I recently had a minor motorcycle accident. A combination of wet weather, slippery tram lines and potentially going slightly faster than I should round a corner led to an unexpected, and painful, alighting. Fortunately, I wasn’t terribly badly damaged. Excepting a few cuts and some epic bruising, I was largely alright. That is, bizarrely, except for my left-hand thumb. That was, and continues to be, in extreme pain. I have been told by the doctors that nothing is broken but my ligament has either snapped, strained or sprained and I have been given a comedy-size splint that must be worn for the next 6 weeks.
As I am not left-handed, one would naturally presume – all things considered – having a ‘hurty thumb’ isn’t going to trouble me too much. But it’s amazing how such a small part of your body, that you pay little attention to during the ordinary course of things, can so inconvenience you. I didn’t think I used my left thumb all that much until I was told I couldn’t use it. It has only been out of action for a week and, aside from the constant pain, it is surprisingly difficult to function without it.
I was set to thinking about Paul’s comments to the church in Corinth:
21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”, nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and on those parts of the body that we think less honourable we bestow the greater honour, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, 24 which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honour to the part that lacked it, 25 that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together. (1 Cor 12:21-26)
In the scale of more or less important body parts, I’m not quite sure where the thumb ranks. I suppose it is seemingly more significant than a fourth finger or toe but not quite as important as a head or heart. My left thumb probably ranks among my weaker parts but it is amazing how hard it is for me to get on with my everyday life without it. Likewise, the problems in my thumb affects the rest of me. It is not some isolated part of me that is affected on its own; it affects me.
This is a potent reminder of the importance of each member of the church. When one member suffers, they are not some isolated part of the body; it affects the whole body. When one member is unable to serve as they have been called, it impedes the whole church. It doesn’t matter whether the member is an upfront, charismatic pillar of the church or a seemingly fringe plodder. When members are out of action, it affects the rest of the body.
Paul’s point is that both the least and the greatest body parts require the same level of care. You may think that it doesn’t matter if old Mr Smith doesn’t get much attention because he doesn’t serve in any of the ministries of the church. But, just like losing your little toe, you may not realise the impact of old Mr Smith until he is no longer able to make it. You may not think Mrs Jones does a great deal, but the Lord has a habit of using seemingly unimportant members to do great things for his glory. Who knows what sort of praying ministry she has. Who knows what sort of witness her godly response to her situation is having. Who knows what encouragement she is giving to those who are serving in ways you deem meaningful, allowing ministry work to continue.
This same passage also undercuts any sense we may have of those who are more important in the church. Whether our tendency is to honour those with money (eg James 2:1-7), certain giftings (eg 1 Corinthians 12-14), or anything else, we must remember that all members are called to ministry. Ministry is not the preserve of the professional, chosen few but, as Jesus said in Mark 10:43-45, all of us are called to serve like Jesus. Paul takes this principle and tells us we all have ministries to perform, even though each of those ministries are different (1 Corinthians 12:4-7, 11). He then tells us our different varieties of service are all dependent on one another (1 Corinthians 12:21-22, Ephesians 4:11-12). This means the pastor and elders are not more important than the Sunday School teachers and home group leaders. The average member in the pews has as much a role to play as any full-time paid worker.
It is a good word for both the member in the pews and the leaders in the pulpit. The former should not presume ministry is the preserve of the paid workers. The members should not presume that the pastor is there to do all the work of ministry. To the contrary, as per Ephesians 4:11-12, they are there to ‘equip the saints for the work of ministry’. That is, your pastor is set aside to equip you, through the teaching of the Word, to do the work of ministry.
Likewise, the elders should not presume that those leading ministry works are more important than those serving in them. It is easy to land on particular people who seem so good and competent at running things. We can very quickly think of them as more important than those who are quietly getting on with serving where they are able. Whilst recognising that some of us are eyes and hands, others are toe nails and eyebrows – some will have more obviously valuable roles and others less so – each has its purpose. Though the eye does the seeing, the eyebrow still keeps sweat away so one can see. Though the foot does the walking, the toe nail protects the toe so that the foot may function. It may not always be glamorous, or even the most vital, but it is valuable and serves a genuine function.We should not think less of the toe nail and eyebrow because it is when they are not there we realise just how valuable and helpful they were.