1 Corinthians 12-14

Good morning! Today as we start the final month of Daily Bible, we continue in Paul’s first (existing) letter to the early church at Corinth. 1 Corinthians 12-14 contains some of the most memorable verses of the New Testament, though they are not often understood within the context of Paul’s appeal to Christian community. The apostle’s use of metaphor consistently brings relatable forms to lofty ideals, so that both wise and naïve believers can understand his meaning.

Paul has already written—all the way back in his opening chapter of greetings—about the abundant spiritual gifts present in the Corinthian community. In chapter 12 he returns to the subject, intending that they seek unity in the Holy Spirit as they work with all their different spiritual gifts. All the gifts Paul mentions are from the Spirit, and so all are to work together in unity. Here we also have the classic “one body, many members” metaphor which has been used in both sacred and secular settings throughout the centuries since. Less well known in this metaphor is Paul’s contention that the parts of the body considered shameful are actually more to be honored and protected. He hints at a ranking of spiritual gifts at the end of the chapter, but then says there is “a still more excellent way” beyond any of these.

The “Love Chapter” of First Corinthians 13 is certainly best known in the American context from its use in weddings. I tell couples who request this passage for their service that it works fine for individuals, but was originally written for a community in conflict, sharing a framework by which people might live together in peace. Reading with an awareness of this underlying context may help us hear anew Paul’s references to heavenly tongues, prophetic powers, secret knowledge, sacrificial generosity and the other spiritual gifts he’s been discussing in previous chapters. The highest virtue and spiritual gift of them all is love, or agape in the original Greek. Agape is the highest form of love according to ancient classifications. It may be understood as actions (rather than emotion) of God-inspired self-giving for the sake of another, treating the other as more important than the self for the sake of the community. This emphasis on agape is among the most brazen, no-holds-barred chapters in Paul’s writing, because he’s confidently telling them exactly how to live, yet doing so in a framework and context of love. Paul’s example in the very act of writing this chapter demonstrates how love requires bold action and assertion. He concludes that love is an unending virtue that will outlast knowledge, prophetic powers, and all other spiritual gifts.

Chapter 14 concerns the proper ordering of two spiritual gifts: speaking in tongues, and prophecy. It may help to understand that ancient Christian communities had—and many churches still have—some people “speaking in tongues” (ecstatic and indecipherable speech), while others with gifts for interpretation acts as prophets to translate the message for others. Contrary to ancient fascination with mysterious religious signs, Paul elevates the prophet above the one speaking in tongues because building up the community is more important than self-satisfaction. He employs a less-well-known but helpful metaphor of a musical instrument needing to make clear rather than indistinct sounds (in a community that knows how to interpret them) in order for that instrument to be useful. Paul’s concern for the outsider informs his priorities. Guests in worship must be able to understand what is being spoken, so that they will feel able to participate in the prayer. In closing, Paul emphasizes that worship should be orderly and good for the building up of all.

Near the end of chapter 14 we find a parenthetical aside about women keeping silent in church. I have no doubt that Paul had the stereotypes of women that would have been common as mud at his time. However, many scholars have come to believe that these verses were likely not written by Paul himself, in part because he demonstrates such regard for women’s leadership elsewhere in his letters. These verses are quite out of character for a man who benefitted so much from the aid of women within the church, and elsewhere consistently lauds the participation of women in the expanding reach of the Christian message. I’m persuaded that this paragraph was more likely inserted after Paul’s letter began being regarded as a norm for Christian worship. Whatever the case with this passage, biblical examples and my own experience of female leadership in faith and secular contexts persuade me that their unsubordinated, God-blessed voices are essential for the good of both church and world. Happy reading!

Read 1 Corinthians 12-14.

Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is 1 Corinthians 15-16. Thanks for reading!

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