What Does It Mean to Be a Member?

This past week I finished reading The Weight of Glory, a collection of essays and lectures by the great C.S. Lewis. The piece that made the biggest impression on me was a reflection called “Membership,” in which Lewis explains the fundamental differences between what St. Paul meant when spoke of members of the Church and what we mean today.

Today, when we say someone is a member, whether of a church, a club, a team, or a family, we generally mean a unit—a part or cog in some bigger machine that shares some commonality or purpose. The emphasis is on similarity or even uniformity.

This is nearly directly the opposite of St. Paul’s usage of member in the sense of a part of body. In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul emphasizes the uniqueness and irreplaceability of each part:

Now the body is not a single part, but many. If a foot should say, “Because I am not a hand I do not belong to the body,” it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. Or if an ear should say, “Because I am not an eye I do not belong to the body,” it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as he intended. If they were all one part, where would the body be? But as it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I do not need you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I do not need you.” – 1 Cor 12:14-21

God has created each of us as a unique image of Himself, with a unique purpose in the Body of Christ. That’s an exciting thought, but it also underscores the challenge of a one-size-fits-all approach to sharing our faith and the importance of each of us spending time with God to discern His purpose.

It is also important, however, not to compromise the truth of our faith in an effort to find our own path. The gospel reading a day or so after I finished reading Lewis’s essay was Matthew 5:27-32—in part:

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your membersthan to have your whole body go into Gehenna.”

Our Lord is speaking in hyperbole, exaggerating to illustrate how seriously we must take repentance and avoidance of sin with our own bodies. The Body of Christ—the Church—exists for our salvation, but just like any body made with human parts, it too is prone to error and illness, and susceptible to temptation, comfort, and pleasure. Our members sin, and although the Lord desires everyone to be saved, He gives us only one way: Himself—“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

Jesus in Scriptures. Jesus in the Holy Catholic Church. Jesus in the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist. This is the path we’ve been given, and the only path we know leads to salvation. As members of the Body of Christ, it is our call to obey the Head, to pick up our cross and follow, and to bring as many others with us as we can.

St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) said, “Do not accept anything as the truth if it lacks love, and do not accept anything as love which lacks truth! One without the other becomes a destructive lie.”

There is no good compromise. Nothing short of the Truth satisfies, and Love cannot exist without it.

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