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!
- 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. ↩
- David Garland, 1 Corinthians, BECNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 595, n. 7. ↩
- Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NIGTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 1008. ↩
- Craig Blomberg, 1 Corinthians, NIVAC (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 246. ↩
- 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. ↩
- Homily 30 on First Corinthians, ibid., 208 ↩
- Ibid., 208 ↩
- Ibid., 208 ↩
- Garland, ibid., 595. ↩
- Thiselton, ibid., 1007. ↩