Take the 2-minute tour ×
Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for professors, theologians, and those interested in exegetical analysis of biblical texts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

22 On the contrary, the parts of the body which seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and those parts of the body which we think less honorable we invest with the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, 24 which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior part, 25 that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. (1 Cor 12, RSV)

What do the bolded phrases mean?

  1. seem to be weaker
  2. we think less honorable
  3. unpresentable parts

First, I find it interesting that the first two use dokeō, which seems to be on average, a neutral "be of the opinion of", with no guarantee that the opinion is right or wrong. Even the use of 'unpresentable' seems to be according to some standard of judgment which might not be godly. Might Paul be accusing the Corinthians of judging by the flesh/appearances, as he discusses in 2 Cor 5:16?

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view (sarx); even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view (sarx), we regard him thus no longer.

What is the purpose of the proposed thinking/treatment of those who fall under #1–3? Could it be the goal of ultimately eliminating those appearances, by changing how believers value each other?

Second, who, or what societal roles, would be described by #1-3? I have never heard anything close to a profound explanation on this front. For example, it is hard for me to believe that this passage could merely be describing that janitors and secretaries are important and indispensable and we ought to note that. Jesus was pretty big on reaching out to the outcasts of society; could that idea be at play, here? I am also reminded of the set of passages, Mt 5:43-48, Jn 13:34-35, 17:20-23: believers are called to love more than those whom they would 'naturally' love.

share|improve this question
add comment

2 Answers 2

Great questions! And let me first say that I want to encourage you to keep reading the way you are reading. You have some great insights. I think some of your insights are in focus in this passage and others are not though. Let's take a look at Paul's flow of thought here and see what we can discover.

Broad Literary Context

The verses in question are part of a larger flow of thought. Actually the entire book of 1 Corinthians has a flow to it. It's always a good idea to drill down on the uncertain details by starting with the big picture message of the book and looking at how the passage fits in to that overall message.

The Corinthians had a huge problem with being self-seeking, self-serving, and self-exalting. The book of 1 Corinthians is one big long exhortation to them to stop being selfish and start loving each other. In Chapters 12-14 the topic of focus is "spiritual gifts" and their operation in the Corinthian church.

  • The message of Chapter 12 is: Stop exalting yourself and your "amazing spiritual gifts" and start valuing the unique, important place that God has given to every member of the body.

  • The message of Chapter 13 is: All of your "amazing spiritual gifts" that you boast so much about are all worthless if you're not loving one another

  • The message of Chapter 14 is: As you are putting your attention toward loving each other, do pursue the spiritual gifts (because they edify others), but stop trying to use your "gifts" to "edify" yourself at everyone else's expense!

The Corinthian church had a huge problem. Everyone was seeking his own edification and his own glory. They loved to revel in their "spirituality" by making a big show of their "amazing spiritual gift" of speaking in tongues, even though they were doing zilch to build up the body of Christ. They were totally missing the point of spiritual gifts: to build up the body of Christ in love.

Local Literary Context

Chapter 12 opens with: "Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren . . ." and ends with a segway from the subject of gifts into the subject of love. This frames the discussion in between, in which we repeatedly see "gifts" mentioned.

After Paul spends considerable time clarifying that there are many spiritual gifts given by one God, he then goes on to explain that each person has some gifts, but not all of them, and that God designed it this way so that we would work together -- like the many members of our physical body work together despite their diversity.

It is in the context of this "body" analogy that the verses in question appear.

Exegesis

But now there are many members, but one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; or again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; -1 Corinthians 12:20-22

The point here is that one Christian cannot think that they have no need of another Christian because the former deems the latter's gifts as "weaker." (I have learned this personally with regards to intercession and giving.)

and those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our less presentable members become much more presentable, whereas our more presentable members have no need of it. But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. -1 Corinthians 12:23-25

In other words, there were certain gifts in the Corinthian church that didn't really need more recognition. In their context, that would include "speaking in tongues," which appears to have been a token of spiritual elitism in their congregation. In our context, I think of the famous Bible scholar, or the Pastor with a giant, flourishing congregation.

But then there were those gifts/ministers that the Corinthians despised. In their context that would likely be something less "spiritual" by appearance, such as the interpretation of tongues, administration, or perhaps even Paul's role as an Apostle, which they clearly didn't value. Today it could be any number of things. In some congregations it's the same as it was in Corinth, in others it's the exact opposite.

Weaker? Less honorable? Unpresentable?

These are just terms Paul was using to describe the Corinthians' attitude toward certain people's role in the church. (By "role" I don't so much mean "janitors and secretaries" but "tongue-interpreters and apostles.") Remember:

Words don't have meaning, people have meaning

...and...

The meaning of a word is determined by the context in which it is used

This doesn't discount semantic range, but we need to be careful not to get too caught up on a word when the context makes the authorial intent clear.

share|improve this answer
1  
The ideas that we shouldn't think we're better than others, and that we need people different from us, seem somehow less than the full import of what Paul was trying to say. For example, since asking my question, the thought came to me that perhaps the reason someone who "seems to be weaker" would be "indispensable" is that said appearance of weakness means I don't understand what role that person plays, which means I'd really be hurting if I were to exclude that person. I'm not disagreeing what what you're saying, but I'm wondering if there is more to the passage. –  Luke Breuer Dec 8 '13 at 0:27
3  
@LukeBreuer, I think Jas covers what you speak of here, but stops short of application due to the focus of the forum. Failure to understand another certainly contributes to ones perception of their value or lack thereof. Which of the gifts/offices listed by Paul are even considered in some churches today? The need is sorely felt! Take healing for instance, if one rises up with the faith for healing and it is quenched does the body need it less? A quick look at the state of physical health in the body reveals many are sick and have even died because we fail to discern the body of Christ. –  Sarah Dec 15 '13 at 0:12
add comment

What James3.1 said, plus:

I like to link 1 Corinthians 12:22-25 with 1:26-31, because there are some commonalities in the two passages which go a long way in answering at least some of your questions.

Since the Corinthians had a problem with pride and were given to boasting, first about the leaders with whom they most closely identified (namely, Paul, Apollos, Cephas/Peter, and Christ), and second about their spiritual gifts (with tongues seemingly to many of them the "gift above all other gifts"), Paul needed to take them down a peg. He therefore addressed FIRST the partisanship based on their favored leaders.

The first three factions in the Corinthian church, namely, the Paulites, the Apollos-ites, and the Cephas-ites, did not realize, apparently, that as important as leaders may be in the smooth functioning of the local assembly, they comprise but one gifting of the Holy Spirit. For a group of followers to rally around one particular leader and begin to act as if their little clique is somehow superior to another clique simply because it comprises a different leader is unseemly. Why? Because Christ is not a divided body, but one body.

Since the ground is level at the foot of the cross, all such boasting about any given servant/leader contradicts the humble unity we are to exhibit in Christ. Moreover, the message of the cross puts to shame such factionalism and the supposed superiority which attaches to it.

In chapter one, then, Paul rebukes the Corinthians' boasting because it contradicts the essence of the message and preaching of the cross, which is all about humility, death to self, and the oneness of all those who freely admit their sins were what nailed Jesus to the cross. As for the fourth faction of believers in Corinth, the ones who claimed loyalty to Christ only, I suggest this group comprised the “super spiritual” believers who mistakenly thought their adherence to Christ alone meant they could ignore Paul, Apollos, and Cephas, not realizing the first spiritual gift God gave the church after Christ ascended to heaven was apostles!

When we go over to chapter 12, Paul addresses SECOND the pride and boasting of the Corinthians regarding their spiritual gifts. Paul has to remind them of the variety there is within the unity of the body of Christ. What unites all believers in giftedness is the bestower of all gifts; namely, the Holy Spirit. And while there is a variety of effects among the gifts, even within the same gift--since God makes only originals and not duplicates, God both bestows and empowers the gifts as He sovereignly sees fit. How, then, is boasting even possible? Clearly it is not.

Now here is where chapters 12 and 1 are connected. In chapter one, Paul asks the Corinthians to consider their calling:

". . . there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God. But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written, LET HIM WHO BOASTS, BOAST IN THE LORD" (vv.26-31, emphases mine).

Notice the connections between the Corinthians' calling (viz., not many wise, mighty, or noble) and what God chooses to use (viz., the foolish, the weak, and base and despised). Paul is not trying to shame the Corinthians, but he seems to be pointing out diplomatically that according to worldly standards, the Corinthians, by and large, simply do not measure up!

Compare:

Corinthians: not many wise; foolish

 World: many wise

Corinthians: not many mighty; weak

 World: many strong

Corinthians: not many noble; base and despised

 World: many noble

Now look at chapter 12, where we read,

"On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; and those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our less presentable members become much more presentable, whereas our more presentable members have no need of it. But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, so that there may be no divisions in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. Now you are Christ's body, and individually members of it" (vv.22-27; after which Paul lists spiritual gifts).

Do you think the contrasts in chapters 1 and 12 are merely coincidental? In chapter one, on the one hand, you have foolish-weak-base-despised-things that are not, and on the other hand you have wise-strong-nobles-things that are.

In chapter 12, on the one hand, you have members that are weaker, less honorable, less presentable, and that lack; on the other hand you have the more presentable members who, by implication judge themselves to be--because of their gifting--necessary (indispensable!), honorable, presentable, and lacking nothing.

In conclusion, the very people in the Corinthian church whom the world deemed foolish, weak, and base, and whom the fleshly believers in the church deemed weaker, less honorable, less presentable, and less necessary could very well have been the janitors, the garbage collectors, the shepherds, and the poop scoopers in the parade of the elephants(!).

Not only that, but perhaps a garbage collector was the best teacher in the church, or a janitor the best evangelist; perhaps a poop scooper was a top-notch elder (or under- shepherd), or a powerful prophet! In short, God's methods are so often countercultural, and yet, ironically, far superior to anything the world has to offer. (Compare Jesus' words about many of the first being last, and the last, first, in Mt 20:16,27; Mk 9:35; 10:31,44; and Lk 13:30.)

share|improve this answer
    
I like the connection to ch1! Is there, however, a way to take this deeper? The idea that "I shouldn't think myself better than another" is found in many places in the NT; is there more that Paul is specifically saying? We definitely have some kind of interesting inversion of value (1:21). I wonder though, whether this gets much more intense than 'poop scooper', though. For example, what about those who understand what addiction is like, or what suicidal depression is like? Such people tend not to be 'pretty'. And likely to be considered 'unnecessary', as if some people just don't matter. –  Luke Breuer Dec 13 '13 at 19:52
    
@LukeBreuer: Your additional examples sound good to me. In the Corinthian church, there may have in fact been instances of people who were converted from backgrounds including alcoholism, idol worship, promiscuity, incest, thievery, gluttony, depression, and any (or all) of the other sins, peccadillos, or weaknesses which Paul may (or may not have) mentioned in either or both of his letters to the church at Corinth. As I've already remarked, the ground is level at the foot of the cross. Sin is sin, whether heinous or not. Whoever commits sin, Jesus said, is a slave to sin. –  rhetorician Dec 13 '13 at 22:01
add comment

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.