Learning to thrive in the new life Jesus offers us – 2 Corinthians 5:16-17

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

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.


Related Articles

Unity and Equality in Ministry (1 Corinthians 12)
The Means of Ministry: Gifts, Grace, Faith . . . Gender?
Women Church Leaders in the New Testament
“Equality” in Paul’s Letters
The Early Church and Slavery
The Holy Spirit and Equality in the Book of Acts
Galatians 3:28: Our Identity in Christ and in the Church

Posted August 31st, 2015 . Categories/Tags: Equality and Gender Issues, , , , ,

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4 comments on “Extra Honour for Underdogs (1 Corinthians 12:12-31)

  1. john n says:

    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.

    • Marg says:

      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.)

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