Christ's Body in Corinth

The Politics of a Metaphor

Yung Suk Kim (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2008)

Flyer | Poster | D.Min colloquium | Book reviews | Studyguide


Yung Suk Kim takes up the language of "body" that infuses 1 Corinthians, Paul's most complicated letter, and the letter that provides us the most information, and poses the sharpest questions, about social realities in the early church. Kim argues against the view that in speaking of the church as Christ's body Paul seeks to emphasize unity and the social boundary. Against the conventional rhetoric of the "body politic" in Greco-Roman philosophy, Kim argues that Paul seeks rather to nourish the vitality of a diverse community and to criticize the ideology of a powerful in-group in Corinth, a message of particular importance for contemporary global Christianity.


A timely discussion of a key Pauline theme and its value for the global church

Challenges a consensus regarding the "politics" of 1 Corinthians

Reading as a citizen of an increasingly diverse postcolonial world, Yung Suk Kim protests the scholarly consensus that reads Paul's language of the "body of Christ" in 1 Corinthians as a metaphor for social unity, current in Hellenistic and Roman philosophical and political discourse, in which the integrity of the social body required the vigilant maintenance of group boundaries and the harmony of its members. Kim points out the potential of this reading to promote coercive patterns of enforced unity in the contemporary world.

Kim argues instead that in speaking of the church as Christ's body, Paul relies upon the metaphoric language of embodied vitality and growth, seeking instead to nourish the life-giving practices of a diverse community and to oppose the ideology of a powerful in-group that threatens to "disembody" the Christic body in Corinth. Reading the language of soma christou exclusively from a sociological lens fails to comprehend the important christological coordinates of Paul's thought, which nevertheless have clear and urgent social and political implications. Paul's exhortation is a message of particular importance, Kim suggests, for us who seek to discern the true value of difference in the contemporary world (from book flap).


"I highly recommend this work to all who take seriously Paul's metaphor of 'the body of Christ.' Kim interprets the metaphor as an alternative vision of vital reconciling community, over against conceptions that emphasize boundary markers to establish social groups. What is at stake in the interpretation of 1 Corinthians, he argues, is not just the ways first-century Christians constructed and lived out social unity but the consequences of our choices for the way we live out our own responsibilities today." --David Odell-Scott, Professor of Philosophy, Kent State University (from the back cover of the book).

"This book questions the usual understanding of ‘the body of Christ’ in Paul’s writings. Most scholars see it as an idea describing and emphasizing the unity of the church; Kim argues that it has more to do with diversity and with ‘collective participation in Christ crucified’. The traditional understanding, he says, is not satisfying in today’s diverse world; it operates with exclusive boundaries, and is often used in oppressive and colonial ways. On the other hand, ‘the image of Christ crucified deconstructs the conception of the community based on powers of wealth, status, and identity, and reconstructs the community based on sacrificial love and solidarity with those who are broken in society. This power of the cross … makes possible a new formation of the community of all in diversity’ (p.21)." -- Reviewed by David Wenham, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 32.5 (2010): 94-97.

"Kim's thesis must be taken seriously as a basis for current church life. As indicated in his description of the apocalyptic body, we are moving toward a universal faith community that will incorporate diversities in the Christic body." -- Reviewed by Graydon F. Snyder, Brethren Life and Thought, 54 no 1-2 Win-Spr 2009.

Although much has been written on the Pauline notion of the "body of Christ," this contribution by Presbyterian scholar Kim offers a thoughtful and provocative insight worth considering. Kim observes that the Pauline metaphor can be interpreted as setting boundaries or differentiations between the Christian community and those outside. However, if we consider the "body of Christ" as the crucified body of Christ it can be seen as a means of dissolving boundaries and being more inclusive, particularly of those who are pushed to the margins or who suffer. Kim draws out from this key Pauline symbol the implications for the church and society today, particularly in the Gospel call for solidarity with those who are marginalized. --Donald Senior, The Bible Today, 47(2) p.141. (Mar-Apr 2009).

"Thanks also for calling attention to your book on the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians. I read the attachment that you sent, and it sounds like your interpretation and ours are very supportive of each other. I do think the body image is about inclusive egalitarianism in the new life in Christ, and not about sharp social boundaries." -- A message from Marcus Borg (May 21, 2009).

"I’ll add my own encouragement to it–I was at a clergy meeting last week where the question of “the nature of the church” came up, and someone said “well, we’ve all got to strive for unity because we’re the body of Christ,” and I described your book and said that metaphor meant a lot more than just unity. People had never heard the idea before. I hope it revolutionizes our thinking!" -- a Message from Neil Elliott, editor of Fortress Press (May 21, 2009).

"A must-read for every thoughtful Christian familiar with St. Paul’s metaphor of the church as the Body of Christ. Providing an alternate interpretation of this beloved image, Kim reclaims Paul’s vision of the church as an open, reconciling community rather than a closed group. This is as transformative a truth in the 21st century as it was in the first." The United Church of Canada Readings for the Intercultural Church

"Kim, Assistant Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity, Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology of Virginia Union University (Richmond, VA), balances his interest in Jewish and Christian theology with a deep passion for cultural applications of such interests, especially pertaining to groups often marginalized. ... Kim's book might be best served within an academic setting as well as for those desiring to engage with critical issues in Pauline scholarship. While some may disagree with various lines of argument in the book, Kim's overall pleas for the loving embrace of all people in the name of Christ cannot be ignored. Thus, the motivation behind Kim's book will certainly have a bearing on discussions related to Christian mission - both locally and globally." -- Carl S. Sweatman, Stone-Campbell Journal 12 (Fall, 2009) 311-312.

According to Kim it depends upon how you read Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. If you see the world from the perspective of the church, as hegemonic hierarchy, then you will understand ecumenism to be about unity. The Body of Christ is defined by belief, and boundaries are drawn between believers and non-believers.

For Paul though, according to Kim, the problem is not disunity but conflict between factions. His solution to power conflicts is reconciliation between diverse groups. This is achieved by living the life of Christ crucified rather than through belonging to a church.

Kim says on page 74:

Being united in the same mind and the same purpose is not a matter of belonging to an ecclesiological body, but rather is a matter of having a mind and purpose framed by the same gospel that does not empty the cross of Christ of its power.

For several decades in Britain, perhaps since the 1910 Edinburgh Mission Conference, ecumenism has focused on unity between Christian traditions. A great deal has been achieved in Britain and elsewhere. Besides the various Uniting and United churches there has been a general movement towards reconciliation between traditions. There is more to be done; there remain many people who are not convinced of the value of the ecumenical project. Others point to frequent failures and setbacks. But overall, a great deal of progress has been made. A return to the antagonism between traditions in the past is unthinkable.

But for many younger Christians, this success is closer to absolute. Many Christians no longer think of themselves as members of a single tradition. They work alongside other Christians, without awareness of doctrinal differences. It seems they no longer matter.

Neither the mainstream churches nor the informal congregations of younger Christians can be simply equated to Kim's contrasted understandings of the Body of Christ. What it does suggest though is that future ecumenism may need to focus upon diversity rather than unity. Some ecumenists speak of 'unity in diversity'; perhaps Kim's contrast between unity and reconciliation offers us a clue as to what is at stake. --from the blog of Chris Sissons.

Response to a book review

Recently, I saw Daniel Christiansen's review of my book (Christ's Body in Corinth) at The Bible and Critical Theory 5.3 (2009) and I appreciate it. I admit his critique of the book's length (slender volume) and less-connectedness of the pictures in the book. However, to be honest, his review is not fair-minded as he labels my interpretation as ideological. The biggest weakness of his review is not to state a main thesis of the book at all; in his review is there no summary or main argument of the book. A typical way of being fair to any book review is to write main points and development of the book, and then to evaluate it critically. But he skipped this part of being fair to the book; instead, he himself becomes ideologically driven, hastily and vehemently rejecting the idea of diversity even without looking at the main argument of the body metaphor that this book argues.

By the way, according to a theory (Althusser Louis in particular), all interpretations are ideological. So is mine and are all others'. What is at stake for anyone's interpretation is not whether his or her reading is ideological or not, but what kind of ideology is operative in interpretation and/or whether that kind of ideology helps us to read the text clearer or healthier than other kind of ideolgy. So it is nothing wrong with reading texts through an ideological lens. But here the problem of his review is not to discuss the book's main points and hastily judge it on the basis of what he believes true while ignoring what the book says entirely. For instance, in his review, he rebuts the idea of "Christic body" by asserting that every community is run by "doctrine or practice." But he is not aware of the book chapters on Community and Body in which various conceptions of the community and different understandings about the body are discussed. So in the book nowhere I am saying there is a community possible without boundaries. Rather, I talk about the role of boundary and the function of Christ's body as a metaphor in the Corinthian context. The question is not whether or not the community is bounded but how the given community functions. In so doing, my book focuses on the roles of the boundary, the conceptions of the community and the different understandings about the body. The real question is which interpretation of the body might be closer to the reality of early Christian life experience in Corinth.

I would welcome any challenge to or critical evaluation of my book if there were a fair balance between what the book really says and what it lacks. I would expect that any reviewer recognizes various approaches to the "body of Christ" discussed in the book, and engages the main argument of the book that lies in the figurative, discursive analysis of 1 Corinthians: an alternative reading of the "body of Christ" understood as a metaphor for a way of life or living (Christic body), on the basis of re-imagination of the "body of Christ" as the crucified body of Christ.

By contrast, Donald Senior's review of my book at The Bible Today clearly states the gist of the book as follows: "Although much has been written on the Pauline notion of the "body of Christ," this contribution by Presbyterian scholar Kim offers a thoughtful and provocative insight worth considering. Kim observes that the Pauline metaphor can be interpreted as setting boundaries or differentiations between the Christian community and those outside. However, if we consider the "body of Christ" as the crucified body of Christ it can be seen as a means of dissolving boundaries and being more inclusive, particularly of those who are pushed to the margins or who suffer. Kim draws out from this key Pauline symbol the implications for the church and society today, particularly in the Gospel call for solidarity with those who are marginalized" (excerpt from Donald Senior's review, The Bible Today 47(2) p.141. Mar-Apr 2009). --Yung Suk Kim


The interpretation of the “body of Christ” in 1 Corinthians is a pressing concern in the present context of a diversified global church because its predominant interpretation as an ecclesiological organism characterized by unity and homonoia (concord) serves as a boundary marker that tends to exclude the voices of marginality and diversity. This traditional reading, while plausible, ignores a deeper, ethical meaning of “body of Christ” as Christ's body that questions an ideology of hegemonic power in both the Corinthian context and today. From the perspective of a different conception of community and of soma christou in the image of Christ crucified, this metaphor of soma christou becomes a metaphor for "living" through which the Corinthian community is expected to live as a Christic body, identifying Christ's body with the most vulnerable and broken bodies in the community and in the world—an urgent issue for Christians in marginalized communities and today’s fragmented society. Read this way, Paul's theology continues the legacy of Jesus tradition in terms of deconstruction (critique of religion and culture) and reconstruction (advocacy of the beloved community for all). Paul's theology should be reclaimed as such so that we might truly appreciate what he lived for. That is why I wrote this book.

This book lays out hermeneutical choices by which scholars interpret texts in their own contexts. The question is as to what kind of choices one makes. There should be an ethical responsibility by each choice made. Then, this book helps readers formulate their own choices in a relevant life context, and re-examine the metaphor of the body of Christ in a new way — living in today’s global context where so much war or violence occurs at the sacrifice of others.

This book will be a useful reference to scholars and seminary students for Pauline studies and 1 Corinthians in particular. This book deals with major aspects of Pauline theology and hermeneutics. In addition, this book will stimulate some conversations between scholars taking the “unity” reading of the “body of Christ” and those taking the “diversity” reading. Finally, this book can be used as a textbook for Pauline theology class since it takes a critical look at Paul's background along with the historical context of the Corinthian community.

[For many scholars the “body of Christ” (soma christou) in 1 Corinthians has been read as an ecclesiological organism characterized by unity. However, Yung Suk Kim argues that soma christou as Christ’s body, associated with Christ crucified, can be read as a metaphor for “living” or a way of life through which the Corinthians should deconstruct the ideology of the power and reconstruct the ekklesia (not soma christou) based on Christ’s solidarity. Kim’s reading offers new insight into Paul’s theology and ethics rooted in Christ crucified, seeking “more of life” in the community and the world through diversity.]


Table of Contents

Introduction: The Price of Unity
The “Body of Christ” Today
Reading as a Citizen of the World
A Few Words about Method

Chapter 1: Community as “Body”
Community in Theological and Historical Approaches
Sociological or Social-Scientific Approaches
The Approach of the History-of-Religions School
Structure or Power Relationships
The Conception of Community Called for in Our Present Context

Chapter 2: Community as the “Body of Christ”
The Body of Christ as Organic Unity
The Body of Christ as Corporate Solidarity
Christological Approaches
Summary and Critique
Conceiving the “Body of Christ” in a Cruciform Reality

Chapter 3: Community “in Christ”
An Alternate Reading of “in Christ” in First Corinthians
“In Christ” as a Modal Relation: Dying with Christ

Chapter 4: The Body Politic and the Body of Christ
The Body Politic in the Greco-Roman and Ancient Jewish Worlds
The Politics of the Hegemonic Body
The Body Politic of the Democratic-Inclusive Body
Paul and the Democratic-Inclusive Body
The “Disembodiment” of Christ in Corinth
Sexual Immorality
Marriage-Related Matters
Eating Meat Sacrificed to Idols
Rights of Paul
Women’s Head Coverings
The Lord’s Supper

Chapter 5: The Life of the “Body of Christ” in First Corinthians
Language for “the Body” in First Corinthians
An Ethic of the Christic Body
Tracing the Christic Body in First Corinthians
Outline of the Discursive Figurative Structure of First Corinthians
1:1-17 Paul, Apostle of Christ Jesus, and the Corinthians, Sanctified in Christ Jesus
1:18-4:21 The Cross as God’s Power, Exemplified by the Corinthians and Embodied by Paul
5:1-11:34 The Corinthians’ Failure to Embody Christ Crucified, Paul’s Exhortation to the Corinthians Calling for Participation in Christ Crucified
12:1-15:11 Exhortation: The Corinthian Body as Christic Embodiment
15:12-58 As Christ Crucified was Raised, So the Crucified Body of the Christians Will be Raised
16:1-24 Conclusion
The Life of the Christic Body in Corinth

Chapter 6: Practicing the Diversity of Christ’s Body
Diversity as Discernment
Diversity as Balance
Christ’s Body and Multiculturalism



Author email *For readers in Korea, click here Christís Body in Corinth



Last update: 05/16/2016

Go Top