Muting the Voices of the Body: Music, Technology and Ministry, Once Again


The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming book: Brian Brock and Bernd Wannenwetsch, The Therapy of the Christian Body: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians, Volume 2, Eugene: Cascade, due to appear in early 2017.

Having set out his theological account of Christ’s body in the first 13 verses of 1 Corinthians chapter 12, Paul will now indicate the concrete entailments of this theological account of the church as Christ’s body for the remainder of the chapter. Our reading of the chapter as a whole finds Paul seeking to emphasize the importance of each member receiving and handing on the spiritual gifts, and in verses 14-20 he explicitly resists all moves to centralize or control the arrangement of gifting in the spiritual body. It is a passage that we suggest presents some telling lessons for contemporary debates about the role of technology in contemporary Christian worship, especially those technologies that organize our collective singing of praises.

Our treatment will proceed as an exposition of the following verses.

12:14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 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? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many members, yet one body.

12:15 has proved especially prone to a moralizing reading that blunts its force. The renown fourth century preacher John Chrysostom falls into this trap by suggesting that Paul is setting out here to soothe “the feelings of the one who has the inferior gift and is troubled by this.” His assumption is that the problem being addressed by the Apostle in this section is the pride of the holders of supposedly greater gifts in relation to the envy of those with less. The reading has the merit of having evoked some beautiful commentary on how to overcome envy. “Whatever my brother has,” says Augustine, “if I don’t envy him but have love, is mine.” Anthony Thiselton is in good company, therefore, when he concludes, “Verses 14–20 introduce Paul’s appeal to those who feel “inferior” to recognize that they genuinely belong to Christ’s body.” But is this reading really warranted by the text? To answer yes at this point will commit us to reading the discussion to come in 12:22–24, about less and more honorable members of the body, as an elaboration of the implications of envying other believers’ gifts, thus extending the moralization of this chapter.

We will take a different line, however, and will understand Paul’s interest in this passage to be conceptual clarification rather than moral exhortation. Instead of imagining him to be making a directly pastoral intervention, our suggestion is that he is displaying in some detail the logical impossibility of certain speech acts. Consider the if-then structure of statements like the following: If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If any believer were to claim that they were not part of the body, for whatever reason, Paul is suggesting that this would be a logical impossibility as the church is constituted by one Spirit. Such a statement might arise for a range of reasons, including the pride-inferiority economy in which someone else’s gifts are envied or one’s own disdained. But there is no evidence that this is Paul’s concern here. Rather, he is drawing attention to the self-cancelling reality of utterances like “I do not belong” in order to emphasize how they break up the body as a communicative entity, no matter what the subjective reasons for uttering it might be. In so doing Paul makes a theological and conceptual point about the sort of thing that the body of Christ is at the same time as he clarifies some of the sorts of acts that dismember Christ’s body.

This is why we insist that a moralistic reading that assumes Paul is trying to reduce peoples’ envy and pride by showing how all the gifts are equally valuable misses his core point. We instead understand the Apostle to be clarifying for the Corinthians how discerning, fostering, and seeking engagement with the economy of the Spirit’s working through individuals generates and sustains the church’s nervous connection. The problem with a moralizing reading is that it displaces the question “How do I embrace the giving of the Spirit?” with the identity question “Which gift is mine?” or “What do I get from spiritual gifting?” When the body is alive in its communication of the gifts of the Spirit, its corporate life becomes a shared confession that “Jesus is Lord” (12:3). Thus to utter the phrase “I do not belong” is in effect to say, “Let Jesus be cursed,” because such an utterance embodies a servitude to human ideals of success and failure, preeminence and lowliness. The spirit of such identity quests differs irreconcilably from the Holy Spirit whose work is to endow believers with the desire to provide the same care for one another.

Our reading begins from the observation that the pairs of organs that Paul has speaking to each other are of the same type and status in 12:14–20. The foot compares itself to the hand and the ear compares itself to the eye. Discussions between these pairs would not be driven by disputes about functional superiority, but by status differentials. This suggests that Paul’s target is false presumptions among his interlocutors such as, “I’m not a full Christian if I don’t possess all the gifts or at least some of the more prestigious ones”. Whether articulated or not, this is a worry that is fully intelligible in a context in which those taken to be especially gifted have formed cliques. Such cliques would easily generate the assumption that “I do not belong”, either from those outside who wish that they were more “high performing” or from those inside who would inevitably be tempted to think that the rest of the church could only be tolerated but not fully affirmed as “ones with us”. Such are the divisive questions that are generated and sustained by the identity discourses that Paul has just been trying to show, and extirpate, among the Corinthians (cf. 12:12–13).

The way Paul develops his treatment also suggests that there is another dynamic afoot. It is one that is on first glance seems less obvious and yet subsequent developments in the history of the church have made amply clear how difficult it has been for the church to handle appropriately: the temptation to absorb the church’s genuine diversity of gifts into a single agency. The Apostle clearly signals this problem with a pair of rhetorical questions whose potency has rarely been appreciated in the tradition. 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? (12:17).

Having already noted the selective appearance limbs and senses make in Paul’s portrayal of the body, we think it worth considering further why he avoids discussing any organs that might be naturally entitled a central role. The stomach is not called in as a storehouse and distributor of the whole body’s sustenance, nor do we think it accidental that Paul does not mention it nor any ancient equivalent such as the brain or the heart. The question of absorption of the many into one is so foundational for Paul that the actual existence of the body depends on it. If all were a single member, where would the body be? (12:19). With this way of putting the question Paul suggests that the aspiration to absorb the multitude of gifts into a single agency amounts to a nonsensical absorption of the space the rest of the body is supposed to occupy. Although there are moments in which a body must be “all ear,” or others in which it must be “all eye” in order to be appropriately responsive to its environment, the temporary nature of such occasioned focusing is not to be conflated with an ontological claim that one agency could in principle perform in a single brilliant effort that of which only the breadth of individual agencies are capable.

To take a simple example, the aim in soccer is attacking and scoring. Were the situation to arise in which strikers began to consider themselves the only “real” players, this would not simply devalue other types of player, but would in fact represent an abandonment of the reality that football is played by a team in favor of an illusion about the game itself. Without a functioning defense and midfield, the striker is precisely nothing. He does not even exist since football is by definition a team sport. Positions can only exist within the political form that is a team in the same way that Christians can only exist as Christ’s body. It thus completely misses the point to suggest that Paul is saying “midfielders are important too.” Rather, Paul wants us to hear “you are deluded if you think you are anything on your own or can do anything without the others.” Thus the question where would the body be can only be rhetorical. The absorption of all gifts into a single agency cannot be a development of the life of the body, nor simply a reduction of its proper complexity of giftings; for Paul it amounts to an attempt to annihilate the body of Christ.

Giving this reading, we find 12:18 is highly instructive at the conceptual level in not simply contradicting the paraphrased attitude “I do not belong” in order to correct it (“yes, you do belong”), but in confronting the rationale underlying it. The literal translation of ἔθετο (etheto) would be “God put into place the members in the body, each one as he chose.” All suggestions that the Christian community can be understood as an arrangement are being firmly resisted (despite the NRSV translation of the verb here as arranged). Arrangement language presupposes something like interchangeable constituent parts that have been put into an initial order and can later be reordered for optimal effect. If things have been arranged they are always open in principle to re-arrangement and later rearranging. On these grounds we find it extremely counter-intuitive to use the notion of arranging with regard to the Christian social body even if we take seriously the insistence of 12:18 that God is the “arranger”. The reason for this resistance is that it has been precisely the spirit of social arrangement that has hovered over most of the hostile antitheses that Paul has been resisting with his picture of the body as a multitude of gifts, each of which has its own respective telos and dignity. The fallen (especially modern) political imagination is so easily absorbed in the practical tasks of arranging and re-arranging various social orders that the questions with which Paul has been so concerned in this chapter, of the church’s appropriate political form, become totally obscured.

If our reading is correct we can hardly overestimate the seriousness of the threat hanging over the church that gives in to the temptation to absorb the multitude of giftings into single agencies. Though we cannot here go into a detailed discussion of the development of formal offices in the church(es), it is difficult entirely to defer the question of whether the development toward the so-called monarchic episcopate should be understood as one such centralization. In The Shape of the Liturgy Dom Gregory Dix’s offered a seminal account of the development of this political form in critical terms and in some detail, and suggests that early Christian liturgies were much more finely-tuned and balanced as joint ventures of a multitude of ministries. Initially characterized by the broad contributions made by the ministries of the people, and reflected in the name taken from pagan political contexts and applied to the Christian practice of worship (leitourgia, from Greek, and literally translated as “service”), such worship forms were eventually replaced as the one ministry of the priest or bishop gradually absorbed liturgical tasks and responsibilities that once belonged to other discrete ministries.

In light of the sternness with which Paul warns against this trajectory in our chapter it ought not come as a surprise that the tendency towards the monarchic episcopate occurred when the church sought to mimic worldly political forms of governance and its “pragmatically superior” wisdom of centralizing power. Once it is forgotten that the church has its own unique and theologically describable political form it is inevitable that believers will find themselves trapped in the dead ends of different political imaginaries and language such as the constitutional discourse in which the constant question can always and only be which arrangement of political governance is most efficient.

Later in the chapter Paul will allow one agency within the church to represents all the charismata: the apostle, a role that, accordingly, will appear at the top of one of his list of gifts. By virtue of representing the multitude of gifts to the body apostles can indeed be said to legitimately represent the body in their one ministry. Because the apostolic ministry belongs to the church as a whole, its particularity and uniqueness ensures that no other ecclesial role or office can claim to be such a complete representative of the body. It is on the basis of this claim that Paul, as an apostle, can definitively state that any structure of governance built around the idea of agents who completely represent the respective bodies for which they are responsible can be called worldly. In 1:11–13 Paul has already confronted this very problematic in the factions, whom he accused of dividing Christ by breaking the Christian community up into subgroups organized around their loyalty to specific iconic leaders.

Paul’s discussion should press us towards self-critical assessment of developments in our churches that are easily evaded by the premature conclusion that the only phenomena Paul could have in his crosshairs today is the papal office. After all, Roman Catholic ecclesiology has had the good theological sense to characterize the papal claim to represent the whole of the (western) church precisely as a representation/continuation of the apostolic office, the seat of Peter. There might well be good reasons critically to scrutinize such accounts of the papal claim in the light of Paul’s warning but there is not the slightest reason for Protestant writers to presume that the all-in-one absorption problem is exclusive to or even a peculiar problem the Roman church. On the contrary, if there is a prototype of that syndrome, it would more appropriately be the Protestant ideal of the omnicompetent pastor who is expected to cover the complete range of ministries in the church with the force of his or her personal charisma or at least professional expertise.

The iconic Protestant jack-of-all-trades pastor mimics on a local scale the problematic development in the western church toward one central priestly ministry that came to absorb a multitude of the body’s other liturgical and pastoral gifts. If anything, the Protestant version intensifies the tragedy precisely to the degree that it assumes an indisputable sense of superiority to the Roman Catholic priest, whose personality is in fact not expected to carry his office, but the other way around. We must notice that the closest equivalent to the modern pastorate in Paul’s list of charismata, the gift of the κυβερνήτης (kyberne[set macron over e]te[set macron over e]s/leadership), is featured as only one gift among many; it is not even high up on that list and by no means to be conflated with the apostolate, which is the sole legitimate claimant to represent the multitude of gifts to the body.

In response to what is perceived as the Roman over-reliance on the ontological effectiveness of the office (ex opere operato) Protestants have tended to assume that every pastor is expected to fill the otherwise empty forms of the ministry with “real” life by investing all the natural capacities he or she has developed through training in erudition, leadership and people management skills, as well as pastoral empathy. All these “gifts” that the pastor is expected to invest in her ministry could be summed up under the notion of “personal charisma”. The protestant quest to find new pastors who have “so much to give,” therefore becomes a way of supplanting Paul’s emphasis on the importance of the breadth of the gifts across the church. There is a spiritual immaturity evident in the gesture of congregations to hold wide open the mantle of the many-gifts-in-one for candidates who dare to believe they can wear it. There is a well-known and pathetic symbiosis between immature congregations that want to be represented in a dominating manner and pastors that find it impossible to refuse the flattering offer. When disaster strikes, what is typically lamented is the burnout of the functionary, which is quickly followed with efforts then commencing to restore him or her back to their capacity once again to fulfill the very same demands.

Rarely does the analysis of such disasters transcend the psychological level (overworked, overwhelmed, under supported) to include theological scrutiny of the misshapen ecclesiological premise that kick-started this vicious circle and keeps it in motion. In one sense the problem is belatedly beginning to be recognized by the megachurch movement, though again the non-theological form of the response is indicated by the management nomenclature through which the political imagination of its proponents is revealed. In these churches the “executive pastor” takes responsibility for arranging the personnel on multiple sites and “site pastors” are then tasked with pastoral care on “satellite campuses”—satellite because the preaching on such sites is done by “teaching pastors” given to produce highly polished sermons that can be projected to several sites. Such an understanding of the relation between the gifts that sustains the body of Christ seems a far cry from Paul’s imagination.

There is an equally disturbing parallel to the rise of the monarchic episcopate (whether Protestant or Roman Catholic) in the evolution of church music that in the 18th and 19th centuries increasingly came under the sway of one overwhelming instrument, the pipe organ. This instrument was originally invented in the quest to develop an all-in-one instrument capable of absorbing (and replacing) all other voices of musical instruments into one. Although this multi-pedaled monstrous pretension of an instrument was first created for use in the concert hall, it is sadly telling how quickly it entangled the churches. Its original and stated purpose as a concert instrument initially led to the strict limitation of its use in Christian worship to pre- or postludes to the worship service. It did not take long, however, for the organ—the “organ,” the sole voice of the body—to take over what roles there were for musically embellishing and accompanying the liturgy. The pretentiousness that has surrounded the pipe organ from its inception is nicely captured by the ecstatic rhapsodies this “prince of instruments” evoked in churchmen. A good example appears in Henry Ward Beecher’s Yale lectures on preaching, delivered in the early 1870s:

It is the most complex of all instruments, it is the most harmonious of all, it is the grandest of them all … it has come to stand, I think, immeasurably, transcendently, above every other instrument, and not only that, but above every combination of instruments … No orchestra that ever existed had the breadth, the majesty, the grandeur, that belong to the prince of instruments.

The maritime metaphor Beecher uses to describe how the pipe organ relates to the congregation is especially revealing: “The organ is the flood, and the people are the boats … there is this power that comes upon people, that encircles them, that fills them, this great, mighty ocean tone…” The rise of the organ as the main and even sole musical accompaniment to Christian hymn singing thus displays in a particularly clear way the characteristic feature of all attempts to represent an all-in-one gifting: the overpowering and overwhelming of other actors that produces in the end a silencing of political homology.

Traces of a healthy and playfully ironic suspicion of the all-in-one ideal built into this musical instrument can be found in a legendary tale about the invention of the vox humana at the St. Martin Basilica in Weingarten. Joseph Gabler, an organ-builder, attempted to create for this church an instrument that would perfectly represent and combine not (like other organs) the sounds made by any other musical instrument but the human voice in all its pluriformity. After a string of unsuccessful attempts Gabler is said to have sold his soul for the magic piece of metal that could successfully mimic the sound of the human voice. When presenting his creation to the congregation of monks whose worship it was meant to accompany they were so overwhelmed and distracted from the actual purpose of worship that the abbot ordered both the creator and his creation to be given over to the fire.

Just as Paul opened the chapter by reminding the Corinthians of the connection of idols and the silencing of the multitude of gifts, so we must understand the claim to complete representation as displayed in the development of Christian worship under the tyranny of the “prince of instruments” as an idolatrous development precisely because it mutes the voices of the body. The pipe organ as an icon/idol of church music has not only proven to be effective at replacing other instruments and at overpowering with its “ocean tone” the singing voices of the congregation. The instrument does not demand, but has certainly catalyzed a culture of music in which the tempo of hymns is dictated by the organist playing ahead of the congregation on the assumption that congregations are well known for singing too slowly, and feeling responsible to carry and “wash over” the congregation. The result is to remove from the congregation the right and need to find its own tempo and voice. Having noted the structurally parallel of this instrument with the charismatic pastor, it is unsurprising that the worst imaginable combination of the organ playing pastor has in fact arisen in some traditions that not only absorbs the other roles in the congregation, but also the moment of truth displayed through the battle for supremacy that often rages between the two rival all-in-one agents in many of our churches.

Those readers amused by our portrayal of these Protestant tragedies, being loyal participants in those churches who have long abandoned the organ for a modern worship team, should perhaps not yet indulge a sense of superiority. Is it not, after all, just another variant of the all-in-one absorption for the music team literally to occupy every second during worship with a breezy tapestry of sound underneath any traditional liturgical function, be it prayer, reading of the scripture lesson, or indeed what might have been necessary moments of silence? Aside from many individual parallels to the organ (volume, inescapability, prescription of emotional tone), there are equally worrying parallels here with the idol-pastor as well. Where the personal charisma of the pastor is thought to enliven the potentially empty or at least boring liturgical functions and offices, the function of the musical underlay to prayers, testimonies, or even confessions arguably betrays a sensitivity owing more to the logic of marketing psychology than to genuinely pastoral considerations. Instead of understanding the congregation to come to worship bearing a multitude of gifts, the Christian body is assumed to be composed of dumb, lethargic and inert customers who need first to be brought into the mood by the manipulative use of sound in order to be made ready to receive the gospel.

The worship band is given the responsibility for providing the soundtrack that will ensure continuous affective motion in the congregants and, like a movie soundtrack, their task is to produce a specific sequence of uniform emotional states and responses that prepare the audience for the next move in the plot. The better the soundtrack, the more it is capable of creating those same responses with ever-greater independence of the quality of the plot. These dynamics have eventually led to a “liturgy” entirely dominated by the charisma, usually delivered through routines, of the worship leader who provides the verbal cues for this emotional ebb and flow of the whole service by deciding when a repeated chorus or prayer is appropriate. It is no surprise that pastors in such traditions often perceive decisions taken by the worship leader to be a competitor to a message they might want to get across.

Though it is true that the newer phenomenon of worship teams, unlike the organ and the organist, do employ a multitude of instruments played by a number of performers, they are all generally amplified and routed through the unifying sound board. It is this arrangement of individual voices that reveals that the soundboard contains more than a germ of the aspiration to all-in-oneness that propelled the invention of the organ. The soundboard too, along with amplification, was developed in the context of concert performance and only later caught the attention of the Protestant worship leader, though not necessarily of worshippers who in recent memory were still complaining that the “drums are too loud”. The tragedy here again is how quickly a theologically defensible impulse to replace the monocratic organ with a multi-voiced musical charismata has been reabsorbed into the one ill-fated paradigm that fueled the organ’s successful colonization of Christian worship in the first place. Even if there seems to be an obvious cultural divide between organ and praise band churches, their unity is more fundamental. The same tragic confrontation of two ill-conceived ministries entraps both cultures as displayed by the battle lines that inevitably lay between the pastor and music leader that ultimately lay much deeper: in both cultures having lost the sense that the church is silencing its members when some aspire to absorb the multitude of gifts. If all were a single instrument, where would the body be? If all were a single office, where would the body be?

Is it possible to take to heart Paul’s suggestion that Christians stay away from creating these all-absorbing agencies? Could we really to turn off the amplification both of worship bands and pastor personalities?  Were we to do so we probably would discover that strange zone of silence created by these overweening ministries. Though we would undoubtedly at first experience it as eerily empty, this could turn out to be precisely the void that fans into greater life the promised and indeed present, if muffled, multitude of gifts. It is God’s grace to intervene in the human lives that have become trapped in the silence of idolatry so memorably portrayed in the story of the tower of Babel in Genesis 11. Humans, having successfully banded together to create a gigantic cultic union around the Promethean desire to divinize the race, are reintroduced by God to the importance of the many voices by having their relations fundamentally reordered through the confusion of speech. Having their idol silenced, they have been given an invitation to hear the multitude, and with it the one God.


Photo credit: Justin Higuchi

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About the Contributor

Brian Brock

Brian Brock
Brian Brock is Reader in Moral and Practical Theology at The University of Aberdeen, Scotland. He earned his MA and PhD at King's College, London. A theological ethicist by training, he has a keen interest in theologically-oriented cultural criticism and in constructive Christian ethics, especially as they relate to technological change. His most sustained theological interactions with contemporary late-modern culture can be found in his book Christian Ethics in a Technological Age, as well as in Theology, Disability and the New Genetics: Why Science Needs the Church, edited with John Swinton. He is also the author of Singing the Ethos of God: On the Place of Christian Ethics in Scripture and Disability in the Christian Tradition: A Reader

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