Erika Helgen and Chloe Starr discuss the church universal and love as the basis for the exercise of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a. The text is appointed for the Third Sunday after Epiphany, Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary
Belonging to the Body is both a “being with” and an understanding the separateness of the part that you are.
This is Chapter, Verse, and Season: a lectionary podcast from Yale Bible Study. Welcome back. I’m Helena Martin.
We bring you into the halls of Yale Divinity School to overhear two of the faculty chatting about a biblical text. We ask them to share their impressions of one of the Revised Common Lectionary readings for the coming Sunday. And hopefully that will spark some insight for your preaching, teaching, or reading this week.
This episode, we have Erika Helgen, Associate Professor of Latin American and Latinx Christianity, and Chloë Starr, Professor of Asian Christianity and Theology.
They’re continuing our discussion of 1 Corinthians, chapter 12 from last week with Professors Harley-McGowan and Gordon. This week, we have 1 Corinthians 12:12-31, which is appointed for Sunday, January 23 the Third Sunday after the Epiphany.
The text is read for you by student Misty Kiwak-Jacobs.
1 Corinthians 12:12-31.
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.
You know, for me, when I read this passage as a historian of Latin America, I think about corporatism. Corporatism being the idea that society, or the church, or the world is structured like a body, you know, with the head and arms and legs and that each person represents a different part of that body.
And historically, in Latin America, that has been oftentimes used to impose a hierarchical view of society or the Catholic Church. This idea that some people are at the head and others are lesser parts of the body. But throughout the years, that also has been turned on its head in a number of different ways.
Yeah, it’s interesting because my first thoughts were really about the oneness of the world church and thinking more about the church as a whole, as being one. And the problems in COVID times, you know, when we haven’t been distributing vaccines fairly, we haven’t been thinking of our siblings and our neighbors in the rest of the world church as one body with us. And the difficulties that that has meant in the present.
I mean, you talked about the sort of corporatism of Latin American church. I mean, Paul’s already drawing on this, you know, the metaphor for the church as a body from Stoicism and its description of the cosmos isn’t he? Where the, you know, the Commonwealth as a human body. Taking it from Dionysius of Halicarnassus and thinking about, you know, who thinks about all the other body parts ganging up on the belly and telling it how useless it is, but then, you know, the body starves.
I do think the gross imbalance in resources and wealth between, you know, different parts of the world church—we’re not even beginning to think about how to address that or really thinking about them as one body and therefore trying to do more to realize their lives as, as part of our same body. You know, we think of them as another body, somehow linked to us in some kind of more network metaphor. We don’t actually, I think, think of them as the body in the same sense.
And then we don’t. You know, we don’t suffer when parts segue off or severed or self sever. I’m thinking, you know, in China, the China left the World Council of Churches in 1953 when the rest of the world sided with the U.S. over the Korean War. And they didn’t come back into the World of Council of Churches until late seventies, early eighties in the reform era.
And, you know, missing part of the body is a big thing. And I think often in the U.S. we don’t even think about, you know, entities, global supernational entities outside of our own denomination. We think maybe about our own denomination as a world church, but we don’t think about the World Council of Churches and all these bodies that have done so much in the past to, you know, work between churches.
And we think about, like, regional alliances and things, but we’re not actually thinking about one. I mean, we Anglicans do. I’m Church of England. But when we do it tends to be about pain because you know, GAFCON is leaving, or parts of the Anglican Communion are in such egregious dispute with other parts, that it’s a real problem for us.
Yeah, so Paul is also envisaging some parts disclaiming their membership in the same way, but then reminding us, God arranged the parts, you know, nothing is functional or defunct. We can’t do without those bits. And I think we we’ve forgotten that too often.
Yeah, exactly. I mean, I think this idea and you know, this is why also in Latin America, especially with liberation theology, you start to get a new reading of this idea of the body, the body of Christ, particularly with this part of, you know, “those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable that we treat with special honor, that these are the most necessary to the body” I think is something that has come up in Latin America and around the world. Both this idea, you know, within one society, but also the global community. Yeah, I think that that is something that, particularly more recently, there has been an effort to understand the idea of the body of Christ in this way.
Well, it’s interesting, isn’t it? Because we’ve actually come to the passage backwards. But if you take the whole chapter 12 to 14, instead of just, you know, honing in on the bit that we’re reading, it’s all about love as a model for the exercise of spiritual gifts. And you can’t actually separate this passage from those chapters around it.
And if we’re thinking about love as the basis for the exercise of gifts, then that changes how we act as a body also. But we’ve got this strange seeming paradox between Paul wanting the body to be non-hierarchical, unlike the sort of city state metaphor he’s drawing on. But then within the gifts, he reinserts this sort of hierarchicalism between apostles and teachers and prophets.
I think this idea of the spiritual gifts and who has access to these gifts? I mean, to me in this passage, what stuck out was the questions, right? Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? This idea that, you know, we’re being asked these questions about kind of the ultimate gifts that God has given us.
Well, I suppose he’s also challenging the Corinthian notions of what’s good, tongues that they put first or wisdom or knowledge or tongues in their interpretation. Whereas actually Paul is saying no, the most important gifts are the ones that build up the church. They’re the corporate gifts, the communal gifts. What you go off and do on your own, your own spiritual sanctity, that’s your thing. But what you should be aiming for are the things that benefit the whole church and all of us.
Yes. And that’s an interesting, you know, another movement in Latin America that’s become very strong is charismatic Catholicism. And you know, one of the first things that you’re either asked or told, you know, when you meet with people in a charismatic Catholic community is, “Have you found your gift?” Right? What gift have you been given that you can give to the church?
And it is all about understanding the gifts, again, not for yourself, but for the church. And so, you know, when I first met people in the charismatic, Catholic communities in Latin America, they would tell me what their gift was and how they were using it to build up the Catholic Church there.
That’s great, isn’t it? At the moment, you know, the only time we see that is when you have to give your pledge card in once a year. And they want money, but they also want you to list what you think your, you know—do you have any administrative gifts or anything? And that is the wrong time and place for finding our gifts, perhaps.
Do they think of the gift of tongues is given to everybody in those communities, or not?
So, with charismatic communities, it differs. Within charismatic Catholicism, tongues is not given the pride of place that it is in some classical Pentecostal communities, who see it as the first evidence of the baptism in the Holy Spirit. But tongues is a gift that’s open to all, right? Within charismatic Catholicism and Pentecostalism, which again, in Latin America are, you know, some of the fastest growing and dynamic church movements.
I mean, it’s difficult in China because the government regulations over the last 20-30 years since reform and opening up have precisely been aimed at keeping the Chinese church separate from the rest of the world church. The regulations have particularly been directed at underground Protestants and Rome-affiliated Catholics. And severing all sorts of money, and severing all sorts of global connections, and keeping evangelical Protestants away from the Korean and the American/Chinese-American communities that support them with faith and with teaching and everything else—to enable the Chinese church to be precisely Chinese.
But we have a problem here theologically between, you know, wanting a post-colonial independence, and wanting the church to be on an equal terms with the rest of the world, and not be spoken down to, frankly, by the former mission community who had its own hierarchies in such a devastating way. And yet the outcome of that has been, you know, separatism and keeping China out of the church and keeping us out of that family of faith, which, you know, for the world church is problematic because we lose that whole body of believers as sisters and brothers, on any sort of basis to be together with us in any sort of real sense. And yet, you know, obviously they have to do what the government ensures to a certain degree, to enable the church to stay open and the rest of it.
Yeah. And that’s an interesting point. You know, it reminds me of, in Latin America, again, going back to liberation theology and after the Second Vatican Council, Latin American Catholics, you know, said: well, the issues in Europe are very different from the issues in Latin America.
There was a scholar, Pablo Richard, who said, “In Europe, they’re concerned about the death of God and the death of the church. And in Latin America, you know, we are concerned with the death of man, with the death of our brothers and sisters who are actually physically dying.” And so the whole idea was that Latin American Catholics needed both a theology and a church that spoke to their specific local circumstances.
But that was oftentimes met with an accusation of disunity, right? That you’re trying to build a different—oftentimes they call it a parallel church. A separate church and a separate theology that is breaking up the world unity that is Catholicism. And so, yeah, that kind of, that tension between diversity and unity.
And it’s a complicated tension, isn’t it? I’ve just been reading a book by a colleague, Christie Chow, about schism—I mean, that’s the title of the book—in Seventh Day Adventism in China. And she, you know, suggests that schism is actually positive because it’s identity-building and identity-forming in a certain degree.
And so after the Cultural Revolution, one of the groups took on this more hybrid process and identity because they’d been worshiping with other Christians at that point. Whereas another faction retreated into this conservative restatement of the, you know, the central facets of Seventh Day Adventist belief in terms of diet or Sabbath worship and things.
So again, you know, belonging to the body is both a “being with” and an understanding the separateness of the part that you are, I suppose.
Thanks for listening!
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Chapter, Verse, and Season is produced by Joel Baden, Kelly Morrissey, and me, Helena Martin. Production help is by Crichelle Brice, and our theme music is by Calvin Linderman. Thanks to the Center for Continuing Education at Yale Divinity School. And thank you to Professors Starr and Helgen for sharing their wisdom with us.
We’ll be back with another conversation from Chapter, Verse, and Season.
New Revised Standard Version Bible
Copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Host: Helena Martin
Producers: Helena Martin, Joel Baden, Kelly Morrissey
Music: Calvin Linderman