For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body---though many---are one body, so too is Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body. Whether Jews or Greeks or slaves or free, we were all made to drink of the one Spirit. – 1 Corinthians 12:12-13 (NET)
Building on his thinking concerning the equality of Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, and ostensibly male and female, and seeking to create a unity and outwardly focused spirit of service amongst the members of the church body, Paul picks up on the theme of these two verses and writes: “So now there are many members, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I do not need you,’ nor in turn can the head say to the foot, ‘I do not need you.’” (12:20-21) Why would a body desire to cripple itself by demeaning some functions while elevating others? There is a trace of a sense that what may have been going on here is that the body of Corinthian believers were actually attempting to coerce those who did not exercise the type of spiritual gifts that were deemed to be more honorable (both inside and outside of the church) to leave the association.
If this is the case, Paul certainly could not abide this. He continues: “On the contrary, those members that seem to be weaker are essential, and those members we consider less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our un-presentable members are clothed with dignity, but our presentable members do not need this” (12:22-24a). Though we may have read these words many times before, once we have the honor and shame culture squarely in view, and once we see how that culture has been carried into the church in a way that is clearly not appropriate, we can no longer read these words about “weaker,” “honor,” and “dignity” in the same way. At the same time, Paul qualifies his usage, using words like “seem to be” when referencing those that are thought of as being weaker, along with “we consider” when speaking of those thought of as “less honorable.” Surely this is meant to be provocative.
With what comes next, Paul picks up on a prominent feature of the Jesus tradition, together with its teaching about the kingdom of God and the enactment of that teaching through its meal practice, which is that of the first becoming last and the last becoming first. Unity and equality with no divisions leaps directly to the fore when he writes “Instead, God has blended together the body, giving greater honor to the lesser member, so that there may be no division in the body, but the members have mutual concern for one another” (12:24b-25). There appears to be a distinct last as first and first as last construct there, and mutual concern is a key. With an active ethic of the preferring of the other, regardless of status, Jews and Greek are to have mutual concern for each other. Slaves and free are to have mutual concern for each other. Men and women, by extension, are to have mutual concern for each other. This mutual concern must move beyond sentiment, resulting in actions that demonstrate that mutual concern, with mutual concern over-riding societal constructs that would normally function to limit and govern such actions. In that same frame of thought, we then continue on to read “If one member suffers, everyone suffers with it. If a member is honored,” with this honor assigned through the court of public opinion, “all rejoice with it” (12:26).
Paul continues on to write “Now you are Christ’s body, and each of you is a member of it” (12:27). Could there be any greater honor or source of honor? To that Paul adds “And God has placed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, gifts of healing, helps, gifts of leadership, different kinds of tongues” (12:28). W remain careful to not hear Paul creating spiritual hierarchies, as that would seem to run counter to the movement of the entire letter in which Paul seeks to devalue and destroy the accepted honor constructs that have no place in the church. We need to keep in mind Paul’s insistence on the equal importance of all members when we read “Not all are apostles, are they? Not all are prophets, are they? Not all are teachers, are they? Not all perform miracles, do they? Not all have gifts of healing, do they? Not all speak in tongues, do they? Not all interpret, do they?” (12:29-30)
Though it will be the case that not every member exhibits these types of spiritual gifts, that does not mean that they are not equally valuable or that their spiritual gifts are not equally honorable, so these categories should not be employed to create authoritarian hierarchies in the church, nor should this be construed as some type of list of “spiritual gifts.” In fact, Paul, after what seems like an elevation of these particular “offices,” appears to engage his hearers in a transition away from thinking that elevates these offices and their associated gifts, especially if we are not going to limit the expression of the Spirit of God to certain definable categories, expressing that there are greater gifts that are perhaps deserving of even more honor when he writes “But you should be eager for the greater gifts. And now I will show you a way that is beyond comparison” (12:31).