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  • Writer's pictureIan Gullickson

It Takes All Kinds:

Updated: Feb 11, 2021

Gleaning Socio-Theological Wisdom from Durkheimian Functionalism and the New Testament Trope of the Body of Christ

Left versus right, rich versus poor, religious versus secular, black versus white—all of these polarities fragment us. Such schisms are rife within society, but also within the walls of the church. All of these binaries result in increasingly segmented social and spiritual bodies, as we effectively define ourselves over and against others and fail to see and love our neighbor. By failing to see the value and dignity of the other, we wind up living at others’ expense. Through wrestling with this predicament, an unlikely pair of sources have emerged which provide tools and language that could help remedy this divisiveness, and teach us to see each other as part of one body. These insights come from sociological and theological disciplines— two disciplines which are often seen as antithetical.

In fact, whenever I mention to family or friends that I’m studying sociology, one of the common responses is one of concern, especially from those within the church. To some, sociology seems to embody the gravest woes of the leftist-university; a world of postmodernism, fluid sexualities, and no small amount of spite towards things like God or religion. While I respect the concern, and while these alarmist reactions may have some merit, my experience has been full of clear instances of overlap between sociological and theological insights, including the parallels laid out in this article. Indeed, the perspective that I’ve gained through my sociology major has been a great asset in adopting the mind of Christ and striving to live in the Image of God.

One of the clearest instances of socio-theology that I have come across has been in comparing Emile Durkheim’s structural functionalism, where he describes “society as a body” with the Apostle Paul’s description of the Church in 1 Corinthians 12 (and elsewhere), where he uses the very same language (the body of Christ). These metaphors are not merely intellectually captivating, but sociologically and theologically helpful. In light of our cultural moment’s social and spiritual fragmentation, synthesizing these paradigms could be a real force for good, if properly embodied and practiced. I’ll do my best to present each paradigm clearly; teasing out the similarities and differences and addressing some prominent counter arguments.

In reading Emile Durkheim’s sociological theories, one of his core focuses was attempting to understand why and how societies remain intact (ie. function). Though his work is both wide and deep, the “organic analogy” stands out in his writings. In this analogy, Durkheim proposes that society is like a human body, and that each institution serves an integral role and function. If any organ of the body becomes disordered or broken, the entire system will begin to experience dysfunction. Although I had not anticipated writing about COVID-19 here, the pandemic serves as a poignant example—rendering us acutely aware of society’s interconnectedness. If one industry, for example, is forced to lay off the majority of its workforce, the repercussions of this will be felt throughout the social system (pressure on social services, disrupted supply chains etc…). Similarly, society’s dependence on educational institutions becomes apparent as schools close down, putting a novel pressure on families to figure out how to care for their kids during school hours, while balancing other demands and responsibilities. All this to say, each piece is essential for the body to remain healthy.

Now, Durkheim’s focus was on institutions, taking a more macro level perspective. However, institutions are made up of people, so the metaphor could be extended to account for individuals as well. Still, Paul’s discourse on the Body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12 may provide us with better language and tools to consider the individual, and their place in this web of interconnection.

To kick off this passage, Paul proposes that “as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ” (1 Cor 12:12). Essentially, the Church is composed of diverse members (like a body has diverse organs and cells), but collectively comprises Christ’s body, and is therefore unified. Employing this metaphor, he proceeds to spell out this truth’s implications.

If the Church is really Christ’s body, each member is both valued and beautiful. If any member was missing, this loss would be felt throughout the social and spiritual body. There is a diversity of roles and gifts, but no member can dismiss another member’s value and shared identity in the body. To pull in Paul’s language again, “the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’; nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’”(1 Cor 12:21). Since each member is truly part of Christ’s body, the response of the Church ought to be to value each member, protect one another’s dignity, and recognize our shared collective identity as one body. Of course, if you take an honest look at church history, it’s obvious that his theology has often been ignored. Rather than living as the Body of Christ, the Church has too often been perversely segmented and stratrified along racial, class, and nationalistic lines. However, if rightly understood, this theology can promote love and justice in the body. What’s more, the members that are often overlooked or deemed “less honourable” are actually elevated in Christ’s body. So, while the Church may have some structure and order, no one in the body should experience oppression. And finally, anytime one member suffers, the whole body joins in this suffering (1 Cor 12:26).

Although Paul’s context and message was different from Durkheim’s, the similarity of their metaphors speaks to some overlap in their logics. However, the uniqueness of each paradigm should be acknowledged. In wedding the two perspectives, I don’t seek to minimize their distinctiveness or water down the potency and originality of either. Instead, I hope to pull insight and wisdom from each and propose that synthesizing these ideas could be a great tool for us today.

At a basic level, acknowledging the interconnectedness of society has the potential to yield powerful cultural shifts. If, as Durkheim proposes, all of society is a body, and that each institution (made up of individual persons) plays an essential function, then ideally everyone belonging to the collective should work towards the common good. This functionalist paradigm, if nothing else, prompts us to see the utility and necessity of others in the social body. However, if taken by itself, this paradigm could devolve into complicity with oppression. For example, one critique that Marxists and other critical theorists often levy against theories like Durkheim’s, is that they focus too heavily on cohesion, and overlook the inequalities and conflict rife in society. At its worst, then, functionalism can support an inequitable status quo, relegating individuals to their respective roles and places, in order for the “whole” to function well.

Devoid of a moral center, Durkheimian thought might lead the head to acknowledge the foot’s use, but choose to exploit its function, rather than honor the foot’s inherent dignity. To use more Marxist language, the ruling class might understand society’s economic interconnection and the fiscal value of their factory workers, but choose to exploit them nonetheless. By itself, then, this recognition of utility may not necessarily lead them to truly value or respect the inherent dignity of their workers. However, when you insert the motif of the Body of Christ, an abundantly more radical and transformative effect seems likely, which requires synthesizing Paul’s and Durkheim’s perspectives. Rather than only seeing others in the social body as necessary or useful, infusing the implications for human dignity of Paul’s Body of Christ theology should lead to a posture of caring and kinship for all. Durkheim’s insights can help us here, since he uses similar language to demonstrate all of society’s interdependence.

Pastor and theologian Tim Keller’s sermon Faith and Work exemplifies how this line of thinking can capture the imagination and contribute to tangible cultural renewal. For me, the teaching he offers here is an instance of the socio-theological wedding that I’ve been attempting to tease out. In the sermon, Keller doesn't focus explicitly on the imagery of the Body of Christ. Instead, he brings the audience’s attention to the beauty and dignity of all work, reminding us that work was part of God’s vision in the Genesis creation account (unlike other creation narratives), and that there will be work in new creation. As he builds out his discussion, Keller references Martin Luther’s theology of work. Luther noticed parts of scripture that claimed that “God feeds us all”. Rather than food miraculously materializing on our plates, however, God feeds us through the ordinary work of humans. Farmers grow the food, which then is brought to us via truckers and grocers. Since God uses all work to sustain creation, all work has dignity, Keller argues. By extension, all workers have dignity. This is where I see Keller’s teaching intersecting well with the discussion of Paul and Durkheim.

Keller’s sermon elicits ideas surrounding our collective vocation to live in the Image of God. Although a different piece of theology than the Body of Christ, each of these tropes illustrate how individuals are part of a collective whole, and that each part has inherent dignity. Keller explicitly unpacks the implications. If we truly believe that all work (and all workers) have dignity, Keller asserts that this should obliterate our class snobbery, prejudice, and the lustful quest for status. Just as the head can’t dismiss the crucial role that the feet play, neither can a prestigious professor ignore the importance and dignity of the facilities management workers that care for the university grounds. Every sort of work has dignity, and therefore there is no room for superiority complexes or classism. Perhaps this paradigm is the antidote to the potential dark sides of Durkheimian functionalism taken by itself. Both Keller and Luther seem to recognize the webs of interconnection in society, but they also input the belief that each part has beauty and inherent dignity.

Without watering down or doing a disservice to the uniqueness of the Church’s body, I suggest that we carry the perspective that Keller and Luther provide beyond the walls of the church, and into society as a whole. Wedding the ideas of Paul and Durkheim gives us the language and tools to carry this out. Durkheim shows us that all of society is, in fact, like a body. Gleaning this insightful recognition from him, Christians should then extend the theological tools of the Body of Christ and Image of God to all of our neighbors throughout and across societies. This is what I mean by crafting a “socio-theology”.

If all members’ work have dignity—both those identified with the Church and all in society at large—and are beautiful, worth loving, and possessing inherent dignity, the logical response would be to strive for justice, love, and human flourishing for all. Taken together, Paul’s notion of the Body of Christ and the image of God and Durkheim’s idea that all of society is an interconnected body, these perspectives could wake us up to pursue love and justice with greater rigor.

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