Commentary on 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
This second part of 1 Corinthians 12 echoes many of the themes from last week’s text in the beginning of 1 Corinthians 12. These themes include the diverse giftings of the Spirit, the necessity of all spiritual gifts, the relativization of the gift of tongues, and a celebration of the diversity of spiritual gifts.
Grounded in ritual practice
The bulk of this passage is devoted to Paul’s development of a body metaphor to illustrate the proper relationships among members of the Corinthian congregation. However, Paul sets the stage for this metaphor by calling to mind elements of the Corinthians’ ritual and liturgical life together. In 12:13, he reminds the Corinthians that they have all been baptized into one body and made to drink of one Spirit. While it should not be pressed too far, it may be that this reference to drink is a subtle allusion to the practice of the Lord’s Supper, a practice that Paul just finished discussing in 1 Corinthians 11. In that context, Paul urged his audience to discern the “body” (11:29) when partaking of the Lord’s Supper. Although Paul may have intended the body of Christ himself in that context, the repetition of body imagery here in chapter 12 makes the reference in chapter 11 at least somewhat ambiguous.
The body metaphor
From verse 14 on, Paul develops a detailed metaphor of a human body to explain the relationship among members of the Body of Christ. Despite the metaphorical language that he uses, Paul’s meaning is clear: all members of the Corinthian congregation are equally necessary for the full flourishing of the body. This means that highlighting certain members (to the detriment of others) is problematic for the whole body.
While the issue in chapter 12 has to do with the privileging of members with certain spiritual giftings, the discussion of the Lord’s Supper in chapter 11 or the Corinthians’ eagerness to forgive a man involved in a scandalous relationship in chapter 5 suggests that Paul is concerned with any issue that might elevate some members of the congregation over others. This is a helpful point to remember for our own time when debates about spiritual gifts may be less fraught than debates about other markers or divisions of identities along socio-economic, racial, gender, or political lines.
Individualism as antithetical to the good of the body
In verse 21, Paul imagines a scenario in which certain body parts claim no need of the others. While this imaginary scenario may at first seem absurd, the inclination it illustrates (an inclination toward radical individualism) is not merely the result of an active imagination. Indeed, the conflict between a spirit of radical individualism and recognition of interconnected interdependence continues to be evident in the world today. In the recent Covid-19 pandemic, debates about mask mandates or vaccine mandates demonstrate that this age-old conflict still rages.
For Paul’s purposes, individual rights or personal freedoms are entirely secondary to the good of the whole. Paul has been consistent in this message throughout much of 1 Corinthians. For example, in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10, Paul addresses a conflict whereby some members of the Corinthian congregation believe that their personal rights are being violated if they are not permitted to eat meat that had previously been sacrificed to idols. While Paul agrees with these individualists in theory (that is, the idols are not real anyway, so who cares if meat had been sacrificed?), Paul also recognizes that the issue is a sensitive one for many others in the congregation. Thus, he advises against the consumption of such meat for the sake of others.
This inclination toward pursuing the common good underlies Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 12 as well. That is, just as just as the whole of the human body is affected if one part is suffering, so too does the whole of the Body of Christ suffer when one of its members suffers (12:26).
Spiritual gifts in the Body of Christ
Paul wraps up his argument in 12:27-31 by returning to the issue of spiritual gifts themselves in the context of the corporate community. To be certain that his audience has grasped the essence of the metaphor that he has been using up to this point, Paul insists in verse 27, “You [plural] are the body of Christ.” The Greek pronoun here is an emphatic one that draws attention to the collective identity of the congregation, a congregation endowed with a wide variety of spiritual gifts.
While Paul had previously shied away from ranking the importance of the spiritual gifts, in verse 28 he appears to offer a preliminary ranking of the gifts in order of importance. Notably, gifts related to speaking in tongues are last. In other words, the very gift that the Corinthians seem to prize the most, Paul ranks as the least important among other gifts.
Nonetheless, Paul is careful in his line of reasoning here. Even if he offers this ranked list, he also is cautious not to undermine the foundation of his argument thus far: all gifts are necessary. In order to reiterate this point, he poses a series of questions in verses 29-30 to force his audience into the position of recognizing the truth of his position. While most English translations do not capture it, Paul’s Greek grammar here provides the answer that he expects his audience to give. That is, rather than simply being translated “Are all apostles?” Paul’s language here might be better captured with a translation like “Not all are apostles, are they?” In other words, Paul provides rhetorical clues that move his audience closer to accepting his position.
For Paul, diversity within the Body of Christ is not just a nice ideal toward which the congregation can aspire. Rather, it is an essential component to the full functioning of that body. Paul recognizes that every type of spiritual gift is necessary, and he hopes to convince the congregation in Corinth of the same.