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The Politics of Representational Rule—1 Corinthians 12:1-11 (Alastair Roberts)

Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. 2 You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak. 3 Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says ‘Let Jesus be cursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.

4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8 To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

‘To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.’ Within this short statement, rewarding of attention in each of its constitutive elements, the Apostle Paul articulates a rich and finely poised vision of the Church as a community and polity.

The wider context of this claim concerns spiritual gifts, the various charismata exercised by members of the body of Christ. In the consecutive and parallel statements in the verses immediately preceding verse 7, Paul is concerned that the hearers of his letter recognize the threefold unity—‘same Spirit’ (verse 4); ‘same Lord’ (verse 5); ‘same God’ (verse 6)—that is at work within the diversity of gifts, forms of service, and activities respectively. Paul’s use of a Trinitarian pattern at this point is striking.

Many theologians have sought to overcome a breach between, or hierarchy of, plurality and singularity, diversity and unity, the one and the many, yet the common observation that such a breach or hierarchy is opposed in the thought of the New Testament is frequently employed to advance specific theological proposals that are far less felicitous. Perhaps some of the most egregious errors in this regard have arisen from the eager speculations of a social Trinitarianism, for which Nicholas Fedorov’s phrase—‘the dogma of the Trinity is our social program’—has been the guiding principle. As critics of this movement such as Karen Kilby and Steve Holmes have observed, this approach yields sharply contrasting ecclesiologies and politics when placed in the hands of John Zizioulas, Leonardo Boff, or Miroslav Volf. Holmes avers, ‘the claim that the doctrine of the Trinity is generative for ecclesiology and ethics is in danger of being cast into doubt if such wildly divergent implications can be drawn from the same doctrine.’[1]

Within our passage, Paul does not indulge in such speculations nor, despite the rich Trinitarian framing of his case, does he draw analogies between the Church and the Trinity. Nevertheless, his three parallel statements are not redundantly repetitious, as each one highlights a different dimension of unity within the phenomena that Paul is addressing. Although he resists a speculative analogy between God’s nature and the Church, he provides an account of the Church’s unity that is grounded in an implicit deep Trinitarianism—God’s threefold mission in inseparable operation.

The varieties of gifts correspond to the one Gift of the Spirit in verse 4. God has given the Church the one Gift of the Spirit and all spiritual gifts are given by God ‘through’ the Spirit (verses 8-11), as public ‘manifestations’ of the Spirit (verse 7). The unity here is not solely founded in their shared source in the one Giver, but also in the singularity of the Gift itself; the diverse forms of spiritual gifts all serve publicly to manifest the one Spirit. The Gift has been given to the entire body and each spiritual gift is a refractive disclosure and re-presentation of that single Gift.

As a counterpart to lordship—‘same Lord’—are the variegated forms of service exercised by different ministers in verse 5. We are all the servants of the same Master and it is for our common service and his honour that our different gifts are all to be employed.

Finally, in verse 6, there are many activities, but the same God brings about everything.[2] In the building of the Church, the first and final mover is always God himself, working in and through us. He is behind all of our action—instigating it—within our action—empowering us—and before our action—rendering it effective.

Woven throughout the passage is an account of both unified and unifying divine action. The Spirit is given by God and is the one through whom God gives to form the body of Christ (verses 8-11). The Spirit of God bears witness to the Lordship of Christ (verse 3). All activity finds its origin and end in God (verse 6). Diverse spiritual gifts publicly manifest the shared Gift of the Spirit; differing ministries are devoted to the common service of our one Lord; varied operations are all brought about by God’s effective working. As the Church and its members are caught up in something greater—the divine mission—they will become partakers in a divinely wrought unity.

The unity that Paul describes is not one clearly apparent to sight; it requires a spiritual act of recognition.[3] This act of recognition transforms both our perceptions of ourselves and of our spiritually gifted or office-holding brothers or sisters. In particular, Paul’s approach involves a reconception of the other party: no longer am I to regard them as the private owner of some peculiar spiritual possession or privilege, nor as one enjoying office by virtue of some spiritual entitlement or individual expertise. Rather, I must learn to appreciate their gift as a re-presentation and ‘manifestation’ of the one Gift that has been given to all of us in the body of Christ, a re-presentation and manifestation that exists for the ‘common good’ (verse 7).

Conversely, Paul’s teaching requires a transformation in the self-conception of spiritually gifted and ordained persons. Those with particular spiritual gifts must learn to perceive their exercise of those gifts as differentiated manifestations of the one Gift that has been given to us all, to serve the benefit of everyone. Likewise, the office-bearer within a church must recognize themselves as re-presenting the one ‘pre-structured’ and unitary witness and service of the Church in an particular and institutionally structured manner.[4] Neither the spiritually gifted person nor the ordained minister create or establish a new reality: they present ‘something which is already there’—the common Gift and ministry of the body as a whole. Bernd Wannenwetsch writes:

The individual minister is but a personal reference to the presence of the charisma in the whole body. Were she the only one to have a particular charisma she could not re-present it. There would be no ‘re-’, no presence to refer to apart from her own personal gift. So the minister is by her exercise of a charisma to others exactly witnessing to the commonality of the charisma.[5]

In arguing that specific gifts and ministers re-present the Gift and ministry that belongs to the body as a whole, Paul resists both radical egalitarian and hierarchical understandings of the Church. The differentiation of ministers is not the ‘specialization’ that underwrites the authority of modern expert individuals, but an ‘ordination’ whose authority arises from its political re-presentation of the one ministry and Gift that has been given to us all, and which is constantly tested according to its service of the common good. For such ministry to function effectively, it requires mutual recognition of our membership in one another and of our ministers’ manifestation of that which belongs to us all, rather than merely of their own theological and homiletical expertise, spiritual charisma, or mere possession of the command belonging to their office. We must perceive ourselves as sharers in their ministry and they must perceive themselves as sharers with us in our reception of it.

Although the Church is sui generis, it is not without certain homologies with temporal political authorities. Paul’s words here, addressed to the sectarian Corinthian church (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:10-17), may resonate in significant ways in an American political context of which polarizing factionalism is an increasingly pronounced feature. This prevailing political climate often displays a failure of representation, as the defeat and subjugation of political adversaries becomes our governing obsession, as the popular recognition constitutive of true political authority is no longer generally forthcoming, or as the service of special interest groups and lobbyists eclipses the pursuit of the common good. The common good is easy to misplace in such an adversarial political system when the oppositional mode of disputation by which we ought to pursue the shared task of political deliberation calcifies into reactive antagonisms and sectarian animus, leaving us unheeding of prudence and opposed to compromise in our quest for the social dominance of our sides and ideologies.

Political office holders’ vocation to serve and represent the common good pushes against the idea of the immediacy of political authority, whether in personal charisma, expertise, or in pure command. Political re-presentation must always be tested against the prior reality it is supposed to manifest or to which it must bear witness. In particular, as Wannenwetsch observes, ‘acts of recognition of the people’s sharing in the rule are equally essential for the way in which rulers exercise their special ministry,’ for the rule they exercise is that of the people as a whole.[6] This social mediation of true political representation is often neglected, yet is expressed—and thereby participated within—by the Church in its prayers for our political leaders. This can effect a change in our mode of political participation and imagination as Christians. However our leaders may consider themselves, and whether or not they perform their vocation aright, in its own act of representation, the Church prays for them as ministers of God, charged to serve the common good of our whole society:

Even in those times when Christians were deprived of the possibilities of civil engagement, as in places which are remote to modem democracy today, Christians have always participated in the ministerium politicum through their intercessions. Those prayers have been understood as a political action for the sake of the salus publica, and theologically as a representation in the strong sense: to stand before God, presenting the people, the rulers and the whole political society to God by commending them to his grace.[7]

While the unity of human polities is of another kind to the unity of the Church that Paul discusses in our passage, representation in rule and the recognition of rule are necessary for both. A Christian form of political participation can resist partisanship in its recognition of rule—even of leaders whose policies we might firmly oppose—and in its practice of ‘re-presentation’ in prayer and its pursuit of it in action. Our representation of our societies and rulers to God repeatedly subjects and summons both to the searching yet non-partisan standard of God’s will for our good in society together, while calling for God to bring about that good among us, a good which cannot be foreclosed by sectarian ideologies. Such a discipline can mould and inform our political imaginations, reducing their thrall to partisan causes and their constraining visions, while calling us to a practice that is more self-questioning and attentive to others, in place of our quests for ideological victory and vindication. In our commitment to recognize appropriately the modes of representative rule in our society and to petition for the common good over partisan or private gain, we uphold and propagate a healthy, open, and participatory vision of political society, one that has potential to relieve many of our political antagonisms and promote a more self-critical, yet less viciously sectarian, mode of political discourse.


[1] Stephen R. Holmes, The Quest For The Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History and Modernity (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012) 26.
[2] Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians [NIGTC] (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 933
[3] I highly recommend Bernd Wannenwetsch’s discussion of these themes within “‘Members of One Another’: Charis, Ministry and Representation” in A Royal Priesthood? The Use of the Bible Ethically and Politically: A Dialogue with Oliver O’Donovan, eds. Craig Bartholomew, Jonathan Chaplin, Robert Song, Al Wolters (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2002).
[4] See Oliver O’Donovan’s remarks in ibid. 222.
[5] Ibid. 212-213
[6] Ibid. 218
[7] Ibid. 219

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