If anyone considers himself a prophet or spiritual person, he should acknowledge that what I write to you is the Lord’s command. – 1 Corinthians 14:37 (NET)
Closing out his treatment of the religious exercise of speaking in tongues as it was being practiced by the Corinthian church, Paul, with a strenuous focus on the need for unity, sharing, preferring of others, and service to the body, begins his conclusion with “If anyone considers himself a prophet or spiritual person, he should acknowledge that what I write to you is the Lord’s command” (14:37). Here, based on the remote possibility that his message has not been duly received, and with a precise placement in the stream of thought that has been at least partially constructed by the need for mutual subjection (14:32), Paul seems to direct his words to those that either look upon themselves or are looked upon as spiritually superior, emphasizing their subjection to him and to the Lord.
If the idea of subjection to Paul is on offer, then we need to see how that fits within the movement of the letter, as Paul would most certainly not go to these lengths to emphasize unity within an egalitarian assembly (no divisions, no stratifications, no authoritarian structures based on the prevalent honor code), and then, at the last second, turn the tables and attempt to place himself in the seat of honor. An effective guide becomes what Paul has written about himself in the fourth chapter. Beginning in verse nine we read: “For, I think, God has exhibited us apostles last of all, as men condemned to die, because we have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to people. We are fools for Christ, but you are wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are distinguished, but we are dishonored! To the present hour we are hungry and thirsty, poorly clothed, brutally treated, and without a roof over our heads. We do hard work, toiling with our own hands. When we are verbally abused, we respond with a blessing, when persecuted, we endure, when people lie about us, we answer in a friendly manner. We are the world’s dirt and scum, even now” (4:9-13).
With this rhetorical deployment, Paul takes up the language of a slave---of one possessive of no rights and no honor (except among fellows slaves)---applying it to himself. Indeed, in an ironic twist, this is confirmed by what follows, which is “I am not writing these things to shame you, but to correct you as my dear children” (4:14). Paul presents himself as a person that sits at the “shame” end of the honor and shame spectrum. This then, returning to the fourteenth chapter, is the one to whom those considered by themselves to be spiritually superior (prophets or spiritual persons) are to submit. Naturally, Paul points beyond himself to the Lord, to the One that experienced the ultimate shame, as the One to whom subjection is owed. Accepting these words from Paul is akin to hearing them from the crucified One, who not only experienced the place and act of ultimate shame in that day, but who went there willingly and purposefully, to create a people that would follow the leading example of what they understood to be true of both His manner of life and His manner of death (with the attendant honor and shame related sensibilities at play throughout).
Subjection to another, that seeking and taking out of the lowest place, which was spoken of and modeled by Jesus, with the strengthening of the church and the emanation of justice as God sees it (supremely concerned for orphans and widows and lepers and children and all of those considered to be the lowest of all) that flows from one’s spirit-led activities as the measuring stick for true spirituality (not speaking in tongues or the exercise of other specific gifts in isolation, as constructed by one particular church community), is a vital and crucial element of true worship of Jesus and of the Father. Therefore, with the ceaseless and nearly inescapable striving for honor in mind, we then get to hear Paul say “If someone does not recognize this, he is not recognized” (14:38).
Here, we have to realize that the language of “recognition” is the language of the court of public opinion, of reputation, and of honor. True recognition, and therefore true honor within the body of Christ, belongs solely to the Lord of the body, and is displayed when the one that would sit in the place of honor in the surrounding world or in any other type of association, actively subjects himself or herself to those that would be deemed to be less honorable outside the body of Christ, serving them with the same type of love and compassion that was displayed by the Creator God’s action of venturing forth to join and serve His creation, and the venturing forth to the cross as the summation and climax of that service.
“So then, brother and sisters,” as Paul writes in the hopes that his message about this particular issue has been properly conveyed, received, and understood, “be eager to prophesy” (14:39a), for this, engaged in by all, will encourage, console, and strengthen the church, while convicting and calling all, even the unbeliever and uninformed, to account for failures to rightly bear the divine image. “And,” furthermore, Paul tells them that even though it has been problematic and has created a situation that has been antithetical to the true nature of the church, now that you better understand how best to put this ancient religious practice to proper use within the church, and now that you better understand the way that believers are supposed to manifest the Spirit of God and to respond to activities that manifest the Spirit of God among you, “do not forbid anyone from speaking in tongues” (14:39b). Effectively, having been given their instructions by Paul, and hopefully waking away from this time of gathering with a better grasp on the world-shaking and shaping nature of the activities of the church of the Christ and of its effect on the way that God intends His world to work, Paul concludes this portion of his heavily rhetorical yet applicable dissertation with “And do everything in a decent and orderly manner” (14:40). So we shall.