Rightly balancing unity and diversity is challenging but necessary. An unhealthy emphasis on unity can lead to a uniformity of thought and talents that makes it impossible for a group to employ a full array of strengths. An unhealthy emphasis on diversity can fragment an organization into warring factions that render it incapable of accomplishing its mission. This is true in the secular world but even more true in the church.
Paul provides a way forward by comparing the church to the human body. In a properly functioning human body, each member—arm, leg, ear, eye, and so forth—knows its place, performing its specific function for the good of the whole. The diversity of members is embraced with the purpose of achieving the oneness of the body. So it must be in the church, where all members must recognize their gifts and how their use makes healthy the one body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12–20).
Developing the metaphor further in today’s passage, the Apostle explains that in addition to understanding their role in the body, all believers must also recognize the place of the other members and their gifts. Just as an eye in a properly functioning human body cannot tell the hand that it is not needed, the believer with the gift of teaching, for example, cannot tell the member with the gift of service that he is not needed (v. 21). Once we begin elevating the importance of our own gifts over those of others, we destroy the unity and health of the body.
Paul expands on the analogy in verses 22–24, noting that what seems weaker in the body is indispensable, and that the unpresentable parts are honored with greater modesty. In the first case, Paul refers to internal organs, which are invisible and yet necessary to life. In the second case, he refers to sexual organs, which we honor by covering in public. Basically, the point is that the members of the church whose gifts are not immediately evident in public are absolutely vital to the church. For one application, we could think of the elderly woman who does not get out much but who has the gift of faith and is persevering in prayer. Few, if any, see her, especially in contrast to the church’s teachers who proclaim God’s Word. But she is just as vital to the church as they are.
Ultimately, God has arranged the church in this way so that we will care for one another. Understanding the necessity of all enables us to suffer and rejoice together (vv. 24–26).