What is the "Body of Christ" (1 Corinthians 12)?
Updated: Feb 25
1 Cor 12:27 defines what the “body of Christ” is: “Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular." Paul says that the church at Corinth is the body of Christ. He says, "Ye," not "we." Paul was a believer, so by excluding himself, he defined the body of Christ as the assembly, the congregation, only local. If the body of Christ is all believers, then all saved people of the world were in Corinth. "Ye are the body of Christ" says that "the body" is visible and local, not spiritual and universal. “The body" can be either generic or particular. The few verses in Scripture not referring to a local church are dealing with the church as an institution.
If “Ye are the body of Christ” (1 Cor 12:27; Eph 4:12) is speaking to a church in a particular locale, then the body of Christ must be a congregation of believers. Well, men have developed their beliefs to include what they call a "universal, invisible church." There isn't a universal church, besides the one Satan is trying to orchestrate (the One World Church of Rome and her harlots, and that won’t be invisible either). But those two terms are mutually exclusive. Anything that congregates or assembles is not universal. Air is universal. We could say universal water. Universal wind. Universal space. But not universal church. There is no universal or invisible usage of the singular noun in any language.
Some attempt to argue that church is both a local body of believers and a universal, mystical one, so there’s actually two bodies of Christ. So the Corinth church is the body of Christ and all believers in the world are also the body of Christ. Eph 4:4 should ruin this argument, when it says, "There is one body." Well, we do know for sure there is the body that is the local congregation (1 Cor 12:27). So if there is only one body, and since God is not the author of confusion, then the big one made up of believers that are dismembered all over the universe must obviously not exist. I've never seen it and I’ve been all over the world. Maybe that's why they call it . . . invisible.
Some also argue that the one true body is all believers and the local one is a visible manifestation of the one true one. Say again? It must be convenient to make up new rules for interpretation as we go along. This whole true in the invisible concept comes from the pagan Greek philosopher Plato. He started the real in the realm of the Idea with physical items just being visible manifestations of them. Why listen to Plato? I don't, but why some people do is because Augustine, the Roman Catholic "scholar" and heretic (and true father of Calvinism), liked him. Augustine lived 354-430.
A group of people who believed and lived the Bible, the Donatists, asked Augustine why so many unconverted were in the Catholic church. Augustine said there was the visible and the invisible Catholic (universal) church. He said that the invisible was the genuine church made up of all true converts and the visible was the one people could see that had some unconverted. The Protestant Heretical Reformers were all former Catholics and most of them were big Augustine fans (as continued to this day, with Reformed Calvinists), so they adopted his universal, invisible church idea. It isn't in the Bible. Its all made up, and Plato and Augustine get the credit for inventing it.
Why is the two body argument wrong? Because the Bible teaches only one body (1 Cor 12:27) and the other isn't in there anywhere, and Eph 4:3-4 says “one body.” The universal body side will say that certain instances are talking about all believers; they just have to be. The ones they are talking about are when the singular nouns "body" or "church" are used generically, but these are speaking of the "body" or the "church" institutionally. If I say, "The church is important to God," I'm not talking about a particular church, but the church generic. There is no such thing as a Platonic, Augustinian use of the singular noun. That was made up to protect this doctrine that isn't in the Bible.
Each true local church as it is in Christ, is the body of Christ in their community. They are to accomplish the task Jesus would be accomplishing if he was here bodily in a given town. Thus the local church is the body of Christ. "In Christ" is actually in Christ. That is spiritual. Really spiritual. The body of Christ is visible as opposed to spiritual. It's not that there is nothing spiritual about it, but the point of "body" is something visible, just like it has visible members. "In Christ" is nowhere in the Bible said to be "the church" or "the body of Christ." "In" (en) is different than "into" (eis), the former shows location and the latter shows identification.
We identify with the body of Christ (eis). Just like Israel was identified with Moses in 1 Cor 10, they weren't "in Moses." Consistency is important. For instance, "the husband is the head of the wife" must be universal and invisible if "the church" or "the body" are (Eph 5:23). The “bride of Christ” is presented in conjunction with the analogy of the body of Christ (Eph 5). Though some make the same argument of universal, they neglect, again, that it’s written “to the saints which are at Ephesus” (Eph 1:1), a local visible “body of Christ.” Therefore, the references of “bride of Christ” are synonymous with the “body of Christ,” identifying the local assembly in Ephesus (Eph 3:6; 4:12).
This identification of the local assembly of Ephesus goes even further to Acts where the Ephesian elders were gathered together for Paul’s final warning to them (Ac 20:17-38). Ac 20:28 is often cited as proof for universal church, as some popular lexicons & commentaries do. However, these are elders from Ephesus, and Paul charges them to watch over “the flock” (singular meaning their local church) and “to feed the church of God,” which is also singular, and logically they couldn’t be feeding the universal church of God when they are limited physically to one location—Ephesus. Furthermore, Eph 4:3-6 mentions that they were to “keep the unity” and expresses that there is “one body,” which is what body? “The saints which are at Ephesus” (Eph 1:1).
Ac 20:28 is one of the most frequently referenced for ecumenical purposes but its not addressed to some worldwide body of believers. It is impossible to practice any sort of biblical unity outside of the local assembly because doctrine and righteousness can be legislated and preserved there. How could there be unity (Eph 4:1-16) in a “universal church”? It’s utterly impossible and a rather foolish concept. Outside of the assembly, there is no biblical discipline, authority or unity, and when Christians attempt to practice interdenominational and para-church unity, there is always compromise, disobedience, error and heresy. It isn’t blessed of God.
How could one interpret 1 Tim 3:15 in any other way but as a local assembly? Paul writes, “but if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” How could Paul expect one to know how to behave in a universal church, or how could one be disciplined if they behaved wrong in a universal body? How could a universal church maintain the “pillar and ground of the truth” if the ecumenical gatherings are consistently guilty of diminishing doctrines in order to work alongside each other.
Matt 16:18 is the first mention of the word “church” where Christ says: “I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” This is commonly assumed to mean universal church; but that would go completely against the line of thought the disciples would’ve understood. They wouldn’t have know the word “church” could be used in a universal sense since there is no historical antecedent for such a meaning & there’s no indication from Christ’s words in the context that He meant to give the word a brand new definition that hadn’t been asserted previously. The only other time we see Christ use the term “church” is in Mt 18:17 of which we can check how He used the word.
It states: “And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.” Just like nobody would’ve argued “synagogue” could carry a universal meaning, neither would they have thought that here. This verse is speaking about church discipline (Mt 18:15-20), which is impossible in a “universal church.” Christ is implying membership of a local congregation is existing otherwise there couldn’t be disciplinary actions taken against some random attender of a church service. Later Peter would interpret Christ’s words as a local church built up of lively stones (1 Pet 2:4-7), not a universal church.
The “body of Christ” of 1 Cor 12:27 is described even further as a local entity in vv. 14-24 as a hand, eye, & foot, all local and visible, not universal and mystical. They must be in one location to work together—they wouldn't work together spread out and dismembered, never even knowing the vast majority of members of the body. 1 Cor 12:25 says there is to be no schism in the body. There are multiple and constant schisms, divisions, between professing believers. Divisions are sometimes required, but that is a different division than that of 1 Cor 12:25. 1 Cor 11:18-19 says they are necessary. Christ came to bring a sword. Many other places require separation from believers (e.g. 2 Th 3:6-15).
Only if the body is local could there be no schisms (v. 25). God has designed the church to settle disputes and confront sin in various manners (1 Cor 5-6; Mt 18:15-18). Verse 25 makes sense only if the body is local and visible. In v. 26, how could a fellow believer in Canada be suffering out of sympathy for an unknown believer in Australia? The assumption here is that these people are in the same spot, so are able to comfort one another in this close proximity. Members can feel each others pain within a local church just like in a real body. The same applies to “honour” and members rejoicing together in this passage, can only be local and visible.
Almost as if a summary of this chapter, Paul says: "Ye are the body of Christ." (1 Cor 12:27). Everything he had just stated (vv. 12-26), applied to the local and visible “body of Christ” at Corinth. Believers joined that church by means of water baptism (1 Cor 12:13), publicly identifying with Christ and His body. Nothing in 1 Cor 12 (or Eph 4 and 5 for that matter), fit with something universal and invisible. It does fit with the church of Corinth, and, therefore, any local church. Each genuine pillar and ground of the truth church is the body of Christ. Saints are admitted a part of His body through water baptism, unifying with that particular church.
Let's put this in a logical syllogism:
1. Major Premise: The church at Corinth is the body of Christ.
2. Minor Premise: The church at Corinth is local only.
3. Conclusion: The body of Christ is local only.