1 Corinthians 13—Not Just for Weddings!

1 Corinthians Series, Bible study lesson 13

By Reta Halteman Finger

Reta's Grandson
Reta’s Grandson

Last week I spent several days with Erik, my 19-month-old grandson. Since I saw him last March, he had metamorphosed from baby to toddler. While his mother was at work, he was happy and busy, playing with me or by himself. But when she came home, everything changed. He clung to her, fearful that she would leave him with me again. While we talked, he fussed and tried to hit her, wanting her undivided attention. The following day, while visiting other relatives, I learned that one of his main words is “Mine!”

This is perfectly normal behavior; I did not take it personally! During the year between one and two, toddler are delightfully cute and charming—as well as irrational little animals that assume they are the center of the universe. No emotions are hidden. It is up to their caretakers to civilize these squirming little bundles of id, as they gradually learn that other people have similar emotional needs. “When I was a child,” says Paul, “I reasoned like a child, but when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways” (1 Cor 13:11).

Although children do grow up and learn to cover up their baser instincts with polite behavior, some never do “put an end to childish ways.” The Franciscan spiritual director, Richard Rohr, writes about “the second half of life”—a stage of spiritual exploration and reflection that he thinks many people never reach. Bill Plotkin, a psychologist who identifies eight stages of maturity, estimates that only 15 percent of Americans have crossed into mature adulthood, with most of us stuck in adolescence (Bob Sabath, “Rethinking Success,” Sojourners, Dec 2012,  p. 17).

Context Enriches the Text
First Corinthians 13 describes a higher stage of moral and spiritual development. Though frequently lifted out of context and used in wedding sermons, it should be seen as an encomium praising agape love as the highest spiritual gift in comparison to all other spiritual charisms Paul discusses in this unit (chapters 12-14). The previous lesson noted a number of these gifts—apostolic or prophetic or teaching abilities, deeds of power, healing, administration, and tongues (1 Cor 12:28). Paul tells the believers to “strive for the greater gifts” (12:31a). Hearing this, the elite patrons of the church will no doubt assume that they should compete with each other to excel in the most honorable, public positions in the church and society.

But Paul pulls the rug out from under them when he shows them “a more excellent way” (12:31b). The glamour of tongues, prophecy, powerful orations, or showing off their knowledge will achieve nothing if they do not demonstrate self-giving agape love for the entire body of believers in their assembly (13:1-2). Paul’s description of what this love is like in 13:4-7 must sting these patrons. In 11:21, they have been chastised for eating their own suppers before poor and hungry folks can arrive. They have been rude, boastful, and arrogant and have insisted on their own way (13:4-5). After all the impressive “gifts” they were striving for, this is not what they want to hear!

The Hardest Task in the World

Corinthian Bronzes
Corinthian Bronzes

This chapter functions within this unit on spiritual gifts the way chapter 9 functions in the 8-10 unit on banquets and idol-meat. It is an example of the self-denial and relinquishing of privilege necessary for unity across social classes in the house churches. In 13:1-3, Paul specifically taps into elite Corinthian pride. All their concern to demonstrate public speaking ability—in any language—compares with chalkos ēchōn—what the NRSV mistranslates as “noisy gong.” Literally, it reads, “noisy bronze,” which refers to a bronze plate that was often used in the theater to amplify various musical instruments. Corinth was famous for manufacturing bronze objects such as the ones pictured here. However, this was no compliment. As Pheme Perkins says in her Paideia commentary, “Those fascinated with oratory might have recognized in this metaphor a classical allusion to the pompous rhetorician with nothing important to say” (p. 152).

The last section of this chapter focuses on, as an economist might say, long-term outcomes. What qualities will last forever? Not dramatic speeches or higher education and great knowledge. This praise of love deals directly with Paul’s overarching concern in this letter—that the house assemblies dissolve their divisions and “be united in the same mind and the same purpose” (1:10). Agape love means getting along with others for the common good. This is a call to every believer, but it especially confronts social climbers who major in oneupmanship. “Boasting,” a common practice in Corinth, is what Paul continually attacks in this letter (i.e.,1:29, 5:6, 13:3).

Self-giving love is the greatest quality to endure to eternity (13:13). Does God have a Google-like “Cloud” where such unselfish acts are stored, no matter how small? Are acts of self-gratification immediately deleted from the Divine Hard Drive? This seems to be the gist of 1 Corinthians 13.

1. Paul addresses this love poem mainly to elite Corinthians who act superior to others. Do you see any parallels to your social context and our culture today? What about your church? How can agape love confront one-upmanship and subtle put-downs?

2. In some people, does the need for self-promotion arise from mistreatment or a poor self-image? How can agape love address these issues?

3. Suggest ways believers can “strive for the greatest gift”—the maturity of agape love.

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.