Body or Embody?

What it means to be part of the body of Christ.

As a child, I found preachers’ talk about being the body of Christ more disturbing than comforting. Frightening fantasies of strange bodies danced in my head while the minister droned on. Children’s songs about being hands and feet for Jesus and “Be Careful, Little Eyes What You See”, used body images to teach me to be good. But what if I was one of those less desirable parts in verses that Dad dutifully read at the dinner table? Those were the days when every verse was read, in three readings a day, with little explanation. When I became a Sunday school teacher I tried to make sure the symbolic language about the body of Christ had positive meanings for the children in my class.

Current Questions

Now my struggles are different, but equally perplexing. Three threads of current life provoke new questions about the body of Christ, words we say so easily in church. First, what does it mean to be part of the one body of Christ when some parts explicitly link Christ’s name with public actions and policies that cause harm and injustice to other people, policies I work against all week? Like a cancerous body, can the body of Christ be internally destroying itself? What might be chemotherapy for the body of Christ?

Secondly, new findings about the complex, integrated way our brains, minds and bodies work together lead to questions about teachings based on assumptions that our minds control the way our bodies behave. Many Bible verses, rooted in primitive biology, will need fresh interpretations as we learn more about how what we experience affects our DNA, memories, consciousness and conscience – also into the next generations. This adds complexity to notions of what it means to be part of the body of Christ.

Finally, as a woman, I can’t ignore the research about the harm done to girls and women by Christian purity teachings about women’s bodies. Not only has much of the church, the body of Christ, failed to stand up for women in society, these teachings about sexual feelings and shame and the primary duty of women to use their bodies to please husbands have caused real harm to real women. I have joined non-Christian “bodies” to fight against the teachings of churches assumed to be part of the body of Christ. Fortunately, teachings about women in the body of Christ are changing through the important work of women like Beth Allison Barr, Sheila Wray Gregoire and Linda Kay Klein.


I find it helpful to highlight Scripture’s focus on the active, evolving concept of embodying Christ in the way we relate to others and our world. Embody, in its verb form, draws attention to the agency of the person – the ability to act, to make choices, to exercise power and control. Respect for the moral agency of every person, especially women and children, needs more attention in Christian ethics and our teachings about what it means to be part of the body of Christ.


  • Kathy Vandergrift

    Kathy Vandergrift, a public policy analyst, brings experience in government, social justice work and a Master’s Degree in Public Ethics to her reflections.

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