Thursday, June 17, 2010

Hierarchy in the Body of Christ - another small excursus

The concept of hierarchy in the church is one that unfortunately has been warped by a lack of understanding of the concept of ministry and the concept of ordination. Thus it might be beneficial to look briefly at 1 Corinthians 12, for it deals with hierarchy and contains a connection between ministering and gifting. In the Trinitarian formulation of vv. 4-6, Paul presents a clear and distinct picture of variety in gifting (charisma), ministries (diakonia), and activities, and of unity through the God who bestows them. Thiselton describes it as follows:

charisma implies a monopoly of the Spirit, since the same Spirit apportions out gifts in variety and degree in accordance with divine purposes, even so no one type of ways of serving signifies some special claim to extol Christ’s Lordship, since the same Lord commissioned varieties of ways of serving.[1]

Paul then proceeds to present a vivid image of unity in diversity and of the necessity of all the members in the body of Christ (vv. 12-26). Specifically, in v. 22 he states that “those members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary.” Thiselton argues that ‘weaker’ is not the best translation here and proposes “less endowed with power or status,”[2] but, regardless of how this idea of weakness is fleshed out, the central message is that those members are necessary. Paul flips the Corinthians’ assumed hierarchy on its head and continues to do so in the next several verses by focusing on honor given to less honorable members. While discussing these verses, Patterson comments, “God has so prepared our bodies that those portions of it which might otherwise have been despised are subjects upon which the most abundant honor is actually given.”[3] Paul’s reference here could be to less aesthetically pleasing organs which need to be covered by clothing, but “in addition to this thought there must be certain recognition of the intrinsic value of the internal organs which we carefully protect because life depends upon their proper functioning.”[4] So here Paul claims “that the normally conceived body hierarchy is actually only an apparent, surface hierarchy.”[5] This concept is central to the heartbeat of this passage, which is a message of unity: we need others and others need us.

Yet, in the midst of this chapter on unity, necessity, and apparent lack of hierarchy, Paul, in v. 28, makes the following statement: “God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that . . .” (emphasis mine). This enumeration cannot be dismissed as just a simple list, and it is unlikely to be chronological, but does it imply ranking? Most commentators see this as a ranking of importance,[6] and while some suggest that this is mainly Paul continuing to turn things upside down for the Corinthians,[7] the presence of a hierarchy of importance cannot be totally ignored.[8] Here, as is often found in Scripture, there is a tension: all gifts are important and necessary, yet some seem to be more important. Contrary to the similar Animal Farm saying,[9] this tension is eased with the understanding that “one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually [gift(s)] as He wills” (v. 11). Believers, therefore, should understand that there are no second class citizens caused by a variety of spiritual gifts, for it is God who has determined each one’s gifting. Furthermore, as followers of Christ, humility and the love of others, keeps said hierarchy from becoming a matter of pride or contention. Finally, one should not confuse these three gifts with roles or positions in the church. After all, all believers are commanded to make disciples, and therefore all believers are asked to be teachers. We should therefore, as Paul says in v. 31, truly desire the best gifts, including the gift of teaching, and supremely the gift of love.

[1] Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistles to the Corinthians, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 931-2.

[2] Ibid., 1007.

[3] Paige Patterson, The Troubled Triumphant Church (Dallas: Criswell Publications, 1983), 223.

[4] Ibid.

[5] D.B. Martin, The Corinthian Body (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 94.

[6] See Patterson, The Troubled Triumphant Church, 225; Thiselton, in Thiselton, The First Epistles to the Corinthians, 1013-15, claims that Bruce, Grosheide, Robertson and Plummer, Dunn, Lang, and others also take this stand.

[7] Martin sees this list as “also participating in [Paul’s] status reversing strategy” (Martin, The Corinthian Body, 102). According to Thiselton, in Thiselton, The First Epistles to the Corinthians, 1014-15, Barret suggests that Paul is making a direct juxtaposition with the list found in 12:8-10, which he sees as “the Corinthian definition of ‘pneumatics’ traits;” and Chrysostom claims that Paul purposely lists the gift of tongues last everywhere.

[8] Given the nature of the gifts listed after these first three (but not enumerated), and the parallel nature and order of these three gifts with the gifts listed in Eph 4:11-12, the importance of these three gifts is probably due to their equipping role and is most probably associated with their proclaiming nature.

[9] In George Orwell’s novel, the once egalitarian pigs, after having been corrupted by absolute power, replace the last law “all animals are equal,” with “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”


John S Wilson III said...

nice work Mael! I tend to think that Paul uses the list that he does to turn upside down the Corinthian's misplacement over use of tongues to the detriment of the body of Christ, given the context. Apostles according to Paul were generally the scum of the earth, so having it as "firstly" may be his reason for doing the list the way he did. Additionally, it is not a comprehensive list so it seems to imply that he is just trying to have the Corinthians rethink their opinions about the supposed importance of some gifts over others versus making a form of church hierarchy. All members have a function(s) in the church to help it stay on course in following Jesus' lordship, apostles or church planters being key in building that foundation. (The importance for 1/2 Timothy and Titus who were church planters). The rest of the gifts are part of God's building materials to strengthen it and build it into the fullness of His Son. I have found in face-to-face community with other believers and having Jesus as Lord and Head over that group, the working out and the building up of the body with the gifts given to it is probably the greatest way a church body truly grows and builds itself up in love. Apostles and prophets from what I've seen in scripture were generally itinerant while those more mature in each church, in living by Christ's life, helped guide the body to stay on course with Jesus as Head. I think church has tended to make a hierarchy in the body (using these few verses) to overly protect the body to the detriment of the function of the body.

Maël said...


Thanks for the continued interaction and encouragement. I have some thoughts/questions about your comment.

I'm not sure Paul really thought that apostles were "the scum of the earth," but I do agree that throughout the book he tries to turn things upside down for the Corinthians.

I think that equating apostles to our modern understating of church planters, while there might be some parallels, is a little anachronistic. In addition when talking of apostles, I think we need to be careful to differentiate the 3 uses of the term apostolos: the spiritual gift, the special position of the Twelve, or the missionary-like/messenger role of some in the NT, because they can be distinct. I think in 1 Cor 12, Paul is referring to spiritual gifts, not positions or roles.

Can you show me where you get that prophets were generally itinerant?

Thanks brother.


John S Wilson III said...

My use for the words itinerant mainly comes from Acts 11:27-28 for "some prophets." Philip the evangelist similarly (Acts 21:8). Those who were sent out, those with apostolic gifting, to plant churches seemed to be constantly on the move, whether like Paul for a couple weeks to a few years, encouraging the churches, not just the 11 and Paul but those whom Paul listed in his letters. I think we put the term "apostle" in a box, think mainly because of the abuses in church history when the word is used. (just like many other terms in the Bible) Church planting, is apostolic in nature, setting a foundation of Jesus Christ with new communities of Christ. I think more often than naught missionaries are mostly considered assistants to pastors of local churches when the New Testament does not indicate this approach. Church planters formed communities of Christ, churches who functioned under the Headship of Christ, then committed "to God and to the word of his grace." The church planter with their assistants then moved on as the Lord guided. Frank Viola's excellent work "Finding Organic Church" is really helpful! Hope this helps. God bless you brother!

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