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.”
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!
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.
- 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.) ↩
- Ben Witherington, Conflict and Community in Corinth: Socio-rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 259. ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩
- Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 606. ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩
- David A. deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship, & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 167-68, also 168 n. 17. ↩
- Thiselton, ibid., 1009. ↩
- John Chrysostom, Homily 31, ibid., 209. ↩
- Thiselton, 1 Corinthians: A Shorter Exegetical & Pastoral Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), 210. ↩
- Thiselton, First Epistle, 1010. ↩
- Thiselton, ibid., 1010. ↩