I Corinthians 11
I Corinthians 11:1-16: Verse one is a continuation of the last chapter. The division of these letters into chapters and verses, indeed the division of the entire Bible into chapters and verses came later. Paul is inviting the Corinthian Christians to imitate him, especially in the matter he has been discussing, namely, not insisting on one’s “rights” at all cost, but being sensitive to others. Paul saw that in Jesus and he tries to live it in his own life. This may seem egotistical, and perhaps there is some of that present. On the other hand, to tell a group of people, “I think I have this right” puts a lot of pressure on the person making that assertion. I think all spiritual leaders live in the tension between acknowledging their own imperfections (as Paul will do in II Corinthians) while also needing to be a role model for people on the spiritual path. The words “Do as I say, not as I do” don’t wash for spiritual leaders.
From profound insight to difficult material, here Paul speaks about worship and worship leadership and offers words that disturb the contemporary reader. The passage is difficult and leaves the modern reader with many unanswered questions…. Interpreting the text as though it taught the subordination of women is clearly a misreading, since it clashes with Paul’s teaching and practice elsewhere. (People’s New Testament Commentary). Here we go.
Paul commends the Corinthian Christians for maintaining the traditions he has handed down to them. They obviously have not gotten everything right, but like a good teacher Paul commends them for what they are doing right. Then he takes up a new topic of controversy – worship, worship leadership, and the role of men and women is such leadership. Some of his statements are puzzling. Before addressing the issues directly, Paul makes a comment about the relationship between men, women and God. Paul states that Christ is the head of every man, and that man is the head of woman. What can he mean by this? It contradicts what he will say shortly, in verse 12 – that both men and women have their source in God. The language Paul uses is ambiguous, as “head” in Greek can also mean “source.” Paul may be alluding to the creation story in Genesis, but his purpose might only be discovered as we read past verse 3. Paul discourages men praying or prophesying (speaking a word from the Spirit) from covering their heads while doing so. The exact nature of Paul’s objection, what it is he is objecting to, is shrouded in mystery. There is some context for his remark, but we have lost it. For Paul to cover the head is to dishonor the “head,” that is, Christ. Paul is using word play and that does not make this passage any easier work with. In turn, then, Paul objects to women praying or prophesying without covering her head. Again, the context is lost. With the context lost, all we have are some harsh sounding words from Paul. However, part of the context for Paul’s words may be found in the culture of his time. “In some sections of the first-century Mediterranean world certain hairstyles indicated promiscuity, homosexuality, or participation in the frenzied worship of some pagan cults” (People’s New Testament Commentary). To bolster his argument for some differences in how men and women are to lead in worship (though notice both men and women lead in worship!), Paul alludes to the creation story in Genesis. Again, these verses should not be taken out of context or be seen as promoting a distinct hierarchy of men over women. Paul says as much in verses 11-12: “nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman… all things come from God.”
This is Paul’s basic stance. His instructions on worship leadership need to be seen in light of this stance. Could it be that Paul is once again asking the Corinthian Jesus community to be sensitive to the faith of “weaker members”? Could it be they find it disturbing when the usual social order is disrupted too much? Could it be that certain hairstyles communicated something that did not bother some of the community, but others found troublesome? Once again, Paul may be asking for sensitivity to others. To read this passage in a way that is entirely insensitive to the leadership gifts of women, then, is a poor reading of the text, and a direct contradiction of its basic intent.
I Corinthians 11:17-34: Paul began the last section commending the Corinthians, but on the matter he will now discuss, he cannot do so. When they come together for “the Lord’s supper” “it is not for the better but for the worse.” What a difficult word to share. The following information from The People’s New Testament Commentary is very helpful in understanding what is going on here. The congregation met in private homes of those wealthy enough to provide for such meetings. The church service somewhat resembled a dinner party. The dining room held eight or ten persons, the adjoining atrium forty or fifty more. It was absolutely “normal” in such settings that those of higher status received privileged places and better food in the dining room, while slaves and those of lower status ate in the atrium…. In such a context, the central symbol of Christian worship was radically egalitarian – slaves and masters, rich and poor, men and women all ate together as an expression that they were one body in Christ. Their problem was that they were transferring the understanding of social relationships normal in their culture into the life of the church, without realizing that they very event they were celebrating… had made everything new.
As they ate a meal together around the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, some ate to excess, while some went hungry. Some drank until they became intoxicated. Those who had very little would be humiliated in such situations and Paul will have none of this. Paul reminds them of what the Lord’s Supper is all about, and in his words we have words that have been used in Christian worship for centuries. There is no systematic discussion of the meaning of the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament…. The Eucharist is a symbolic act instituted by Jesus that cannot be reduced to one or several “meanings,” but points the participant in several directions. (People’s New Testament Commentary). Paul shares what has been handed down to him in the tradition, and what, he in turn, has handed down.
Paul then writes with deep seriousness about what it means to ignore the egalitarian nature of sharing in the Lord’s Supper, how it should break down social conventions that divide people. His rhetoric is very sharp, but it is rhetoric, not literal speech that Paul uses. Paul encourages self-examination as one shares in the Eucharist. Unfortunately, some read these words and stay away from the Lord’s Supper, worried that they are not worthy. This is not Paul’s intent, nor would he be pleased with such a reaction. What he desires is that the Corinthian Jesus community live up to who it is, live out the true meaning of this celebration. Failure to do so demonstrates a lack of judgment, and Paul wants the community to be discerning. Paul’s words about sickness and death are difficult to interpret. Did he believe that some were sick and dying because the community was not celebrating the Lord’s Supper well? Perhaps. As I read this, one might also read these words as saying that some are sick and dying in the community because of a failure to share adequately with each other, as joint participation in the Lord’s Supper would suggest they should do. Whatever Paul’s precise meaning, he would not want people to avoid the Eucharist, but rather wants them to become who they say they are – caring for each other as parts of the same body of Christ.
I Corinthians 12
I Corinthians 12:1-11: Apparently, the community has written Paul to ask about spiritual gifts. Christians trust that God’s Spirit works in people’s lives to bring out their best gifts, and even seems to “bestow” certain kinds of gifts on people. The Corinthians seem fascinated by such special gifts, and Paul wants them to be informed about them.
Paul notes that some of the Corinthian Christians had previously worshipped other gods. The reference to this seems out of place, unless you assume that Paul acknowledges that in those other worship centers there were also “spiritual experiences,” and that his concern here is to distinguish Christian spirituality from pagan spirituality. Paul has already indicated that he knows that those Hellenistic gods do not really exist, but he will not deny that the followers of these religions had ecstatic religious experiences, just as some of the Corinthian Christians seem to be having. What place do such experiences occupy in the Christian life of faith? How are we to discern genuine Christian experiences?
Paul’s next line makes a great deal of sense in that context. God’s Spirit at work in people’s lives leads them to acknowledge that “Jesus is Lord.” It would be reading too much into these verses to make them a general statement about the value of other spiritual traditions. Paul is writing to a Christian community helping them figure out what it means to be Christian. To be Christian is to affirm that Jesus is Lord. There is confusion about the meaning of the other part of the verse. Who was saying, “Jesus be cursed”? It may be that some superspiritual Corinthian Christians wanted to dismiss the earthly Jesus as less important than the cosmic Christ (another version of relegating bodily existence to a level of unimportance). It may be that Paul is simply engaging in a rhetorical move, contrasting true Christian confession with its opposite. The real test of the Spirit’s presence is not flashy “spiritual experiences,” but confession in word and deed, that the crucified man of Nazareth is Lord of one’s life and Lord of the church and world (People’s New Testament Commentary).
Paul emphasizes that spiritual gifts help the church affirm that centrality of Jesus. Now he emphasizes that they all come from one God, no matter which gift one may have. Paul uses the word “charisma” to speak of the gifts of the Spirit, and Paul is the only one to use this Greek word. He may have invented it. It is related to the Greek word for grace (“charis”) and thus emphasizes that all these gifts are gifts of God’s grace, and are to be exercised for “the common good.” Paul’s lists vary, but here the gifts (listed with The Message translation in parentheses) are: wisdom (wise counsel), knowledge (clear understanding), faith (simple trust), healing (healing the sick), miracles (miraculous acts), prophecy (proclamation), discernment of spirits (distinguishing between spirits), tongues (tongues), interpretation of tongues (interpretation of tongues). Paul begins and ends his list with gifts that the Corinthians were especially enamored with, that they particularly prized. Yet, throughout Paul emphasizes that all the gifts come from the same Spirit.
I Corinthians 12:12-31: Paul now introduces a metaphor to emphasize even more strongly that these gifts are for the common good, emphasizes even more strongly the interconnection between the lives of those in the Corinthian Christian community. They are all a part of the same body! All – Jew or Greek, slave or free – were baptized into the body of Christ and given God’s Spirit. They belong together and to speak otherwise is like a foot thinking less of itself because it is not a hand, or an ear denigrating itself because it is not an eye. Paul is at his humorous best here – just take in the picture as you read. A body is not a giant eye, and the parts can’t tell each other they are not needed. When a part of the body hurts, it is the whole body that hurts. Paul turns from the anatomy lesson to the church. YOU are the body of Christ, Paul tells them (and through them he speaks to us). God has given gifts for the benefit of the entire body. Note Paul’s list here is a little different from the previous list.
What are some of your gifts? How are you using them for the work of the body of Christ? If you don’t see yourself as gifted, look again!!!