genes. DNA is estimated to contain instructions that, if written out, would fill a thousand six-hundred-page books. A nerve cell may operate according to instructions from volume four and a kidney cell from volume twenty-five, but both carry the whole compendium. It provides each cell’s sealed credential of membership in the body. Every cell possesses a genetic code so complete that the entire body could be reassembled from information in any one of the body’s cells.…
Just as the complete identity code of my body inheres in each individual cell, so also the reality of God permeates every cell in [Christ’s] Body, linking us members with a true, organic bond. I sense that bond when I meet strangers in India or Africa or California who share my loyalty to the Head; instantly we become brothers and sisters, fellow cells in Christ’s Body. I share the ecstasy of community in a universal Body that includes every man and woman in whom God resides. (Taken from Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, by Dr. Paul Brand and Philip Yancy. Copyright [CO] 1980 by Dr. Paul Brand and Philip Yancy. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House)
There are also rebellious cells, as it were, in the Body of Christ. Some are benign, in the sense that they do not destroy the church. They simply gorge themselves on blessings and benefits at the expense of the rest of the body. They become fatter and fatter, always taking in, seldom giving out. The focus of their whole existence is self-service. Their creed is: “I will get all I can from God and all I can from the church.” In their unfaithfulness to the Lord and to His people, they sap the church of its vitality and can so weaken it that it becomes emaciated and cannot function normally.
The church also has “cells” that are mutinous to the point of destruction. Through outright heresy and flagrant immorality, these malignant members openly attack the rest of the body, eating away at its very life.
As believers, we are all interrelated in a spiritual unity. Christ has designed us to work uniquely but harmoniously as His Body on earth—to be His own hands, His own feet, His own voice. We share a common life, a common ministry, a common power, and, above all, a common Head. We are endowed in countless different combinations of the specific gifts mentioned here and elsewhere in the New Testament. But it is our Lord’s design and desire that our diversity in spiritual gifts be manifested in unity of spiritual service.
One Body in Christ
Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.
Anyone who is interested in the doctrine of the church and senses its importance must be a bit surprised to notice how little the word church actually occurs in the Bible. It is not found in the Old Testament at all. The first time it occurs is in Matthew 16:18, then again in Matthew 18:17. It is not in the other gospels. It is scattered throughout Acts, of course (about eighteen times), but it is found only five times in Romans, all in chapter 16 (vv. 1, 3, 5, 16, 23). There are quite a few instances in 1 Corinthians and Ephesians (eighteen and nine times respectively), but then the references become infrequent again. In the New International Version of the Bible the singular word church occurs only seventy-nine times.
The explanation, of course, is that although the word church is itself relatively infrequent, the doctrine of the church is discussed many more times by other words and images.
That is the case in our text. Paul is beginning to talk about the church in Romans 12:4–5. His discussion is going to deal with church unity, the distribution of diverse gifts among the members of the church, and the way Christians in the church are to behave toward one another. But Paul does not use the word church. Instead he speaks of Christ’s body: “Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” This is an important text, because “the body of Christ” is a powerful image for the church. As we might expect, it is also found numerous other places in Paul’s writings.
What is the Church?
Most of us know that the church is not a building, though we say, “I’m going to church,” meaning a building, or we speak about “building a church,” again meaning a building. We know that the church is people. But how do these people fit into a particular congregation or a denomination in our thinking? We talk about the Episcopal Church or the Presbyterian Church or the Baptist Church. Are they “churches,” even “the one true church” as some claim? Are they even churches at all? And what about the people in these denominations? Are all of them members of the church? If so, in what sense? Does membership in a particular organization make you a church member? What about those who watch services on television? Or what about those who were baptized and attended church at one time but who no longer attend?
Paul’s image is very helpful at this point. For when he speaks of the body of Christ, obviously he is speaking of those who belong to Christ, who are joined to him in exactly the sense in which he speaks about our being joined to Christ in Romans 5 and elsewhere. This is a spiritual reality, invisible but supremely real. It is something that is accomplished by the Holy Spirit, and it has to do with faith in Christ, by which we become new creatures, having passed out of our death-union with Adam to a new life-union with the Savior.
Charles Colson has written a book on the church called The Body, in which he complains of a lack of definition and identity by supposedly Christian people. “The church—the body of God’s people—has little to do with slick marketing or fancy facilities. It has everything to do with the people and the Spirit of God in their midst,” he says.
John Stott has written, “The church is a people, a community of people, who owe their existence, their solidarity and their corporate distinctness from other communities to one thing only—the call of God.”
Strictly speaking, the church of Jesus Christ, created by Jesus from among all peoples, is a New Testament reality. That is why the word church is found only in the New Testament. It is why Jesus used the future tense when he replied to Peter’s great confession in Matthew 16 by saying, “On this rock I will build my church” (v. 18). This church began at Pentecost when people from all nations were brought to faith in Jesus by the Holy Spirit. Acts lists them as having been “Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs” (2:9–11).
But this is not quite the whole story. If the church is the community of those who have been called by God, as Stott suggests in his definition of the church, then the Old Testament believers belonged to the church of Jesus Christ too. This is because they looked forward to Christ’s coming and were joined to him by faith, just as we look back.
The key concept here is the covenant. This covenant is expressed in God’s call of particular individuals (and not others) and by his entering into a formal agreement to save, protect, and bless them. For their part, the individuals are required to believe, worship, and obey God. Adam and Eve were part of this initial covenant, and so were their godly descendants listed in Genesis 5. We see the idea of a covenant formally and most clearly set out in God’s calling of Abraham, with whom a special stage in the history of the Old Testament “church” begins. God said, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you” (Gen. 12:1–2). Later that covenant was ratified by a ceremony in which God foretold the future history of Abraham’s descendants and promised them a land of their own, “from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates” (Gen. 15:18; see vv. 12–21). Abraham’s response was to believe God and worship him.
We find the same pattern in God’s dealings with Isaac, Abraham’s son, and with Jacob, his grandson. In each case the call of God is joined to a covenant promise, and this is followed by faith, worship, and obedience on the people’s part. The church consists of all these people, those whom God has called from all times and from all places and has joined to Jesus Christ.
There is One Body, One Church
Paul’s image of the church as Christ’s body not only defines the church as the community of those who have been joined to Christ, but it also teaches that there is only one church. There is but one church because Jesus has but one body.
Ephesians 4:4–6 parallels the ideas we find in Romans 12, only with greater elaboration since Ephesians is essentially a book about the church. Significantly, this passage occurs at the same point in Ephesians as our passage in Romans does, where Paul begins to apply the earlier doctrine of salvation to Christian living. He talks about believers being “humble and gentle,” for example. Then he talks about the unity of the church, saying, “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4–6).
There are seven important unities in this passage:
- One body. This is an important image for the church, because it pictures it as an organic whole rather than as a machine that is made up of independent parts. The church is not an airplane, a train, or an automobile. It is an organism in which the parts are alive and both support and depend on one another. In 1 Corinthians Paul writes, “God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (1 Cor. 12:24–26).
- One Spirit. The word Spirit is capitalized in this phrase because Paul is not thinking here that Christians share the same spirit in the sense that they are one in their enthusiasms and goals. He is referring to the work of the Holy Spirit in drawing us to Christ. We are all different. We have come to Christ along different roads. Nevertheless, the reason we have come along those roads at all is that the same Holy Spirit has been drawing us, so that at the theological level our conversion experiences are the same. We have all been awakened to our need. We have all been made alive in Christ. We have all believed on him. Moreover, the Holy Spirit is performing a work of sanctification in each of us, so that we are all working for Christ and are beginning to produce the fruit of the Holy Spirit, which is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal. 5:22–23).
- One hope. Today the word hope usually means something that is uncertain. But in the New Testament it refers to what is sure and certain but for which we wait. Paul calls this “one hope” because it embraces a unifying set of beliefs among Christians—namely, the return of Jesus Christ, the Resurrection, and the Final Judgment. Another way of thinking about the Christian’s hope is to say that when Jesus returns we are going to be with him, all of us. People from all races and nations and economic backgrounds will be together with Jesus, and the many things that divide us now will be forgotten. If that is so, shouldn’t there be ways in which we reach across denominational, racial, and other barriers and work together now? Shouldn’t we be able to demonstrate our unity better than we do?
- One Lord. To hear some Christians talk, you would think that there are many Lords. “I know a Jesus who causes me to do this, which excludes you,” some say. Or, “Your Jesus isn’t the Jesus I know.” Well, there is such a thing as believing in or proclaiming a false Christ, who is not the Lord. We are not to have fellowship with unbelief. But usually that is not our problem. Our real problem is that we distrust Christians who are not made precisely in our mold. We need to realize that if others really believe in Christ, then the fact that we have this same Lord should draw us together.
- One faith. This is not the subjective faith that we must have to be Christians. Here the word is being used objectively to refer to the content of faith, or the gospel, and it is teaching that there is only one body of genuine Christian doctrine, whatever our own limited understanding of it may be. Indeed, if we are really Christians, our differences must be in minor areas since by definition we all believe the major doctrines. As a rule, it would be helpful for us to explore the areas in which we agree with other Christians before we explore the points at which we differ.
- One baptism. It is interesting that Paul should include baptism in a list of things that unite us since a diverse understanding of baptism is one of the things that has divided denominations most severely. The explanation, of course, is that Paul is not thinking of modes of baptism or even whether infants should be baptized. He is thinking of baptism as the sacrament in which we are publicly identified with Christ. If you have been identified with Jesus Christ by baptism, then you are also identified with all others who have likewise been baptized in his name.
- One God. The final point of unity is “one God.” We notice here that the first three of these points are grouped around the Holy Spirit: one body, one Spirit, one hope. The next three are grouped around the Lord Jesus Christ: one Lord, one faith, one baptism. This last item concerns the first person of the Godhead only.
Why is this the order? Probably because Paul is thinking from the effect to the cause. He begins with our being part of the church, and he asks, in effect, “How did we get to be part of the church?” The answer is: By the Holy Spirit joining us to Christ. The Holy Spirit made us part of one body and gave us one hope. Next question: “What, then, is the church?” Answer: Those who have Jesus Christ as Lord, who have believed on him and his work, and who have been identified with him publicly by baptism. The final questions are: But why did Jesus do this? And where did the idea of the church come from anyway? The answer is: Because it was God the Father’s plan. The idea of the church comes from God the “Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:6).
John Stott talks about the Trinity as the essential basis for church unity and sums it up like this: “There can be only one Christian family, only one Christian faith, hope and baptism, and only one Christian body, because there is only One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. You can no more multiply churches than you can multiply Gods. Is there only one God? Then he has only one church. Is the unity of God inviolable? Then so is the unity of the church.… It is no more possible to split the church than it is possible to split the Godhead.”
The Problem with the Church Today
And yet we have split the church, or at least the visible church that people see. John Stott’s concern in the book One People is that we have done it by dividing the clergy from the laity. His book is designed to recapture a proper lay ministry. Charles Colson is concerned about our institutions and our individualism. He wants to revive the spiritual vitality of Christ’s body. Donald Grey Barnhouse, in his studies of Romans, was troubled by the way we have turned minor points of doctrine into major causes for division. He wanted to overcome that arrogance.
We see this problem on several levels today:
- The institutional problem. The division or disunity of the church is a problem at the institutional level, of course. In the hymn “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” we sing:
We are not divided, all one body we;
one in hope and doctrine, one in charity.
But even as we sing it, we know it is not true. Or we recite the Apostles’ Creed, containing the words, “I believe in … the holy catholic church.” Catholic means universal, broad, diverse, united. But though we may believe in a universal church, we seem to restrict our thoughts of the church to our own particular fellowship or denomination. It is this institutional problem that has captured the attention of some Christian leaders and through them has been a driving force behind the well-intentioned but misdirected and mostly unsuccessful ecumenical movement.
- Individualism. It strikes me, however, that today the problem is not so much our institutions, since they do not mean a whole lot to most people anyway, but rather our individualism, which I would define as hyperpersonalized religion. It is the religion of “Jesus and me only.” It is what sociologists and pollsters uncover whenever they explore America’s religious attitudes and practices.
Many people know the name of Robert Bellah, author of the sociological study of American life called The Habits of the Heart. Bellah says that America has been infected with a virulent virus that he calls “radical individualism.” It affects every area of life. People make up their own rules for everything, entirely apart from other people, and as a result they sometimes do terrible things to others. This “radical individualism” is particularly noticeable in religion. According to a USA Today survey, of the 56 percent of Americans who attend church, 46 percent do so because “it is good for you” (that is, “good for me”), and 26 percent go because it is where they hope to find “peace of mind and spiritual well-being.” Truth—that is, specific doctrine—does not seem important to these people.
In Bellah’s study there is a report of a woman named Sheila who considers herself to be very religious. “What is your religion?” she was asked.
“I call it ‘Sheilaism,’ ” she answered. “It’s just my own little voice.”
The word for this is narcissism, derived from the ancient story of Narcissus, a young Greek athlete who was in love with himself and spent his time by a quiet pool staring at his own reflection. It is a part of being conformed to this world rather than being transformed by the renewing of our minds, and it is a radical departure from what religion in America used to be, and should be. “Today religion in America is as private and diverse as New England colonial religion was public and unified,” says Robert Bellah. Clearly you cannot have “one body in Christ” if everyone is creating a private little a la carte religion for himself.
Maintain the Bond
So what is the challenge to informed biblical Christians in an age like ours? Well, the answer is not the ecumenical movement. Our task is not to create the unity of the body, above all not from the top down. The unity of the body is a given for those who are “in Christ.” Nevertheless, we should work for any valid visible expression of our oneness in Christ that is attainable, and we should avoid unnecessary divisions and even try to learn from one another in a humble, teachable spirit, which is the point at which Paul started in verse 3.
In his study of this passage in his volumes on Romans, Donald Grey Barnhouse tells how he once made slighting remarks about a denomination he considered to be on the fringe of genuine Christianity. A minister from this denomination was present and afterwards told Barnhouse how grieved he was at what he considered an unjust judgment. Barnhouse apologized, and it was agreed that he would meet for lunch with four or five ministers from this particular church.
When they got together, Barnhouse, who had suggested the luncheon, made the additional suggestion that during lunch they should discuss only the points on which they agreed. Afterwards, when they had finished, they could talk about their differences. They began to talk about Jesus Christ and what he meant to each of them. The tension abated, and there was a measure of joy as each confessed that Jesus was born of a virgin, that he came to die for our sins and then rose again bodily. Each acknowledged Jesus Christ as Lord. Each agreed that Jesus was now in heaven at the right hand of God the Father praying for his church. They confessed that he had sent his Holy Spirit at Pentecost and that the Lord was living in each of his children by means of the Holy Spirit. They acknowledged the reality of the new birth and that they were looking forward to the return of Jesus Christ, after which they would be spending eternity together.
By this time the meal was drawing to a close. And when they turned to the matters that divided them, they found that they were indeed secondary—not unimportant, but secondary—and they recognized that they were areas in which they could agree to disagree without denying that each was nevertheless a member of Christ’s body. Barnhouse confessed, “Though separated by a continent, I have often prayed for these men and am confident that they have prayed for me. We know that we are one in Christ. They made a distinct contribution to my spiritual life, and I contributed to theirs. I am the richer since I became acquainted with them.” Something like that would be a very good experience for most of us.
4–5 To offset the danger of individualistic thinking, with its resulting danger of pride, Paul refers to the human body—an illustration familiar from his earlier use (1 Co 12:12–31). Three truths are set forth in vv. 4–5: the unity of the body; the diversity of its members, with their corresponding diversity in function; and the mutuality of the various members—“each member belongs to all the others.” Of the greatest importance for Paul is the notion of the church as “one body in Christ,” and he often draws ramifications from it. The unity of the body is never regarded as incompatible with the diversity of the body. The latter is also very important for Paul.
The third item, mutuality, calls attention to the need of the various parts of the body for each other. They cannot work independently (cf. Paul’s classic analogy of the hand/foot and eye/ear in 1 Co 12:15–21). Furthermore, each member profits from what the other members contribute to the whole. Reflection on these truths reduces preoccupation with one’s own gift and makes room for appreciation of other people and the importance of the gifts they are called to exercise.
12:4–5 / The first consequence of being “transformed by the renewing of your mind” (v. 2) is a new self-understanding. This self-understanding is not achieved in a vacuum of individualism, however. It comes only through the body of Christ. The ancients were much taken with the idea of the one and the many, or the sum and its parts, and Paul finds this a serviceable construct for the church. The metaphor of the body argues not for a pattern of uniformity and sameness, but for a unity of faith and diversity of gifts. The human body is not a unity despite its diversity, but a unity because of it. So it is with the church. In God’s economy, self-understanding comes only through the “inner”-connectedness of believers, where the many members (v. 4) are freed from competing with one another and freed for complementing one another. Christians—all Christians—are members of an orchestra; not one of them is a soloist. The believer must first know who we are before he or she can know who I am. Faith, in other words, is corporate before it is individual.
Paul does not say that Christians are like a body but that they are the body of Christ. Moreover, it is not they who constitute Christ’s body, but, in the same way that the root constituted the branches (11:17ff.), it is Christ who constitutes them. The church, then, is the vessel of Christ’s revelation and saving work, but it is not identical with Christ. Where the church sets itself in place of Christ, there it makes the mistake of “outward” (2:28) or “natural” (9:8) Israel. Only where the church exists in Christ, and not in place of Christ, where each member belongs to all the others, is the church the body of Christ.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1991). Romans (Vol. 2, pp. 163–166). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Boice, J. M. (1991–). Romans: The New Humanity (Vol. 4, pp. 1573–1580). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
 Harrison, E. F., & Hagner, D. A. (2008). Romans. In T. Longman III &. Garland, David E. (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Revised Edition) (Vol. 11, p. 186). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Edwards, J. R. (2011). Romans (pp. 286–287). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.