‘Parts is parts,’ ‘it is what it is,’ and other convenient myths

“Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John . . . When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.” (Acts 18:24-26)

“Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

“God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

”The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’” (1 Corinthians 12:12-14;18-21)

I read a news story yesterday about a prominent Christian leader and author who had something to say about the election Tuesday. I’m sure there are scores of Christian leaders, great and small, who are doing the same thing over the next three days or have done it already. OK, fine.

But then I read portions of his views and was simultaneously astounded and embarrassed by their ignorance and incoherent conclusions. Astounded because it was like carrying a mattress when the strap had been torn off; there was nothing biblical to grab onto. And embarrassed because this was clearly not offering any kind of biblical leadership I’d follow or recommend to others.

I was a bit disoriented for a moment before re-reading his analysis to make sure I didn’t miss something that would put it in a different light. No, he actually said what I thought he said. What is this?

Fortunately, someone down the page a few comments enlightened me. “The blind leading the blind.” Exactly. And then I thought, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor; If either of them falls down, one can help the other up” (Eccl 4:9-10). I certainly wasn’t getting light from the Christian “leader.”

This may seem like an insignificant example, but this is why we need the body—all of it—to be working together, even the parts that don’t like each other. There is a reason Paul wrote (to a church threatened by division), “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’” (1 Cor 12:21)

One of the reasons he wrote it that way was that one faction, in effect, was saying to another, “I don’t need you!” OK, I can see that Paul has some good things to say, but “I follow Apollos.” Or, Paul has worked out this systematic theology that has satisfied me on every significant point. “I follow Paul!” Makes it easier to organize a church volleyball league (Paul’s Piledrivers vs. Apollos’, uh, catchy assonant phrases are harder to come up with), but how quickly would you give up on one of your “parts”?

I need progressive lenses in my glasses, am developing cataracts and have a pronounced astigmatism in my right eye. They’re hardly perfect, in other words. But with correction and care I can see just fine to do everything I need to. Likewise my feet, damaged by peripheral neuropathy. They hurt every day. I’m not entering any 5K races for the rest of my life, but I can still get around as much as I need to.

I can hardly say to myself, The eyes aren’t what they should or could be, so I’ll just shut them. (Looking up from the morning paper, “What’s that thudding sound?” “Oh, that’s just Dad falling down the cellar stairs again.” “Right. See if he broke anything this time.”)

Nor can I say, My feet hurt much of the time and I need medication to alleviate the pain, so I’ll just stop walking. These are vital functions, not optional extras like a backup mirror or a DVD player behind my headrest so my kids don’t ask me, “Are we there yet?” 200 times between Virginia and New York. (On second thought, I just gotta have the DVD player. How much?)

Now look again at Paul’s wording. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’” Cannot is an expression of necessity. I cannot drive on a soft tire. I have to stop.

But can “the eye” say to “the foot,” “I don’t need you!” in the sense of simply making an emphatic declaration that we aren’t going to get along, we’re never going to get along, so why don’t you get along out of here? (That’s the closest thing to a Gary Cooper High Noon impression I can come up with.)

Apparently, we can in the church. Or at least in the American church. More or less just as I described it in the last paragraph. This might not sound like a very scientific conclusion, but we are the richest, most diverse, largest, most study-Bibled, most cable- and satellite-ministered-to and freest to make our choices in everything to do with our faith–stop and catch your breath–church, and we are probably the most divided. And get into some of the nastiest fights.

And sometimes over—I’m sorry but there’s no other word—the stupidest things. There was a time when I remember reading reports of groups of believers in a particular area in China who obtained one Bible through clandestine means and proceeded to tear single pages out in order to read, study and memorize Scripture. One Bible, translation unspecified. I actually don’t know how many Chinese translations there are.

And here in the “Christian” United States, a friend’s wife asked me if I had heard about how many verses the New International Version translation had dropped from its English text. Why does that matter? “That’s why Pastor Bill won’t use the NIV,” you understand.

Yes, I understand. And some people read from translations that Shakespeare would understand but they can’t (at the same time they can be the most dogmatic). Does that make sense? (My BA is in English literature from Johns Hopkins and I have trouble with the archaic language in some translations.)

When it comes to issues like the Case of the Missing Verses, Miss Marple, there is something called textual criticism that deals with this sort of thing in a sophisticated, God-honoring manner. Unlike the blind leading the blind, no one is falling into a pit because one scholar sees things in a different light from another.

All of this is to give you a perspective you don’t often get—care to guess why?—that should shed light on the urgency of Paul’s exhortation to the Ephesians: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3).

Why keep? It’s at the top of the post. “God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.” It’s like marriage: What God has joined together let no man separate.

Knowing God’s design for marriage—it’s not just a human invention or civil contract–you wouldn’t break up someone’s marriage, would you? So why would you say to the foot, “I don’t need you!” when God himself put the two of you together “just as he wanted them to be”?

Look, I’m a realist with both of my (damaged) feet on the ground. Sometimes every effort doesn’t work, no matter what. That’s why Paul wrote, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Rom 12:18). But have we made every effort? I don’t think so.

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