1st Corinthians 12:12 – 31
I made a number of assertions in my last post. The test of assertions is to see if the text actually supports them. If it does support them, then we should probably consider carefully the conclusions that came from the assertions. If the text does not support the assertions, we can feel safe in discarding them. So, how did I do? You do remember my assertions, right? Oh. Well let’s reiterate them and see how they stand up to today’s text.
First, I said that the body Paul referred to in chapter 11 was the body of Christ in the church. Our passage for this post is anything but a denial of that assertion. In fact, Paul spends a great deal of energy confirming that the body he has been speaking of up to this point is the church. He now talks about that body in a most emphatic and pointed way, even working in the eyeballs and feet.
So, I think we can assume that I got my first point at least mostly right. So let’s look at what Paul has to say about that. Starting in verse 12 he drives home the point that this discussion is all about the body of Christ, the church. It is made up of many parts, and those parts become part of it through baptism in the power of the Holy Spirit. I believe it is inescapable that this is simply an extension of what Paul called “these spiritual things” in verse 1 of chapter 12.
We saw that the spiritual things included communion. It appears that they also include baptism. The effect of baptism is placing one in the body of Christ, and it is done through the power of the Holy Spirit. When we start discussing the effect or the efficacy of a sacrament, we have stepped right into a centuries-long controversy. What do I mean when I say that baptism works or that communion works? There is a range of opinion, both theological and philosophical, as to what that statement means. Here is another delightful can of worms.
Everyone who accepts baptism and communion as sacraments of the church believes that they are effective, that they do something. That something will depend on what you believe about the sacrament to begin with.
If you believe it to be mere sign, then it will be a sign. It is irrelevant that it does nothing else. If you have a sign on the highway that says “Roads Ends 1000 Feet” it does not matter at all that the sign doesn’t come into your car and step on your brakes and turn the wheel to the right. It has done its job when it lets you know that the road ends in 1000 feet.
However, if we change the image just a little, things can look radically different. Let’s say that you are in utero and your mother is dilated 10cm. That is a sign as well, but it is a sign that something is about to happen, and this is something that is quite different from a warning sign about the end of the road. Before this particular sign, you were a human baby in the protective womb of your mother. After this sign, you will be a newborn infant, experiencing the world in a vastly different way. This is a picture of baptism. Call it a sign if you want, but this is a pretty radical sign and it has effects that are far beyond simple information or warning. It is just like the sign of a wedding vow: before the vow, I am a bachelor and can act like one with impunity. After the vow, I am a married man and acting like a bachelor is not an option. “I do” are just words, but they make a huge difference in my life. “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit” have a similar impact, and Paul tells us that this is the result of the power of the Holy Spirit. These are spiritual things.
Looking back to my last post, I next said that Paul’s emphasis, his main point, was that the unity of the church is the reason for Communion and for spiritual gifts. I would add that the unity of the church is the reason for baptism.
In verse 13, Paul says that all were baptized into one body. “One” is a pretty good argument for unity. We are not placed into numerous bodies; we are placed into one Body. Where, specifically, does our baptism place us? It places us in the body of Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit. In addition, I have to say that we cannot talk about breaks in that fellowship. Jew and Gentile, male and female, black and white, anything and anything else. None of these is a reason to separate, because by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are placed into one body.
I said earlier that this was a can of worms. Here is the reason: throughout the history of the church there have been competing claims as to who is the “real” church. Surely, there must be a “real” church and all of these competing claims can be reconciled by some objective standard. There is no hesitation on most parts for folks to offer their “objective” standard to resolve the situation.
This is where things get really interesting. There are about six different interpretations of church tradition and history. There is the Roman, or Western, version, then the Greek or Orthodox version. The Episcopals trace their heritage back to the very earliest of day and the Copts in Egypt do likewise. The Magisterial or Catholic Reformers and the Radical Reformers round out the picture.
When you pick up the scriptures to read them, or you baptize a baby, or partake in communion, how do you know that you are doing the right thing? Most often, you will look to your church’s interpretation and understanding of history and tradition to know what to think and do. The assumption is made that one of these traditions is right and the others are, of necessity, wrong. Why is that?
Mostly it is because we assume that the oneness or unity that Paul speaks of is a unity of government. Now, I am more than willing to grant that the ultimate government of the church is Jesus Christ and his apostles and prophets. However, all six of these traditions argue that the apostles and prophets lead directly to their form of church government. Further, that their form of government is what Paul had in mind when he spoke of the unity of the church. However, each of these forms of church government is mutually exclusive. Who is right?
It is an important question. When I look at the text in 1st Corinthians 12, I am given some hints. What does the text say?
First, it seems that the individual members cannot determine their own worth. At the very least it means that none of us can say that one or the other of us, on a local level, can determine who has the most to contribute. This knife cuts both ways. I cannot say that my spiritual gifts are superior to anyone else’s. Nor can I say that theirs are superior (or inferior) to mine. Second, I believe that by good and necessary consequences, none of the six traditions can claim the exclusive right to be called the only body of Christ. My reason for saying this is what Paul writes in the last half of verse 24 and verses 25 and 26.
But God composed the body, having given greater honor to that part which lacks it, that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.
God has decided who is in the church. Men are not left with that choice. The Corinthians needed to hear that none of their members was superior to the others. In the very same way, just on a broader scale, we need to hear that God has decided who is in the church.
I do not have the authority to excommunicate the faithful Orthodox, or the faithful Catholics, or the faithful Baptists, or the faithful Copts, or the faithful Anglicans. In the very same way, those groups have no right or responsibility to excommunicate us. Who decides who gets into the church? God alone. Can I argue with God? No. One of our poets said that our arms are too short to box with God. This is truly that case.