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Cultural Preferences or Biblical Absolutes

On November 11, 2009

"The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Now the body is not made up of one part but of many" (1 Cor. 12:12-14, NRSV).

Have you ever visited your local Christian bookstore as an exercise in gender studies? Notice as you walk down the “women's” aisle how all the books take on shades of pink and lavender. Have a careful look, also, at the material published for boys and girls. Observe the abundance of materials geared to make your boy a warrior and a leader, and your girl a social princess and a beauty. Jenell Williams Paris, in her recent lecture at CBE, documents this phenomenon thoroughly. The trouble is, we set up specific gender expectations for life—expectations real people have difficulty fulfilling (see the article by social scientist Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen in Women, Ministry and the Gospel, edited by Mark Husbands and Timothy Larsen). Moreover, these gender expectations can encourage us to pursue service in the church based on our gender, an idea inconsistent with the Bible. Let's consider briefly what Paul has to say on this subject in 1 Corinthians 12.

Unlike Christian literature that advances different spheres for perceived human difference, Paul does exactly the opposite. Reminding us that it is the Spirit that gifts individuals for the common good (1 Cor. 12:7), Paul also points to the Spirit as the means through which our human differences are brought together in a functional harmony that creates strength and fruitful ministry.

Unlike first-century culture where ethnicity, class, and gender divided people, in Christ's new covenant community the Spirit levels a death-blow to cultural prejudices. Whereas Gentiles, slaves, and women would expect barriers to positions of leadership in secular culture, Scripture tells us that through God's Spirit the body of Christ actually functions better and more effectively because of our cultural differences.

What Paul is doing is radically counter-cultural. While human difference in the world creates exclusion and oppression, difference is brought into harmony by the Spirit, making us effective through our interdependence. Using the body metaphor to emphasize our functional interdependence Paul asks, “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?...if all were a single member, where would the body be?” No, Paul claims! That is why the body of Christ is not comprised of only feet, or only hands, or only eyes. Rather, Paul says that “God has arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose” (1 Cor. 20:18) and not as we might expect.

After establishing the value of difference working harmoniously within the body of Christ, Paul quickly adds that God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, etc. Notice that he does not cite gender, ethnicity, or class requirements to service as apostles, prophets, or teachers. To do so would undermine the argument he has just made—that in the body of Christ our social differences are made into a functional strength through the power of the Holy Spirit. Therefore we observe women, slaves, and Gentiles who serve the body of Christ worthily and powerfully as apostles (Rom. 16:7), prophets (Acts 2:17, Acts 21:9, 1 Cor. 11:5), and as teachers (Priscilla and Aquila—Acts 18:26).

Let us respond to the teaching of Scripture. In the body of Christ, God's Spirit delights in bringing together in functional strength individuals who are different. While culture, even church culture, creates divisions based on difference, and while boys are told to be warriors and leaders, if God gifts our daughters as soldiers and as pioneers in fields like missions, medicine, or theology, why would we impede the work of God's Spirit? To confuse our cultural preferences with biblical absolutes is to weaken the body of Christ. Our spiritual gifts are not given according to gender, but according to the pleasure of God's Spirit—who makes us strong through our differences!

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