By Greg Hewson
Misplaced, power can destroy. Rightly restored, it can transform. Within and beyond the church, people are wrestling with questions of power. How does Jesus give us a transformed and renewed vision for power?
The Reimaging Power: Bible study series aims to consider this topic in three different ways. Part 3: The Body and power explores how being part of the body of Christ leads us to use, share and give up power for the sake of others.
Read part 3 below.
Key text: 1 Corinthians 12:4-31
American basketball superstar Michael Jordan is often described as the GOAT: the Greatest of All Time. Reflecting on his ‘powers’ and role in the team, Jordan once claimed “There’s no ‘I’ in team, but there is in win!” Jordan certainly knew how to win, his Bulls team winning 6 NBA titles in 8 seasons in the 1990’s… Yet, as documented in the 2020 Netflix series ‘The Last Dance’, winning for Jordan came at any cost.
In 1 Corinthians 12, the Apostle Paul outlines a framework for Christian community, power and understanding gifts and roles that is pure genius, and one that most modern day team-building consultants would fall over themselves to patent. Yet beyond the nice words and Sunday School songs of body parts is a confronting framework that challenges our concepts of power and success. It is as relevant in today’s era of hyper competition as it was in ancient Corinth.
As we dive into this reading from 1 Corinthians 12, it is important to remind ourselves of the context of this letter from the Apostle Paul to the new christian community in Corinth.
Watch: To learn more about the church in Corinth and what Paul’s letter is seeking to address, check out The Bible Project video (9 minutes)
In this passage, Paul critiques a community infected by competition amongst its spiritual superstars, where leaders boast of their spiritual gifts and chaos reigns. As Paul highlights throughout 1 Corinthians, he again pinpoints a necessary corrective with the aim of leading ‘the body of Christ’ towards restoration and wholeness. This competitive spirituality destroys any possibility of community cohesion.
To counter this dangerous tendency, Paul contrasts charismata (gifts of the Spirit) with pneumatika (alleged manifestations of the Spirit) that create community tension. In a beautiful example of trinitarianism, Paul writes: “Now there are varieties of gifts but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but the same God who activates them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:4-7).
For Paul it is not a matter of achievement and recognition, but service resulting in the common good. This is no simple totalitarian unity; it is based on the amazing diversity of gifts (charismata) distributed by the Spirit. As Hays writes, “Paul is emphasising the importance of diversity in the church. The creative imagination of God is so many-faceted that God’s unitary power necessarily finds expression in an explosion of variegated forms.”1
In chapters 11-14 of 1 Corinthians, Paul sets out to address problems in the weekly worship gathering of the Corinthian church. It turns out some people were having really powerful spiritual experiences, others who would start sharing a teaching or a word, and then others who were new and trying to make sense of what was going on.
In seeking to address this in 1 Corinthians 12:12-26, Paul speaks about the body as the metaphor for Christian community and cooperation, highlighting the equality and importance of all members. Paul is at pains to point out how on a purely practical level, the body begins to break down and become dysfunctional when there is disunity and an inability to value one another’s diversity and cooperate together.
Guided by Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 12, the staff at Tearfund Australia’s Zimbabwean project partner Nzeve Deaf Centre are passionate about recognising the gifts of each person, seeking to build up the whole body of Christ in all they do. As executive director of Nzeve, Selina Mlambo explains;
“With the deaf community and their parents, it’s about recognising their potential, and what they can teach me. I think that’s where the strength has been, not to always assume I’m the one coming with all the knowledge, but to come into the centre… When you come to Nzeve, and it’s a sign language environment, you become the one who’s disabled because you can’t communicate. And so if you think about yourself in that context, it should help you understand how it is for a deaf person in the rest of the community. You can’t come in with a posture of ‘I know it all’. It doesn’t work in disability.”
When we operate with a mentality of ourselves being at the centre and others on the margins – even unintentionally – competitiveness, individualism and patterns of exclusion can thrive. Selina’s reflection reminds us that flipping what we usually see as ‘the margins’ to ‘the centre’ can be transformative, healing and productive.
Of course the metaphor of the body and description of gifts serving the ‘common good’ culminates in this most powerful and evocative line at the end of the passage;
But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way. (1 Corinthians 12:31)
Paul’s teaching on gifts, diversity and unity is the launching point for one of the most famous chapters in the whole of the New Testament - his teaching on love in chapter 13. Often described as ‘the wedding passage’ because of its popular use on those occasions, the two chapters are in fact inherently intertwined and must be understood in the context of community, and the building up of one another.
Explore: our 1 Corinthians 13 'The Greatest Gift' Bible Study
Close by praying this prayer together, along with a blessing from Ephesians:
Things are topsy-turvy in your kingdom, God.
Those living in poverty bear gifts of great worth,
the dead rise, the meek inherit the earth.
Teach us how to live in an upside-down world
where we are called to welcome the outcast,
prepare a feast for the ragged, and forgive those who offend us.
- from Common Prayer, A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.
For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. (Ephesians 3:14-21)
1. Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians. Louisville: John Knox, 1997, p. 210