Barriers to Inclusivity in 1 Corinthians #20 11/03/2021

'Out of Many, One People'

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Barriers to Inclusivity in 1 Corinthians.

“There is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all”. Paul’s word to the Colossians in 3:11 calls all in whom Christ lives to have a deep unity of shared belonging and worship. So the New Testament gives us glimpses of the everyday challenges that the church faced in living that out; not only across the major distinction of Jew and Greek (thus Paul’s conflict with Peter in Galatians 2:11-15), but also the delicate question of how slave-owners and slaves related (Philemon), and how to incorporate a variety of cultural and status distinctions.

It is the tension of building a socially inclusive church across these differences that Paul faces in what we refer to as his First Letter to the Corinthians (though it speaks of a previous, unpreserved letter).

The letter refers to at least three types of division in the church:

* partisanship (especially 1:10-17);

* spiritual gifts (especially 12:1-11, and chapter 14);

* wealth and poverty (especially in the food they could bring to the Lord’s Supper – 11:17-34).

Divisiveness, then, was a major characteristic of the church in Corinth. As we seek to follow God’s call to build churches that exhibit lived-out unity between diverging social and ethnic groups, what can we learn from Paul’s writing to the fractious Corinthians?

Whilst they didn’t face issues that correspond directly to the ethnic or cultural issues we face today, there are suggestions of not dissimilar challenges Thus, after the initial greetings in chapter 1 Paul raises the question of factions focused on various leaders. In ‘Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes’ Richards and O’Brien make the intriguing suggestion that these factions identified themselves ethnically with particular leaders: Alexandrian Jews with Apollos, Gentiles and diasporic Jews with Paul, Palestinian Jews with Cephas (note the use of his Hebrew, not Greek name). They set this ‘ethnic’ possibility against the default western assumption that church divisions tend to be rooted in either theology or personality conflicts (p 66).

Whatever the causes of divisions in the Corinthian church, Tom Wright summarizes Paul’s awareness:

“He knows only too well (if he had not already, the recent experience with Corinth would have taught him) that a community composed of people from very different social, ethnic and cultural backgrounds will find all sorts of interesting reasons for divisions, perhaps over seemingly unrelated issues. Every such impulse must be resisted. And he knows too well, again with all too many Corinthian examples, that the behaviour of Jesus’s followers can pick up inappropriate colouring from the pagan world around them. That too must be resisted.” (‘Paul: A Biography’ p 272).

In reality we have frustratingly little evidence about how such divisions in the church correlated with the use of spiritual gifts, material prosperity or ethnicity. Paul’s reference to ‘factions’ at the Lord’s supper at 11:19 suggests a deeper and more structured division than simply the sort of food and drink that people happened to afford. Chapters 11 and 12, as we shall see, shift focus between social divisions and spiritual gifts several times, but we do not know whether the different boundary lines between the opposing groups of people were identical or cross-cutting.

Inequality at the Lord’s Supper.

In 1 Corinthians 11:17 Paul starts by admonishing them over the question of divisions caused by inequality whilst eating the Lord's Supper: “For when the time comes for you to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk”(11:21). The result is to 'humiliate those who have nothing' (11:22). Such insensitivity, according to Paul, means not only that 'your meetings do more harm than good' (11:17), but even invalidate them as sacraments: 'it is not really to eat the Lord's Supper'. (Akin to the way lively 'worship' in Amos 5:21-24 is nullified by acquiescence in injustice: 'I hate, I despise your religious feasts'). After describing the institution of the Lord’s Supper (vv23-26), Paul returns to the issue of them eating and drinking ‘in an unworthy manner’ (v27). The implication is that by showing ‘contempt for the church of God’ they are dishonouring the body and blood of the Lord. By failing to discern his presence in their fellow members they are bringing judgement on themselves, to the extent that some have become ill and have even died (v 30). Gordon Fee writes 'Therefore [the worshippers] are not just any group of sociologically diverse people who could keep those differences intact at this table. Here they must "discern/recognize as distinct" the one body of Christ, of which they are all parts and in which they are all gifts to one another. To fail to discern the body in this way, by abusing those of lesser sociological status, is to incur God's judgement' (Fee: The First Letter to the Corinthians, p564). There is a powerfully intense association between Christ’s presence in the church members and his presence in the bread and wine they consume. 

Paul then goes on to discuss diverse spiritual gifts (12:1-11). In verse 12 he uses the analogy of the body in order to emphasise how such diversity needs to find its unity in Christ. Whilst he returns to the issue of spiritual gifts in 12:27-30, the intervening verses from13 to 26 seem not to be focused on diversity of gifts but on social diversity. (There is a danger here of allowing our chapter headings to shape the reading of Paul’s text, by assuming that as chapter 11 was about problems in worship – head coverings and the Lord’s Supper, so we can too readily assume that chapter 12 is all about Spiritual Gifts).  But the discussion is set by verse 13 where the diversity spoken of is not of gifts but of ethnicity and social class: “Jews or Greeks; slaves or free’. Accordingly, after contrasting different organs of the body (foot/hand, ear/eye) he then makes contrasts which are relational and social. He contrasts weaker and indispensable (22b) (though note that Paul here is undermining a superficial assessment, they only ’seem to be weaker’), honourable and less honourable (23a), less respectable and more respectable (23b). Gordon Fee suggests that ‘weaker’ applies to the internal organs, and ‘less respectable’ to the sexual organs. Whatever lies behind Paul’s use of analogies, the overall threefold comparison is clearly directed not at spiritual gifts but at social standing, and that some in the church at Corinth had allowed their evaluation of others to conform to the values of the surrounding society.

By contrast, for Paul ‘weakness’ is the default human characteristic. (Weakness, astheneia, is a word that deserves close theological exploration). In 15:42-44 Paul contrasts the resurrection body with the nature of our present bodies. Presently we all are marked by dishonour and weakness – that is we all have the very characteristics of those who were disregarded at the Lord’s Supper. Whilst the resurrected body is characterized by glory and power, in this life those characteristics are ambiguous. So in 4:8-10 it is the apostles who are fools, weak and disreputable, whilst Paul sarcastically describes his opponents as seeing themselves as ‘kings’ who are wise, strong and honourable. In contrast the apostles are ‘the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world’ (4:13, TNIV). The rhetorical question at 4:7: ‘What do you have that you did not receive?’ clearly assumes the answer ‘Nothing!’ They are not to be ‘puffed up’ by either spiritual gifts or social status but recognize that they share the natural human condition of weakness and dishonour, which marks our standing before God until he bestows his blessing on us. ‘Nothing in my hand I bring’.

Overcoming Exclusion.

Paul then derives a number of relational applications as they apply to the differences between social groups in Corinth, and that form a rebuke to their appalling behavior whilst taking part in the Lord’s supper. He makes three applications, all of which speak clearly today to churches that are also called to express close, respectful unity across social and, by implication, ethnic divisions.

1. God, he writes in chapter 12, has so arranged the body to give ‘greater honour to the inferior member’ (24b), (noting Fee’s comment that ‘inferior’ here refers to need rather than an assessment of worth, p 641). By contrast, the Corinthians were risking judgement for not ‘discerning the body’; treating ‘those who have nothing’ (v 22) without honour, as invisible. I think of a black friend who went to congratulate a fellow student from an affluent background on his ordination and was simply snubbed. Whatever else he may have learned, there was something very seriously lacking from that deacon’s ministerial formation. Instead there ought to be positive affirmation – consciously, though unobtrusively, honouring those with particular needs in our church rather than side-lining them.

2. ‘That there may be no dissension in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another’ (v 25). Care was singularly lacking at the Corinthian Lord’s Supper. Care comes from an empathetic and imaginative entering into the situation of others. It only comes from giving time to close engagement – the very thing that eating together ought to foster. Rather than allowing church life to collude with social or ethnic differences, steps should be taken (as Paul suggests) to work through such distinctions to a strong relational unity. Distinctions of religious and social background were considerably greater in Corinth than in modern Britain, but for Paul it was unthinkable to accede to them. 

In the national context, whilst there are no doubt various reasons for the disproportionate impact of Covid19 on people from ethnic minorities, the lack of proper protection for workers in low paid occupations, such as bus drivers or care home workers, is an outrageous indictment of lack of care at a senior level for those who were economically ‘weak’, and disproportionately from ethnic minorities.

3. ‘If one member suffers, all suffer together’ (v 26, cf Romans 12:15). A church is only truly egalitarian, or anti-racist, when all members take up the sufferings and concerns of some members. If wealthier or more privileged members walk by on the other side when the less honoured are mistreated or discriminated against then they are falling short of the standards Paul sets. Rather they should be consciously taking on the needs of the suffering. I think of a church member who in retirement is using his legal experience to give free assistance to church members struggling with immigration and asylum issues. (It is from him that I learned of the almost incredible injustice of the ‘Windrush scandal’ before it became a public issue).

Verse 27 that follows might be seen as a transitional verse, as was verse 13; in both cases the NRSV paragraph break could well come before rather than after the verse. Paul transitions back into discussing spiritual gifts, which in verse 31b (warning: again ,don’t be misled by the chapter numbers) in turn leads on to his famous account of love. Too often the passage is seen as imperishable words of wisdom written into a vacumn. But read in context it summarises the previous 47 verses. Set against the distribution of spiritual gifts is ‘a still more excellent way’, a relational way. If, on the one hand, people should not over-elevate spiritual gifts, on the other hand love is the only adequate response to the divisive behavior seen at the Lord’s Supper; love whose qualities (kind . . not arrogant . . not insisting on its own way) then and now are the only adequate antidote to social and ethnic divisions in the church.

Paul’s response to the very great social diversity in Corinth can therefore be termed as ‘levelling down’ – expressed theologically and most beautifully in the hymn and his preamble in Philippians 2:1-11. In a previous blog on ‘Nobodies yet Somebodies’ I made the point that Paul’s claim in 1 Corinthians 1:26 that ‘not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of human birth’ may have been pushing back against the fact that we can identify quite a few high status church members in Corinth, so that Paul felt a particular pressure to highlight the presence of many low status members. Was the Corinthian fondness for well trained public speakers, such as the ‘super apostles’ who draw Paul’s condemnation in 2 Corinthians 10-12, the result of the high-status church members conforming to the worldly assessment prevalent in their social context, rather than the ‘power in weakness’ that was the mark of a true apostle (2 Cor 12:9)?

Congregations today can also fail to develop genuine social and ethnic diversity because we carry into our fellowships the values and attitudes that are prized in our surrounding cultures, rather than rooting ourselves in a common identity of shared weakness, emptiness and dependence on God. We need both to interrogate ourselves and allow others to question us as to how far a deep unity of love, worship and mission is hindered by too easily retaining the attitudes and values of our particular social backgrounds.

Add Ons

The Meghan and Harry Interview: Proverbs 18, verse 17 ‘The one who first states a case seems right, until the other comes and cross-examines.’

Intercultural Church: Shared learning from New Communities’. Grove Booklet MEv132 by Ben Aldous, Idina Dunmore & Mohan Seevaratnam. 
This account weaves together the stories of three experimental communities (in Cape Town, Southall and Harrow) and the lessons learned. A common theme is ‘continuous interaction with people from a variety of cultures and through a deliberate listening to different cultural voices’ (p 21). Hospitality and eating together, especially with marginalised people, plays a central role. The two London examples are very much at the pioneer stage, and it will be illuminating to revisit them after five years and see what has been consolidated by further experience.