The first day of my community organizing class the teacher wrote the word “power” on the center of white board. “What are the words that come to mind when you see this?” he asked. We were eager seminaries, ready to take up our crosses, ready to die to ourselves. So we answered predictably: bad, pride, control, authority, coercion, dominance.
These preconceptions about power held sway over the way we read today’s epistle. Paul, to the Jews like a Jew, to those not given the law like one not under the law. Adjust who you are. Change and adapt in order for people to meet Jesus. Give up the power in order die to yourself, to be like Paul, to be a slave.
But what did it mean to become weak? This chapter means one thing if we read strong and weak as moral or psychological categories, if the weak are those who spiritually weak, superstitious and easily led astray, if the strong those who are the wise, disciplined, and pure.
The interpretation changes significantly if we identify the strong and the weak with social classes. And this is what Paul did. In Corinthians Paul identifies the weak as those “low and despised” ones, while the strong are “those of noble birth.” These two social classes, vastly different in wealth and education, coexist within the Corinthian church, but not without struggle.
In his letter Paul sets about negotiating their disagreements. And consistently he aligns his body, his work, and his allegiance with the weak. He moves from the class of free Roman citizen to day laborer, from endowed with rights and privileges to a common person. He grounds this remaking of his life in his slavery to Christ.
Most of us hear the word “slavery” and call up images of the Atlantic Slave Trade. We will need to reorient ourselves to what Paul means. While not diminishing the oppression of the slave system in Paul’s day, slavery in the first century was vastly different from what existed in the Americas and Europe. Slaves of the first century performed all the same jobs as freedpersons. They maintained fairly normal family structures, exercised a surprising amount of control over their master’s finances and land, and had a certain degree of social mobility. Those at the top of the slave hierarchy were the stewards, and their influence extended beyond their households into society at large.
But how well you did depended on who you knew. It was a connection to a patron, a person of greater influence who enabled the upward mobility of a slave. While we may read the term “slave of Christ” as a term conveying humility and self-negation, for first century readers the title steward would convey power and authority, as one granted power by a patron. In Paul’s case his patron is Jesus Christ.
So it is that Paul turns social hierarchy on its head. For those in slavery, those who are weak and under the thumb of the strong, Paul puts forth the virtue of moving up within the slavery system. Dale Martin reminds us that the lesson from Paul isn’t that all Christians should lay down their rights. Instead “the goal is to change the behavior of a particular group at Corinth, those who are taking their own high positions too seriously.”
That brings us to today’s text. Paul, not only a slave to Christ, but now a slave to all. The issue at hand is meat sacrificed to idols. Should Christians in Corinth eat it or shouldn’t they? Paul’s judgment would impact the strong in ways it would not affect the weak. The strong lived within the social world where meals featuring sacrificed meat maintained social hierarchy. To forgo these communal meetings would have been socially isolating, a political embarrassment. It was to the benefit of the upper class Corinthians to ignore the fact that the meat was sacrificed to an idol. And technically, Paul explains, they are right. Idols are nothing.
Much to the dismay of the strong, Paul takes the side of the weak. He does so not theoretically, not occasionally, but in the flesh, by remaking his life to be like their lives. To a Jew Paul is like a Jew. To those under the law like those under the law. But to the weak he didn’t become like the weak. Paul actually joined their ranks. Taking on manual labor and refusing to eat meat, Paul has put himself on the side of those at the bottom.
Paul points us toward the downward mobility of the well off, to Jesus’ preferential option for the poor. It’s a good lesson for us today, but I also don’t want to be naïve. Our world is complicated. How does downward mobility work when those of us who are the strong are buffeted by financial safety nets of family and friends, the profitability that comes from college degrees, and the lifelong training we’ve received on how to make it in a white privileged world? How does downward mobility work within complex networks of class, race, and gender? And how does downward mobility work for those who are already at the bottom?
I’m not sure Paul can answer those questions, or that we are offered a precise enough corollary to Greco-Roman society for application to be helpful. But there’s still Good News for us. Paul recognizes what we couldn’t in my community organizing class – you can’t get out from under power. You can’t divest yourself. You can’t rid yourself of it. You can’t get outside the systems within which power operates.
That may not sound like Good News. But there’s this: you can’t get out of power, but you can manipulate it. You can’t get out of power, but you can create it and use it. Paul helps us see that power can be manufactured, amassed, and controlled. It can dominate and abuse and be horded. Or power can be utilized to disrupt, engage, create, and rebuild.
In Paul’s world, as in ours, some people have power. Some people have power who shouldn’t have power, and some people need power who don’t have it. Paul’s shocking disregard for the theologically correct answer in order to align his life with the weak reorients the Corinthian church around the socially low. It is the strong, those who have amassed power through wealth and education, who are asked to disrupt their social standing for the good of the body. At the same time Paul encourages the weak to become stewards of Christ. For the strong salvation looks like lowering one’s social class; for the weak salvation looks like rising up within the ranks of slavery.
According to Paul, this has everything to do with the church at Corinth thriving. It has everything to do with their unity. Because power – who has it, who brokers it, who wants more of it – is something at the foundation of most, maybe all, our conflicts. Michael Gecan is an organizer who writes about the struggles of East Brooklyn. He writes that each of their crises was, “at bottom, a power crises. The power of the mob, the power of drug lords, the power of corrupt borough machines, and the inertia of the police bureaucracy could only be challenged by another, deeper institutional power.”
That’s what I hear in Paul. Not us versus them. Not enmity. Paul’s invitation is to a new public culture, one that takes seriously that some have power and some don’t. It is to the benefit of all, to the benefit of the body, that we take power seriously, that we look at the way power has been used by some and kept from others.
This week I haven’t been able to stop thinking about how power functions within our denomination. After all, Paul’s letter is about a church that’s divided. And we are most certainly a church divided.
I’ve been reflecting on the Good News of Paul’s words. I hear Paul telling us that the way we do conflict matters. It isn’t about us ironing out our polity or finding polite ways to disagree. Paul writes that his perspective on unity is driven by salvation (1 Cor 9:22). This is about us getting saved, about continuing on this road of salvation we’re walking on together as Jesus’ body. We take power seriously, we examine, we weigh it, we ask who has, we ask who does not, and then we adjust our bodies accordingly because that is what God’s blessing looks like.
I wonder what it would be like if we did a better job of naming how power operates around us. I wonder what it would look to do this in our denomination. This past week a group of fifteen men organized a network of churches in hope that it will serve as an alternative to Mennonite Church USA. That’s power at work. The closed door policy of our Executive Board. That’s power at work.
Pink Menno infusing protest into hymns, right in the center of national church gatherings. That’s power at work. The women in our church who gathered to confront the decades long abuses by John Howard Yoder. That’s power at work.
“Each crises was, at the bottom, a power crises,” write Michael Gecan. So it was in Paul’s day, and so it is today. We can’t get outside of power. But we can name it. And we can use it. And we can give it away. Our salvation depends on it.
 Martin, Dale. Slavery as Salvation (NewHaven, CT/London: Yale University Press, 2004) 79.
 Hays, Richard. “1 Corinthians.” Interpretation, edited by James Luther Mays. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011.
 Gecan, Michael. Going Public (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002) 11.