12:4-5—Unity, diversity, and mutuality.
I mentioned previously that Paul wrote Romans while he was in Corinth. There he saw first-hand how the overvaluing of certain more spectacular gifts could lead to divisions in a church. Paul’s first use of the body metaphor was in fact in a letter to that church (1 Corinthians 12), and now he employs it in his letter to believers in Rome. Three or so years later he will develop the metaphor even further for churches in Ephesus and Colossae.
This verse extends Paul’s exhortation in the previous verse. Paul teaches us to value both the community and each individual’s role with an attitude of humility. When we do not think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think and when we think rightly of our gifts as given to us for the benefit of others, both the body and each individual member thrive.
One body with many interdependent members
Note several aspects of Paul’s theology of the church.
1. Just as the Godhead expresses unity and diversity (one God, three Persons), the church is one body with many members.
2. Christianity values both the corporate and the individual. Each member retains his or her personhood and dignity while voluntarily serving the body. Again, we see the principle of reciprocal love in action. Members build up the body as they employ their various gifts, and the body cares for the health of each member.
3. We belong to one another. If one member suffers, the whole body grieves; we also share one another’s joy (see verse 15). The members’ mutual love “binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3:14).
One thing to appreciate about these themes of unity, diversity, and volunteered, mutual service is that they highlight the contrast between the society of the church and various conceptions of secular society. For example, collectivism and statism value the claims of groups or the state over the rights of individuals, and some forms of libertarianism grant free reign to individual choices without regard to their effect on the health of society.
The church needs no central planning committee or office of bureaucrats to tell its members what to do. Instead, the body has a wise Head—Christ himself—who controls and coordinates the body from the top down:
A key word characterizing church ethics is voluntary love. God seeks voluntary lovers. He delights to see the members of his church freely and voluntarily contribute their time, talents, and wealth for the mutual benefit of fellow members. By this ethic, through the power of the Holy Spirit, each part works properly to make the body grow.