“For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body.” 1Corinthians 12:14-15.
I was reading this passage this morning and realized, as so often happens, that I was reading right past a significant understanding of this section.
Usually, when this section of scripture is taught or preached on, the emphasis is placed on one of several themes. The themes are the diversity of Christian community in a local church, the relative importance or unimportance of a specific manifestation of the Holy Spirit, or the kinds of manifestations of the Holy Spirit (“spiritual gifts”) that are legitimate. In these verses, it is the diversity theme that gets preached on and it pretty much goes like this: we’re all different, we all contribute in different ways, and we should not become jealous of other people’s contributions to the church that seem more glamorous than ours. Really, what gets emphasized here is a late-20th century feel-good egalitarianism. Now I’m not suggesting that emphasis isn’t valid and, indeed, is probably part of the teaching here. But it now occurs to me that emphasis is not the best interpretation.
One of the difficult tasks of interpreting any of the New Testament epistles is that you are reading only one side of the conversation. All of the epistles from Paul, John, Peter, James, or Jude are responses from some inquiry or event from a local church. That is, to properly interpret the epistle, you need to have an understanding of the back-story. Now, providentially, this is actually not that hard to do. Frequently, the writer of the epistle will restate the question that was asked or make it pretty clear what the issue was that they are now addressing.
As I was reading this section it occurred to me that the backstory wasn’t merely some people claiming that their spiritual gifts were more important than others, making them into some sort of spiritual elite. No, Paul is actually repeating something quite different. Apparently, there were people who were convinced (by whom?) that “If I’m not gifted like …” then; what?
That they aren’t ‘as important’ as those who are?
These ‘non-hand’ people had been convinced that if they weren’t like a hand, then they were “not part of the body” at all. That is, somebody had been teaching or preaching that if you don’t have a specific spiritual gift, you are not a Christian.
In the next verse, Paul actually repeats the same idea for emphasis. If somebody was told, “if you’re not an ‘eye,’ then you’re not a Christian” and that person believed it. Paul repeats himself – ‘that’s just plain wrong.’ In fact, Paul goes a bit further and says that just because somebody doesn’t think they’re a Christian (because of this bad teaching about ‘litmus-test spiritual gifts’), that doesn’t make them not a Christian. Or to be more precise, 'If you're not a Christian, the reason is not that you don't have a particular gift.'
So, in current theological language, the issue was a bad teaching that “charismatic grace affirms salvific grace.”
And then, rather than spill ink on smacking down those who were teaching such weird ideas, Paul spends his time refuting the teaching and affirming the importance and diversity of everyone’s Spirit-empowered ministry in the local church. The closest he comes to smacking down the apparent sources of this bad teaching is when he says that “those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow greater honor” (v. 23) and “God has … [given] greater honor to the part that lacked it” (v. 25). That is, all those guys who think they’re so great because they are a ‘hand’ or ‘eye’ actually don’t realize how less honorable they really are.
So the point is that this indicates that the situation with this church in Corinth was actually much worse than is usually preached. There were people not only saying that they were more important to others because of their spiritual gifts; but apparently there were people saying that if you do not have a specific spiritual gift, then you really aren’t a Christian. And the sad thing was that there were people in the church who were believing this bad doctrine.
And Paul’s pastoral heart must have broken for these poor souls who were being told they weren’t really saved. Such a false teaching is profoundly unloving (as it rests on the sin of pride). Please note that Paul then turns the church’s attention from this false teaching to a much better understanding of the church’s diversity and then to “a still more excellent way;” that is, love. And after that, he then comes back to clarify the relative importance of certain spiritual gifts.
Folks, there are – today – movements within Christendom which teach the same error. They will say that if a Christian doesn’t have a specific spiritual gift, then that person is not part of the body of the church. This idea is just as wrong today as it was nearly 2,000 years ago.