Presenting Limbs and Organs: Baptism and Sacrificial Ethics
December 10, 2015

Although we tend to define ourselves by our subjectivity—our perceptions, thoughts, feelings, decisions, actions—we are frequently forgetful of the objectivity of the self as body, the reality of the self that underlies and precedes all of our subjectivity. The body is the site of our ‘givenness’, where we are embedded in nature, tradition, society, and culture in a manner that precedes any decision or action on our part.

Baptism isn’t best understood as an ‘act of obedience’, an ‘expression of our faith’, or a public manifestation of our ‘decision’—it is an action performed upon passive bodies. Within my earlier post, I argued that, by instituting a sacrament that acts directly upon passive bodies in such a manner, God claims us at our root, marks us out with a new identity, and seals us with his promise of future resurrection.

The biblical teaching that God claims us at our bodily root—a claim sealed in baptism—is prominent in the Apostle Paul’s understanding of Christian ethics. In Romans 12:1, Paul urges the Roman Christians to ‘present their bodies a living sacrifice.’ This sacrificial presentation of the body, powerfully symbolically enacted in baptism, is confirmed in lives of Christian obedience.

The sacrificial paradigm that Paul employs in Romans 12 is not so explicit, yet no less present, in Romans 6. In Romans 6:12-13, Paul declares: ‘Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts. And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.’ The grounds for this exhortation are found in our union with Christ in his death and resurrection symbolically sealed in baptism. The sacrificial overtones in Paul’s statement are to be seen not only in his use of the term ‘present’, but also in the notion of presenting ‘members’: sacrifices were offered to God in a dismembered form. This is also priestly in character: priestly initiation involved the symbolic devotion of limbs and organs to God’s service (cf. Exodus 29:20).

By speaking of the presentation of our members—our limbs and organs—to God, Paul accords a greater prominence to the body. What we present to God is not just our actions, nor our agency, nor yet even ourselves as agents, but the various and disparate bodily agencies and potentialities of our limbs and organs in their givenness and objectivity.

This makes a difference for the way in which we conceive of Christian obedience. It is the membered character of our body that alerts us to its givenness and otherness. Being an agent is a dimension of being a unified subject, my agency is a unifying bodily principle in which my nature as an agent is expressed, and my actions are the products of that subjective agency. Paul reaches behind all of these things to address the objective givenness of the bodily limbs and organs that serve as the precondition for my being an agent, exercising agency, and being the author of actions.

By stressing the diverseness and multiplicity of the bodily limbs and organs, Paul reminds us of the material body that underlies our unifying agency, reminding us that our subjectivity must always reckon with the objectivity of our bodies, an objectivity that we receive as a gift and must now render as an offering. My very hands, eyes, and feet must be presented to God; henceforth, I must live as one who acts using holy instruments. The assumption of my bodily autonomy and self-possession is challenged at its root when my limbs and organs are dedicated to God’s service.

All of this presents a ‘sacrificial’ model of Christian obedience. In Christian obedience, we confirm in practice the offering of our bodies which occurred in baptismal ritual. Paul’s grounding of Christian obedience in the limbs and organs of the body also creates an exceedingly tight connection between person and action: by acting righteously, I am presenting my limbs and organs to God, a membering of the sacrifice of my whole self.

John Barclay draws attention to a further importance of the body within Paul’s account of ethics in Romans, highlighting the way that Paul locates the operation of Sin and its defeat within the body: “It is precisely in his/her corporeality that the believer is simul mortuus et vivens (cf. 2 Cor 4:10-11). It is not for nothing that Paul here uses military language (“weapons,” 6:13, 19; cf. 13:14), since the body is the critical site of resistance…. The very location where sin once had most visible sway, and where its grip still draws believers’ bodily selves towards death, is now the location where the ‘newness of life’ breaks through into action, displaying in counterintuitive patterns of behavior the miraculous Christ-life that draws their embodied selves towards the ‘vivification’ (8:11) or ‘redemption’ (8:23) of the body.”[1]

Using the work of Pierre Bourdieu, Barclay argues for the importance of the reality of habitus, which underlies human action. Our habitus is our basic embodied orientation towards life, our dispositions, perceptions, sensibilities, ordering structures, tastes, styles, bodily skills, and habits. Our habitus is what we have ‘learned by body,’ those things that have become ‘second nature’ to us.[2] Paul, Barclay suggests, had a sense of this when he spoke of the ‘body of sin’ (Romans 6:6): ‘He seems to have a sense that the body has been commandeered by sin, such that its dispositions, emotions, speech-patterns, and habitual gestures are bound to systems of honor, self-aggrandizement, and license that are fundamentally at odds with the will of God.’[3]

The Christian life of obedience that Paul expresses is a life that begins with and in the body. The bodily habitus of sin has to be unworked and a new righteous bodily habitus instilled in its place. And baptism is the place where this training of our bodies most clearly begins. Barclay writes: “One could hardly imagine a more effective demonstration of this ‘rescue’ than the physical rite of baptism, which Paul interprets as a transition from death to life performed on and with the body. Henceforth, believers give themselves over to this new life (‘as alive from the dead,’ 6:13), inasmuch as they “present their organs as weapons of righteousness to God” (6:13; cf. 12:1)—in other words, they are committed to instantiate a new embodied habitus.”[4]

This pedagogy of the body is almost invariably a social matter. Our bodies are trained as they are incorporated into a larger social body.[5] No one is born as a ‘native’ of such a community, nor can we simply choose to be natives; we must all be formed into natives through the inculcation of a particular habitus.[6] Bourdieu describes the process of becoming a native of a new community as ‘a slow process of co-option and initiation which is equivalent to a second birth.’[7]

Baptism is a first step in the process of forming the habitus of the Christian faith within us. At the point of baptism, our bodies are incorporated—written into—the larger social body. This formation of the individual body through the social body is alluded to in Romans 12:1, which speaks of presenting ‘bodies’ (plural) as a living ‘sacrifice’ (singular): our individual bodies are rendered sacrificial as they are incorporated into the many membered body of Christ, which Paul precedes to discuss in the verses that follow (12:3-5).[8]

It is a matter of great significance that baptism brings us into the social body of the visible Church. The movement of the body into the life of the Church, a movement whose first major step occurs in baptism, is an essential part of Christian pedagogy and the process of conformity to the likeness of Christ. Without baptism’s process of incorporating us into the body of Christ and the bodily training that follows it, the pedagogical process of conforming us to Christ would be in large measure absent and the most fundamental part of ourselves would not have been offered to him.

In baptism, our limbs and organs are set apart for God’s service. This divine claim upon our bodies is a founding principle of Christian ethics and the chief reason why Christian obedience is properly understood as ‘sacrificial’. Addressing our attention to the diversity and multiplicity of our bodily members in their objective givenness, Paul implicitly reminds us that we receive ourselves as a gracious gift and calls us to return the gift to its source in offering our limbs and organs up in service to God.

Baptism also manifests and initiates a reorientation of the body and its members. It incorporates us into a new social body (baptism is also a practice that forms the social body itself), in order that we might, through its co-option and training of our bodies—in its liturgy, rituals, practices, forms, etc.—begin to think, desire, perceive, be disposed, and relate differently, learning to live as ‘natives’ of the body of Christ. Baptism not only expresses the sacrificial principle that grounds Christian imperatives, but also begins to instill the spiritual habitus by which we will fulfill them.

Alastair Roberts recently completed his doctoral studies in Durham University. He is one of the participants in the Mere Fidelity podcast and is also the contributing editor of the Politics of Scripture series on the Political Theology Today blog. He blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria and tweets using @zugzwanged.

[1] John M.G. Barclay, Paul & the Gift (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015) 505-506.

[2] Ibid. 507

[3] Ibid. 508

[4] Ibid.

[5] James K.A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013) 94.

[6] Ibid. 93

[7] Cited in ibid.

[8] The sacrificial character of baptism and the Christian obedience in which baptism is confirmed is not primarily located in my willing offering of my own body through my ‘decision’ for Christ, but in the incorporation of my body into Christ’s offered body.

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