Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Equality and Unity in Ministry: 1 Corinthians 12

The following is from a message I gave at my church on Resurrection Sunday 2013.

According to John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene was the first person to see Jesus alive after his crucifixion, and she was the first person who Jesus entrusted with the amazing message of his resurrection and impending ascension.[1] I believe it was no coincidence that the first person to see Jesus alive again after his death on the cross 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 in order to minister and serve. 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. He 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 and serve 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 accept and appreciate all gifted Christians who minister.[3] He wanted the Jews and Greeks, the slaves and free, to get along, to be united, and to serve together (1 Cor 12:13). He especially wanted to give the socially disadvantaged “weaker” people a “leg up” so that there would be equality. (See 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 generally being physically weaker, women are necessary for all kinds of ministries where muscular strength is not required.

Honour and Respectability – 1 Corinthians 12:23

In 1 Corinthians 12:23, Paul says we should give the parts that are without honour, more honour, and we should give the parts we consider as shameful, more esteem. In the honour-shame culture of the Greco-Roman world, only virtuous men were regarded as having honour; virtuous, modest women were regarded as having “shame.” (A woman’s honour was embedded in the honour of her husband or another male relative.) If Paul is thinking about women here, he is ascribing an honour to them that was relatively uncommon in the Greco-Roman world.

One of the customs that went with the honour-shame culture was that it was usually only men could speak in public settings. This custom, however, was not observed universally, and we know it was not observed in the Corinthian church. In the previous chapter, Paul acknowledged that women prayed and prophesied aloud in church meetings (1 Cor 11:5). So we know women were involved in speaking ministries. Paul did not have a problem with women (or men) 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 honourable or respectable parts (that is, prominent and esteemed people) do not need more honour. Traditionally, men have been given greater prominence and esteem in society, including church communities, whereas women have been seen in a lesser light and have often been overlooked for ministry.

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 typically lacked it so there would be no division in the church. If God has given the less honourable people more honour, shouldn’t the church also be directing honour towards disadvantaged people in the church community and away from people who are already prominent and esteemed and don’t need it?

Paul wanted a levelling of status where everyone was treated with the same level of honour and concern. This concept of honour and equality for women and other disadvantaged people would have required a huge mind shift for first-century people. Some people in the twenty-first century still haven’t caught on.

In many churches, women need more support and consideration if they are to be seen as genuinely necessary, honourable, and esteemed 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, and Paul never implies that some are more suitable for Jews, or some are more suitable for the freeborn, 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 serve 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 24:9-11). They didn’t take Mary and her message seriously. Godly and gifted women in ministry should be taken seriously and supported, and they should be regarded as true equals alongside their brothers.

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Footnotes

[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 that 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 or less capable than 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. Many more New Testament verses show that some Christian women did lead and teach.

[6] In Matthew’s gospel, however, Jesus tells Mary and the other women to tell the brothers and sisters to meet him in Galilee. The disciples seem to have done Mawhat the women told them (Matt 28:10, 16).

Photo by fauxels from Pexels


Related Articles

Who was Mary the Magdalene?
Mary Magdalene and the Ascension
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 in Acts
Race and Gender Discrimination in the Church
Gender Roles and Speaking Ministries in the Church

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