"We need each other"
3 October 1999
1 Cor. 12: 21—31
Paul, fine teacher that he is, includes lots of repetition of the key concepts in this passage:
So, here we are, learning that the eye cannot despise the hand, nor the head the feet. Those who are supernaturally gifted should not hold those gifted in a more prosaic, less spectacular manner (note—I didn’t say, less supernaturally because all the "gifts" are supernatural). Here is no place for pride, nor for discontent within the body of Christ. As part of the body, I can actually affirm that if you are the "eye, hand, head, or foot" you are my eye, hand, head or foot"!
All this makes plain, ole common sense. But Paul next says something surprising: he wants us to know that the inferior, or invisible saints are the ones who make the church work! Their work may not be eye-catching, or outwardly impressive, but steadily and quietly they get the job done—in Sunday School, in maintenance around the church, in publishing bulletins, you name it. The hidden saints make church happen even when recognition goes elsewhere. In a homey example, comparing poets and artisans such as a blacksmith, or carpenter, Robertson and Plummer wrote, concerning governance of society:
We can spare this artisan better than this poet, but we can spare all poets better than all artisans. While the entertainment industry may not wish to hear it, we, as a society, might benefit more from fewer actors and more skilled workers today!
Paul focuses in on "presentability." He is concerned to distinguish between gifts that are "abundantly honorable" in the view of all and those which are deemed less "honorable." In the body we are encouraged to value those who elsewhere might be undervalued, if not despised! Hence we are exhorted to associate with the lowly, and we may find in the church that the usual order of social deference (in worldly terms) is sometimes reversed—say, with a slave presiding as "elder" over his master in the spiritual realm. Because the church is not "sold out" to worldly standards, the church is the uneasy and undependable ally of social revolutionaries—while the latter want "external" equality, those who are in the church already experience "essential" equality. We are all, high or low, rich or poor, equally precious to God the Father. Our loyalty is to each other in Kingdom terms, and not worldly at all!
"That there should be no schism in the body" (v. 25) Schism, or division, is the direct opposite of divine intention for the church, or for the family. So, it is rebellion. We are therefore to be on the alert. We are to keep our relationships warmly affectionate and to view any decay of affection as the seed of some potential disruption, rupture, or division. The prevalence of divorce among Christians (same rates as for the worldly!) is evidence of our failure to love fully and deeply enough—a spiritual failure to depend on Jesus Christ to be the source of our reconciliation and of our ongoing relationship.
In verse 24, the word tempered carries the meanings of blending as in the mixing of colors on a painter’s pallet. The emphasis is upon the desired effect, the outcome and not on the individual parts. That is why we should have "care" for each other. Relational coldness leads to carelessness, carelessness leads to unconcern, and unconcern leads to disregard. So we are to be on our guard against coldness and nip disregard in the bud! Are you feeling distanced from someone? You take the initiative, call them up and renew that friendship, that affection. Contempt, hatred, envy and strife are "unnatural" in the body life of the church. So. be solicitous for your own well-being and the well-being of all the other parts because that is what it means to take the fellowship’s "oneness" really seriously. We do have a common life, but we need to cultivate our consciousness of that commonality. The same Spirit pervades the whole body of believers. I am not sure that such awareness comes to us naturally—it needs to be revealed and reinforced daily. This awareness is not about what "ought to be," rather it is about what "is the case," even as we speak. Therefore Paul exclaims (v. 27), "Now you are the body of Christ and members in particular." The whole church, throughout all the ages makes up that body—beyond time and particular location.
Verse 28. "God has set some in the church (as a whole, and not just particularly and locally) in first place as apostles." They are church planters. The Twelve were baptized by John and were with Jesus from the beginning so they did it all—there were no foundations to build upon. Secondarily, God gave some to be prophets. They were spirit-filled teachers and evangelists, an essential part of the leadership in the church at Antioch. That early church was a conglomeration of many cell churches dispersed throughout the city. In third place were teachers who ran on regular fuel and not supreme; they studied out the word of God but were very much present as rulers in the church. Apostles prophets and teachers were the governing elders of the church in Jerusalem and, later, elsewhere throughout the Roman Empire. Then came miracles workers, healers and those with the gift of helps. The gift of helps refers to those who show up when they are especially needed, or who "just happen to have" a spare bed, pump or lawn mower—and often times they wonder why they had such an item until the moment arrives when someone in need requires what they have to give away. The Lord also placed in the body those who are administrators, who run or regulate ministries alongside those who have the gift of ecstasy in speech, and worship. In other words God has luxuriously provided for the church, a great store of gifted persons exists in the body and all is in order beginning with the three ranks of authoritative instructors to keep the doctrine pure. In this way everyone is edified spiritually in evangelism, knowledge and holiness.
God values things by their real worth, by their spiritual usefulness in advancing the Kingdom and meeting the needs of the sheep. Healing, relieving the poor, helping the marginalized and the sick, teaching the ignorant and training up new disciples. . .all the way down to tongues and interpretation of tongues. I say this to reflect Paul’s evaluation of tongues. Paul has written to fault the Corinthians for their foolish spiritual inversion, for elevating the least of the gifts to such a high place. Curiously the gift they took most pride in was deeply humiliating. Were they so unstudied and inarticulate as to depended on ecstatic utterance? One would hope not!
We must not overlook the obvious: say whatever else you may, the church was from the start geared up for reproduction, for church planting. Remember, apostles/planters, then preachers, and then teachers. However, beyond these primary offices, we note that everyone had a place and a share in the spiritual enterprise and we are charged to be content, and diligent to apply our gifting. We are to use each other well, loving each other even as we do our duty.
We should strive to overcome the temptation to want to be in charge—that only leads to confusion in the body! The better way is the way of mutual love and good will. Only love will calm our competitive spirits and quell our ambitious contests. Rather than leading, we should concern ourselves with serving, for he is most Christ-like who loves purely and best regardless of his position or place. All can do that!