This is (not) a test (part 1)

The apostle Paul, as something of an absentee pastor, has to provide wise and prophetic counsel to the church in Corinth on a variety of issues.  Some of these issues have been reported to him by others, and some the Corinthians have raised themselves in a letter addressed to him.

It’s a shame that we only have Paul’s side of the correspondence: so much of his meaning is lost when we don’t know what the Corinthians actually said.  We’re left to guess at much of the background, putting the pieces together from clues like the way Paul says, “Now about this…” as he seems to move to the next topic.

For example, at the beginning of chapter 12, Paul writes:

Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed.  You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak.  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.  (1 Cor 12:1-3, NRSV)

This is one of those passages that has created endless debate as interpreters have tried to figure out the social context that makes sense out of Paul’s words.  The problem is that it’s hard to imagine a situation in which a believer would actually say “Jesus be cursed!” — and if someone did, why doesn’t Paul seem to be more upset about it?

To sharpen the question a bit: take chapters 12, 13, and 14 together.  They seem to be a unit, in which Paul raises the question of spiritual gifts and church unity in a general way, then talks about the superiority of love, then zeroes in more specifically on the way their prideful preference for some gifts over others is dividing the congregation.

If you read those three chapters, but leave out 12:2-3, what have you lost?  Nothing?  Then why are they there?

The verses themselves can be taken out of context and made into a kind of spiritual litmus test: here’s how you can know for sure who really has the Holy Spirit and who doesn’t.  There may be a grain of truth in this, but it can easily be pushed too far.  Anyone, for example, can be drafted to simply read these verses out loud.  Is Paul saying that somehow, if the reader is a Spirit-filled Christian and gets to the line, “Jesus be cursed,” he or she won’t be able to say it?  Or that the ability to mouth the words “Jesus is Lord” is proof positive of the authenticity of one’s faith?

Of course not.  But what then?  If this isn’t a test of who has the Spirit and who doesn’t, what does Paul mean?

More on that in the next post.