As Halloween approaches, I’ve taken up a morbid turn on a question that dominates my thoughts about ministry and the gathered Christian life.
My question is this: does the church really understand what it means to be the Body of Christ?
My sense is that we often interpret Paul’s body language as nothing more than a clever metaphor which enables him to speak about the exercise of diverse gifts within the church in a way that does not compromise our unity. Like any good metaphor, speaking of the Body allows him to expand further on the way that this giftedness and unity are meant to function in various contexts. The image of the Body is then the Christian metaphor for our peculiar model of community.
But I think Paul is suggesting much more than that. Consider this: while speaking of the church as “a” body really is a clever metaphor, isn’t it almost scandalous to speak of the church (either universal or local) as “The Body of Christ”? That suggests a relationship between Jesus and his church that is much more intimate than a clever organizational model. It suggests a very real connection between head and body, between will and action (per 1Cor 11-14). It suggests even a mystical union of the risen Jesus Christ and his earthly church so that the maturity of the Body fulfills the intentions of the Head (per Eph 4).
I suggest that Jesus’ purpose of restoring the image of God for humanity is not so much about accumulating “saved” people into a sunday morning grouping called “the church” but instead about creating a new kind of humanity which is so connected to Jesus the head that it functions at all levels as his body would.
Is this what you expect of your church? Is this what your church is working towards?
But back to Halloween. If the church is meant to be growing up into the head and so into Christ-sized maturity (as Paul argues), then having our “head screwed on straight” becomes pretty important. A lot of what goes wrong in the church both locally and also globally can be argued to arise from misplacing, misusing or downright ignoring Jesus’ headship.
Turns out that a popular genre of both horror films and Christian martyrs is the cephalophore – greek for “head carrier”. Not only does this provide for chills, gore and nightmare fodder, it turns out to be a pretty potent metaphor. According to horror philosopher Eugene Thacker, “The decapitated body is, arguably, one of the most precise allegories of philosophy. The head, bearer of the brain and the seat of reason, is detached from a body that it can no longer govern.” (Eugene Thacker, “Tentacles Longer than Night”).
How is it then that the body of Christ goes about losing its head?
Enter the cephalophores
Ambulans capita (The Walking Head)
St. Denis, the patron saint of Paris is perhaps the most famous of this group of head carriers. Denis is said to have responded to his beheading by picking up his skull and carrying it to the graveyard where he selected a choice plot for his burial. How he saw the way or chose the plot we do not know though we can assume that this transfer of awareness and will from head to body is the substance of the miracle.
St. Denis’ light-headed stroll illustrates a situation in which the church assumes the real absence of Christ and goes on about its business autonomously. This is maybe the easiest pit to fall into. After all, our head has in fact been separated (or more accurately “ascended”) from its shoulders. The temptation is to assume that the next best thing to having him here with us is to behave as his proxy. But problems abound and maybe principally among them is our tendency to head off toward the graveyard as opposed to continuing the work of the head.
Ambulans capita can be identified by its low cut collar and irregular gate. If spotted in the wild, one is advised not to interfere in the subject’s wanderings as it tends to be single minded in its pursuit of subterranean repose.
loquentes capita (The Talking Head)
St. Justis adds a fun twist to the grave-ward stroll by adding a sermon to the mix. Legend has it that after walking a few miles head in hand, Justis encountered a young girl with whom he shared the gospel. I suppose this is something like a crude form of evangelistic pamphlet sharing, which may explain why so few come to faith that way.
The headless church can accomplish something similar by focusing all of its energy on proclamation. There is a potential benefit in this situation of taking observers attention off of the headless torso stumbling toward the graveyard. But once listeners realize that the words spoken have no attachment to a body that might display them, the entire show becomes a spectacle.
Ioquentes capita is found in a wide variety of habitats. It is known to frequent pulpits, facebook comment streams, coffee houses, and sometimes busy street intersections carrying red-letter placards. While certainly fun to watch, this creature is best observed from a distance. Once eye contact is established in proximity, the subject will demand continued attention until receiving the desired response.
Volantes capita (The Projectile Head)
As if a speaking head isn’t enough to keep you up at night, how about a flying head … aimed at you! If you don’t believe such a thing is possible, I refer you to young Ichabod Crane who I believe is now teaching Social Studies at a charter school in rural Pennsylvania. Ike’s encounter with the famed headless horseman illustrates that where invective fails, a well aimed pumpkin will always bring the point home.
Inevitably, churches will find themselves in a situation in which they must make account of positions considered strange by those with whom they live. What begins as a stare-down can quickly devolve into argument. The headless church, while retaining both the knowledge of the brain as well as the potential energy of the cranium, lacks the ordered reason and direction of an attached and functioning nervous system and tends as a rule to strike out. What is disembodied discourse to Ioquentes is a weapon to Volantes. For such churches there is no such thing as a convert, only a target.
Do not approach. Do not engage. Do not loiter near dark bridges on the edge of haunted woods at night. Volantes capita is highly dangerous and volatile and will most certainly pursue you if you are spotted. If you are noticed, stand stalk still until the subject turns its gaze then walk slowly backward into thick cover. In case of attack, duck, dodge and if worse comes to worse move to rural Pennsylvania.
Artificialis capita (The Artificial Head)
While headlessness in its various forms is indeed horrific, what terrifies me most is the idea of the artificial head. Thacker calls this the hermetic or hidden head in which the head is replaced by something less than what ought to be ruling the body. The most famous example of this is Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (I recommend Kenneth Branaugh’s adaptation). In an effort to solve the mystery of sickness and death, young Dr. Frankenstein sets out to create the perfect man out of “material” he collects from local cholera victims and criminals. When his mentor dies unexpectedly, he uses his head in order to govern perfectly what might otherwise become monstrous. The effect is not only terrifying but also tragic as the nameless monster develops awareness, adapts to his surroundings and attempts to be what it simply cannot by nature be: human.
My great fear as a pastor is that many church-going Christians and pastoral leaders have managed – with the best of intentions of course – to place a human head where Christ himself is meant to be. The result is so often exactly the same as Frankenstein: frustrated effort and tragic endings both for head and body. The Body of Christ is meant for “works of service” for which it is prepared by specialized parts within the body. The Head of the Body can be no other than Jesus Christ.
The Body of Christ is not “material” that can be harvested haphazardly and sown together to fulfill the purposes of our hermetic heads. Rather it is a new creation whose head is Christ. The Body of Christ is received, not contrived. It is integrated, infused and enlivened by the Holy Spirit and directed and fed by Jesus Christ himself. It is organic. It is living. It is whole. United as it is meant to be under the headship of Jesus, it is not horrific but eternally hopeful.