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” (1 Corinthians 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 it is incumbent upon an observer 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 there Paul writes: “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---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 presumptive Lord of this church---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).