Re-Reading 1 Corinthians With Collectivist Eyes

In Misreading Scripture With Individualist Eyes E. Randolph Richards and Richard James help us see the meaning of the Scriptures through the categories of the collectivist cultures to which the Scriptures were written. Those categories are kinship, patronage, brokerage, honor, shame, and boundaries.

Instead of merely explaining these categories I will show how each of them (except brokerage) helps us understand different portions of the book of 1 Corinthians.

Kinship

For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud of and that they all passed through the sea.

1 Corinthians 10:1

Kinship refers to the deep bond, or solidarity, that exists between members of the same family. Of course, individualists share this bond, but collectivist cultures expand that bond to a wider group of people across more generations.

In individualist cultures, “family” most often refers to the smaller family unit of father, mother, and kids, but can include “extended family” as well: grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. Collectivist cultures, especially those to which the Bible was written, start with the multi-generational “father’s household” as the smallest family unit. These cultures then expand out kinship into the categories of clan, tribe, and nation.

A shared family history solidifies kinship at these higher levels. This history bonds the people together and sets the example of how the current generation should act. These stories define how members of the family should or shouldn’t act as kin across time.

This brings us to 1 Corinthians 10:1-13. Paul is addressing a deeply divided church, many of whom are gentile believers. Note that he refers to Israel as “our ancestors” and then recounts a shared history: “our ancestors were all under the cloud and… passed through the sea.” Paul wants these divided gentiles to see themselves as part of a new family, a new kinship, that includes Israel as their ancestors. This new ancestry gives them a new family history that includes the exodus and wilderness wanderings.

Furthermore, “by making the exodus the story of their ancestors, Paul is using collective pressures on them” (47). As an individualist, I can see how Paul might use Israel as an example of what not to do (10:6, 11), but collectivists see more than just a distant story upon which to draw a moral abstract principle. They see a shared family history that ought to define their present values, in this case, through the negative example of idolatry, adultery, and divisive grumbling.

The passage is not without hope for, even though this new family has a history of failure, it also has a history of seeing God’s faithfulness: “God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear, he will also provide a way so that you can endure it” (10:13).

Patronage

God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

1 Corinthians 1:9

There are two parties involved in patronage, the patron and the client. The client needs help and the patron gives it. A wealthy patron may have many clients but clients are expected to be faithful to a single patron. The patron gives freely – he is under no obligation to give – but his gifts have strings attached. As individualists, we see this as a negative (and it can be), but the intent of the patronage system was merely transactional, but to establish a lasting relationship between the patron and the client.

In a moment we’ll see a positive example of patronage in 1 Corinthians, but first, let’s look at how Paul tries to avoid its abuse. The authors point out that the church was divided into factions. Each faction likely had its own patron and its own favorite apostle (1:12). Paul, who accepted patronage from others (likely Lydia), nevertheless refused financial support from the Corinthians. He insists on it: “I have not used any of these rights” (9:13).

Richards posits that he refuses patronage from the Corinthians precisely because it is split into warring factions/patrons. To accept aid from one faction would attach him to that faction and further divide the church. He refuses support to demonstrate that his sole allegiance is to Christ.

More significantly, though, Richards shows us how Paul uses the language of patronage: grace (charis) and faith (pistis), to describe the mystery of salvation.

The Greeks “used charis to refer to the way patrons gave benefits to their clients. They also used charis to refer to the gifts themselves” (103). When we read, then, that God gives us grace, we’re invited to see God as the good patron who gives freely to those who come to him for help.

The Greeks also used pistis (faith/faithfulness) to describe patronage. “Pistis described the way a patron was faithful or loyal in acting to benefit their clients. Pistis referred to the way clients trusted that the patron would indeed care for them and provide them with benefits” (104).

In 1 Corinthians 1:9, we read, “God is faithful (pistis), who called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” Again in 10:13, we read, “And God is faithful (pistis); he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.” Here Paul is describing God as a faithful patron, demonstrating that he will continue to provide for what his clients need.

His gift is freely given, but it is intended to establish a relationship with his people. The gift comes with “strings attached”, though not in the sense that the gift can be paid back. Instead, His people reciprocate with pistis: trust, allegiance, and loyalty.

Honor

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.

2 Corinthians 12:9

I’m going to cheat on this one and focus on 2 Corinthians instead of 1 Corinthians to illustrate honor more clearly. We’ll begin with a few notes about honor.

First, while honor was and is very important to collectivist cultures, “honor is not a value but a means of enforcing and reinforcing a value” (129). Honor, along with shame, are tools used by collectivist cultures to pass along cultural values that define a group as a group. So, while all collectivists use honor, they will use it to uphold different values. In the movie Mulan, for instance, honor and shame are used to uphold the values: loyal, brave, and true.

Second, there are two kinds of honors that someone might possess: ascribed honor and achieved honor. Ascribed honor is unearned honor, like being the firstborn or being anointed by God through a prophet. Achieved honor is won and the achievements which win honor will differ from culture to culture depending on that culture’s values.

Third, boasting is not altogether frowned on in relation to honor so long as it is used to reinforce the correct communal values. That’s because honor in collectivist cultures is communal. The honor given to one is not intended to raise that person over the community, but to elevate the entire community (again, think Mulan, “you have brought honor to us all”). So, “for individualists, boasting is a way to put yourself ahead of your peers. For collectivists, boasting is a way to put you and all your peers (group) ahead” (150-151).

With this in mind, we can now turn to 2 Corinthians. Note that while Paul often condemns boasting (Ephesians 2:9), he himself boasts. He boasts in his and his companions’ integrity (2 Cor 1:12), in the Corinthians themselves (1:14, 7:14, 9:2), in his service to God (10:13), in his sufferings and apostleship (ch 11), and in his weakness and dependence on Christ (12:8-10).

Paul’s talk of boasting in relation to honor shows that his values have changed. As we said earlier, values are tied to the community, so Paul changed what he honored when he changed communities:

As a Pharisee, he valued his ascribed honors: the tribe of Benjamin, son of a Pharisee. He valued his achieved honors: advanced in training beyond his years, zealous for traditions, and a persecutor of the church… After he encountered Jesus and came to belong to the followers of Jesus, Paul valued this new community’s ascribed values: being a slave to Christ (Rom 1:1), of humility and weakness and of his reliance on Christ (2 Cor 12:9), and being called an apostle to the Gentiles (Rom 11:13)… He also changed his achieved honors: suffering for Christ (2 Cor 11:30-33).

Misreading the Bible Through Individualist Eyes, 156

Honor still mattered to Paul, but in the community of Jesus, what was honored – and therefore worth boasting about – radically changed.

Shame

But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.

1 Corinthians 1:27

We have a hard time talking about shame, or understanding the Bible’s use of shame, in a Western individualist culture. Part of this is linguistic. We only have one word to talk about shame and we always use it in a negative sense. You should never shame someone. You should always try to rid yourself of the feeling of shame.

Collectivist cultures have a more nuanced perspective. First, like honor, shame is a tool used to reinforce communal values. Second, collectivists perceive different kinds of shame.

On the one hand, there is the shame you feel, or the community imposes after you violate some communal norms. This is the negative side of shame. This is the feeling of condemnation. Abused, this sort of shame leads to exclusion.

On the other hand, there is a sort of shame that one feels before violating the norms of the community. The authors describe this shame as a sort of “alarm bell” or warning sign. It forecasts how you would feel if you, say, lied to your father. This sense of shame is unpleasant, but a person in a communal culture would never want to lose it. Such a person would be “shameless.”

To me – and the authors – this second sort of shame feels a lot like a conscience, but collectivists see a distinction. I think that distinction is bound up in the distinction between guilt (individual) and shame (communal). That is, a guilty conscience flares when an individualist is about to break one of their own boundaries. A collectivist experiences this internal shame before breaking a communal boundary, the conscience of the community.

Third, whereas we think of shame as something that always excludes someone from a community, the goal of shame (even the public sort) was to restore someone to the community.

Let’s consider how this plays out in 1 Corinthians. In 1 Cor 1:27, we see that God is not above using shame: “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.”

You may say, well, sometimes it’s Ok for God to do something that we cannot, but even Paul, an apostle, used shame. In 1 Cor 6:4-5, Paul says “Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, do you ask for a ruling from those whose way of life is scorned in the church? I say this to shame you.” Paul is showing that the Corinthians have not only violated the community value of unity but that they are broadcasting to the watching world that they can’t even get along with each other. He “shames” them to guide them back on course.

Again, we see in 1 Cor 15:34 “Come back to your senses as you ought, and stop sinning; for there are some who are ignorant of God—I say this to your shame.” In this context, he is referring to false teaching about Christ’s resurrection. The Corinthians, who supposedly have the knowledge of God through the Spirit, nevertheless are still ignorant of God. Paul uses shame to restore them to right knowledge. He wants them to sense that false teaching about the resurrection breaks a boundary.

Finally, we see shame at work in 1 Cor 5:1-5. In this case, a member of the church is engaged in open incest, and the community is proud! Where they should feel shame, they feel honor. In this case, Paul does call the church to expel the brother (5:13) for the sake of the community (5:6). The sin, and the community’s reaction, is searing their collective conscience so Paul appeals to shame and (right) communal values to restore the community. Even for the man engaged in incest Paul’s purpose is ultimate restoration (5:5).

Shame can be and often is misused to damaging effects. Communities misuse it when communal values are the wrong ones or are when minor values are held too highly. Or, shame can be misused to exclude or ostracize without giving an offending person a path to restoration. Still, it’s an important concept to understand to see Scripture more clearly and, importantly, it’s an aspect of collectivist culture that the gospel transforms, but does not fully condemn.

Boundaries

If, as individualists, we sneer at “shame”, we despise boundaries. But let’s take a step back and understand why they were important to collectivist cultures. Individualists find their identity in their individual self. Collectivists find it in their group. Maintaining a strong group identity is important.

Boundaries define the group. Boundaries turn a crowd into a community. Not every cultural difference is a boundary. “What makes something a boundary is that a collective group sees it has a significant part of establishing who they are” (208).

Like honor and shame, boundaries are tied to values. How can a group maintain its shared values? By maintaining boundaries. By keeping boundaries a group keeps its values and, thus, its group identity. Without boundaries, a community dissolves into a disconnected crowd.

This is the challenge Paul finds in the Corinthians church, which he addresses in 1 Corinthians 10:1-25. The church was made up of Jewish and Gentile believers. For Jews, food was a significant cultural boundary that set them apart, not only as a unique community but as the Torah observant people of God. It connected their group identity to their religious identity.

As an individualist, I tend to read this section about personal preference, but for the original readers more was a stake. “Suddenly, a boundary problem has arisen. It’s not really about meat. It’s about values. Living by different values means living by different identities, which threatens the church’s having one single identity” (219).

To heal this division, Paul reminds them of their shared kinship (10:1-13) and urges believers not to do things which would “cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews or Greeks or the church of God” (10:32).

Collectivism and the Lord’s Supper

We will now turn to the problems the Corinthians church faced with the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). Richards and James explain that the church was bringing in the cultural values and boundaries of Greek “dinner parties.”

These dinner parties (conviva) were marked by drunkenness, gossip, and social stratification. The wealthy patrons ate first while the slaves went hungry. “Good hosts” were even expected to provide their slaves as escorts to their guests. These parties reinforced pagan values (a warped form of hospitality) and boundaries (in social stratification). The problem is that these values directly conflicted with the values of the new Christian community.

Note Paul’s admonishment of the Corinthian church:

17 In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. 18 In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. 19 No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. 20 So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21 for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. 22 Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!

1 Corinthians 11:17-22

The old values of the pagan world were pulling the Corinthians away from the new values embodied in the church. What they were failing to realize was that they were part of a new family (kinship), with a new patron (God), and therefore had new values (established in Christ). Maintaining those values gave new meaning to shame, honor, and boundaries that both drew on the structures of their collectivist cultures and strongly critiqued both Jewish and Gentiles forms of those collectivist cultures.

The Bible does not commend or condemn collectivism, but it was written to a collectivist culture. Understanding collectivist values and tools can help us see its meaning more clearly.

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