Category Archives: Bible Bites [Exegesis]

This category includes all posts that are primarily about exegesis (biblical interpretation), except for posts already included in the Church Chat category.

Wanted: Weak Christians (5 of 5)

This is the final post of a series called “Wanted: Weak Christians.” Here are the other posts:

Wanted: Weak Christians (1 of 5) — Introduction
Wanted: Weak Christians (2 of 5) — Who Are They?

Wanted: Weak Christians (3 of 5) — How Are They Indispensable?
Wanted: Weak Christians (4 of 5) — Advice to the Strong
Wanted: Weak Christians (5 of 5) — The Power of the Powerless


He is blind and has been blind since birth. He can neither see nor speak, though occasionally he laughs. His head is large, and his hands are small. His legs are twisted, and his feet are as tiny as a five-year-old’s. He can’t learn. He can’t even lift his head. He has to be spoon-fed and sponge-bathed, and someone has to change his diapers. Sometimes he has convulsions, rattling not only the frame of his bed but the hearts of those who love him…

Who would think that in that bed was the power to move presidents? Who would think that muteness could be so eloquent? That blindness could open so many eyes? Who would think that so many lives would be uplifted by someone who couldn’t lift his own head?

You would. You would think those things. If you had been to Oliver’s room…

So writes Ken Gire, in his forward to Christopher de Vinck’s memoir about his brother, Oliver.  Few books have moved me as powerfully as this one.

Gire continues:

From the bed in Oliver’s room comes a glimmer of Bethlehem. If you will not look away, you will see something of what was revealed in the straw and swaddling clothes of the manger.

You will see the power of the powerless.

It is the way God works in a world that idolizes strength and worships the means of attaining it. “His strength is perfected in weakness,” is the way the Bible puts it. And weakness is what you find when you come to Oliver’s room.1

The book is called The Power of the Powerless. Henri J. M. Nouwen writes the introduction:

Chris… writes about… people who by many are considered misfits, vegetables, tragic flaws of nature, people about whom many feel that it would have been better if they had not been born. But for Chris these people are God’s messengers, they are the divine instruments of God’s healing presence, they are the ones who bring truth to a society full of lies, light into the darkness, and life into a death-oriented world.2

If the words of Gire and Nouwen resonate with you, read de Vinck’s book for yourself.   His brother Oliver illustrates the central point of this blog series: “weak” people are indispensable in Jesus’ church.

“In patristic thought the theme recurs that believers need those to whom they can show active care, protection, support, and love,” writes Thiselton. “Otherwise they cannot serve as Christ served ‘for others.’” 3 We need “weak” Christians, and God intentionally composed Christ’s church to include them.

“The church is a school for sinners, not a museum for saints.”4 This witticism, Thiselton notes, “underlines that a church made up only of self-styled ‘gifted’ elite would not be the church of Christ.”5

IS WEAKNESS ALWAYS GOOD?

Weakness and mutual suffering are not the sum total of God’s purposes for us, of course. His eternal design includes much more. That body you inhabit, which is the scene of so much dishonor and weakness? “It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power” (1 Cor. 15:43).

Even now, what was true of the blind man in John 9 is also sometimes true of us: He was born blind, not because he or his parents had sinned, true enough, but also not because God intended for him to remain blind his entire life. Rather, he was born blind “that the works of God might be displayed in him”—the works, that is, of God healing him and thus demonstrating that Jesus was sent from God (John 9:3).

If this blind man had resisted being healed by Jesus, his weakness would have missed its purpose. What about us?

And should we really lump all forms of weakness together as equal? Surely it is not only the “strong” who should seek to become skilled physicians of the soul who can distinguish between different soul diseases. Those who are “weak” must likewise seek to be honest about the mix of physical, emotional, and spiritual causes of their weaknesses, submitting to God’s grace for each.

It is also true that, though weaknesses need not destroy our usefulness in the church in general, they may limit our usefulness for specific missions. Well-meaning Christians won’t always agree when this is the case; recall Paul and Barnabas splitting ways over John Mark (Acts 15:37-40).

We do not know what sort of weakness (spiritual? emotional? physical?) caused Mark to “withdraw” from the “work” of Paul’s first missionary trip. Whatever the cause, Paul experienced Mark’s withdrawal as an indication that he could not be trusted to persevere in the hard work of traveling gospel ministry. Yet Mark’s life contains many lessons for both “weak” and “strong” Christians. Consider:

  • Barnabas took Mark with him on a mission trip to Cyprus; quite likely he proved useful there under his cousin Barnabas’s softer leadership.
  • Mark later proved to be “very useful” to Paul “for ministry” (2 Tim. 4:11).
  • Mark was humble enough that, despite having been rejected by Paul, he was willing to again be one of Paul’s “fellow workers” (Phm. 1:24).
  • Paul was humble enough to call Mark “very useful,” to count him as a “fellow worker,” and to make a special point of insisting that others “welcome him” (Col. 4:10).
  • Mark’s great usefulness was revealed most powerfully when he wrote his Gospel.

Was it wise for Paul to refuse to take Mark along on his return missionary trip? We really don’t have enough data to answer that question well. What we do know is that “weak” Mark proved indispensable to the Church for all ages.

Mark’s story also suggests that “weak” Christians may grow in strength and usefulness. Similarly, right after our key passage about God honoring the weak, Paul urges us to “earnestly desire the higher gifts” (1 Cor. 12:31). We should not assume that God intends for us to remain lacking in new gifts that could equip us for new forms of service.

LOVE, WEAKNESS, AND THE GOSPEL

But something is even more important than “the higher gifts.” Something is better even than if all of us possessed all the gifts, better than if we all appeared strong and bursting with honor. “I will show you a still more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31).

That more excellent way is the way of love (1 Cor. 13). And in this broken world, love blossoms most fragrantly in Christ’s body when we do not each possess all the gifts that are most honored among us. Love blooms most fully when some of us appear weak.

And so we rest in God’s design. “God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose” (1 Cor. 12:18).

If simply getting out of bed in the morning to feed your family requires every ounce of your of faith, then perhaps God says of you as Jesus said of the widow who put two small coins into the temple offering box:

Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on. (Luke 21:3-4)

Perhaps this widow overheard Jesus’ words. If so, imagine how honored she felt!

Witherington reminds us that the same sort of honor must be given to the seemingly weak within the church:

Paul’s word about giving more honor to the weaker members of the body of Christ, the less “presentable” ones, needs to be heeded. He believes that even these folk have essential gifts and functions to exercise. It is a mistake to bring the world’s evaluative system into the ekklēsia and to set up an honor roll that favors the more presentable and dignified, or those with the more outwardly showy or dramatic gifts. Paul believes that the body of Christ is only truly strong when it gives special honor and attention to its weakest members. The more presentable members do not need such attention.6

In offering honor to its weakest members, the church displays something that is essential to the gospel message itself. Listen to Paul’s description of those whom God has gathered around the “folly” of cross:

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1 Corinthians 1:27-29)

Paul was speaking, in part, about himself. Later he contrasts himself and the other authentic apostles with the arrogant Corinthians:

I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless… We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things. (1 Cor. 4:9-13, emphasis added)

Again, this “weakness” was not a distraction from Paul’s ministry. Nor was it a mere happenstance, a set of circumstances that was neither here nor there. Rather, this “weakness” was essential to the nature of the gospel Paul was preaching. It was essential for the display of God’s grace.

Jesus’ weakness in the manger was an essential element of the gospel story. His weakness on the cross was crucial for our salvation. Just so, our weakness today remains an indispensable part of the good news of God’s mighty kingdom.

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness,” the Lord assured Paul (2 Cor. 12:9).

The Lord’s assurance is for us, too. Therefore we, like Paul, can respond with courage: “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

Are you weak? Do others consider you weak?

Do not despair. Your weakness is exactly what God needs to complete his composition.

He chose you. He placed you. His design is that “the power of Christ” will “rest upon” you.

You may appear weak, dishonorable, and even unpresentable. But you are indispensable.

God needs you. Your weakness is God’s gift to his church.

(Dare I preach this even to myself? “God needs me. My weakness is God’s gift to his church.” I believe. Help thou my unbelief!)

Trust the Artist. Someday we will see that every shadow has enhanced his glory and our joy.


Thank you for reading this blog series. I would love to hear your feedback. What is your experience of strengths and weaknesses in the church? Where have you seen Christians do well or poorly in how we honor the “weak” among us? What have I missed in my exposition? Please share your insights in the comments below. Thank you!

  1. Ken Gire, foreword to The Power of the Powerless, by Christopher de Vinck (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 9-10. Bold print added.
  2. Henri J. M. Nouwen, introduction to The Power of the Powerless, by Christopher de Vinck (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 18.
  3. Thiselton, ibid., 1008.
  4. On page 287 of The Thiselton Companion to Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), Thiselton credits this quote to “J.C. Wand.” Though I have not been able to find the original source, my research confirms that this Wand is otherwise known as John William Charles Wand, Anglican bishop of London after World War II.
  5. Thiselton, First Epistle, 1008.
  6. Witherington, ibid., 263.

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Wanted: Weak Christians (4 of 5)

This is part four of a series called “Wanted: Weak Christians.” Here are the other posts:

Wanted: Weak Christians (1 of 5) — Introduction
Wanted: Weak Christians (2 of 5) — Who Are They?

Wanted: Weak Christians (3 of 5) — How Are They Indispensable?
Wanted: Weak Christians (4 of 5) — Advice to the Strong
Wanted: Weak Christians (5 of 5) — The Power of the Powerless


What if your weakness is God’s gift to Christ’s church?

I asked this question at the end of my last post, and I plan to return to it. But first, in this post, I want to (1) summarize this blog series so far, and (2) give some advice to “strong” Christians.

SUMMARY

This blog series is my attempt to encourage discussion of Paul’s teaching about “the parts of the body that seem to be weaker” (1 Cor. 12:22). Here, without adornment, are the main ideas we’ve covered:

  • Discussions about the body of Christ usually conjure images of spiritual gifts and individual strengths. But when God “composed the body,” he also intentionally wove into its fabric members who “seem to be weaker,” people whom “we think less honorable” or even “unpresentable.” Valuing only strengths will lead to bad fruit.
  • In the analogy of the body, the “weaker” members are the hands and feet, but especially the “necessary” or “private parts,” which we honor by covering with clothing.
  • In Christ’s body, the “weaker” Christians are those who tend to be considered weak or embarrassing because of some perceived lack, such as in social status, psychological disposition, aptitude, confidence, spiritual gifting, or knowledge. Often they are perceived as being less “spiritual” in some way. The symptom that is perceived as weakness often truly exists. But more importantly, it exists as “weakness” in the eye of the beholder—in the eyes of other Christians who often feel themselves “strong” by comparison.
  • “Weaker” Christians are “indispensable” to the rest of Christ’s body. God gives them gifts that are essential. Further, God uses them to unify the church, as other members share in their suffering and extend them honor. Mutual suffering, even mutual embarrassment, stimulates mutual care, which binds the body together in unity.
  • God designed our physical bodies so that our brains, eyes, and hands instinctively work together to honor our crucial reproductive organs with appropriate clothing. In the same way, God designed Christ’s body so that its Spirit-filled members work together to give honor to fellow Christians who appear weaker, knowing they are valued by God and essential to the church. In this way, God gives “greater honor to the part that lacked it.”

God’s composition is not something you or I would have dreamed up. But what if what your world most needs is someone with needs? What if your weakness is God’s gift to Christ’s church?

ADVICE TO THE “STRONG”

On the other hand, perhaps you don’t think of yourself as one of the “weaker” ones in Jesus’ church. Perhaps you have been granted the gifts, social graces, and spiritual empowerment that have secured you a respected place among God’s children. Maybe you are typically the strong one in your relationships, usually helping others along, often leading. You feel weak the odd time, but generally people admire you, want to be around you, and want to be like you.

If so, that’s okay. It’s not wrong to be strong (how’s that for a slogan?), as long as you remember that your strength is actually God’s strength, and that it won’t always be yours. Just as “weaker” Christians are indispensable, so are “stronger” ones.

How, then, should a “stronger” Christian relate with “weaker” Christians? This question deserves books; I will discuss one sentence of Scripture. Consider this four-point sermon outline from Paul:

And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. (1 Thess. 5:14)

Paul is matching the cure to the disease. He identifies three types of Christians with problems: the idle, the fainthearted, and the weak. And he names three responses to these Christians: admonish, encourage, and help. The way he pairs these responses with these “problem Christians” is most instructive.

The “idle” are disorderly, disruptive, and unruly. They are not so much lazy as “busy doing the wrong things,”1 such as being busybodies and spreading false teachings. These people need to be “admonished”—firmly warned and even disciplined if necessary (cf. 2 Thess. 3:6, 14-15).

The “fainthearted” are timid and discouraged. They may be worried, sad, or low on faith. “These people did not need to be admonished but persuaded not to give up.”2 If “encouraged,” they will succeed.

The “weak” may be the least specific category. The word here is a variation of the same word translated “weaker” in our main passage, 1 Corinthians 12.3 Here, as there, commentators suggest diverse references, such as spiritual shortcomings, physical sickness, economic need, low social status, or psychological weakness. Whatever the case, what these people need is “help.”

Our English word “help” may be too vague and weak, however. The same Greek word4 is found three places in the New Testament, where it is translated as “be devoted to” (Matt. 6:24; Luke 16:13) or “hold firm to” (Tit. 1:9). The word seems to imply proximity, focus, and allegiance. Someone who “helps” in this sense will not hold others at a distance, will not devalue or forget them, and will not reject them. Paul is saying we should “take an interest in [the weak], pay attention to them, and remain loyal to them… Those whom society walks over and puts down are lifted up and given support by the church.”5

Finally—point four in Paul’s outline—all three kinds of Christians require, and must be offered, patience.

AT THE PIANO: WHEN ONLY HELP WILL HELP

In identifying the “idle,” “fainthearted,” and “weak,” Paul seems to be describing three levels of ability: Those who are able and active but unruly, those who are able but inactive because discouraged, and those who are unable and need help. Because of these differing levels of ability, offering the correct response is crucial.

What will happen if we give the unruly encouragement or help? They will probably abuse them. What will happen if we warn the fainthearted? Their discouragement will only deepen. And if we help them without encouraging them? They may never learn to do what they, with encouragement, could do for themselves.

And what about the weak? What if we warn them? What if we feed them motivational words? What will warnings and “encouragements” do to their souls if they are truly unable, for whatever reason, to do what we are expecting them to do?

Let me illustrate. Recently we hosted a piano recital in our home. Each of my three daughters played a solo. One of my daughters is developing socially somewhat more slowly than her sisters. She turns inward when she is asked to interact with new people.

When this daughter’s turn came, I asked her aloud, “Do you want to tell us what song you’re playing?” Immediately I read on her silent face the expected answer: No. So I whispered to her, “Shall I say it?” Yes, she nodded. She then relaxed, I introduced her song, and we were treated to a lovely, sensitive performance of “Silent Night.”

You can catch the tail end of our daddy-daughter conversation here, along with her performance:

Now what would have happened if, when my daughter communicated that she did not want to introduce her song, I had admonished her in front of a living room full of people? “Why are you being stubborn? Don’t you realize that you are dishonoring our guests? We can wait here until you find enough respect to talk.” As her dad, I simply can’t imagine saying anything like this.

What if, instead of rebuking her, I had encouraged her, saying “You can do it!” or “Don’t be afraid!” or “Everyone here is friendly, you’re safe.” While this would have been less damaging, it still wouldn’t have been pretty. Suddenly the girl who was already trying to avoid attention would have been thrust doubly into the center of everyone’s focus. Shame and fear would have washed over her. Even if she had eventually found words, her piano performance would probably have suffered.

No, what my daughter needed in that moment was not admonishment, not encouragement, but help. We’ve all been there! She needed someone who was devoted to her and who would care for her. She needed me to speak for her. And when I gave her the help she needed, she freely shared her gift with the group—a pleasing performance of a carol she had diligently prepared. As her father, I was, and am, delighted and proud.

“Strong” Christians, what was true for my daughter is equally true for the “weaker” Christians in our midst. While every Christian benefits from regular encouragement, and we all need warning from time to time, what “weak” Christians need most of all is help.

What that special needs teen needs is someone to continually give him attention by rubbing his back, so he doesn’t feel a need to speak out during the service—and a congregation who will laugh good-naturedly when he does. What that post-operation preacher needs is someone to read his sermon for him. What that immigrant family needs is an opportunity to share a song in their own language. What that timid music team member needs is permission to look down at her music instead of at the congregation, so she is not distracted from worship by social anxiety.

I witnessed each of these and more yesterday at the church we visited.

Sure, it takes a lot of patience sometimes, but what “weak” Christians need most of all is help.

PHYSICIANS OF THE SOUL

Christians, then, must learn to be what the Puritans called “physicians of the soul.” We must learn to not only note symptoms but also diagnose diseases correctly and then apply the right cures.

The easiest thing for all of us, of course, is to note symptoms—some dishonorable behavior in our “weaker” brother or sister—and then diagnose them based on our knowledge of ourselves. “If I acted the way he did, I would be stubborn, selfish, or unrepentant.” But I am not him and you are not me, and essentially identical symptoms may be caused by very different diseases. We need to listen devotedly to our “weaker” brother or sister, learning to know them well. If not, we will diagnose wrongly and could apply a “cure” that actually worsens their disease.

Tim Keller has written a helpful article about the Puritans and soul care. Here are a few excerpts:

The Puritans had sophisticated diagnostic casebooks containing scores and even hundreds of different personal problems and spiritual conditions. John Owen was representative when he taught that every pastor must understand all the various cases of depression, fear, discouragement, and conflict that are found in the souls of men. This is necessary to apply “fit medicines and remedies unto every sore distemper.” Puritans were true physicians of the soul. Their study of the Scripture and the heart led them to make fine distinctions between conditions and to classify many types and sub-types of problems that required different treatments…

In addition, the Puritans were able to make fine distinctions in diagnosing the root causes of the problems. [Richard] Baxter’s sermon, “What are the Best Preservatives against Melancholy and Overmuch Sorrow?” discerns four causes of depression (sin, physiology, temperment, and demonic activity) which can exist in a variety of interrelationships…

The Puritans’ balanced understanding of the roots of personal problems is not mirrored in the pastoral practice of modem evangelicals. Most counselors tend to ‘major’ in one of the factors mentioned by Baxter. Some will see personal sin as the cause of nearly all problems. Others have built a counseling methodology mainly upon an analysis of “transformed temperments.” Still others have developed “deliverance” ministries which see personal problems largely in terms of demonic activity. And of course, some evangelicals have adopted the whole ‘medical model’ of mental illness, removing all ‘moral blame’ from the patient, who needs not repentance but the treatment of a physician.

But Baxter not only shows an objective openness to discovering any of these factors in diagnosis, he also expects usually to find all of them present. Any of the factors may be the main factor which must be dealt with first in order to deal with the others.

So we see sophistication of the Puritans as physicians of the soul… Biblical counselors today, who sometimes are rightfully charged with being simplistic, could learn from the careful diagnostic method of these fathers in the faith…

Most of us talk less about sin than did our forefathers. But, on the other hand, the Puritans amazingly were… extremely careful not to call a problem ‘sin’ unless it was analyzed carefully. One of their favorite texts was: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoking flax he will not quench” (Matthew 12:20). 6

This, then, is my advice to “strong” Christians: seek to be physicians of the soul. We won’t always get it right, of course. But do not assume everyone is as strong as you are. If someone’s symptoms are due primarily to weakness, then be very slow to offer warning. Be judicious even in how you offer encouragement. Aim primarily to offer help.

Understand, however, that help is not help, biblically speaking, unless it is an expression of authentic devotion and loyalty. In fact, be wary of communicating that you are providing help. Seek ways to personally share in the suffering of the “weaker” members of Christ’s body, experiencing empathy and not merely offering sympathy.

Join God in honoring your “weaker” brothers and sisters, that your mutual joy may be full. Remember that God is the one who placed both of you in his composition. All colors are indispensable there, not just your brilliant ones. Mourn when your strength inhibits Christ’s grace. Offer help to the “weak” with great patience and devotion. Don’t, by holding them at a distance, miss an opportunity for God to increase the unity of Christ’s church.


This post grew beyond my expectations. I want to speak a final word primarily to “weaker” Christians in my final post. (And don’t we all have at least one turn being weak?)

But for now, I invite your responses to this post. I’m sure I’m missing a lot that should be said, so likely my balance isn’t perfect. Did you find something here helpful? Do you have more to add? Please share your insights in the comments below. And thanks for reading.

  1. G.K. Beale, 1-2 Thessalonians, IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2003), 164.
  2. Gene L. Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 253.
  3. The lexical form for the words in both texts is ἀσθενής.
  4. Lexical form: ἀντέχομαι.
  5. Green, ibid., 254.
  6.  Tim Keller, “Puritan Resources for Biblical Counselling,” blog post, June 1, 2010, Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation, https://www.ccef.org/resources/blog/puritan-resources-biblical-counseling, accessed December 5, 2018.

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Wanted: Weak Christians (3 of 5)

This is part three of a series called “Wanted: Weak Christians.” Here are the other posts:

Wanted: Weak Christians (1 of 5) — Introduction
Wanted: Weak Christians (2 of 5) — Who Are They?

Wanted: Weak Christians (3 of 5) — How Are They Indispensable?
Wanted: Weak Christians (4 of 5) — Advice to the Strong
Wanted: Weak Christians (5 of 5) — The Power of the Powerless


Why, then, does God include seemingly weak members in Christ’s body? Again, the answer is surprising: he includes such people because the rest of the body needs them. In a word, they are “indispensable.”

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 parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable. (1 Cor. 12:21-22)

Indispensable. Stop and weigh that word. Consider similar words from other translations, such as necessary or essential.1

Do others consider you a “weaker” person? Do you feel like one? God is speaking to you. He has intentionally included you in the composition of his church. He considers you “indispensable.” He does not look the other way when you walk into the room. He does not wish you weren’t there. He put you there, and he wants you. He needs you. More precisely, he needs you because others in Christ’s body need you. You are indispensable to other Christians.

How might seemingly weak persons be indispensable? Paul does not address this question directly, but the context suggests some answers:

The parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. (1 Cor. 12:22-25)

HOW DOES GOD HONOR “WEAK” CHRISTIANS?

Let’s begin with God’s action in verse 24. Paul says that God has given “greater honor to the part that lacked it.” When and how did God do this? I see several possibilities.

One possibility recalls that the word “indispensable” is probably a euphemism for reproductive organs. Paul is talking about our “unpresentable” but “necessary” body parts—our “private parts,” to use a contemporary euphemism.  Witherington explains: “God composed the body by giving the parts that were lacking in appearance even more honor, bestowing on them the most crucial of functions, that is, reproduction.2

In this reading, God has honored the seemingly weaker members of Christ’s church by giving them important work to do, work that the church needs for its survival. In Kenneth Bailey’s interpretation of this passage, he concludes that Paul is talking about spiritual reproduction—more specifically, evangelism.3 This is too specific and narrow of an interpretation, though members of Christ’s church who seem to be weak do indeed play important and often overlooked parts in the broader task of promoting the gospel.4 In the history of redemption, we see how God repeatedly chose secondborns over firstborns in the bloodline of the Messiah. He entrusted women who were social outcasts for the same noble task—those who were barren (Sarah), sexually immoral (Tamar and Rahab), foreign (Ruth and Rahab again), or pregnant out of wedlock (Mary). In the New Testament, Jesus chose men like Matthew (a despised tax collector) and Paul (a former persecutor) among his apostles. Today, many of us could tell a story about some overlooked or socially backward church member who, at just the right time, possessed an insight or a gift that helped the church through a crucial moment. Truly, “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor. 1:27). “He gives gifts that the body needs to people who might otherwise be thought of as unimportant or dispensible,”5 calling them “indispensable” instead.

Again, when and how has God given “greater honor to the part that lacked it”? Here is another possible answer: Perhaps it happened when he honored it with clothing. God indeed gave “greater honor” to our private parts when he clothed Adam and Eve. He didn’t deck their face or hands with clothing; presumably he clothed their torsos, including their genitals and Eve’s breasts—the parts of their bodies that they used especially for love-making and child-rearing. Whether we consider our private parts to be full of shame or glory (and in this fallen world they bear a potent mix of both), God granted them the privacy they needed, thus honoring them.

Similarly, consider the honor that God has given to the lowly within Christ’s church, quite apart from any work they may or may not do. “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus said. “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me.” On the contrary, “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matt. 18:4-6). At the final judgment, our destiny will be determined in part by how we have treated “the least of these my brothers” (Matt. 25:40). Consider the emphasis the early church placed on caring for the poor, the sick, the widows, and the orphans. Consider how, time and again, Paul focused his exhortation primarily on the “strong,” urging the former to lovingly limit their freedoms out of consideration for the “weak.” God, by the teaching and example of Jesus and his apostles, has indeed “clothed” those who seem to be weak with greater honor, giving them the sort of deference that is normally reserved for royalty.

This leads closely to a third possible way that God has given “honor to the part that lacked it”: by God-given instinct, it is the same body parts that God covered in Eden that we are most careful to cover (or adorn in the marriage bed!) today. Martin explains:

The genitals may seem to be the most shameful part of the body, but our very attention to them—our constant care to cover them and shield them from trivializing and vulgarizing public exposure—demonstrates that they are actually the most necessary of the body’s members, those with the highest status.6

In clothing our bodies, we are imitating what God has already done.

In this reading, God grants honor to the seemingly weaker members of Christ’s body through the actions of the other members. Yes, Paul says that it is God who has given the honor. But a couple sentences earlier he also said this: “On those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor.” Clearly, one way God works is through the actions of his people. And when his people are merely imitating what he has already done, then, all the more clearly, it is God who is working through them. We will discuss this more in a minute.

There are at least three ways, then, that God has given “greater honor to the part that lacked it.” First, he entrusts important tasks to them. Second, in his upside-down kingdom he repeatedly exalts the lowly for no apparent reason but to demonstrate his generosity, saying that “the last will be first” (Matt. 20:16). And third, he gives honor to those who need it through the care of their brothers and sisters in Christ.

All three options are related, and all are true. I am not sure how many layers of meaning Paul had in mind as he wrote.7  I suspect, though, that our third option was uppermost in his mind.

It seems to me that Paul is saying something like the following: God designed our physical bodies so that our brains, eyes, and hands instinctively work together to honor our crucial reproductive organs with appropriate clothing. In the same way, God designed Christ’s body so that its true members instinctively work together to give honor to fellow Christians who appear weaker or less presentable, knowing they are valued by God and essential for the vitality of the church. In this way, God is giving “greater honor to the part that lacked it.”

Bessy’s attempt to apply 1 Corinthians 12:23 didn’t produce the results she was hoping for.

 

HOW ARE “WEAK” CHRISTIANS INDISPENSABLE?

We can now propose three answers to our initial question. How might seemingly weak persons be indispensable in Christ’s church? First, God often gives them important abilities and tasks that might be mishandled if left to the more glamorous members. Second, they provide essential opportunity for God to demonstrate his sovereign grace. And third, they draw other body members to participate in God’s work of raising up the lowly.

Let’s consider this third point more closely. We have done some theological guesswork to consider when and how God has given “greater honor to the part that lacked it.” The question that Paul explicitly answers, however, is why:

God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. (1 Cor. 12:24-25)

God’s design is that, as honor is given to the weaker members, the body avoids division. Instead of experiencing division, the members care for one another.

Wait a minute. This is ironic. Weakness can help prevent division? How many times have Christians parted ways because one considers another too weak? How many times have they divided over differing definitions of weakness, or differing ideas of how to “care for” those who are weak? How many times have I simply avoided getting too close to someone whose weakness leaves me feeling uncomfortable?

Weakness is supposed to lead to unity? And yet this is part of God’s upside-down master plan. How does it happen? Listen again to Paul:

God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. (1 Cor. 12:24-26)

Have you ever noticed that, no matter how much you may fight with your brother at home, you will defend him to the death in public? Something similar was true in the ancient honor-shame culture of Paul’s day. He may have been alluding to such social values here. David deSilva explains:

A principle Plutarch advocates [for sibling relationships] is that, where inequalities are unavoidable (for example, in age and thus seniority), the brother in the senior position must downplay his advantage out of sensitivity to the junior, while the brother in the ‘inferior’ position should respect the difference in status… In doing so, each honors the other and unity is preserved… This is also the ethos we find Paul promoting [in 1 Corinthians 12:22-26] as he considers the various gifts (even degrees of giftedness) within the church —those more visibly gifted must compensate by bestowing honor of [sic? perhaps “on”?] those less gifted in order “that there may be no dissension.”8

This sounds glorious, and glory is indeed the intended outcome. But the process is often painful. Sometimes honoring a “weaker” person means “covering” for them—enduring discomfort of our own in order to preserve their dignity. Thiselton is right: “Paradoxically, our very embarrassment over the so-called ‘less presentable’ parts leads to care and attention in how we cover or even adorn them.”9

Paul is similarly blunt: “If one member suffers, all suffer together.” He does not say this should happen; he says it does happen. Having a person with social difficulties, material needs, mental health challenges, or spiritual limitations in your church not only should cause you suffering; it will.

Chrysostom waxes eloquent on this point:

Often when a thorn has pierced the heel, the whole body feels it and becomes concerned. The back bends over, the abdomen and the legs join in, the hands, running forward like bodyguards and servants, remove the thorn, the head bows down, and the eyes look on with great concern. As a result, even if the foot is at a disadvantage because it cannot raise itself up, it is made equal by the lowering of the head and enjoys equal honor…

Again, if something happens to the eyes, all the members feel pain, all are made idle. The feet do not walk or the hands work, and the stomach does not enjoy its usual foods. Yet the ailment belongs to the eye. Why does your stomach waste away? Why are your feet constrained? Why are your hands fettered? Because they are bound up with the eyes, and the whole body suffers more than it can say. If it did not suffer as a whole, it would not trouble itself with all this care for one part.10

Read that last sentence again: “If it did not suffer as a whole, it would not trouble itself with all this care for one part.” Or, as Thiselton said above, “Our very embarrassment over the so-called ‘less presentable’ parts leads to care.”

This is God’s purpose, a hinge-point in his master plan for using “weak” Christians to produce unity in the church: mutual suffering, even mutual embarrassment, is intended to produce mutual care. Sharing in another’s suffering is divinely-orchestrated motivation. The experience of shared suffering moves us to care for the “weak” person whose suffering we are sharing.

And make no mistake: those who are deemed “weaker” often experience great suffering. It is suffering upon suffering not only to endure whatever weaknesses we possess, but also to be keenly aware that others perceive us as being weak. This awareness is often enough to weaken us still further, threatening a downward spiral of inability and shame. The suffering can be immeasurable.

But God’s design is different: Mutual suffering produces mutual care, and all that mutual sharing strengthens the unity of Christ’s body.

Further, all members are enabled to share together in honor and joy. After all, “we do not say to a victorious runner, ‘I congratulate your legs’; congratulations go to the person.”11 Thus, whether the honor is given to those who seem to more naturally deserve it or to those who seem to more naturally lack it, all share in the joy. Oh, for a greater outworking of this divine plan!

GOD’S COMPOSITION

Again, this is God’s composition. When Paul says that “God… composed the body” in this way, he emphasizes the noun “God”12 and then uses a telling verb. Thiselton explains:

The verb [used here by Paul]… is used of a painter mixing and blending colors, of composing a harmonious work or substance, or of compounding the various elements which together form the human body… The picture is of a craftsman mixing a compound, or of a musician composing a harmony, or of a divine agency creating a body by combining elements to form a compound. At all events, it is God who decides [what honor or function each person is given].13

God’s composition is not something you or I would have dreamed up. We all want to be the one equipped to give. We don’t want the embarrassment of needing someone else’s gift. We want to be the helper in every relationship, or at least not the one needing help. We want the insight, articulation, and charisma to lead convincingly and effectively. We want to be the one making the world better for others.

But what if…? What if your weakness holds a gift that, though unglamorous, is exactly what the church needs? What if your inability to lead well prepares you to be exactly the sort of follower some leader needs? What if your poverty enables someone else to give? What if your helplessness allows another to rely on or give God’s grace more fully? What if your dishonor allows another to share in the sufferings of Christ? What if your needs pull the church together in unity as they care for you?

What if what your world most needs is someone with needs?

What if your weakness is God’s gift to Christ’s church?


This series is nearly done, but we’ll meditate on that last question a little more in our final post. This series is not merely theoretical for me. I suspect it isn’t for you, either. Sometimes it isn’t easy to talk about those parts of our lives that lack honor. Sometimes it isn’t appropriate, either.

If you have something you’d like to share, though, please leave a comment below. And thanks for reading.

  1. Necessary is by far the most common English translation. Indispensable is the second most common, also frequent. Thiselton suggests the following: “Normal we should translate the Greek as necessary, since ἀνάγκη usually means necessity or compulsion. But since the “superior” or “strong” groups see themselves as the essence of the church, the wordplays implicit in vv. 22 and 23 may be best served by rendering it essential” (ibid., 1007). Some translations say something like much more necessary or the most necessary, but the words translated much more probably modify the whole argument rather than just the word necessary: “it is much more the case that the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.” After all, though Paul says we give “greater honor” and “greater modesty” to those body parts that need it, he does not seem to be arguing for degrees of necessity (something the Corinthian “elites” affirmed), but that all are needed. (See Thiselton, ibid., 1006.)
  2. Ben Witherington, Conflict and Community in Corinth: Socio-rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 259.
  3. Kenneth E. Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 344-45. Bailey draws seven parallels between natural and spiritual reproduction, including that each is “a very private affair” that is “sacred and honorable,” involving “deep relations” and “long-term commitments.” These may be true, but almost certainly were not in Paul’s mind when he wrote this passage.
  4. See The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission: Promoting the Gospel with More Than Our Lips, by John Dickson (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010) for the distinction between evangelism and gospel promotion and for a helpful discussion of New Testament teachings about how Christians with diverse gifts all play a role in the latter.
  5. Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 606.
  6. D. B. Martin, “Tongues of Angels and Other Status Indicators,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 1991, 51:567. Quoted in Garland, ibid., 596.
  7. Gordon D. Fee shares my uncertainty here: “It is less clear, however, precisely what Paul had in mind by ‘greater honor.’ Most likely he means that the parts that appear to be weak and less worthy are in fact accorded the greater honor of having important functions or receiving special attention. See The First Epistle to the Corinthians, rev. ed., NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 680.
  8. David A. deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship, & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 167-68, also 168 n. 17.
  9. Thiselton, ibid., 1009.
  10. John Chrysostom, Homily 31, ibid., 209.
  11. Thiselton, 1 Corinthians: A Shorter Exegetical & Pastoral Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), 210.
  12. Thiselton, First Epistle, 1010.
  13. Thiselton, ibid., 1010.

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