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Second Quarter, 2002
Latin America - the struggle for democracy
Sign and model

Summary:
The 'body' metaphor was not, as is sometimes assumed, a message restricted to the realm of religion. In first-century Asia Minor, its liberating message of equality and participation spoke of broader social renewal. - Harold Segura C.

AT FIRST GLANCE, the 'Body of Christ' model used by writers of the New Testament to describe the church might seem rather simple, even naive. The apostle Paul teaches: "For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it" (1 Corinthians 12:12, 27, RSV). Since Christ is the head of the church, each member enjoys equal status, with the right to participate fully in God's actions on the earth.

Real participation

Thus viewed, the use of this model is neither simple nor naive, since it suggests a corporate life marked by equality and real participation on the part of each member. This lesson was directed at the newly formed Christian churches of Asia Minor in the first century. At that time, a special meaning was attached to the Greek concept of democracy. Unfortunately, Greek society at the time - a society which embraced slavery - reserved democracy for only a small segment of its population. The Greco-Roman society was pluralist, but only from an ideological standpoint, because it was actually exclusive, despotic and imperial. The dignity of women, slaves, children and others was not recognised.

Into this setting, the Christian 'body' metaphor was introduced. It was not, as is sometimes assumed, an irrelevant message restricted to the realm of religion. The 'body' metaphor was a declaration of equality among the members, leaving the supreme authority exclusively to Christ. Also, the use of the term 'body' to depict the church encouraged all members to participate actively in pursuit of the harmonious development of the body as a whole. Hence, this lesson of equality and participation - imparted in the midst of an inequitable, autocratic society - proved to be liberating news in which democracy took on its truest meaning.

It is not strange then, that the New Testament boldly declares, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28, RSV). Early Christianity gave people a new identity that was based on their relationship to Christ. Thus, the message would become a catalyst for social renewal. Slaves would be treated as brothers and sisters. Women would be valued as much as men, children as much as adults, gentiles as much as Jews, the have-nots as much as those who possess this world's goods. This is not a feigned democracy, but the genuine democracy of the Spirit, which proceeds from God, who has made everyone in his image and likeness, and who, by faith, has joined us together in one body.

A just society

From the very beginning, the Christian faith did not prescribe any particular social, political or economic system. Rather, it opted for the proclamation and defence of those values that provide the foundation of an egalitarian, caring and just society. Those values were to be incarnate in the internal dynamics of church life. The church, as the Body of Christ, from the onset was called to be a sign and model of that new society. That is the great challenge to those of us who call ourselves Jesus' followers. 

Harold Segura C. is Director of Church Relations for World Vision's Latin America and Caribbean Region.

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