Tag Archives: David Garland

Wanted: Weak Christians (2 of 5)

This is part two 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


Who, then, are the ones who “seem to be weaker” in Christ’s body? We have already noted Paul’s mention of hands and feet. Chrysostom (AD 349-407) identifies another set of body parts:

What is thought to be less honorable than our organs of generation? And yet they receive greater honor. Even the destitute, though the other parts of their bodies may be naked, will not allow those parts to be uncovered. 1

Modern commentators agree. “The necessary member” was an ancient euphemism for the male reproductive organ.2 Paul seemingly alludes to this when he says the parts of the body that seem to be weaker “are necessary” (1 Cor. 12:22 KJV). Other commentators suggest Paul is also alluding to female reproductive organs and the mother’s breast,3 or even “the excretory tracts.”4

“WEAK” CHRISTIANS IN CORINTH

So then, who are the feet, hands, and private parts in Christ’s body? In the immediate context (see 1 Cor. 12:7-10), they are especially those Christians who lacked the charismatic gifts that were most highly valued in the church at Corinth—those who were weak in the gifts of wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, and especially speaking in spiritual languages (“tongues”). But in the context of the entire letter, the language of weakness is applied more broadly, such as to those who lacked the sort of rhetorical wisdom that Greeks valued (1 Cor. 1:22, 26; 2:3-4), to those who lacked noble birth (1 Cor. 1:26), and even to those who possessed weak consciences because they lacked knowledge (1 Cor. 8:7-13). It is in this latter context that Paul says, “To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak” (1 Cor. 9:22).

A common thread among all these examples is that the “weak” are those who are looked down on by others. For a wide variety of possible reasons, they are considered to be socially second class.5

Who else might these “second-class Christians” be? Commentators suggest many possibilities. Are they describing you? Are they describing someone close to you?

EXAMPLES OF “WEAK” CHRISTIANS

Read the following excerpts thoughtfully. Has God carefully and intentionally placed some of the following people in the part of Christ’s body where you live?

In the Church, too, there are many and diverse members, some more honorable and some less… One person gives away everything, others desire only to be self-sufficient and to have the bare necessities, while still others give alms from their abundance. Nevertheless, all adorn each other, and if the greater reckons the lesser as nothing, he does great harm to himself… If someone who gives everything away reproaches someone who does not, he has forfeited much of the fruit of his efforts. –John Chrysostom6

Is the weaker member in your church someone who does not give as much as you think they should? Someone who lacks the gift of giving (Rom. 12:8)? Or perhaps the weaker person is someone who gives so freely that they don’t seem to be planning wisely for future needs?

There are choirs of virgins, the assemblies of widows, the company of those whose glory is in chaste marriage. These exhibit many degrees of virtue… If the virgin treats the married woman with contempt, she loses no small part of her reward. –John Chrysostom7

Is the weaker member in your church someone who married because they didn’t have the dedication to remain single? Or, perhaps more likely in our culture, is it the older single who is considered weaker—not “marriage material”?

What is of less account than beggars? Yet these, too, have a major role in the Church: they stand as fixtures and splendid adornment at the doors of the sanctuary. Indeed, without them the Church would not attain its full stature… While we preachers sit before you and recommend what will do you good, the one who sits before the doors of the church addresses you no less than we do, by his mere appearance, without saying a word… “My friend, do not be proud. Man’s life is a shifting and precarious thing. Youth hastens to old age, beauty to deformation, strength to weakness, eminence to disgrace…” This advice and more like it the poor give us by their looks and by what has happened to them, which is an even clearer warning. –John Chrysostom8

Are you too poor to give much? Too poor or sick to devote as much energy as you wish to Christian service? Is there someone in your church who is always needing a handout from the deacons, or perhaps from anyone they know still cares enough to give?

Garland brings us back to Paul’s “head” and “eye” language, adding observations about class divisions:

“Eye” and “head” are transparent metaphors for those in leadership roles, who are more likely to be more affluent and better educated. The “hands” and “feet” represent the laboring class or slaves. “Eyes” and “heads” in the church always get special treatment and then begin to think that they are special. A sense of superiority can breed notions of self-sufficiency…, since those who think that they are all-important can imagine that the minor players are superfluous and dispensable.9

Are there stark differences of wealth or education in your church? Are you just a “dumb farmer” or a “dumb welder”—or perhaps just a “dumb college student”? Do you or others feel you have little to offer either because you lack education or you possess a kind of knowledge that isn’t valued in your social world?

Thiselton surveys Paul’s use of the language of “weakness” throughout 1 Corinthians. Drawing on other scholars, he concludes that Paul is likely referring to people who seem to lack things such as social status, psychological disposition, aptitude, or maturity:

Paul refers to people in the church whose role, or more probably temperament, or perhaps both, present them as less endowed with power or status than others. The “strong” or the “gifted” perceived them as not providing much effective weight or power in the church’s mission, and not much confidence borne of status. They were insufficiently impressive to count for much, either socially or spiritually, within the church, or in terms of what “contacts” or ability they might show for mission or for speaking with wisdom and knowledge to outsiders. Probably they never did effective mighty works or healing, seldom or never prophesied, and perhaps never spoke in tongues.10

Are there persons in your church who are awkward or fearful in social interactions? Do they show, by a hundred involuntary subtle cues, that they are (or see themselves as) poor or inferior?

Do you lack the gift of abundant faith (1 Cor. 12:9)? Does it take as much of your faith for you to get out of bed in the morning as some of your Facebook friends use of their faith when they cast out demons or heal the sick? Do you or does someone you love have mental health challenges (read this)  or wrestle with depression like many great saints past and present (read this)? Do you lack the exhilarating spiritual feelings or experiences that the more expressive saints around you frequently display?

MORE EXAMPLES OF “WEAK” CHRISTIANS

Other examples have been or could be suggested. What about the physically disabled? Those with overwhelming suffering? Those with crooked teeth or weight challenges? Those with awkward grammar, poor spelling, or the wrong accent? What about those who suffer great financial loss rather than pressing their rights in court? Those who unfairly suffer tarnished reputations rather than proving their innocence in a public relations campaign?

What about those who are too black, too brown, or too white? What about those who are not Anabaptist enough (or Baptist or Pentecostal or…)—or those who still smell too Anabaptist? What about those who don’t keep their house or yard or vehicle clean enough—or those who keep everything so polished that you are scared to set foot on their property? What about those who talk too much, or who are too quiet? What about those who share their spiritual struggles too freely, or those who are uncomfortable sharing their struggles in public?

Could we also include those who wrestle for years with the same temptations? Even those who fall into the same sin far too frequently? What about the “weak person” Paul talks about in Romans 14, who is wrongly sensitive about how certain days or foods should be handled?

Examples are endless, and we won’t agree on all of them. I would love to hear your examples! 

WEAK? ACCORDING TO WHOM?

Notice the precise imprecision of Paul’s language:

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. (1 Cor. 12:22-23)

Paul is talking about persons who “seem to be” weaker, those whom “we think” are less honorable.

Paul is saying that the weakness is, at least in part, in the eye of the beholder. Put more strongly, he is indicating that the persons you and I consider weak may not be weak at all.

On the other hand, they may be weak. But that does not reduce their value. Value in Christ’s body is not measured by either strength or the appearance of strength. No one loses value by being weak or by appearing weak. All alike have been placed by God, who values each and who “composed the body” (1 Cor. 12:24) according to his infinite wisdom.

Why, then, does God include seemingly weak members in Christ’s body? We’ll consider that question in the next post.


Are there weak Christians in your church? Are you, perhaps, a weak Christian? Do you think others consider you one? What values do we tend to use to measure who is strong and who is weak? How valid are these values?

Share your insights in the comments below. And thanks for reading!

  1. John Chrysostom, Homily 31 on First Corinthians, trans. Judith L. Kovacs, as quoted in 1 Corinthians: Interpreted by Early Christian Commentators, The Church’s Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 208-209.
  2. David Garland, 1 Corinthians, BECNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 595, n. 7.
  3. Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NIGTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 1008.
  4. Craig Blomberg, 1 Corinthians, NIVAC (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 246.
  5. In 1 Corinthians 11:30 Paul says “many of you are weak and ill” because of partaking wrongly in the Lord’s Table. Almost all commentators agree that here Paul is using the term “weak” in a literal manner, to describe how rich Christians (probably members of the upper social classes) experienced physical illness as God’s judgment. This usage of “weak” (non-metaphorical, given by God as judgment, experienced by the social elite) contrasts sharply with the other examples in this paragraph. Therefore, I don’t think we should count the weak Christians of chapter 11 among the weak Christians Paul is describing in chapter 12.
  6. Homily 30 on First Corinthians, ibid., 208
  7. Ibid., 208
  8. Ibid., 208
  9. Garland, ibid., 595.
  10. Thiselton, ibid., 1007.

Save page

Should Every Church Gathering Look Like 1 Corinthians 14?

Yesterday a friend of mine1 asked a good question:

Is the way you “do church” found in the Bible? I’m not asking if it’s inherently wrong, but just wondering if it’s in the Bible?

I responded with this:

No, and neither was the car I drive in to get to the church gathering. So there needs to be some flex. But: I think there’s been too much flex in most churches, and we’re missing out on potential blessings.

Another friend thought I was being too easy on our churches–that I was, to use my words, guilty myself of “too much flex.” He said that God gives us instructions in Scripture on how church meetings should be held. Then he quoted these verses:

What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up… If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged… (1 Cor. 14:26, 30-31)

What do you think? Was 1 Corinthians 14 intended to be a manual that describes what all churches must do every time they gather? Should this be, for example, what all our Lord’s Day gatherings look like? 

My friend’s helpful challenge pushed me to think hard enough that I thought I’d share my response here. Here, with minor edits, is what I wrote:


I’ll try to explain a bit more where I’m coming from with my brief comment above.

First, I am aware of various house c
hurch insights and sympathetic to most of them. In fact, from time to time I’ve been strongly tempted to get involved in such a fellowship, although in my case it would probably mean starting something new. (I won’t go into the pros and cons of me doing that now, because they are complex!) What I mean to say is that I’ve read authors such as Rad Zdero (also this) and Frank Viola and Larry Kreider and Floyd McClung and listened to people like Steve Atkerson and I really like a lot of their ideas. I think more people should be considering what they are saying. I’m a fan of house churches! I’m just not ready to say that it’s the only possible way to “do church.” Many of the above writers would agree with me.

Second, while I definitely wish we had more 1 Corinthians 14 elements in our gatherings (I’m reading Jack Deere these days), I’m not convinced that Paul intended that the verses you quoted be a manual for how all churches must conduct all their gatherings.

Why don’t I think so?

(1) Because of the immediate literary context. Those verses were written to a church that was already practicing all those gifts in abundance, but in a disorderly way. Paul’s main intent was not to try to urge his readers to use those gifts. Rather, he was trying to bring order to the chaos. Thus, in vs. 26 the only command is the last sentence: “Let all things be done for building up.” The previous sentence is not a command, but just a description: “When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. The vast majority of English translations, including the best, I think, agree on this, as do a number of highly respected commentators that I consulted, ones who know Greek well. This is either a description of what regularly happened in Corinth, or of what Paul imagined was likely to happen at a given gathering. (Commentator David Garland writes, “Paul presents a hypothetical scenario, ‘suppose that when you assemble,’ rather than a real description of what is happening.” I think it is more likely that Paul is describing what commonly happened at Corinth, but the fact remains that the sentence is almost certainly a description, not a command.) Other less important things could be noted–like that the phrase “each one” does not always literally mean every single person, but simply “lots of individuals.”

As for verses 30-31, I think it is significant that these come in a paragraph about prophets. So I think Paul is saying that when the prophets are speaking in a gathering, these rules apply. I don’t think he is saying that only this kind of (possibly) spontaneous prophetic speaking is permitted, or that all other kinds of speakers must follow these same rules, including the rule about sitting down when another receives something to say. I don’t think we have exegetical reason for applying this same sitting-down rule to, say, recognized teachers. And in this “prophets passage” it is interesting to note that Paul says only two or three prophets should speak. We need to keep this in mind when he says, two verses later, that “you can all prophesy one by one.” It seems Paul was not envisioning meetings where either prophets or tongues-speakers dominated for long periods of time. Only four to six such speakers, in total, were to speak in any one meeting. The rest of the time was for other things.

(2) Because there are other NT passages that describe other kinds of gatherings. For example, in the Lord’s Day gathering described in Acts 20:7-12 one speaker spoke all night (Paul). This speaking almost certainly included more dialogue than our sermons do (the verb used to describe Paul’s speech suggests this, for it means “to reason, argue, prove, persuade”), but one person was clearly the main speaker for hours on end. In other places churches are commanded to read apostolic letters when they gather (Col. 4:16)–something that can take from 10 to 45 minutes, depending on the letter, not counting time taken to add explanations and respond to questions. So I think we have good biblical precedent for having one or several main speakers prepared to speak at many of our gatherings–not as a replacement for every-member input, but as part of the whole edifying mix.

(3) Because of the importance of teaching both doctrine and practice, and the importance of the church being unified in the teaching it receives. (This point draws a logical deduction from Scripture and is thus less weighty than my first two points, which involve direct Scriptural input.) I think it is a terrible mistake to think that teaching can only happen “over the pulpit”! (Or, if you’re happy like me to skip the furniture, in a weekly preaching session.) But I found it interesting to hear Steve Atkerson describe the experience of his house church. They have a very strong emphasis on having a “1 Corinthians 14 meeting” that is centered on the Lord’s Supper. But they found that they were hurting because the only intentional teaching input that their church members were receiving was happening at a variety of other weekly events, times when the whole church was never together. So they finally decided that they were going to include a scheduled teaching input time in their Lord’s Day gatherings. (If you don’t know Steve Atkerson, check out New Testament Reformation Fellowship.)

So, to wrap up my thoughts, I think thriving churches will experience a lot more of what we see in 1 Corinthians 14 than what many of our churches currently experience. I agree that, far too often, our typical church practices are a recipe for boredom. (And, as it’s been said, it’s pretty close to a “sin” to bore people with God’s Word!) I also think we would benefit from sharing the Lord’s Supper every week around a common meal. (A practice that has wider and stronger early historical support than the practice of having a primarily or totally spontaneous-input church gathering.)

So I’m completely with you on thinking our churches should look a lot more like NT ones! I’m just not ready to say the NT explicitly commands that we all need to always look like 1 Corinthians 14:26.


My response here was trying to do two things at once: speak in favor of NT-style participatory house churches, while questioning the idea that 1 Corinthians 14 is a sufficient manual for church gatherings. My double aim probably leaves some of you with as many questions as answers. Some of you might be worrying I’m dropping off the deep end into house church chaos, while others might be thinking I’m still far too tradition-bound!

I won’t try to answer your questions now. Instead, I invite you to:

  1. Consider some of the house church authors and speakers I’ve named above, testing them by Scripture. (I certainly don’t agree with all of them on every point. I think Rad Zdero is at least as balanced as any of them.)
  2. Tell us what you think in the comments below. Am I off the wall? What do I still need to learn? What do you think our church gatherings should look like? Why?

For Christ and his Church!


 

  1. His name is Christopher Witmer. He has a way with good questions.

Save page