Extra Honour for Underdogs (1 Corinthians 12:12-31)

I’m reading 1 Corinthians at the moment, and today I read 1 Corinthians 12:12-31. Here Paul urges Christians to recognise that each person, each part of the body, has a part to play in the church. That is, each person has a ministry to exercise, a gift to use. Paul wanted to avoid elitist cliques, hierarchies, and factions, so he tells the Corinthians that every part of the body is necessary and honourable.

Necessary and Honourable

Rather than deeming some parts (i.e. people) unnecessary, Paul writes,

On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we invest [or clothe] with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable [or honourable] members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension/schism within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another (1 Cor. 12:22-25 NRSV).

Paul makes several amazing claims here, claims that would have startled some and delighted others. He states,

  • The parts that seem to be weaker are necessary and indispensable (1 Cor. 12:22).
  • The parts that seem to be less honourable we should invest with greater honour (1 Cor. 12:23a).
  • The parts that are “shameful” we should treat as having a greater level of respectability and prominence (1 Cor. 12:23b).
  • The parts that are already respectable and honourable do not need special treatment; they do not need more honour (1 Cor. 12:24).[1]

Paul wanted the parts that seem to be more lowly to have the same status, theologically and socially, as the already respectable and honourable parts. Paul wanted equality, and he associates equality with unity. He wanted equality and unity, and the reciprocal care and concern for each other which results in a harmonious, healthy, functioning body (1 Cor. 12:25-26).

The Indispensable Underdogs

Paul asserts that God himself has arranged the parts of the body, or assembled them together, and has given more honour[2] to the seemingly weaker, less honourable people—the underdogs. Who were these underdogs in the Corinthian church?

The first century Roman world was highly stratified, with many women and all slaves having less freedom and less status than free men.

About one third of the population of the Roman Empire were slaves, but some of the most pitiful were female slaves. Thanks to a continuing legacy of Greek philosophers such as Aristotle, many people regarded women as weaker and inferior to men in practically every respect: physically, intellectually, morally, etc. Aristotle also taught that slaves were inferior beings, so female slaves were twice devalued.

We know there were slaves in the Corinthian church because Paul includes them in his statement in 1 Corinthians 12:13: “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”

It is likely that some of Chloe’s and Stephanas’ households were slaves (1 Cor. 1:11, 16; 16:15-18). But there were probably several (many?) other slaves in the Corinthian church (as in other churches), including slaves with non-Christian masters (cf. Eph. 6:6-8; Col 3:22-25; Tit. 2:9-10; 1 Pet. 2:18-25).

Slaves were greatly restricted in society. Furthermore, whether slave, freed, or freeborn, most women were also restricted. Paul, however, did not want Christian slaves or women to be restricted in the church. Interestingly, some male and female slaves in the early church appear to have become bishops (IgnEph 1:3, etc) and deacons (Pliny, Letters 10:96).

Freedom to Function

God still considers as honourable those we may think of as lowly . . . and those we may not regard at all. God wants the body (i.e. the church) to recognise all its members and ministers. He wants everyone to have the freedom and opportunity to use the gifts they have been given (1 Cor. 12:11). He wants those he has placed in certain positions in the body to have these places recognised (1 Cor. 12:24).

Immediately after telling the church to honour the lowly in the body, Paul lists certain ministry gifts:

In the church, God has appointed first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, the ability to help others, leadership skills, different kinds of tongues. (1 Cor. 12:28 CEB)

Nowhere in this list does it say that some of these ministries are off limits for certain people. Similarly, the verses at the beginning of chapter 12, about spiritual gifts, do not specify gender (1 Cor. 12:1-11). Rather, it is possible that Paul had women and slaves in mind when he listed these ministries.

How can we put Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31 into practice? How can we create a culture of equality, and a create a community where everyone can contribute according to their ability?[2] We can begin by being wise in who, and what, we are honouring.

Who should we show extra honour to? Who can we give a greater level of prominence to? Conversely, who, or what, do we need to stop treating with special honour (cf. James 2:1ff) in order to make the church a community of equity and unity?


Endnote

[1] The women in Berea who became believers are described as “honourable” (εὐσχήμων/euschēmōn) in Acts 17:12, the same word used in 1 Corinthians 12:24. These women were not just respectable, they were women of high status. In Mark 15:43, Joseph of Arimathea is likewise called “honourable” (euschēmōn). Euschēmōn can mean “of high standing” and “noble”, as well as “reputable” and “honourable”.

[2] That Paul chose to use the word “honour” (timē), and claim that God has given greater honor to the inferior members, would have been astonishing to the original hearers of Paul’s letter. The social construct of honour-shame was pervasive in the patriarchal society of first century, and it produced constant rivalries. It was generally only men who received honour on the honour-shame pecking order. They did this through public acts of bravery and benefaction, while honourable women preserved the so-called virtue of “shame” by being sexually chaste. But rivalry has no place in the church.

[3] Most ministries within a church community do not occur during Sunday services. However, ministry during Sunday services should not be off limits to anyone suitably gifted and equipped by the Holy Spirit.


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