If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
1 Corinthians 13 is deservedly one of the most well-known passages in the New Testament. This beautiful and evocative reflection on agapē represents the Apostle Paul at the very height of his rhetorical power. Today we are most likely to encounter these familiar words in the context of a wedding service, celebrating the physical, emotional, and spiritual bond of love between husband and wife. As a result, the love named in this passage is all too often reinterpreted primarily as a private, intimate affection unifying two individuals for a lifelong journey of matrimonial fidelity.
It is beyond question that this passage has much to say about marriage and the habits, practices, and dispositions that nurture and sustain such commitments. However, appealing to ordinary individual relationships as the default setting for our exegesis risks obscuring the explicitly political implications of Paul’s argument. The original semantic field of 1 Corinthians 13 is, of course, not Christian marriage but rather the embodied, material unity of the Church as the Body of Christ (see 12:12-31). Read in this context, agapē becomes more than a feeling; it is the God-given reality that both grounds and energizes the ethical life and political witness of the ekklesia itself.
In the opening verses of the letter, Paul directly confronts the petty factionalism and bitter disputes which had so wounded the Corinthian church. But he presses quickly beyond the surface reality of a broken community at odds with itself, and reframes the question from an alternative, theological point of departure: memeristai ho Christos? is Christ divided? (1:13). Notice that Paul does not ask whether his readers are divided—or at least acting divisively towards one another. This much is obvious from the reports Paul had received from ‘Chloe’s people’ (1:11). His question is whether Christ—the Messiah himself—is divided. The implied answer is clearly ‘no’. Christ is the foundation stone of the building which is the church (3:11-12), and the unifying head of the ecclesial body (1 Corinthians 12:27; Colossians 1:18). Christ cannot apportioned out such that one group has a greater claim on him than another. And yet the Corinthians themselves are behaving as if the answer is ‘yes’. N.T. Wright observes that ‘[p]art of the point about the haunting and evocative suggestion of a deeper wisdom than the wisdom of the world (1:18—2:16) is that, while all that depth is on offer, you Corinthians are staying at the shallow end, squabbling about different leaders when you should be aware of your own identity as—the Temple of God.’ For Paul, being reconciled to God as a new creation involves nothing less than ontological transformation en Christo. Through the waters of baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit, believers participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus and are reconstituted as members of Christ’s body (12:13). The Corinthians, however, routinely fail to discern the multiple bodies of Christ of which they are a part (11:29) and, as a consequence, have lost sight of the social and political implications of their own transfigured identity. As Wright summarizes, the root of the problem is one of continuity.
Continuity is indeed a central thread through Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 12-13. As gifts of the Holy Spirit, tongues, prophecy, wisdom and knowledge ought to equip the people of God to embody Christ’s resurrection life in the present. However, the Corinthians have been wielding these ‘gifts’ against one another to devastating effect. By contrast, Paul’s vision of a cruciform Body (constituted by multiple members exercising diverse gifts) recalibrates the status of these spiritual disciplines. Paul maintains that the ‘body politics’ of the church cannot be recoded upon racial tensions (Jew or Greek) or economic hierarchies (slave or free) or social mechanisms of honour and shame. For these have been overcome en Christo as a matter of fundamental identity: ‘God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another’ (1 Corinthians 12:24b-25). Paul doesn’t mince his words: ‘You [Corinthians] are the body of Christ and individually members of it’ (12:27). If that is the foundation of Christian identity, what then does continuity look like in concrete, visible reality? What, in Paul’s language, is the ‘more excellent way’ (1 Corinthians 12:31b)?
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging symbol. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Cor 13:1-3)
Tongues and prophecy, wisdom and knowledge, faith and generosity – what constitutes their cruciform continuity with the resurrection life of Christ is neither their religiously scrupulous performance nor their self-sacrificial excess. Rather the continuity consists in the practice of love.
Love – divine agapē – is, for Paul, nothing less than the ultimate reality, the deepest meaning, the perfect and perfecting telos in which human beings discover their true selves before God and with one another. Paul considers love as the leading characteristic of the ‘fruit of the spirit’ (Galatians 5:22). It ‘fulfils the law’ (Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:14), knits together every ligament of the body (Ephesians 4:16) and binds all things together in perfect unity (Colossians 3:14). To live in love is to live in the God revealed in Jesus Christ.
In Ephesians, Paul speaks of the gifts of the Spirit given in order to equip the saints in the unity of the faith, the knowledge of the Son of God, and the measure of the full stature of Christ (4:7-13). This theological argument culminates in an image of the body of Christ ‘building itself up in love’ (4:16). We see this same theological development between 1 Corinthians 12 and 13: the body of Christ animated by love. And what does this love look like?
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)
What but the love of God could hold a community constituted by radically subversive difference? What but love could heal the wounds of racial segregation and social alienation between Jew and Gentile? What but love could risk solidarity with suffering, compassion toward enemies, honouring the forgotten ones by sitting at the feet of even the least of these?
In his provocative study, The Politics of Discipleship, Graham Ward develops a nuanced account of Paul’s political theology of the body in 1 Corinthians. Ward argues that when Paul deploys the ancient civic image of the body politic to the resurrected body of Christ, he announces ‘a new ecclesial politics’ which calls into question dominant social and cultural value systems concerning the human body—‘class notions of embodiment, ethnic and sexual ideologies’. Significantly, Ward locates 1 Corinthians 13 at the heart of this political ethic. He writes,
Any possible democratization in terms of equality—as individual members within one body, ruled over by one Spirit, equally valued before God, and so forth—does not occur necessarily in terms of social, sexual, or racial status. It occurs through the new politics of living in Christ and being governed by a command to love one another. Love in 1 Corinthians 13 constitutes the great erasure of statuses of any kind because it “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (13.7). What being a member of the body of Christ entails, in other words, is a political discipleship that does not readily translate into institutions or even modes of political activity in this world. Granted this discipleship and the politics it enacts take place in, and with respect to, this world, but […] its import lies in the operations of God with respect to salvation understood as becoming truly human, truly embodied.
When read in context, we begin to understand the ways in which 1 Corinthians 13 names practices, habits, dispositions and disciplines necessary for a community whose very existence seeks to embody an alternative politics to the politics of this world. To those whose life is hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3), becoming ‘truly human’ is inextricably bound up with the political embodiment of love in the present tense.
And as 1 Corinthians 13:8-12 reminds us, love’s ‘present tense’ is always already suspended in an eschatological tension between an identity ‘already’ given and a purpose ‘not yet’ brought to perfection. This tension sharpens the distinction between the ultimacy of agapē and the penultimacy of other social activities within the ekklesia. Prophecy will end, tongues will cease, knowledge will reach its goal. But love? ‘Love never ends’ (1 Corinthians 13:8; cf. Psalm 136). By the grace and mercy of God, it is through love that we become what we are (Augustine): children of God and members of one another in Christ.
 N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (London: SPCK, 2013), 391.
 Ibid. 1112
 See ibid. 1118
 Graham Ward, The Politics of Discipleship: Becoming Postmaterial Citizens (London: SCM, 2009), 249.
 Ibid. 253-254
 Wright argues that ‘this, of course, is the ultimate meaning of an eschatological ethic, something inaugurated in the present which will last into, and indeed be a central characteristic of, the future new creation’ (1118).
Ben Kautzer is an Anglican deacon serving his curacy at St Nicolas Earley on the east side of Reading in the Diocese of Oxford. He has recently completed his doctoral thesis on the works of mercy and sacramental ethics at Durham University.