1 Corinthians 13: A Text of Terror?



[1] 1 Corinthians 13 is a dangerous text. It is dangerous both from the perspective of Sin[1] and from the perspective of grace. From Sin’s perspective, this beautiful text may be turned into what Phyllis Trible calls a text of terror. Texts of terror, according to Trible, are those texts which explicitly present stories of violence against women.[2] They are hard stories where we must “wrestle with the silence, absence, and opposition of God,” where there are no happy endings[3]. 1 Corinthians 13 is not in Trible’s list. But, although the text does not contain explicitly violent stories against women, it is often used as an excuse to keep women in situations of violence and abuse. The text – or more accurately, its mis/interpretation – takes us “to a land of terror from whose bourn no traveler returns unscarred.”[4] This widely known passage belongs to the canon of texts that is frequently used to oppress, marginalize and abuse women

[2] 1 Corinthians 13 has a long history of interpretation that is plagued with prejudice, as the verbs it uses are understood as descriptive of passive agents that are traditionally associated with the subjugation of women. The vision of love this text advances is frequently identified only with women: wives, daughters and partners. The common interpretation of this text in our patriarchal society does not include men, nor does it describe men’s love. If a man were to love in the way it is described in 1 Corinthians, his love would be deemed weak and inappropriate by both culture and clan. It is only a woman’s love that is patient, kind, not envious or boastful or arrogant. While a man rests in his man-cave and goes from one job to another, a woman would not insist on her own way, be irritable or resentful. While men drink boastfully and are unfaithful; while men can be jealous, live as a bachelor and even kill “their” women for love, women bear all things, believe in all things, hope for all things, and endure all things.

[3] If 1 Corinthians promotes an unbalanced love between men and women; between partners, where women’s love must be mute and servile, while men’s love can justify whims and insecurities, then this text is not God’s Word. It is human word mimicking the divine. If our interpretations of this text promote this kind of unbalanced and abusive attitudes, then we are reading and interpreting it exclusively from our sinful nature. God’s Word here functions, as Barbara Brown Taylor describes, as mirror of our experience of communion and alienation, of connection and disconnection with the divine[5].  In a Lutheran confessional understanding we can say that the text only shows us the second use of the law.

[4] From the perspective of Sin, the text only shows us the second use of the law; from the perspective of grace, the text shows us what Bonhoeffer calls “cheap grace.”  “Cheap grace” is the kind of generic and formless grace that promotes blind servility and subjugation.  This grace promotes “self-rejection and self-hatred that leads to passive, other-centered idolatry,”[6] as concrete expression of personal, social and structural Sin. The text is lived by women as salvific suffering and “dolorismo”[7] as if it were God’s will that women remain in an abusive relationship, as her cross to bear. Agustina Luvis, a theology professor at the Seminario Evangélico de Puerto Rico, tells us that “to hurt a woman is to hurt the very body of Christ. Violence against women is a Church issue.  Therefore, it is in the Church where we share the hope of transformation for victims and where we foresee the possibility of confession and conversion for aggressors."[8] 

[5] Does this text have hope? Where are the Good News in these verses? Paul is writing to the troubled community at Corinth; a community plagued by division and egotism, where personal interest and class divisions have sparked conflict regarding the understanding of gifts and community. In this letter, he is telling this very community that all gifts are equal. We all have something to share with each other and offer God: some are prophets, others are teachers and others, administrators. He has presented the analogy of the human body to describe his understanding of the Church. They are all members of the body of Christ. As members of the body of Christ they all are important and indispensable. Now Paul identifies what makes all these body members function and all these gifts bear fruit:

But strive for the greater gifts.

And I will show you a still more excellent way. 1 Corinthians 12:31                 

[6] It is good that we all have gifts and that we all are part of the body, however, what is most important is what makes the body function. What is this? What makes the hands, feet, eyes, and the whole body function as one? Love! Not my love, but love.  Paul finishes his discourse as follows:

                        And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three;

and the greatest of these is love.                                 1 Corinthian 13:13

[7] Is love more important than faith? Yes. Because it is not my love; egotistical, self-serving and self-promoting love. It is love. It is not my arrogant, rude, irritable or resentful love that caused all kinds of problem in Corinth. It is not the unbalanced interpretation of the text that links women to passively understood verbs and validates the abuse and laziness of men. It is not my love as I articulate all kinds of arguments to overvalue my gifts and justify my power and privilege.  It is not my love that imposes itself onto others as a rule of faith, an authoritarian beacon, and a semi-god that masters an abusive relationship.

[8] Paul is not speaking of my love here. He is presenting love; the kind of love that is above faith. What kind of love is above faith? Christ’s love; which is the foundation of faith. Where do we find God’s love as the foundation of our faith and blueprint of our love? At the cross of Christ.

[9] The interpretive key to understand 1 Corinthians 13 is Christ’s love at the cross. At the cross, God’s love in Christ is patient and kind; is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude; does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  At the cross, Jesus Christ, the visible Word of the invisible God, in whom the fullness of God dwelled bodily, yes, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. At the cross, love never ends because this love is not the volatile will of a vengeful God punishing the Son. This love is not the servile and subordinated love of the Son suppressed by God. The cross is God’s shouting Word, which claims justice and dignity before the social, political and economic structures that nailed Jesus to the cross in the first place. At the cross the second person of the Holy Trinity - in humanity and divinity - is shouting alongside all women who suffer abuse and oppression because of docile and conveniently misogynic and androcentric biblical interpretations of 1 Corinthians 13.

[10] Our gifts will come to an end. Our prophesies, tongues and knowledge will cease. But God’s love will last forever. This love is the force that can make Corinth a community again. This love nourishes and sustains all Christian communities. God’s love shapes our love as 1 Corinthians 13 becomes the poetry and prayer that “put us in touch with what we now are not and remind us of who and what we were meant to be”[9].

[11] Now, because God’s very being is love, which radiates the universe with grace, human love is not vulnerable. Rather, it is compassionate[10] to others’ needs and stations of life. Human love is full of the empathy, blessings and dilemmas we have with our friends, daughters, wives and partners. The love that beats in our hearts is not servile. It is attentive, caring, and willing to invest its gifts and to claim the help of the whole body of Christ to address the needs of the world. This love is devoted to sharing responsibilities and to dreaming new dreams that give dignity and new opportunities to girls, women and grandmothers; to boys, husbands and grandfathers. It is a cross-shaped love, willing to empty itself on behalf of others; a grace-filled, compassionate and daring love.

[12] Martin Luther expresses this kind of love ethically in the famous axioms of his treatise The Freedom of a Christian. “We are perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.” God’s love is the foundation of our liberty that allows us to establish and maintain our relationships. But we are also “perfectly dutiful servants of all, subject to all.”[11] We are free and dutiful to live caring and compassionate lives promoting dignity and justice for all, especially for the neighbor in need. In this case, we live caring and compassionate lives for and with our spouses, as our relationships become gifts of love to society. By doing so, we live into the imago dei of a new humanity, as Rosemary Radford Ruether, articulates it:  we recover,  “not only…aspects of our full psychic potential that have been repressed by cultural gender stereotypes…transforming the way these capacities have been made to function socially…(We recover) our capacity for relationality, (for) being with and for others, but in a way that is no longer a tool of manipulation or of self-abnegation…(which) opens up an ongoing vision of transformed, redeemed, or converted persons and society, no longer alienated from self, from others, from the body, from the cosmos, from the Divine”[12]

[13] This is the kind of love Paul is speaking about in 1 Corinthians 13. This is the hermeneutical framework we need to emphasize and recover to safeguard our interpretations from idolatry and irrelevance[13]. This is the love which energizes our spiritual gifts; which moves the Church toward the kingdom. This is the love that sustains our relationships and that wipes away our tears. The backbone of the body of Christ is the love we share in the midst of grace-filling spaces as the Word is present in our ordinary reality. Because faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Francisco Javier Goitía Padilla is Professor of Homiletics and Theology, and Academic Dean at the Seminario Evangélico de Puerto Rico.

[1] Sin, with capital ‘S’, refers to the human condition as it is presented in article III of the Augsburg Confession: our incapacity to love God over all things and concupiscence. This understanding of ‘Sin’ is the motivation, explanation and energy of our sins; concrete historical actions that promotes our agendas of self-satisfaction, greed and egotism.  

[2] Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 1.

[3] Ibid., 2.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Barbara Brown Taylor, Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 2000), 42.

[6] Daniel Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology, 2nd. Ed. (Grand Rapids y Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), 150-151.

[7] Dolorismo -  from the Latin dolor (pain), is an expression used to define a spirituality of resignation to pain and sorrow; also a way of understanding and celebrating pain as if it has dignity and merit in its own. See http://infocatolica.com/blog/reforma.php/1106040932-139-la-cruz-gloriosa-iii-la-c-1,; accessed May 25, 2016.

[8] Agustina Luvis-Nuñez, Creada a su imagen: Una pastoral integral para la mujer (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2012), 22. Translation mine.

[9] Dorothee Soelle, “Breaking the Ice of the Soul: Theology and Literature in Search of a New Language,” en Sarah K. Pinnock, ed., The Theology of Dorothee Soelle (New York: Trinity Press International, 2003), 39.

[10] Here the Spanish translation of μακροθυμεῖ has sufrido where the NRSV English version has patient. Sufrido means subdued, to suffer constantly with resignation and without questioning. The playing of words sufrido-vulnerable works better in Spanish than the English pair vulnerable-compassionate. The English translation loose the dialectics and force of the juxtaposition.

[11] Martin Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian,” Trans. A.T.W. Steinhäuser, in Three Treatises, 2nd Ed.  (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970), 277.

[12] Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sexism and Godtalk: Toward a Feminist Theology (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), 113-114.

[13] Sallie McFague, Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in Religious Language (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982), 3.

© June 2016
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 16, Issue 6