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1 Corinthians chapter 12 is one of my favourite passages of scripture. In this post, I take a look at Paul’s instructions here about ministering as a body. I especially look at the apostle’s instructions about who we should give honour to.

Necessary and Honourable

In 1 Corinthians 12:12–31, Paul urges Christians to recognise that each person, each part of the body, has a part to play in the church, the Christian community. That is, each person has a ministry to exercise, a gift to use, something to offer. Paul wanted to avoid elitist cliques, hierarchies, and factions, so he tells the Corinthians that every part of the body is necessary and honourable.

Rather than deeming some parts (that is, some 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 honourable we invest [or clothe] with greater honour, 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 honour 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).

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 (the people) that seemed to be more lowly to have the same status, theologically and socially, as the already respectable and honourable parts (people). Paul wanted equality, and he associates equality with unity. He wanted equality, unity, and the reciprocal care and concern for each other that 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 slaves and many women having less freedom and less status than freeborn 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 as inferior to men in practically every respect: physically, intellectually, morally, etc. Aristotle and others 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’s households were slaves (1 Cor. 1:11, 16; 16:15–18). But there were probably many other slaves in the Corinthian church (as in other churches). Some of these slaves would have had Christian masters, others would have had non-Christian masters (cf. Eph. 6:6–8; Col 3:22–25; Tit. 2:9–10; 1 Pet. 2:18–25).

Most slaves were greatly restricted in society. Furthermore, whether slave, freed, or freeborn, many 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 (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). And 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 social status or gender (1 Cor. 12:1–11). Rather, it is likely that Paul had both men and women, and both slaves and free, 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 create a community where everyone can contribute according to their ability?[3] We can begin by being wise about 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?


[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 honour to the socially 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 the first century and it produced constant rivalries. It was generally only men who received honour in 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. Rivalry, however, has no place in the church.

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

© Margaret Mowczko 2015
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8 thoughts on “Extra Honour for Underdogs (1 Cor. 12:12-31)

  1. 010915
    In reading your current posting, Marg, I cross-referenced to the following earlier note in relation to who does what in ministry:

    [Marg’s Note 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.

    Some time ago – is it years? – something similar prompted me to introduce myself and post an extended note on the term diakonia. (I can’t trace it in the hours since I pasted your Note 3.)
    You are of course right to state: ‘Diakonia is the word most often used in the New Testament for “service” and for “ministry”.’ And NT scholars over the last 70 years would almost unanimously support you. These include Kittel’s Theological Dictionary (article by Beyer), Karl Barth, Eduard Schweizer, Ernst Käsemann, and (among more recent Catholics) Hans Küng, Richard O’Brien, Ed. Hahnenberg, and (esp.!) Thomas O’Meara. (Those familiar with influential voices on issues of ‘ministry’ may notice that I do not mention Richard Gaillardetz.)
    Richard, in fact, took a lead from the 25 year-old linguistic research in my book Diakonia: Re-interpreting the Ancient Sources (Oxford Uni Press, 1990: still available in a 2011 reprint; one could also consult my Diakonia Studies: Critical Issues in Ministry of last year, also published by OUP). These books are, however, expensive, but their message about diakonia has been supported by genuine scholarship of Dr Anni Hentschel in her several German publications since 2007, and the essentials of their semantic profile of diakonia have been included in the Bauer/Danker Greek-English lexicon of NT (2000). Hence this note.
    There is no difference between the usage and semantic values of diakon- terms in classic and Hellenistic Greek and in early Christian Greek sources. The terms were not ‘ordinary, everyday’ words (Schweizer, Küng, O’Meara…) that the Christians shaped into a terminology for designating some of the processes (like ‘ministry’) peculiar to themselves. Christians just used the terms the way any Greek would in similar contexts.
    To me the most striking illustrations of the values involved here are Paul’s uses of the terms in the document following the one Marg is currently studying: 2 Corinthians 1-6, where Paul defines his and his collaborators roles as diakonia.
    My closest analysis of this extended passage, in which Paul defends the authenticity of his own teaching against claims of his opponents in Corinth, concludes with these lines:

    It was much more important for Paul to be known as a diakonos of God than as an apostle. As an apostle, one needs credentials, and credentials [like cv’s and character references] can be challenged. The authenticity of God’s diakonos, on the other hand, speaks for itself: it is the Lord who speaks.

    The point here is what a Greek audience understood a diakonos of a god to be: Hermes, the messenger god of Zeus, was the universally revered diakonos: and the word he delivered had to be precisely what Zeus commissioned him to say.

    Paul, of course, is not presenting himself as a Hermes (although see what the pagans of Lystra thought of him, according to Acts 14:12!) But he is using the same rhetoric. In the Testament of Abraham (9.24), the patriarch asks God’s chief captain, Michael, to be ‘the “medium of his word” unto the most High’: this being the 1927 translation (G. H. Box) before Kittel/Beyer, Barth, et al. got to changing the patterns of interpretation required for an understanding of the ancient Greek usage.
    What about Paul at 1 Corinthians 12:5: ‘varieties of diakoniai [plural]’?
    NRSV translates ‘services’… you can check out variations elsewhere; it used to be ‘ministries’. And I have no doubts that it should still be understood as ‘ministries’, like the varied ministries Paul identified at 1 Cor 3:5-6: ‘What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Ministers (diakonoi – plural; NRSV: ‘Servants’) through whom you came to believe as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase.’
    One of the essential semantic elements in every use of diakon- terms is that the terms are designating a person carrying out a mandate or an activity that is being carried out under a mandate (be that of heaven, emperor, civic authority, community commissioning… ) The terms are equally applicable to women as to men (diakonos does not have a feminine form until about 4th century of the Christian era when the form diakonissa appeared).
    Importantly, given the contemporary assumption that diakonia designates a lowly service of love to those in need (cf. Pope Francis’ penchant), we need to bear in mind that diakon- never (ever!) implies that a person is engaged in loving service or that an activity derives from charitable intent. The most important issue here is how we understand the parable of the king’s staff at Mt 25:45 (‘when did we not take care of you/diakon-?’). This should be read instead in the sense, ‘when did we not carry out our duties in regard to you [as a royal person]?’ Multiple instances of such courtly language in non-Christian sources.

    1. Hi John,

      It’s good to hear from you again. We exchanged a few messages in response to my Master’s essay on deacons and Phoebe which I adapted and posted in 10 parts (plus bibliography) on my website. (Your previous comments from November last year are (mostly?) here.)

      After reading your work I became convinced that Paul, and others, uses the word diakonos for someone involved in a sacred commission, and I say as much in my essay. 🙂

      Your comment about diakonos not having a separate feminine form is an important one. I continue to read in books and articles that Paul used a grammatically masculine term for Phoebe, but that just isn’t true. If Paul had included an article with the word diakonos in Romans 16:1-2, it would have been a feminine article. The masculine and feminine forms of diakonos were identical when Paul wrote his letters. (There are a few nouns in Greek where the masculine and feminine form is identical.)

      1. IIRC, the term used is “common gender” for a noun such as diakon- that was used to include both genders of people.

        1. Indeed. But the concrete noun diakonos is still masculine or feminine depending on context, as are other Greek words with common gender. (The abstract noun diakonia–“ministry/service”–is feminine.)

          LSJ acknowledges that diakonos is grammatically feminine in Romans 16:1.
          H. G. Liddell, R. Scott, and H. S. Jones, A Greek-English Lexicon, 9th ed. s.v. “διάκονος” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 398.

          The heading for the entry of diakonos in BDAG is given with both a masculine and a feminine article: “διάκονος, ου, ὁ, ἡ,” indicating common gender and that the word can be masculine or feminine.
          Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Literature, 3rd ed. revised by Frederick Danker (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2000), 230-231.

          John N. Collins is the world expert on diakon– words in ancient Greek literature. (A couple of the statements in my previous comment were for readers more generally rather than Dr Collins.)

          I mention John N. Collins a few times in this article on diakon– words and I cite a few of his many works in the footnotes: https://margmowczko.com/the-diakon-words-in-major-greek-lexicons/

          I was honoured to have an essay included in a volume published last December that included two essays by Dr Collins: Deacons and Diakonia in Early Christianity: The First Two Centuries, Bart J. Koet, Edwina Murphy and Esko Ryökäs (eds) (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2018)

  2. Aristotle didn’t say that slaves were inferior beings. He said that inferior people ought to be slaves. That is, the natural slave is a person who has no ability to handle his own affairs, and is best suited to creative labor. He specifically repudiated legal, national, ancestral, and constitutional arguments for slavery in his Politics for epistemological reasons.

    1. Xeilias, Aristotle clearly thought (“natural”) slaves were inferior to free people and it’s ridiculous to suggest otherwise.

      Aristotle described slaves as tools and the property of free men in Politics 1.5.

      “… one who is a human being belonging by nature not to himself but to another is by nature a slave, and … a human being belonging to another if being a man he is an article of property, and an article of property is an instrument for action separable from its owner.” Politics 1.5, 1.1254a

      In Politics 1.6, Aristotle states his view that males are superior (and rulers) and females are inferior (and subordinate) and then applies this example to free and slaves.

      “… as between the sexes, the male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male ruler and the female subject. And the same must also necessarily apply in the case of mankind as a whole; therefore all men that differ as widely as the soul does from the body and the human being from the lower animal (and this is the condition of those whose function is the use of the body and from whom this is the best that is forthcoming) these are by nature slaves, for whom to be governed by this kind of authority is advantageous, inasmuch as it is advantageous to the subject things already mentioned.” Politics 1.6, 1.1254b

      And this, where he compares slaves with animals.

      “… the usefulness of slaves diverges little from that of animals; bodily service for the necessities of life is forthcoming from both, from slaves and from domestic animals alike.”
      Politics 1.6 1.1254b

      Yet again, Aristotle infers the inferiority of slaves in Politics 1.7.

      “It is manifest therefore that there are cases of people of whom some are freemen and the others slaves by nature, and for these slavery is an institution both expedient and just.” Politics 1.7 1.1255a

      He then goes on to say that some people are enslaved as prisoners of war and that these people were not necessarily born inferior. That is, they are not “natural” slaves. He shows concern for these people who have been enslaved but shows no concern for those born into slavery.

      By and large, Aristotle clearly believed (“natural”) slaves were inferior to free people. In his opinion, they were tools, property, inferior, and like animals, and it was for their benefit that they were subject and ruled by free people.

  3. […] Extra Honour for Underdogs (1 Corinthians 12:12–31) […]

  4. […] Paul’s teaching on spiritual gifts in chapters 12 and 14 of 1 Corinthians sandwich his famous words on love in chapter 13. (Ideally, these three chapters should be read together.) Paul felt the need to remind the Corinthians that ministry must be motivated by and given in love, genuine love. […]

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