By Walter Fenton
As a young Christian, when I first read the Apostle Paul’s use of the human body as metaphor for the body of Christ, I was deeply impressed. Forty to fifty years later, I admit I do not always look forward to reading 1 Corinthians 12.14-26. To be sure, I still think the analogy is a good one, but after a fifth, sixth, or 60th reading it becomes tedious. I will sometimes say to myself, “I get it Paul, you don’t need to belabor the point!”
But apparently he did. He was writing to that contentious Corinthian church that was on the verge of completely coming apart because many of its members, perhaps most of them, had an inflated sense of their spiritual gifts and their rank in the church. So Paul was not throwing out a pious platitude when he wrote to them about being members of the body of Christ. And it is no accident his section on being the body of Christ spills right into that noble chapter on faith, hope, and love, that chapter we most often hear read at weddings that originally had nothing to do with weddings, but everything to do with church members needing to find a way to get along with one another before they destroyed the body of which they were a part.
Like other pastors, there have been times in my ministry when I have made a concerted effort to avoid the word member when leading people through a church membership class. My avoidance of the term stemmed from the way we often use the word. We associate it with being a member of a country club where dues are paid in exchange for benefits and privileges. Country clubs inevitably exclude people because some cannot afford the dues, and so the word member is further tainted. And then another reason I avoided the term was because some of the present members of the church were doing a poor job of demonstrating how a member of the body of Christ should live. Some treated it like being part of a country club, a privilege you take advantage of when it is useful to you and yours: for a baptism, a wedding, a funeral, or a nice family Christmas tradition. So shame on me, I kind of gave up on the term member, and would instead refer to people becoming disciples of Christ, which is fine, but it always made me feel like I was receiving people into the Disciples of Christ denomination (no offense intended).
Eventually I decided I would try to recover the word member, so I headed to the local library to find a multi-volume set of The Oxford English Dictionary. I not only wanted to revisit the word’s definition, I also wanted to know its history. I discovered the English word member comes from the Latin membrum, which originally had nothing to do with being a member of a club, but rather the word was used – and of course still is today – to refer to human body parts. And then I joyfully came across one of the earliest known uses of the word “member” in the English language. In a 1382 Wycliffe Bible, Wycliffe, or one his followers, translated Ephesians 5.30 from the Latin Vulgate as follows: “We are members of Christ’s flesh and bones.” That visceral, wonderful translation has stuck with me ever since, and so I no longer have any compunction about referring to myself and other Christians as members of the church catholic, Christ’s flesh and bones in the world.
It is now widely acknowledged The United Methodist Church is likely to approve an amicable separation of the denomination at its next General Conference. That probability is regrettable but given the denomination’s failed attempts to resolve its differences over 50 contentious years it is also the better course of wisdom. As those of us who have most often referred to ourselves as evangelicals (another word in need of recovery) embark on forming a new church, may we fully embrace being members of Christ’s flesh and bones in the world through a new, global Methodist church.
The Rev. Walter Fenton is Vice President for Strategic Engagement for the Wesleyan Covenant Association and is an elder in the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference.