Equality and Unity in Ministry: 1 Corinthians 12

[From a message I gave on Resurrection Sunday 2013.]

Mary Magdalene was the first person to see Jesus alive, and she was the first person entrusted with the amazing message of his resurrection.[1] I believe it was no coincidence that the first person to see Jesus alive after his resurrection was a woman. A new era was beginning, and the New Creation was now possible (2 Cor 5:17).

In the New Creation, the old paradigm of patriarchy and male primacy gives way to the equality and unity of all people. So, in response to Resurrection Sunday, and the hope of new life it brings to all who trust in Jesus as the risen Saviour, here is a look at Paul’s statements of equality and unity in ministry from 1 Corinthians chapter 12.

Ministry Gifts – 1 Corinthians 12:4ff

In the first section of 1 Corinthians chapter 12, Paul speaks about the various spiritual gifts and manifestations that Christians may be given for ministry purposes. This section finishes at verse 11 with:

“All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines” (1 Cor 12:11 NIV).

In the second section of 1 Corinthians chapter 12, Paul uses the analogy of a body, and speaks about individual Christians as being the many parts of the one body, each with their own function and purpose. In verse 18 he writes:

. . . God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be” (1 Cor 12:18 NIV).

From these verses, we see that it is the Holy Spirit who determines what ministry gifts a person is given, and it is God who determines where a person is to function with their ministry gifts among the other members of the body, the body being the church community.[2]

It is interesting to note that throughout this chapter on ministry gifts and functions, there is no mention of sex or gender. There is not even a hint that some ministries, including the leadership ministries in 1 Corinthians 12:28, may be more suitable for one sex or the other. The verses in chapter 12 apply equally to men and women in Christ.

Weaker and Necessary – 1 Corinthians 12:22

Paul wanted the Corinthian Christians to look beyond cultural norms and class distinctions, and to be inclusive of all Christians in ministry and service.[3] He wanted the Jews and Greeks, the slaves and free, to get along, to be united, and to be ministering together (1 Cor 12:13). He especially wanted to give the disadvantaged a “leg up” so that there would be equality. Perhaps Paul was especially thinking about women when he wrote 1 Corinthians 12:22-26.

In 1 Corinthians 12:22 Paul says that the weaker parts of the body are necessary. Was Paul speaking about women here? In the past, women were seen as weaker to men in pretty much every way.[4] We now know women are not innately inferior to men, and that, despite being physically weaker, women are necessary for all kinds of ministries where physical strength is not required.

Honour and Respectability – 1 Corinthians 12:23

In 1 Corinthians 12:23, Paul says that we should give the parts that are without honourmore honour, and we should give the parts we consider as shameful, more respectability. In the honour-shame culture of the Greco-Roman world, only virtuous men were regarded as having honour; virtuous women were regarded as having “shame”. If Paul is thinking about women here, he is ascribing an honour and a respectability to women that was not common in the Greco-Roman world.

One of the customs that went with the honour-shame culture was that only men could speak in public. This custom, however, was not observed universally, and we know that it was not observed in the Corinthian church. In the previous chapter, Paul acknowledged that women prayed and prophesied aloud in church meetings in the Corinthian church (1 Cor 11:5). So we know that women were involved in speaking ministries. Paul did not have a problem with women who spoke as long as they were not unruly or disruptive. (It is debatable, however, whether Corinthian house church meetings qualify as being “public”.)

Who has the “Need”? – 1 Corinthians 12:24

In 1 Corinthians 12:24, Paul writes that respectable parts do not have a (special) need. Traditionally, men have been given a greater honour and respect in society, including church communities, whereas women have been seen in a lesser light, and have even been overlooked for ministry. Most men, in general, do not need help in being seen as respectable or suitable for ministry. Conversely, Paul writes that God has given more honour to the parts that lacked it so that there would not be division in the church, but equality. If God has done this, shouldn’t the church also be giving honour and equality to disadvantaged people in the church community? This concept of honour and equality for women and disadvantaged people would have required a huge mind shift for 1st-century people. Some people in the 21st century still haven’t caught on.

In many churches, women still need special support and consideration if they are to be seen as genuinely necessary, honourable, and respectable partners in ministry. (The patronising respect and condescending notions of protection that some men have towards women don’t count, in my opinion, because they do not come from a motivation to promote genuine equality and mutuality between men and women.)

Unity or Division?

The context of 1 Corinthians chapter 12 is ministry—the ministry of the whole body of believers. In this context, Paul spoke about equality, not an equality in ideology or words only, but a functional equality. There is a wide variety of ministries mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12, but Paul never implies that some are more suitable for Jews, or some are more suitable for the free, or some are more suitable for men. These social classifications have no significance in the body. Instead, each of us should use what the Spirit has given to us, and minister according to God’s calling. That’s the ideal.

The reality, however, is that some people are prevented from ministering. Women especially are dissuaded and excluded from certain ministries in some churches.[5] By differentiating men from women in regards to ministry we are creating a divide in the church. This is not what God intended:

“ . . . But God has put the body together, giving greater honour to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.” (1 Cor 12:24-25)

Instead of creating a gender divide, Christian men and women should be ministering together and caring for one another according to our individual and corporate gifts and capabilities.

Jesus told Mary Magdalene to tell the disciples that he had risen from the dead. In Mark 16:14 we read that Jesus later reprimanded his disciples because they didn’t believe her and other eyewitnesses of the resurrection (cf. Luke 24:8-11). They didn’t take Mary and her message seriously.[6] Godly and gifted women in ministry should be taken seriously and supported, and they should be regarded as true equals alongside their brothers.


Endnotes

[1] Verses about Mary Magdalene (and other women) at the empty tomb, seeing angels, seeing Jesus and telling others about the resurrection: Matthew 27: 61; 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-11, 16; Luke 24:1-11, 22-23; John 20: 1, 11-18. Jesus had many female followers.

[2] In Ephesians and Colossians we are told that the body is the Church, the group of all genuine believers and followers of Jesus Christ (Eph 5:23, 29; Col 1: 18, 24). Using a metaphor which denotes unity, Christ is spoken of as the “head” and we are his “body”. [My articles on “head” (kephalēhere.]

[3] Diakonia is the word most often used in the New Testament for “service” and for “ministry”.  For example, The seven men in Acts 6 had a ministry of serving on banking tables (Acts 6:1-2), and the twelve apostles had a ministry of “serving” the Word. The same word (diakonia) is used for both ministries.

[4] The Bible never states that women are inferior to men. [My article on The Portrayal of Women in the Bible here.]

[5] The prohibition and exclusion of women from ministries that include leading and teaching is based on just a few verses. Other New Testament verses show that some Christian women did lead and teach.

[6] Conversely, in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells Mary and the other women to tell his brothers to meet him in Galilee. The eleven disciples then did what the women told them (Matt 28:10, 14).


Related Articles

What the Bible says about Mary the Magdalene
Extra Honour for Underdogs (1 Corinthians 12:12-31)
The Means of Ministry: Gifts, Grace, Faith . . . Gender?
Gender Division Divides the Church
The Holy Spirit and Equality
Race and Gender Discrimination in the Church
Protecting the Weaker Sex
Gender Roles and Speaking Ministries in the Church