Commentary on Romans 12:1-8
We Belong Together
Sin, in the singular, is a power in Paul’s thought. It is the bully on the playground that enthralls everyone, gathering devotees, terrorizing would-be opponents into silence, enslaving all. Sin vies with the Creator for control of humanity and the rest of creation to such an extent that Paul can speak of our having been “enslaved to sin” (Romans 6:6).
Isaiah had mocked the worship of idols, speaking of someone planting a tree, then cutting it down: “Half of it he burns in the fire; over this half he roasts meat, eats it and is satisfied. He also warms himself and says, ‘Ah, I am warm, I can feel the fire!’ The rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, bows down to it and worships it; he prays to it and says, ‘Save me, for you are my god!'” (Isaiah 44:16-17).
In Romans 1, Paul extends the prophet’s theme: “Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for an image resembling mortal human beings or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the desires of their hearts to impurity, to dishonor their bodies among themselves. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served the creation rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen” (Romans 1:22-24, NET).
One of the hallmarks of slavery, ancient or modern, is that slaves do not have control over their own bodies. By definition, a master may force a slave into labor, inflict corporal punishment at will, and assault slaves sexually with no fear of prosecution for a crime. To be enslaved to sin is to have one’s body commandeered every bit as much as one’s soul.
The message of Romans is that sin’s mastery over humankind has been broken in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The opening verses of Romans 6 are a helpful summary of the new state of things. Former slaves of sin have been buried with Christ in baptism. While it is a drastic form of escape, it is an effective one: a dead slave is a free slave. Paul says simply, “whoever has died is freed from sin” (Romans 6:7).
Paul goes on, “But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:8-11).
Just as being enslaved to sin was an embodied existence, so is being alive to God. We bring our bodies to the new life, and so Paul writes in Romans 12, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1). Notice plural bodies, singular sacrifice.
Members of the body of Christ (cf. Romans 12:5) offer living, holy and spiritual worship, not by sacrificing the carcass of an animal, not by bowing down to a block of wood, and not even by working as individuals to resist being conformed to this world. We worship by practicing the kind of embodied gifts-sharing in community that Paul outlines in verses 3-8. To repeat, embodied community in Christ in which the gifts of others are valued, and each member uses one’s gifts on behalf of the body as a whole: this is worship; this is a sacrifice that is alive, holy and acceptable to God.
My colleague, David Fredrickson, describes the kind of thinking (phroneō) Paul commends to the Romans 12:3 (and to the Philippians in Philippians 2:5) as combining action and imagination. Paul says that it involves both body (Romans 12:1) and mind (Romans 12:2). As the sacrifice had been shared, and a singular noun, in Romans 12:1, so the mind is shared and singular in Romans 12:2.
Imagine working with someone to move one of those large racks of folding chairs that populate church basements and school gymnasiums. It takes a theory (“I think this will work if you’re on one side and I’m on the other”); you have to share at least elements of a vision, to be of “one mind” on the nature of the task and its execution.
Even so, as vital as it is, imagination does not move the chairs. Action — walking, pushing, pulling, steadying — is required, too, as are mid-course communication and correction. The whole thing is common work in which people with different functions share, if only for a few moments, the same mind.
Such shared imagination-in-action does not ignore the difficulties of living with others. Chairs fall off of racks and tempers flare (to say nothing of what can happen when church people set up a few of those chairs and sit down for a meeting!). Paul knows the difficulties of living in community, and yet he refuses to try to solve them by ranking some in the church basement as more important than others, or by imagining that “gifted” in such a context means the same thing for everyone. In fact, it does not; by design, the body includes members with different gifts.
Clergy have a habit of paying lip service to this idea of different gifts equally valued and then walking into every interaction as if we are the smartest ones in the room (except possibly during the first couple of years of ministry, when we know we are not the smartest ones in the room and worry about it!). Parents have the same habit with children. Managers can be this way with direct reports. Big givers and old-time church members can fall into the same trap when they interact with new members or those who are not so apparently generous.
To all of this, Paul says, “You used to belong to Sin the way a slave belongs to a master. Body, mind, and spirit: you were captive. Now, you belong to one another, with bodies that belong to the body of Christ, whom God raised from the dead.”
The one who designed the body of which we are a now a part did not make a “smartest one in the room.” Even the idea of such a one is a holdover from an old age. Ranking like that relies on that bully Sin’s appeal to our playground insecurities. It belongs to a mindset conformed to this world.
By contrast, as those in Christ imagine and enact prophecy, exhortation, generosity, compassion and other such things together, we bear witness that our head is in a different game. By such imagining and acting, our bodies declare what is true about us, that we belong to Christ, and we belong together.