The latter half of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians has a definite flow and organization to it. While our tendency is to zoom in on a single verse or even sentence, sometimes we miss the forest for the trees. So, start with an overview and then we’ll zoom in a little.
We pick up Paul in chapter 11, where he regulates some issues about how the community should function, both relating to gender and the Lord’s Supper, which we call “the sacrament.” Then he moves on to a potentially more destructive issue, namely, the Corinthian saints are highly competitive and trying to one-up each other, but with spiritual gifts. Who is the most blessed? Who is the most spiritually in tune? (This is not terribly unusual. The Apostles themselves had argued about which of them “was the greatest” and even asked Jesus to settle the matter- Luke 9:46, 22:24, Matt 18:1)
For whatever reason, the Corinthians decided that the highest manifestation of spiritual gifts is speaking in tongues; not in known languages (like missionaries), but unknown languages. Consequently, their meetings appear to be disproportionately filled by babbling in sounds that no one understands.
Paul’s response is brilliant. First, he points out why speaking in tongues isn’t worth much unless someone also interprets. Second, he tries to equalize the spiritual gifts somewhat by introducing the body of Christ metaphor. A body needs feet as well as hands, eyes as well as ears. If everyone does the same thing, the body can’t function. Third and most brilliantly, Paul harnesses their competitive nature for good, by saying in essence, “Fine. You want to compete? Love (KJV “charity”) is the highest spiritual gift. Why don’t you see who can best embody charity instead of speaking in tongues?”
Lastly, Paul turns to the important issue of a physical resurrection. The crux is in 15:12, “Now if Christ is being preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?” (1Co 15:12 NET) He makes several arguments here, beginning with Jesus resurrection, moving on to one of the rare New Testament mentions of Adam, and the otherwise cryptic reference to baptism for the dead. If there’s no real afterlife, what’s would be the point of baptism for the dead?
That’s the overview.
Tidbits, trees, and details–
11:1-16 Men, women, long hair, “nature”, and other weird stuff
Paul says several confusing things to us, likely due to operating out of a very different cultural mindset. Basically, the ancient view of physiology underlies part of his statements here. If you’re interest, see this technical article in Journal of Biblical Literature. LINK
Long hair is tied to two other confusing things: head coverings and the question of what women could or should be doing in Church.
Taking the latter question first, 1Co 14:34 (NRSV) says “women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says.” Two points- This passage seems a bit out of place, and if you remove it, the text flows nicely. Some scholars think it’s a later interpolation, while others think it’s original. Second, if it is original, however we understand this passage in light of 1Co 11, where Paul specifies that women who pray and prophesy in church must do so with covered heads. The clear implication is that women are praying and prophesying in church, and Paul thinks that’s perfectly fine, which means, at minimum (and if original) the silence of 14:34 is not absolute.
But what about the other aspect, “head,” head coverings/veils/hair? Frankly, the whole thing is puzzling. Says NT Wright
I have to admit that I didn’t understand this passage [in the past], and I’m not sure I’ve understood it yet. But I think we can see the main point Paul wanted to make, even if the reasons why he’s put it like this may still be puzzling.
Paul wasn’t, of course, addressing the social issues we know in our world. Visit a different culture, even today, and you will discover many subtle assumptions, pressures and constraints in society, some of which appear in the way people dress and wear their hair. In Western culture, a man wouldn’t go to a dinner party wearing a bathing suit, nor would a woman attend a beach picnic wearing a wedding dress. Most Western churches have stopped putting pressure on women to wear hats in church (Western-style hats, in any case, were not what Paul was writing about here), but nobody thinks it odd that we are still strict about men not wearing hats in church.
In Paul’s day (as, in many ways, in ours), gender was marked by hair and clothing styles. We can tell from statues, vase paintings and other artwork of the period how this worked out in practice. There was social pressure to maintain appropriate distinctions. But did not Paul himself teach that there was ‘no male and female, because you are all one in the Messiah’ (Galatians 3:28)? Perhaps, indeed, that was one of the ‘traditions’ that he had taught the Corinthian church, who needed to know that Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female were all equally welcome, equally valued, in the renewed people of God. Perhaps that had actually created the situation he is addressing here; perhaps some of the Corinthian women had been taking him literally, so that when they prayed or prophesied aloud in church meetings (which Paul assumes they will do regularly; this tells us something about how to understand 14:34–35) they had decided to remove their normal headcovering, perhaps also unbraiding their hair, to show that in the Messiah they were free from the normal social conventions by which men and women were distinguished.
That’s a lot of ‘perhaps’es. We can only guess at the dynamics of the situation—which is of course what historians always do. It’s just that here we are feeling our way in the dark more than usual. But, perhaps to the Corinthians’ surprise, Paul doesn’t congratulate the women on this new expression of freedom. He insists on maintaining gender differentiation during worship.
Another dimension to the problem may well be that in the Corinth of his day the only women who appeared in public without some kind of headcovering were prostitutes. This isn’t suggested directly here, but it may have been in the back of his mind. If the watching world discovered that the Christians were having meetings where women ‘let their hair down’ in this fashion, it could have the same effect on their reputation as it would in the modern West if someone looked into a church and found the women all wearing bikinis.
The trouble is, of course, that Paul doesn’t say exactly this, and we run the risk of ‘explaining’ him in terms that might (perhaps) make sense to us while ignoring what he himself says. It’s tempting to do that, precisely because in today’s Western world we don’t like the implications of the differentiation he maintains in verse 3: the Messiah is the ‘head’ of every man, a husband is the ‘head’ of every woman, and the ‘head’ of the Messiah is God. This seems to place man in a position of exactly that assumed superiority against which women have rebelled, often using Galatians 3:28 as their battle-cry.
But what does Paul mean by ‘head’? He uses it here sometimes in a metaphorical sense, as in verse 3, and sometimes literally, as when he’s talking about what to do with actual human heads (verses 4–7 and 10). But the word he uses can mean various different things; and a good case can be made out for saying that in verse 3 he is referring not to ‘headship’ in the sense of sovereignty, but to ‘headship’ in the sense of ‘source’, like the ‘source’ or ‘head’ of a river. In fact, in some of the key passages where he explains what he’s saying (verses 8, 9 and 12a) he is referring explicitly to the creation story in Genesis 2, where woman was made from the side of man.
The underlying point then seems to be that in worship it is important for both men and women to be their truly created selves, to honour God by being what they are and not blurring the lines by pretending to be something else. One of the unspoken clues to this passage may be Paul’s assumption that in worship the creation is being restored, or perhaps that in worship we are anticipating its eventual restoration (15:27–28). God made humans male and female, and gave them ‘authority’ over the world, as Ben Sirach 17:3 puts it, summarizing Genesis 1:26–28 and echoing Psalm 8:4–8 (Ben Sirach was p 142 written around 200 BC). And if humans are to reclaim this authority over the world, this will come about as they worship the true God, as they pray and prophesy in his name, and are renewed in his image, in being what they were made to be, in celebrating the genders God has given them.
If this is Paul’s meaning, the critical move he makes is to argue that a man dishonours his head by covering it in worship and that a woman dishonours hers by not covering it. He argues this mainly from the basis that creation itself tends to give men shorter hair and women longer (verses 5–6, 13–15); the fact that some cultures, and some people, offer apparent exceptions would probably not have worried him. His main point is that in worship men should follow the dress and hair codes which proclaim them to be male, and women the codes which proclaim them to be female.
Why then does he say that a woman ‘must have authority on her head because of the angels’ (verse 10)? This is one of the most puzzling verses in a puzzling passage, but there is help of sorts in the Dead Sea Scrolls. There it is assumed that when God’s people meet for worship, the angels are there too (as many liturgies, and theologians, still affirm).
For the Scrolls, this means that the angels, being holy, must not be offended by any appearance of unholiness among the congregation. Paul shares the assumption that the angels are worshipping along with the humans, but may be making a different point.
When humans are renewed in the Messiah and raised from the dead, they will be set in authority over the angels (6:3). In worship, the church anticipates how things are going to be in that new day. When a woman is praying or prophesying (perhaps in the language of angels, as in 13:1), she needs to be truly what she is, since it is to male and female alike, in their mutual interdependence as God’s image-bearing creatures, that the world, including the angels, is to be subject. God’s creation needs humans to be fully, gloriously and truly human, which means fully and truly male and female. This, and of course much else besides, is to be glimpsed in worship.
The Corinthians, then, may have drawn the wrong conclusion from the ‘tradition’ that Paul had taught them. Whether or not they could follow his argument any better than we can, it seems clear that his main aim was that the marks of difference between the sexes should not be set aside in worship. At least perhaps.
We face different issues, but making sure that our worship is ordered appropriately, to honour God’s creation and anticipate its fulfilment in the new creation, is still a priority. There is no ‘perhaps’ about that.
Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians
So. There you have it.
1 Co 11:17 onwards
This is the prime example of the occasional nature of Paul’s letters. If the Corinthians hadn’t been screwing it up so badly, we’d not have any passages about the Sacrament outside the Gospels.
Now, the Lord’s Supper was more of a community meal, an actual supper. It probably had a special loaf of bread and cup of wine (and yes, it was wine), but was otherwise a regular group meal.
Paul hints at several purposes
- Remind/memorialize Christ’s death (11:26), which is covenant-related.
- But also, to build unity (1Co 10:16-17)
Irony is, the way the Corinthians are doing it totally violates the purpose, leading Paul to say in 11:17 “your meetings do more harm than good.” Note Elder Packer’s statement, “It takes a pretty good meeting to be better than no meeting at all.” This is actually the case here! In fact, things are so bad that Paul suggests in v. 30 that divine punishment, sickness, and death has resulted.
What’s happening here? Remember the diversity at Corinth? The problem is that church is held at someone’s home, generally a large enough home to accommodate people, which probably means some degree of wealth. But most of them are not wealthy or high-born. Perhaps the Corinthians are following the cultural norm, wherein wealthy people invited less well-off people and the upper-class folks ate the nice food in the nice room, and the others… well, not quite as good. Some who have leisure arrive early, chow down, and drink wine excessively, getting drunk. The others who arrive later find the communal meal already eaten. That’s not going to erase class lines and build unity.
1) eat and drink at home beforehand (11:22, 34)
2) Examine yourself, that you do not partake unworthily (11:27-28)
3) “discern the Lord’s body” (11:29), which probably refers both to the church community as a whole, a la chapter 12, as well as Christ’s body, atonement, crucifixion, resurrection.
In contrast to the previous issues around sexuality and gender,
Paul now has to tell the Corinthians that, if they have been blurring the lines between male and female which should have been clearly marked (11:2–16), in another area they were marking out clearly a line which should have been obliterated altogether. When they are coming together to celebrate the Lord’s meal, the ‘supper’ or ‘eucharist’, they are reinforcing a social distinction which has nothing to do with God’s intention in creation, and nothing to do, either, with God’s achievement of salvation through the Messiah. This is the division between rich and poor, which ran like an ugly line through ancient society as much as in our own if not more, and which threatened to deface the very celebration at which the church’s unity in the Messiah ought to have been most apparent.
Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians, 144.
Now, to put to bed a not uncommon LDS reading of the New Testament, if you’re getting drunk on the wine of the Lord’s Supper, it’s clearly wine and not grape juice. (This is not the only place this is clear in the New Testament.) Further, in an LDS context, the First Presidency and Apostles continued using wine in their weekly sacrament meeting in the temple until 1906, according to BYU prof. Thomas Alexander’s Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints from 1890-1930. (Page link to reference in google books. The whole chapter on the Word of Wisdom is great.)
1 Corinthians 13– “Charity”
Very quickly, this chapter doesn’t use a special word meaning “charity” here, but the same Greek for “love” agapē (“ah-GOP-eh”) as elsewhere in the New Testament. (There are three greek terms translated as “love” which are sometimes distinct and sometimes overlapping.) Why the KJV chose to translate it as “charity” here, I don’t know. Both the Bishop’s Bible (1595) and Tyndale read “love”, as do most modern translations. Here, it’s quite worth reading in a modern translation, to hear it differently.
Mormons mostly know “charity” from Moroni 7, which has some literary connections to 1Co 13.
One of my personal philosophies in Gospel Doctrine is that I don’t make a comment unless it’s productive and constructive. (Or, in extreme cases, if something really really wrong is said about a central principle, I’ll speak up without spending time carefully formulating my thought. On that line, Paul says “Let all things be done for building up.” (1Co 14:26 NRS) Love that verse. Similarly, 1Co 14:12- “Try to excel in gifts that build up the Church”
That’s a good takeaway.
Resurrection in chapter 15
Why might the Corinthians struggle with the idea of a physical resurrection?
Both Paul and much Greco-Roman thought held that the soul is immortal, and some of the Corinthians, thinking in Greco-Roman categories, denied the resurrection of the body. But they seem to have accepted Jesus’ resurrection (v. 4) as being similar to the so-called resurrections of many Greek heroes.- NIV Zondervan Study Bible (2015), 2354.
Paul follows the standard argument technique of beginning with an agreed-on premise; the Corinthians must agree with the very gospel by which they were converted…. Following a typical rhetorical form, Paul’s argument forces the Corinthians to accept the resurrection of all believers, because they already agree with him (and objectively could not help but do so—15:1–11) that Jesus had been raised. Jewish teachers also often used the particular to prove the general principle that it presupposed.- The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament
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