Participation in Paul: 1 Cor 6 and 7

As I’m thinking more about suffering in Paul’s thought and Ignatius’ thought, I’ve realized that I’m going to have to defend a “partcipationist” reading of Paul. Typically, this is done by arguing the “in Christ” notion of Paul as being more fundamental or important than his justification/legal language. I’m not terribly interested in attacking justification, but I do want the participation language to take its proper place. The early fathers read Paul almost exclusively on these terms, where as Protestants have done the complete opposite: we have read Paul exclusively from justification/legal terms. We need to understand both! As I’ve been working through 1 Corinthians and memorizing, I’ve been surprised by the participatory language that is present. It’s couched in very practical sections, but it’s there nonetheless.

The first thing I noticed was 1 Cor 6:17, “But the one who joins himself with the Lord is one with him in spirit.” The contrast here is with the prior verse, and the one “who joins himself with a prostitute.” Here, our union with Christ is compared to sexual union. If that’s not participatory language, I don’t know what is! Of course, as I’ve noted somewhere prior, I don’t want to run off to strange places with this metaphor. But what remains is that there is something “mystical” (for lack of a better word) going on here. There’s is more to conversion than simply what Christ accomplished on the cross (magnificent though it was!). In baptism, we die and rise with Christ. We become a part of his body. We participate in his suffering and in his glorification.

We see similar things a chapter later. After instructing believers married to unbelievers not to leave their spouses, Paul offers this little statement:
For the unbelieving man is sanctified by the [believing] wife, and the unbelieving woman is sanctified by the [believing] husband. If this were not so, your children would be unclean. As it is, though, they are holy”
and, after another verse:
how do you know, wife, that you won’t save your husband? how do you know, husband, that you won’t save your wife?”
1 Cor 7:14,16

What’s strange here is the “high view of the believer” for lack of a better term. Paul states that an unbelieving spouse is made holy by a believing spouse. He also states that a believing spouse may save an unbelieving spouse. I think this is difficult to make sense of in a traditional, justification-driven framework.

For example, if I lead a friend to Christ tomorrow, and then introduce to my pastor as “my friend who I just saved,” I’m probably gonna get a rebuke about how it’s only Jesus who saves people, not me. Likewise, If I pray for a sick person and they become well, it’ll sound strange if I say, “I just healed someone!” I’ve been corrected along those lines before, in my more youthful and zealous days. But whereas that kind of language makes us uncomfortable, it doesn’t seem to phase Paul here (though he does have problems when he’s mistaken for a Greek deity ;-) ). The New Testament occasionally will name an apostle as healing someone without making explicit reference to God, like in Acts 28:8: “Paul visited him and cured him by praying and putting his hands on him. “

I think this make much more sense if we take Paul’s participation language into account. How on earth can a believer make an unbeliever holy? How on earth can a believer make their children holy? And how on earth can a believer sanctify an unbeliever? Well, if we’re “one with the Lord in Spirit” then it makes sense. If we’re participating with Jesus in the power of resurrection and the fellowship of sufferings (Philippians 3:10) then we can talk like this. It’s not me κατα σαρκα (according to the flesh) that saves or sanctifies someone, it’s me κατα πνευμα (according to the Spirit). It’s the me that has joined itself with the Lord, and become one with him in Spirit.

A high view of the believer (contra Luther, perhaps?) makes plenty of sense when we consider that we are μελη χριστου, members of Christ’s body. In some way we take part in the suffering and the glory of the risen Messiah. From this standpoint, I think we can begin to understand what’s going on here in 1 Corinthians regarding “saving” and “sanctifying.” The people correcting me were right to an extent, it is only the triune God that saves and heals. The funny thing is, we’re called into that triune fellowship, that communion, in Christ and by the Spirit. I don’t know what that means exactly, but it’s tremendously exciting. I’m looking forward to discovering more!


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