And now we’re at the rest of the chapter – 1 Corinthians 12:12-31 …
Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.
I think this body metaphor isn’t coming out of nowhere – two chapters previously Paul told them: “we, who are many, are one body” – 1 Cor. 10:17, then in the previous chapter, Paul referred to another part of the body: “But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.” – 1 Cor. 11:3; odds are it’s continuing his line of thought – but there’s an interesting quirk about the sorts of people he mentions. In Colossians 3:11 it is written: “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” and Galatians 3:28 it says: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” None of them are the same and this one is far less complete than the others. Does that mean that all the other sorts of people aren’t part of the body? Certainly not! Look at the list of the gifts from the last section: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miraculous powers, prophesy, distinguishing between spirits, speaking in tongues, and interpretation of tongues – we know this isn’t a thorough or complete list of gifts, but we also know that Joel prophesied that women and men, young and old, slave and free would prophesy – this was seen at Pentecost the first time people began to speak in tongues in Acts 2 – while it’s true that the passage doesn’t specifically indicate that women were also speaking in tongues – then we would have to look at the feeding of the multitude as far less impressive because even though men were counted, the number of women and children could have easily doubled or tripled the headcount of the crowd had they been counted as well. So what will we say? That Jesus will miraculously feed women, but the Holy Spirit is incapable of giving women gifts? If it can give women gifts, are they given to the same degree as men? Are they to be practiced as freely or are there strings attached? So many believers settle this problem by saying that gifts of the Holy Spirit ceased a long time ago – but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t above saying some of the rules imposed on women are timeless truths that apply even when the gifts are gone.
Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.
Paul isn’t just continuing his body metaphor that he’s been working on – but he’s quoting people whose work would be far more familiar to the Corinthians than us: “What if the hands should wish to injure the feet, or the eyes the hands? As all the members agree together because it is the interest of the whole that each should be kept safe, so men spare their fellow men because we are born for heaven, and society cannot be saved except by the love and protection of its elements.” (Seneca, ‘De Ira’, Liber 2 – actually in Roman numerals: II – 31.7) and “For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another, then, is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away.” (Marcus Aurelius, ‘ The Thoughts of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antonius, Book 2.1) Paul also builds upon that thought. In a way that Seneca and Marcus Aurelius does not. To be honest, we shouldn’t be surprised to see Paul doing this – it’s how Paul should be talking to them – much as a pastor today might refer to Star Wars as it’s in our cultural consciousness to accept something like: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” And then to build on that point in some brilliant spiritual insight that the original author missed without God’s inspiration.
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
“While our presentable parts need no special treatment …” is the sort of thought I wish we would pay more attention to and actually apply it. It seems that we have gotten this passage quite backwards. Some churches were so concerned about their image, they would ask the least presentable members and guests to sit in the back and the most presentable members to sit in the front so that if the camera happened to record them during the service, the church would look as good as they do. Then again, we don’t really see ourselves as a body that is interconnected and interdependent upon each other these days. Which is why we give special treatment to the wrong people and deny special treatment to those whom God meant for it.
Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? Now eagerly desire the greater gifts.
Looking at this list – we have to wonder where they draw the line on what the Holy Spirit can do through whom. Even if you don’t believe that Junia (Romans 16:7) was an apostle, prophesy was definitely a gift which women employed to great effect. Acts 21:9 tells us of Phillips four daughters who had the gift of prophecy. This gives us a problem. While we would agree that apostles and prophets are superior to teachers, women could be prophets but not teachers. Or could they? After all, Priscilla helped Aquila teach Apollos.
One thought is that the Corinthians so eagerly believed in speaking in tongues that they failed to honor diversity otherwise. Paul was trying to unite them while explaining that diversity was a good thing. I believe today’s church is guilty of the exact same thing on a much larger scale. Because we tend to decide which gift is appropriate for each gender, we fail to allow the Holy Spirit to have free reign. We also tend to emphasize teaching over all other gifts for that reason. Teaching is the realm of pastors, deacons, and elders in the most official sense of the gift, which are offices that are limited to men. It’s also permissible for women if they teach other women or children. Women may not teach men because they are easily deceived, the exception to this rule is that women who are missionaries may teach men being easily deceived doesn’t seem to matter if they’re not teaching the sort of guys who usually run the church. We are, in essence telling countless people “we don’t need you” or “we don’t want your gift”. Which is why many are too happy to believe that the Holy Spirit no longer gives gifts and since there’s no evidence of prophesy, then it’s that much easier to require women to be silent as the Bible says they must. It’s also an example of letting our beliefs about the Bible override the teachings of Scripture itself.