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by Thomas M. Strouse, Prof. of Theology
717 N. Whitehurst Landing Road, Virginia Beach, Virginia 23464
The New Testament refers to the expression "the Body of Christ" (soma Christou) in several different books, especially First Corinthians and Ephesians. These references to soma Christou total to over 30 (perhaps 33). Many use this expression in different ways, especially to designate the totality of regenerate persons - - "the universal, invisible Church." It is important to determine what the New Testament says about this expression so that the Bible believer will use correct terminology and practice correct doctrine.
The New Testament Teaching
In Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians, he designates directly the Corinthian Church as soma Christou, "body of Christ" (v. 27). Because the expression is anarthrous (no definite article), Bible commentators offer several interpretations.
(1) It should be understood as definite, indicating that the Corinthian Church was "the" Body of Christ.
(2) It should be understood as indefinite, indicating that the Corinthian Church was "a" Body of Christ.
(3) It should be understood as characterizing the Corinthian Church, stating that the Corinthian Church had the likeness of "the Body of Christ."
As one can see, this verse presents a conundrum for those who attempt to interpret the expression soma Christou apart from the Corinthian Church. In fact, the Corinthian Church was "the" Body of Christ in Corinth; it was "a" Body of Christ in the first century; and it had the likeness of "the Body of Christ" because it was a Body of Christ.
The Apostle Paul uses the expression soma Christou in Romans, in Ephesians, and Colossians, as well as in First Corinthians. All four Epistles are addressed to local churches and in each instance soma Christou could refer to a local church.
The New Testament also utilizes the expression "one Body in Christ" (hen soma en Christo, Romans 12:5). Because the number one (hen) is used in this expression, many think that "the body of Christ" is one and is universal. However, it is imperative that the Bible student recognize Paul's first reference to hen soma to ascertain the way he intends for it to be understood. The Apostle's first chronological reference to hen soma is in I Corinthians 6:16, which states "What? know ye not that he which is joined to an harlot is one body? for two, saith he shall be one flesh." Obviously the hen soma represents the two bodies of the man and the harlot. The concept of "one" is therefore not numerical oneness, but "unity" oneness. In essence then, the Apostle Paul uses the expression "one body" to mean "united bodies." Clearly, Paul means that the two are "one body" in purpose. Certainly, the Apostle does not think that the man and the harlot comprise a numerically one body somewhere in Platonic neverland. Since the first reference to hen soma refers to ''united bodies,'' it is necessary then for the Bible exegete to interpret all references to "one body" in like manner, unless something in the context would demand otherwise.
United Bodies in Christ
It is instructive for the Bible exegete to apply Paul's obvious usage of hen soma to the other references. The first clear reference to an ecclesiological passage using hen soma (First Corinthians 10:16,17 notwithstanding) is First Corinthians 12:12,13. Certainly, the concept of "united bodies" fits in this passage. In verse 13, Paul states "for by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body . . . " Paul was baptized into the local church at Damascus whereas the Corinthians were baptized into the Corinthian Church. In essence then, Paul affirms that both he and the Corinthians were "all" baptized into "united bodies." Of course, this baptism presupposes that the baptism was water baptism. To understand this predisposition one may observe that Paul's previous reference to baptism was in Chapter One, which is referring to water baptism.
This concept of "united bodies" is further elucidated by Paul in the Epistle to the Galatians. In Galatians 1:2, he addresses his comments to the churches of Galatia. In Galatians 3:28, Paul states that "ye are all one in Christ Jesus." The Galatian churches were "united" churches or "united bodies" in Christ. Their unity was obviously in doctrine and practice.
In every reference to soma in the ecclesiological sense the body could refer to a particular church (i.e., Ephesians 1:23, Colossians 1:18, etc.). In every reference to hen soma, the one body could be understood as united bodies (Romans 12:5, First Corinthians 12:13, etc.). The burden of proof is upon those who would interpret soma and hen soma in some other way to demonstrate exegetically the fallacy of the aforementioned position and the veracity of their position.
Baptists and Soma Christou
Is this concept of soma Christou as referring to a local church a new position among some fringe Baptists? To the contrary, Baptists have long held this view. In the standard and accepted Baptist Church Covenant, the initial paragraph states "We . . . most solemnly and joyfully enter into covenant with one another as one body in Christ." Again, Michael Sattler stated in the Schleitheim Confession (1527) that the pastor was "to care for the body of Christ . . . the congregation which elected him" (Article V).
With regard to hen soma, Baptists have interpreted First Corinthians 12:13 as referring to water baptism into the local churches (united bodies). John Spilsbury (1616-1660) states, "the ordinance of baptism instituted by Christ is so essential to the constitution of the Church under the New Testament that none can be true in her constitution without it . . . as First Corinthians 12:13 with Galatians 3:27" (A Treatise Concerning the Lawful Subjects of Baptism, p.52). Other Baptists along with the Reformation leader John Calvin held that First Corinthians 12:13 refers to the ordinances of water baptism and the Lord's Supper (cf. "drink" in First Corinthians 11:22 ff.). These Baptists were William Kiffin, Henry D'Anvers, Benjamin Keach, and Menno Simons.
The Bible teaches that soma Christou refers to a local, New Testament Church and hen soma en Christo refers to "united bodies" in Christ. This teaching was that of many early European, English and American Baptists. It is also the teaching of the Baptist Church Covenant to which many modern Baptist churches subscribe. May Baptists be united in this teaching about "united bodies" (New Testament Baptist churches) in Christ.
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