1 Corinthian Series, Bible study lesson 12
by Reta Halteman Finger
A former student from one of my Letters of Paul classes recently commented in an email: “The more I study [Paul] the more I am amazed at how radical he was! If only people understood him better….”
To us, 1 Corinthians 12 sounds fairly tame. The body imagery seems like a good way to teach children group cooperation. However, if we seriously lived out this text in our family, work, and community life, many personal egos would end up on the chopping block!
First let’s observe the larger literary structure of this unit. The setting of 1 Corinthians 11-14 is the regular evening assembly of a Christian house church. In chapters 12-14, Paul seeks to bring order to an undisciplined and fractious worship service following the meal. He uses the same rhetorical technique as in chapters 8-10 on idol-meat and banquets: a more general discussion of the problem (ch 12), followed by a central section (ch 13) that calls for rigorous self-giving, and then a longer section (ch 14) of specific advice for tackling the problem.
Keep in mind that the Corinthian house churches are splitting along lines of social and economic status. No doubt the wealthier and better-educated assume they are in charge. The lower classes—manual laborers, slaves, immigrants, most Jews—must be kept in their place. But because Paul would have preached spiritual oneness when he was planting these house churches, the poor and enslaved now feel free to claim that equality during worship. Consider also what physical hunger and resentment against the elites might have done to their mood (see Lesson 11 on 1 Cor 11:17-34).
Spiritual Things versus Spiritual Gifts
We start with a translation issue in 12:1. Typical English versions say, “I don’t want you to be ignorant about spiritual gifts,” but the Greek word means “spiritual things.” Paul is referring to the whole realm of polytheistic religions—the “idols” or false gods of verse 2. Paul contrasts these speechless idols with true speech that comes from the influence of God’s Spirit. In these religions, the gods do not speak. Rather, their will must be interpreted by priests through dreams, the flight of birds, entrails of sacrificed animals, or even the smoke ascending from an altar.
God’s Holy Spirit, on the other hand, speaks meaningful language through prophets whose messages can be evaluated by the Body of believers. Declaring that “Jesus is cursed” (or anathema) may seem odd to us, but ordinary Corinthians would naturally say this about a man crucified by the Romans as a common criminal. Only those believers baptized into God’s Spirit can proclaim the ironic, counter-cultural reality that “Jesus is Lord” (12:3).
By verse 4, Paul can now speak of “spiritual gifts” (Gk, charisms). Instead of an elite class of imperial priests trained to interpret the will of the gods, the Holy Spirit spreads these unearned gifts among all believers, no matter how humble. Instead of an imperial religion devoid of an ethics of equality, these gifts are given “to each person for the common good” (12:7).
As I ponder the range of gifts and ministries Paul lists in 12:8-11, it seems remarkable that the same terms were used in other religions of that culture: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, ability to tell spirits apart, tongues, and interpretation of tongues. But priests who learned to manipulate such “spiritual things” carefully kept these secret powers to themselves, in order to maintain their respected role as conduits to the deities ruling the Empire. The “common good” was hardly their concern!
Thus Paul’s paragraph of 12:1-11 compares and contrasts what we might call a Yahwist, monotheist approach with the polytheist religions in which these new Christ-believers have so recently been immersed. How might we hear Paul’s words in our contemporary cultures and lifestyles? Would Paul view global capitalism with its staggering wealth inequalities, corrupting patronage, and military might as the false gods of our day?
More Reflections on the “Body”
Paul continues insisting that spiritual gifts are given for the common good. The image of the physical body parallels the church as a unified Body. The language of 12:12 ties this discourse with the body language of chapter 11. Unless the gathered house assembly “discerns the body” by sharing their common meal together so that all have enough, it is not a “supper of the Lord” (11:20-22).
Paul again contrasts Roman assumptions with his view of radical equality in Christ. The Roman elite often use the image of the physical body for precisely the opposite meaning: different parts of the body are NOT equal. The head is superior; the feet are the most inferior; hence, the ruling Roman elite are superior to everyone else. Relationships on the patronage pyramid are organized by intricate levels of inferiority or superiority. Elites use the example of the physical body to encourage everyone to stay “in their place” and not disrupt the peace of the body politic. But Paul’s opposing viewpoint is well taken. Hidden parts of the body—either internal or the parts we cover up—are just as essential for life as are eyes, ears, and hands.
Paul ends this chapter with a different list of spiritual gifts and abilities (12:27-30). Though some are repeated from 12:8-10—such as miracles or healing—others, like apostolic evangelism or the ability to help others, are distinctly Christian.
Corinthian Christ-believers hearing this chapter would have understood how radical was Paul’s theology over against the hierarchical socio-religious structure of empire. Elites may have rejected Paul’s view, while lower-class persons would be heartened. How do Christ-believers hear Chapter 12 today? As a commonplace and tame description of the church—or as a radical critique of our culture, our religions, and our American empire?