Recently, I discussed the image of the body of Christ as a compelling metaphor for the church community and its integrated diversity. In this followup post, I want to consider the risks of the body becoming only one organ, one “member” in the phrase of Saint Paul. Paul at the time was advising the Christian church at Corinth, Greece to learn how to deal with diversity within their ranks, to be whole in Christ despite a variable distribution of certain types of spiritual gifts. He may also have had in mind some of the controversies that seemed to roil early Christianity with reasonable frequency.
I believe that Paul understood something about the nature of church community that matters a great deal even today. While he was focusing on skills in the performance of particular types of religious acts—tongue-speaking, healing, spiritual exercises—Paul’s concern is of relevance even in a church less worried over the distribution of charismatic gifts. While we in the modern LDS church see less of those charismatics gifts, we worry instead over behavior and language and ideology. The lessons of Saint Paul are no less powerful in this new landscape. I see the point Paul was making as this: it is too easy to substitute apparent uniformity for Christian love, what many Christian authors call agape (the Greek word) and the King James translators generally translated as “charity.” Paul seems to have believed, and Joseph Smith agreed with him, that Christian love is what cements us together in the body of Christ. That love is able to accommodate differences as stark as that between eyes, ears, and feet. For all of the gravity we attribute to our cultural and theological differences, they are not as stark as the contrasts Paul employed in his sustained metaphor of the body of Christ.
If I may, I would like to extend slightly Paul’s metaphor. Specifically, I would like to propose that conservators of orthodox belief may function in some respects as the liver of the body of Christ. The liver is absolutely essential. Removal of the entire liver leads to certain death within a matter of hours, as physicians know all too well. The liver detoxifies blood, filters nutrition and bacterial debris from the bowel, produces the proteins our bodies need to form blood clots. Without the liver, the body dies. But the liver on its own is a blob of blood and soft tissue and bile. A liver alone is good for little beyond terrifying children with the threat of eating it fried, on a bed of onions. A body made entirely of liver would be no body at all.
The difficulty, and here the physiological analogy breaks down, is that at times the liver can seem to drive out the other organs from the body. The body may begin to see itself as mainly or exclusively that liver. It has been my impression over the years that certain types of members have left the church body more than others, and some element of those departures is the difficulty they have in seeing a body that could welcome a toe or a lymph node or a coronary artery, when the body has seemed to present itself primarily as a liver.
When a friend leaves the body of the church, I feel (with a mournful tip of the hat to John Donne) a lessening of the “Continent” of humanity, not because the friend is dying or because church membership statistics are of any particular interest to me, but because the church body becomes less with the departure of that member.
On a more practical level, when those who do not belong to a particular conservative core abandon the institutional church, the whole of the church moves closer to that conservative extreme. This is a trivial statistical fact, but it has substantial possible effects in the real world. Over time, attrition of all non-liver tissue will lead to the hepatization of the body of Christ. It may reach a point of positive feedback after which the attrition of non-hepatic membership rises dramatically. This would be a problem.
I do not mean that this is or will be easy. The suggestion that we should only be able to criticize people with whom we are willing to be yoked can be difficult in practice, particularly when it comes to incredibly divisive issues like the stability of sexual norms or family structures. Disputes in the body of Christ can and should be strenuous and careful and incisive. They will not, however, be the same as disputes within a political party. Controversies and disputations must be grounded in mutual love and respect. Arguments must not arise out of a mere hunger to be heard or a frustration with the carelessness of another’s words.
I have made and continue to make mistakes, sometimes grievous ones. It is hard for me not to be dismissive of certain extremes within the church body’s liver. It is hard for me to bite my tongue when I see some new expression of political sensibilities that seem diametrically opposed to mine. But cruelty and dismissal at best define a new body without its liver, and that won’t live long at all.