Bible study I Corinthians 12: mission relationships and partnership; new models of partnership?
One of Paul's most extensive writings on the how's and why's of a Christian community appears in his first letter to the Corinthians. In this letter, Paul addresses a whole number of issues that troubled him about the Corinthian community. He had heard about their quarrels over what teachers they followed (1:10ff) and about the very liberal interpretation of being free of the sins of this world. He was aware of a man that apparently had a sexual relationship with his father's wife (5:1) and others who saw no problem in going to prostitutes (6:12ff). Paul had also heard about others in Corinth who used their freedom to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols, without any regard for those in the community who did not share that conviction (8:1ff). He knew about women who understood their freedom as allowing them not only to preach and prophecy (an opinion apparently shared by Paul), but to do that without "covering their heads", which in the eyes of Paul and perhaps of other Christians of Jewish background c learly was shameful (11:5ff). Finally, Paul was very concerned about the way in which the Corinthians abused the Lord's supper (11:l7ff). Whatever we think of Paul's argumentation in the individual cases, at least three important principles arise from these discussions that are also of importance for chapter 12 and following: (i) the individual's Christian freedom is restricted by the good of others; (ii) the new life of a Christian is not just a matter of his or her soul or spirit, but also of their bodies -- "honour God with your body" -- the body is a "member of Christ" (6:15-20); (iii) there is a close connection between the body of Christ being the Christian community and the partaking of the body of Christ during the Lord's supper (11:17ff).
In the following chapters (12 to 14), Paul begins to address another important issue: that of the "spiritual gifts". Much can be said about the various gifts that Paul mentions in these chapters, and many attempts have been made to classify them and link them to present-day phenomena, either of the miraculous, extraordinary sort, or of the more institutionalized and orderly kind. That is not a discussion I will go into in this Bible study, apart from saying that although large parts of the church have tried hard to "demythologize" these gifts and understand them primarily in the realm of the institutionalized gifts, it seems very likely that Paul has the extraordinary in mind: the gifts of prophesying, healing, miracles, speaking in tongues and special kinds of wisdom, that apparently all occurred in churches established by Paul and whose occurrence definitely is not contested in these chapters. (1) What Paul is contesting, however, becomes clear in chapter 14. It is that a far too one-sided stress on the gif t of tongues had apparently become customary in the community of the Corinthians. Rather than allowing the full variety of spiritual gifts to be experienced and used in the community, the gift of tongues had overtaken and pushed aside all other gifts. Rather than allowing for too much diversity (which might have been the case in the earlier issues addressed by Paul), in this matter the Corinthians did not allow for enough differences or diversity.
However, before Paul begins to speak about this particular practical issue in chapter 14, he first tries to put some theological basics in place in chapters 12 and 13. It is in these basics that there is much to learn, especially if the Corinthians' overemphasis of the gift of tongues is not our worst sin. With the issue of "partnership in the world church" in mind, three themes in chapter 12 stood out as of particular importance: (i) the creative presence of God; (ii) the language of the body; (iii) the missionary perspective.
The creative presence of God
The first thing that struck me when reading through this chapter, after having decided to use it for this Bible study, is the fact that both the "one" and the "many" are unambiguously referred back to God. There is no doubt in Paul's mind (despite all kinds of unhealthy divisions that he came across both in Corinth and between Corinth and other communities) that diversity is a gift of God. At the same time, unity originates in the divine being, which is expressed most distinctly in the Trinitarian formula in verses 4 to 6:
There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit.
There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord.
There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all people.
Unity is also expressly attributed to the Spirit in verse 3, where the Spirit of God (perhaps as opposed to evil spirits) is seen as that power which enables people to confess Jesus as Lord, thereby creating the community that is the body of Christ. Again, in vs. 13 there is a strong connection between the Spirit and the unity of the body of Christ, and the overcoming within that body of racial and religious differences.
As said above, however, Paul also attributes diversity to the workings of the Spirit and/or of God. The Spirit distributes various gifts "as he determines" (11). "God arranged the parts of the body as he wanted them to be" (18). "God combined (or "composed") the members of the body" (24); this refers both to unity and diversity; and in 28: "God appointed" a whole range of different offices and people with various gifts. Unity and diversity belong together; "one" and "many' cannot be separated because they are both part of God's being: the one body of Christ, composed as God wanted it to be, present in this world in a wide and colourful diversity of gifts of the Spirit.
Of the many metaphors that are used in the New Testament to describe the church, the "body of Christ" has proved one of the most successful -- so successful that many of us through its all too easy use have become so accustomed to it that we no longer hear the rich overtones of this metaphor.
In connection to what has been said in the previous paragraph, this metaphor again makes very clear that Paul's intention is to present the church in its "non-human" light. We are not dealing merely with a group of people who have gathered out of their own initiatives and have begun to build a new community. The accent is clearly on the divine origin and the divine reality of the church. Christ is present in the community, and in a way that is closely connected to his presence during the "Lord's supper" (10:16, 11:29, 12:27). Put differently: in the community of Christians, Christ is present in this world. From this it follows also that as individuals, we, in a very real way, are part of Christ -- in such a way that Paul can use it as an argument not to sleep with a prostitute (6:15-16).
Of all the metaphors for the Christian church (compare for example "family", "temple of God"), this is the one most closely linked to our own being. We all have a body, and awe all know what the possibilities and limits of the body are, even if we haven't experienced our full share of weakness yet -- we all share that part of the human predicament: our bodies, which sometimes are healthy and vigorous and at other times hungry, weak, sick and broken. Paul has already alerted the Corinthians to the fact that their bodies are as much part of salvation in Christ as are their souls (6:12-20) -- lest we should think that Paul here was talking about idealized bodies -- and I tend to think that Paul, also when speaking of the body of Christ, had in mind our frail bodies, which are vulnerable at all times. So, the church always has understood this metaphor as pointing also to the possibility of the church being ill -- not too far-fetched in the light of vs. 26 -- and already pointed out to us by Musa Dube, (2) who too k it to the logical conclusion, viz. of Christ being ill. I am not sure that Paul while writing this letter thought of that, but he definitely opened that possibility by using the body metaphor.
Whatever the weaknesses of the body, when keeping in mind that the metaphor is referring to real bodies, it is also clear that the questions in vs. 15-17, as well as the remarks in 18 to 21, cannot be understood other than as rhetorical questions. There is no way in which feet or ears would dissociate themselves from the body because they feel unneeded, or that anyone would want a body that is only "ear", or only "eye". No eye would ever say to the hand, "I don't need you" -- our bodies are indissoluble unities, amputation is a disaster, and usually is not initiated by the body itself. Of course, we must not stretch this metaphor too far, but it seems important to emphasize that Paul is not merely trying to discourage the Corinthians from saying things like, "I don't need you or your special gift", but that he is showing them how ridiculous such thoughts are. There is no way in which the body itself could or would want to get rid of other parts of the body. According to Paul, to understand the metaphor of the body is to understand what we really are. For better or worse, we are connected to each other, we live with each other, and depend on each other. Some members may seem (or actually are) weaker than others, or some may seem less important than others, but behind all our differences is a God who composed the body of Christ in precisely such a way -- making good use of weaknesses, apparent inequalities and "unpresentable parts".
Before turning to the missionary perspective of this passage, it might be good to say a few words about the "idealistic" nature of it. Should we, or perhaps, should Paul not be more attentive to the difficulties the church faces when trying to live out being the one body of Christ? Is not "partnership in the world church" a very delicate matter, with lots of pitfalls, long-standing inequalities and mutual tension? Verse 25 in particular suggests that Paul was indeed well aware of the fact that dissension occurs also in the body of Christ: "that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other". On the whole, however, when one wants to discuss the problematic aspects of "partnership in mission", the body metaphor is not the right place to look for it -- other than as a positive counter image. Nevertheless, the Bible is full of stories in which it becomes clear that also in the work of God, humans do not always work together that well. Even if they achieve the ends, (their ends? God's ends?) they arrive there in ways that often can be criticized. One of the Old Testament stories that I like best, the story of Naomi, Ruth, and Orpa, is to me a good example of such less than perfect human ways. Despite the positive intentions of Naomi and the willing cooperation of Ruth, I cannot suppress the thought that Naomi all too easily made use of Ruth, by setting up a marriage with Boaz merely to secure Naomi's own position in the city of her youth and ensuring offspring for herself. The last line of the book of Ruth, before the explanation of the (all male) connection to David, tells of the women of Bethlehem announcing: "Naomi has a son" (Ruth 4:17). Of course, there are many stories in the Bible in which good ends are reached with far less honourable methods, but the reason why the story of Ruth appeals to me in this connection is the fact that clearly no harm is meant by Naomi or Boaz. Probably Ruth was rather well off as a result of what happened but she hardly had any say in the matter. After her initial decision, definitely her own, to stay with her mother-in-law, it was that same mother-in-law who, once back in her own country, took things into her own hands, organized the whole affair and, in the end, benefited from it as much and probably more than Ruth did.
The missionary perspective
In this chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul is very concise, but also very clear on what the goal of the body of Christ would be in accepting and nourishing a variety of gifts: "to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good" (12:7). In chapter 14, Paul makes clear how the Corinthians should put that general principle into practice: rather than focussing on the gift of tongues only -- the only gift that in Paul's opinion clearly risks doing much more good to the individual Christian than to the community as a whole -- the Corinthians should encourage a wide variety of gifts to be acknowledged in their community, and all these should be put to use for the "common good" -- "try to excel in gifts that build up the church" (14:12). That is a sentiment that is found also in other passages in this letter -- "nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others" (10:24).
Although Paul in his letter to the Corinthians is very much concerned with their behaviour towards each other, and the "common good" probably refers primarily to the "common good" of the church, the reference in chapter 14 to unbelievers who might find themselves among the worshipping community, suggests that the "common good" might actually have wider implications than just within the community. The gifts of the Spirit, and prophecy in particular (but why not also healing and miracles?) are not meant solely for the wellbeing of the community, but also for those outside, making them exclaim: "God is really among you!" (14:25).
In between chapters 12 and 14 is the famous chapter 13, definitely Paul's most poetic passage, devoted to love -- not as just another among the many gifts of the Spirit, but as the founding principle, "the most excellent way", of Christian life. Paul's description of the "way of love", among many other things, strongly underlines the decisive importance of the search for the "common good", as both the method and the goal of the mission of the body of Christ.
How is the above relevant to our ongoing discussion about the nature and further developments of our partnerships in mission? It is clear that Paul's approach in these chapters is from what he perceives as the deep, underlying (or perhaps we should say transcendent) reality of the life of the church in this world: it being the body of Christ, composed out of different elements ("Jews or Greeks, slave or free"), ministering to each other and to the world in a variety of gifts, essentially one, and inescapably mutually interdependent. From that reality, we can and must go back to our weak and fragmented existence, both as churches and as organizations of churches. We go back to the practicalities of our institutions, our committees, our meetings and try to share and work together in mission to the best of our knowledge and abilities, not sparing each other our criticism, not covering up for the sake of peace. Every time things get tough, when we fear losing each other, when misunderstandings block communication , let us remind ourselves and each other of the reality of the body of Christ. This is a reality not dependent on our doings, but on the ever-working, life-giving triune God.
(1.) In the general interpretation of this passage, I have relied primarily on Gordon D. Fee's work on Corinthians, both in God's empowering Presence. The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul, Peabody Massachussetts, Hendrickson, 1994, and The First Epistle to the Corinthians [The New International Commentary on the New Testament], Grand Rapids, Michigan, William B. Eerdmans, 1987.
(2.) Cf. in this volume, Dube, Musa W., "Theological Challenges: Proclaiming the fullness of life in the HIV.AIDS & global economic era", pp. 535-549.
HELEEN MURRE-VAN DEN BERG *
* Dr Heleen (H.L.) Murre-van den Berg is Associate Professor for the History of World Christianity at Leiden University, The Netherlands, and a member of the Council for World Mission on behalf of the Uniting Churches in The Netherlands.