Biblical Studies & Life


DMin Colloquium

Paul's Theology of SOMA CHRISTOU

What is the center of Paul's Theology?

School of Theology at Virginia Union University.

Instructor: Dr. Yung Suk Kim


  • to help students understand a diversity of interpretation of the "body of Christ,"
  • to help students understand Paul's language of the body of Christ in a different way by making distinction between ekklesia (church) and soma christou (body of Christ),
  • to help students be more open to ecumenism, and reappraise their relation to non-Christians or other religions,
  • to explore and practice a radical new vision of Paul's theology in a diverse, challenging life context today.




  • Yung Suk Kim, A Theological Introduction to Paul's Letters: Exploring a Threefold Theology of Paul (Cascade Books, 2011). Book info page.
  • Marcus Borg and John D. Crossan, The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church's Conservative Icon, HarperOne, 2009. book info at Amazon.

Why are we concerned with this colloquium?

A popular understanding of unity-oriented interpretation of the body of Christ is certainly plausible. If we are organically in the body of Christ (a metaphor of ecclesiological organism or organic unity), theoretically, there should be an ideal state of diversity. That is why many people think that unity leads to diversity. But the real issue is: "who defines this unity or what kind of unity is this?" Often, as we see in Stocism, or in some rigid understanding of this kind of an organic or ecclesiological sense of the body of Christ, unity is often imposed (like "unilateral, forced unity") on to others at the sacrifice of dynamic ongoing diversity (whether in terms of diverse thinking or even diverse theology). In this situation, unity might lead to divisiveness; true diversity is not allowed in that forced, unilateral unity. The real key is if we practice the body of Christ in the sense of embodiment of Christ (in my term, it is Christic body -- in the sense of attributive genitive), then there is ekklesia possible. Only if this happens (in other words, only when we practice this kind of body of Christ), unity and diversity in ekklesia go hand in hand. This kind of sense of unity and/or diversity in ekklesia should be understood not as an once-and-for-all boundary/belonging but as an ongoing, dynamic reality of life. Then, this image and understanding of the body of Christ have significant implications to our lives: room for ecumenical relations, inter-faith, and inter-cultural conversations. In this way, now the body of Christ metaphor can be conceived or imagined as Christ's broken, crucified body, which recalls all broken, humiliated bodies around the world.

Excursus -- the Greek genitive case

"Body of Christ" (soma christou) is composed with a genitive case, which is similar to an "of" relation between two nouns in English. English possessive expression is a little different from Greek. For instance, if John owns a hat we can write in genitive form: "the hat of John," which also can be written more clearly to indicate John's possessive status: "John's hat." But in Greek there is no way of using an apostrophe like John's but there is always a genitive case (like "of") involved between two nouns. Even in English, when two nouns are related with each other, linked with "of," its relationship is not always clear-cut. Let's suppose the phrase "the love of God." In the first place, it can be "God's love"; we call this a subjective genitive case in terms of Greek grammar, because God is a subject which acts (love). In the second place, it can also mean "the love for God"; we call this an objective genitive case in Greek term, because now God is an object which receives love. Depending on the syntax and context of the text, the meaning of this genitive case in English shall be decided. However, in a real world of literature, the task is not that simple. It becomes more difficult in Greek because there are more complex relationships expressed through this genitive case: possession, measurement, origin, character, and etc. To name a few examples of New Testament genitive phrases which give us difficulties understanding them: dikaiosyne theou -"the righteousness of God," soma christou - "the body of Christ," and pistis christou - "faith of Christ," we begin to realize that how important and difficult it is to explain the meaning of these genitive phrases. All these genitive phrases, however complex or difficult, are fundamentally crucial to the matters of theology or Christian ethics. That is why the understanding of Greek genitive case is essential to our interpretation of the text.

In our case of the "body of Christ" for example, at least three possibilities exist. First, the genitive case can be an "objective" case, so that here Christ is an object of "body" that is meant as metaphorical organism (body as a social body). So its meaning is that it is a body (an assembly or community) belonging to Christ. 1 Cor 12:27: "You are the body of Christ" can mean, with this option, "you are members of the community which belongs to Christ." Second, the genitive case also can be understood as the "subjective" one, so that here Christ is the subject of the body; in other words, it is Christ's own body -- physical body. Third, the genitive case can be an "attributive" one, so that Christ functions as an adjective (the technical term for this is an attributive genitive; for example, "body of sin" in Rom 6 as "sinful body"). So its meaning here is Christ-like body (Christic body). I would call this kind of metaphor as a metaphor for "a way of living").

EXCURSUS: multiple uses of body
body as a temple of the holy spirit, body as holistic life union, body as person (some body), body as part of the letter, body as a group of things (a body of teachings), physical body, body as an organism (like a social body, student body), body as existence/space, and etc.

Study Questions:

  1. What is Paul's primary use of the body in 1 Corinthians 6:15-20, 11:23-26, and 12:12-27?
  2. Does Paul equate the church (ekklesia) with "the body of Christ" (soma christou) in 1 Cor? Compare with Col 1:18, 24, Eph 3:6, 5:23.
  3. What kind of relation is there between "the body of Christ" and the church in 1 Cor?
  4. Can "the body of Christ" be reimagined as the crucified body of Christ in 1 Corinthians? If so, what is the significance of the message of Christ crucified in Corinth?
  5. Why is it important to distinguish the "body of Christ" from the "church" in Paul's letters? Let us talk about theological, pastoral implications.

For more information, please visit my web site, the book information page, reviews of the book page or my blog.

"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." -- from the book info page.

Comments or mentions of Christ's Body in Corinth

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." -- 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!" -- 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

The following are two excerpts from the blog Exploring Ecumenism:

1) "Kim's exegesis of 1 Corinthians is detailed and complex and it is not my intention to reproduce it in detail here. Details of the book can be found in the left hand sidebar. My intention is to attempt a hermeneutic based upon the particular context of ecumenism in 21st century Britain and more specifically England. However, to do this I must attempt a brief summary of the main argument in Kim's text. The primary metaphor Kim refers to is the Body of Christ. The question is how does this metaphor inform our understanding of unity and diversity? Particularly, given the common ways in which Kim argues this metaphor is misunderstood. Kim's conclusion leads to a paradox. Unity leads to divisiveness whilst diversity leads to unity. Kim puts it like this on page 4: 'Paul's argument presupposes that the divisiveness of the Corinthian community results not from a lack of unity but from a failure on the part of its members to acknowledge and respect the diversity present in the community. (...) But unity is not the goal or purpose of Paul's letter because in Greco-Roman society, unity can be a destructive and oppressive language.'" from Exploring Ecumenism in UK.

2) "Returning to the theme of the Body of Christ. Fundamental to our understanding of what Paul means by this is, according to KIm, the cross. Crucifixion was for slaves, the marginalised and the poor. Through Jesus God identified with them. This is why Kim argues Paul cannot mean hierarchical or hegemonic unity. Jesus' death identifies God with the lowest in society. The problem in Corinth was the patronage system and the resultant perception of unity as between leadership, rather than in the solidarity of the most marginal people.

Kim cites several passages from contemporary accounts of crucifixion and then comments (page 53):

How could we believe that Paul would disregard the experiences of the most vulnerable, the slaves and victims of the Empire, when he talks about Christ crucified? How could we believe that the same Paul who made the cross central to his message would side with the hegemonic body politic based on the Stoic ideal of unity? It appears, to the contrary, that the image of Christ crucified deconstructs society's wisdom, power and glory.

This view stands in direct contradiction to the idea of the crucifixion as a sacrifice made by God to atone for human sins. It overlooks the suffering of the marginalised and draws attention away from the reality of human sin.

It seems to me this reinforces the fundamental idea of incarnation. The God we know is incarnated in the flesh of the marginalised and the crucifixion is evidence of this.

Unity then is to be understood not as drawing boundaries between those who believe correctly and those who do not. Rather it is solidarity between those who know the crucified Christ and bear his scars. In terms of conversations it is a radical reminder of those who most definitely need to be involved. It is not therefore the formal ecumenical talks that matter, but the wider oikoumene." --from Exploring Ecumenism. excerpt location.

Ecumenism: Unity or Reconciliation?