Themes /

The economics of the body of Christ

Jonathan Cornford

Manna Matters May 2012

If we are honest, many of us would have to admit to a deep ambivalence about church - about the church as an institution, and about the whole Sunday thing. Often this ambivalence is made up of a number of elements, and we are not always clear within ourselves about its sources. There is often discomfort or disappointment about both the history and present reality of the institution that claims to itself the gospel of Jesus. For example, it is hard to overestimate just how deeply and how widely revelations such as those concerning child abuse and subsequent cover-up within the church have shaken people’s ability to place some faith and hope in it as an institution. At a much more mundane level, there is, I believe, a widespread disappointment and discomfort that the membership of the church so poorly reflects the character and work of Jesus of Nazareth.

On the other hand, the church, like many other social institutions, is feeling the crunch of rapid cultural change. The core practice of the church – which is simply to gather – has been placed under enormous strain by our modern social geography and the virtual surrender of its members to consumer culture. The dislocation of church membership from geographic locality has transformed the experience of ‘belonging’ to a church community into yet another act of consumer choice. Moreover, the Sunday service has, for many, become an exercise in frustration and disappointment – for some it has pandered far too much to our consumer predilections, for others it seems irrelevant, and for yet others it is trapped halfway between the two of these. At a much deeper level, and perhaps the most significant, Christianity in the West is undergoing a crisis of faith – just what is the good news of Jesus, how do we understand the identity, death and resurrection of Jesus, and what does all this mean for how we live in the world?

These are, by any measure, a significant raft of issues facing the church, and I do not propose to unravel them all here (it will be an ongoing subject of discussion within this newsletter over time). However, if we are to discuss the church at all, we need to acknowledge that this is our starting point. Rather, my interest here is to examine the essence of the idea of church within the New Testament vision, and particularly what this says about the economic arrangements of Christian communities. What is the church, and what is it called to be in the world?

The Greek word in the New Testament that is translated as ‘church’ – ekklesia – simply means ‘the gathering’. It was a word common in the Greco-Roman world and it was usually used in reference to gatherings related to civic governance –the ekklesia denotes a body politic. When the Apostle Paul uses the word ‘church’, he is very often using the term in its most ordinary sense, referring to specific gatherings of Christians in particular locations – the churches in Galatia or Macedonia or Judea. However, sometimes (particularly in Ephesians and Colossians) when Paul speaks of ‘the church’, he is referring to something much more than a local gathering; for example: ‘He has put all things under [Christ’s] feet, and made him, as he is above all things, the head of the Church’ (Eph 1:22, NJB). Paul doesn’t anywhere make entirely clear what he means by this higher concept of ‘the church’ and interpretations differ significantly along Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox lines. Nevertheless, whatever the interpretation, it is clear that Paul understands followers of Jesus to participate in an essential unity that is far wider and far deeper than any particular gathering they may be associated with.

Paul’s understanding of both the essence and the unity of the church is most profoundly captured by his description of it as the body of Christ. When Paul invokes this term, he is not, as is so often presumed, merely using it as a metaphor, nor is he dressing-up an institution in religious language, and neither is he conceiving of some abstract, mystical reality that we can never quite see. Rather, he is saying something much more startling, and much more sobering in its implications. When Paul refers to the body of Christ, he is saying the same thing as the Gospel of John when it tells us that ‘the Word became flesh’ (Jn 1:14).

The great scandal of Christianity is that God’s communication with humanity – the Word (logos) – took the form of a human life, that of a carpenter’s son in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire. The Word became flesh because what God wants to say to us concerns flesh. But Paul takes this idea further. He asserts that, following the resurrection and ascension of Christ, the church is now the body of Christ, that it is indeed the continuing incarnation of Jesus.

The truth of the gospel is that the Word must always become flesh. When we read the rest of the Bible in this light, we see that the process of Word becoming flesh is actually God’s modus operandi the whole way through – it is the meaning of Israel, the charism of the prophets, the revelation that is in Jesus, and it is the vocation that is given ‘the church’. Indeed, Word becoming flesh is the very process by which scripture comes to us in the first place.

The implications of this are huge. This becomes clear when in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, he explains: ‘in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, […] and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us’ (2 Cor 5:19). Once again, he is saying the same thing as the Gospel of John when it quotes the resurrected Jesus as saying: ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you’ (Jn 21:21). God’s work of restoring all things to their right relationship, of healing all the cracks and divisions in the world, is now our our work; and God’s method of performing this work is our method. The medium truly is the message. We are called to be the message.

The body of Christ then, is that community of people who have given their lives willingly to be the hands and feet of God’s work of healing a broken world; it is the vehicle of the Spirit of Christ in the world.

Paul has a profound understanding of God’s purposes in choosing this way of working in the world; a way which is by nature plural and diverse. ‘For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another’ (Rom 12:4-5). In his celebrated discourse of 1 Corinthians 12, Paul is at pains to emphasise that the ‘weaker’ and less well regarded members of this body are actually essential to its health, function and purpose. In other letters Paul insists that the body of Christ demands the obliteration of social divisions: ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’ (Gal 3:28)

In other words, the body of Christ is itself to embody the reconciliation, the healing and wholeness, or more accurately, the holiness, that is intended for humanity. As Stanley Hauerwas is fond of saying, the church does not have a social ethic, the church is a social ethic.

It will come as no surprise to Manna Matters readers then, that if the church is a social ethic, then its social ethic must also include (how can it not?) its economic life. So what does the economics of the body of Christ look like?

Perhaps the most important thing that needs to be said about the economics of the body of Christ, is that it is to be profoundly different from the economics of the world. In the New Testament, as in the Old, the call to holiness is a call to non-conformity:

Therefore prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed. Like obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance. Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” (1 Pet 1:13-16)

The last part of this passage is a quote from the Torah (Leviticus 19:2) – the blueprint for ‘the promised land’ - and it is the refrain that explains the detailed vision of Israel as an alternative economic community (see Manna Matters Nov 2009). Thus, the call for the body of Christ to embody an alternative economic ethic is not new to the New Testament, but is the calling that has been given to God’s people all along.

The centrality of a new economics to the body of Christ is made fully evident in Acts chapter 2, the account of the birth of the church. The chapter begins with the dramatic arrival of the Holy Spirit. In the NIV Bible this is described as ‘tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them’ (v.2). Ched Myers has pointed out the Greek in this text uses a very particular term – diamerizo – which is properly translated, ‘tongues of fire were distributed among them’. This same term is echoed at the end of Acts 2: ‘All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute [diamerizo] the proceeds to all, as any had need.’ Thus the story that narrates the beginning of the church starts with a distribution of the Spirit and ends with a distribution of goods.

What happened in the Jerusalem community in Acts was not communism – relinquishing of private property was not a condition of membership of this community. What happened was much more profound; as Acts chapter 4 explains ‘no one claimed private ownership of any possessions’. What had changed was their attitude and outlook, or to paraphrase Paul, they had been transformed by a renewing of their minds and so no longer conformed to the patterns of the world (see Romans 12:2).

Paul makes clear in his letters that the transformation that comes with receiving the Spirit of Jesus is not some private transaction with God in our hearts, but one that must find its expression in a transformation of our day-to-day lives, meaning all of our acts of production, consumption and distribution. In Romans 12 he describes offering our ‘bodies as living sacrifices’ – that is, living each day, in the nitty gritty stuff of life, as a counter-cultural expression of God’s love in the world. It is this day-to-day non-conformity for the sake of love, Paul explains, that actually constitutes our true worship of God (v.2).

It is in 2 Corinthians 8 that Paul most fully describes his understanding of the operation of the economy of God within the body of Christ. As within the Jerusalem Community, Paul sees this economy as being based on the freewill (‘eager’) and continual circulation of abundance towards need – ‘The aim is equality’ (v.14). Not surprisingly, Paul’s understanding is explicitly grounded in the story of the manna in the wilderness (see Manna Matters June 2009), where “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little” (v.15).

It is self-evident to the New Testament writers that participating in the community of Christ’s spirit leads naturally to a transformation of our economic conduct. As the writer of the first letter of John plainly puts it: ‘How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?’ (3.17). As with Israel in the Old Testament, so with the body of Christ in the New Testament; any community called to witness to the character of the God of the Bible must be an alternative economic community.

Which brings us back to where we started – the widespread and deep ambivalence about church. For it will be clear to any reader that this vision of the body of Christ in the New Testament bears little resemblance to the church of today. The economic lives of Christians in Australia are virtually indistinguishable from the economic lives of everyone else. We are deeply implicated in the destructive economics of our time. Where did we go wrong? How did we get to where we are? Could it be that the crises of the church today are related to our failure to embody the economics of the gospel? What then shall we now do? Stay tuned, because these questions will be the subject of the coming editions of Manna Matters.