The church began with a single individual, Jesus. Just as the single cell represents all of the necessary potential to become a fully formed human, so Jesus represents the fullness of human potential that he wants his church to realize.
To realize that potential, Jesus began his ministry by recruiting a small core group of disciples to labor with him. While the Gospels regularly mention larger crowds who followed Jesus and listened to his teaching, he focused his attention on this group of 12. It was these 12 who would then spread out and start churches elsewhere, which in turn sent missionaries out to start more churches, and so on. These subsequent movements replicated this same pattern of growing from individuals or small groups that expanded as circumstances allowed.
There are clear advantages to this approach, in the sense that often one or a few can go places and do things that a large group cannot. The challenge is for those folks to be flexible and able to do many jobs, because they are all that there is. The apostle Paul captured this idea when he wrote “I have become all things to all people” (1 Corinthians 9:22). In the same way, your cells can’t specialize too quickly in development; they need to be able to maintain that potential to do a wide variety of jobs in the future.
Even in the first century as the church spread, we begin to see the signs of specialization in response to context. One group of churches was developing in and around Jerusalem, among the Jews. Other groups were developing in Turkey, Greece, and Rome, in the context of the Greek, Roman, and other cultures of those nations. The practices of those churches began to diverge, since communication was slow, making it logistically difficult for them to keep synchronized; the local environment was bound to be influential. When the leaders of the different churches discovered that they had different practices, the immediate response was to think that one group had to change to fall in line with the other group. Ultimately, however, those leaders mutually decided to recognize that their core principles could in fact be expressed in different ways depending on the context.
This does not mean, however, that anything goes. Think about our cells: they have a wide latitude to express different genes in their particular contexts, but they can’t just invent new genes on the spot. For the church, the Bible serves the role of the genome. Even as those early churches were discovering how to best express their principles in their different contexts, they agreed on the texts that would guide them in their decision making. Everything that they did had to arise from those texts and be consistent with them, otherwise they could not claim to be part of the Christian church, the body of Christ. But they had freedom to determine what that looked like in their environment.
If we push a little further on the idea of the Bible as the genome of the church, we come to an interesting observation. There is no single cell that expresses every single gene in your genome. There are some core genes that they all use, such as the ones that are involved in making proteins from DNA. Every cell needs to be able to do that. But other sequences are only used by certain cell types. And even then, they aren’t all used all the time; some play a role at one stage of development, while others are relevant to mature cells, and still others only come into play in response to a certain external signal or condition.
Likewise, the church, rather than the individual Christian, is the unit that expresses the entirety of the Christian genome. After all, the Bible is a pretty big book, making it practically challenging to keep the whole thing in mind all at once. Even when we are trying to live according to the Bible, we tend to be thinking about a few verses or a group of ideas rather than the entire Bible. Rather than trying to pretend that we can do otherwise, we can embrace that arrangement as the way things are meant to operate.
Of course, there are some fundamentals that will be common to all Christians. Every Christian should be able to read the Bible themselves, just as every cell needs to be able to read the genome and put it into action. Every Christian needs to be connected to the overall church, just as every cell needs to be able to interact with the other cells. But some of the functions within that church can be divided up among us all. And this seems to be exactly the idea that Paul is getting at when he talks about us all being members of the same body but having different gifts and different purposes.
How do we discern what those purposes are? We can take some cues from our cells. Remember the two factors that influence the role that each cell plays in our bodies: heritage and context. On the one hand, we are born with particular skills, gifts and abilities that are further influenced by where we come from. It is natural to use the model of our parents, influential leaders, and those who have preceded us in a particular role to inform the way that we lead our lives. On the other hand, we need to take into consideration the balance of functions, to ensure that all of them are represented. The council of those around us are valuable in considering these questions, and we have a responsibility ourselves to communicate clearly about how we can contribute so that others can adjust accordingly.