Unity of the body requires diversity of its members.
Another problem in the Corinthian church appears to have been their overvaluing of the ecstatic gifts, particularly of “tongues,” over all other gifts. So much so that it was seen as the sign of true spirituality, of having “arrived.” In the process people in the church who did not show this sign may have been told “we don’t need you.” Perhaps in not so many words, but in the attitudes toward them. In addition, the problem between the haves and have-nots from the previous section, the disorder around the Lord’s Supper, may be playing a part here. The haves may have felt they were sufficient to themselves and they did not need the have-nots.
Whatever the precise nature of the problem, Paul writes a corrective: all members are necessary to the health and building up of the body of Christ.
Christ here is not the name of an individual, Jesus, but of the community that derives its existence and identity from the individual. Just as in the Old Testament Israel could serve as the name of an individual (Gen 32:28) and of a people, so in Paul the name Christ is used both for the individual (1 Cor 2:2; Rom 5:17) and for the Christian community (1 Cor 15:22).
Paul writes to the Corinthians that the gifts are not signs of anything – he reminds them that in pagan worship, there are signs of ecstasy – but are tools given by the Spirit for the common good. It is only the appropriate use of these gifts that is evidence of the type of spirituality of the person exhibiting the gift.
It is in this context that Paul introduces an extended “parable of the body.” It speaks both to those who might feel marginalized as well as those who assert self-sufficiency. All parts of the body are necessary. All are equally valuable. The head is not more valuable than the feet. The head cannot sustain itself without the mouth and the rest of the digestive system.
The center of the parable is the statement, “God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose” (v.18, ESV). There is no hierarchy of gifts. Every member is interdependent on another. One has no more authority than another. Verse 28 begins, “And God has appointed…” Ken Bailey writes:
The emphasis is again on “God has appointed.” Paul is not discussing elected church officers or natural abilities, but spiritual gifts.
Bailey also writes that the principle of mutual interdependency can be applied beyond a single congregation to include all congregations:
The emphasis is on the problem of self-sufficiency. This cameo can be understood to reach beyond the status of individual Christians and apply also congregations… [Congregations] needed each other… The strong tendency then and now was and is for each tradition to become self-sufficient and say to the rest of the Christian world, “We do not need you! We have our own language, liturgy, history, theology, tradition and culture. All we need we find within ourselves.” … God’s Spirit is not promised uniquely to us in our divergent organizational structures, but in our faithfulness to the one body of Christ. The sin condemned is not pride but self-sufficiency. The deepest problem is not, “I am better than you” but rather, “I don’t need you.” … God has made us so that we will need each other. No church is an island.
Human nature leads us to associate with people with whom we find much in common, i.e., people like us. We prefer uniformity. It is more comfortable. Denominations form around what is common. Denominations strive to maintain what are core and common. Large congregations feel they can minister to their communities by themselves. There is a temptation for congregations and denominations to think of themselves as “specially chosen by God” so that all other churches are “less-than” and not really necessary. Maybe not explicitly, but often subconsciously. In public we might say that all churches are valuable and fulfilling God’s purpose, but do we sometimes think “we don’t need you” in the privacy of our minds?
Paul writes that all Christians, from individuals members to distinct congregations, are all necessary. Each one has been placed there specifically according to God’s purpose. Diversity of beliefs and practices are necessary for the unity of the body of Christ and for its upbuilding.
The “parable of the body” ends with a discussion of the “unmentionables” – the genitals, the reproductive organs of the body. Ken Bailey observes that the body which cannot reproduce will die. Based upon this observation he suggests that evangelism is like sex (my interpretation). He provides the following seven points in support:
- Evangelism is primary a very private affair
- Evangelism involves deep personal relations
- Evangelism is intended to be sacred and honorable
- Long-term commitments are assumed
- Personal advantage must never be involved
- Evangelism must always be motivated by love, not by a will to power
- The fact the Paul repeats this theme four times in a row is surely indicative of its importance
In fact then, spiritual gifts is not really the main focus of this passage. Paul is trying to focus his readers away from the specifics of gifts to the mutual interdependency of actions that take place within the church. When something happens to a member of the body, the whole body is affected, for good or for bad. No one can be over another because every member has equal value and every ministry is equally necessary. No one can claim a role based on birth, social status, ethnicity, or even gender because it is God who determines where he places a person and what gift will be given to fulfill his purposes.
Spiritual gifts are not roles or abilities.
They are actions that build up the body of Christ.
 Reading Corinthians from Reading the New Testament Commentary Series, entry for 1 Cor. 12:12-27.
 Bailey, location 4089.
 Bailey, location 4034.
 Bailey, location 4067.
 Bailey, locations 4051-4067.
 Bailey, location 4094.