God’s Word for You
1 Corinthians 12:21-23a Modesty and immodesty
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Tuesday, May 16, 2023
21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you,” and the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you.” 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are necessary, 23 and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special modesty.
In the previous verses, the humbler parts were shown that they could not just say, “Since I’m not an eye or a hand, I’m not part of the body.” Now Paul looks at the other side of this kind of argument. The eye can’t just say to some other part, “I don’t need you,” or “I don’t want you here.” What would the church be if certain members decided that some of their people just didn’t belong? The church must never ever become an exclusive club. An exclusive club will quickly exclusive itself right out of existence.
We can take an extreme and sad example from modern China. About twenty years ago, the government gave families incentives to have only one child per family, and especially to prefer male children. The abortion rate went up like a rocket as families were destroying their girls so that they could have their precious and valuable boys. Today, this has left China with an inevitable problem that everyone should have seen coming. There aren’t enough girls for the boys to have wives and families of their own. Every part of the body is vital to the health of the body, whether that body is a single person, a nation, or the whole church.
No, the weaker parts are necessary. In fact, in many cases, the more glorious parts are more unnecessary. A village might get along just fine without a famous actor or musician, but nobody would be very happy without the men who keep the electricity and the water flowing and the sewers clear and running. I know of a town in western Minnesota that has some houses and one business but no gas station, no store, no bank, or anything else. My sons have sometimes asked me, “Why would anyone live there?” So it would be if a body were nothing but a head and a pair of hands. They won’t live long without the less impressive parts.
Paul strides boldly through an observation that the “less honorable parts” are treated with special modesty. Common decency says that certain parts should be treated with a special modesty. They have their function, but they should be covered. God has already done this in nature by covering much of the less honorable parts of human beings with flesh and bone. We do not want to see the brain or heart in operation, nor the entrails passing food along with the tiny helping hands of the innumerable villi that line our small intestines. We would rather not know about most of the innards as we interact with one another, but simply look at something more lovely and rewarding such as the face and eyes. And so with those body parts that are exposed yet are recognized as indecent since the very moment of the fall (Genesis 3:7). They are to be covered because they will only cause temptations and sinful thoughts of all kinds to be cast into the minds and bodies of everyone around. Those who try to overcome these temptations with so-called nudist colonies only discover that their sinful thoughts are constantly stirred up instead. They have only indulged the devil; they have not slain him or triumphed over him. Those who try to overcome temptations under the Sixth Commandment by embracing sinful sexual acts and desires outside of marriage are only learning about the trap by sticking their foot in it.
We can also apply this section of the letter in a broader way to the Fifth Commandment and our own bodies. It is not only appropriate but even commanded by God that we seek to preserve our lives and avoid death if this can be done without harm to our neighbor. A body part can’t do this without the whole body running away or seeking cover, but the body teaches its members quickly when it is in danger. The lungs, which we usually ignore, suddenly take command of all our actions when we find ourselves threatened by being under water. And if we are plunged into complete darkness, the eyes will not be content until some light can be made or found.
What about when one part of the larger body, the community or the church, is threatened? Each Christian should weigh his own value to the community when a disaster strikes. If a bad storm comes suddenly, there is not much to do but ride the storm out. If it is a plague such as the pandemic we are just beginning to come out of now, then my first duty is to my family and to those who are most affected by my job and my role in the community. Can a policeman, fireman, sewer-worker, power and light worker, and so on, flee? Or, for that matter, a pastor? Don’t they need to remain on account of their value to one another and to the community?
Luther says: “If someone is sufficiently bold and strong in his faith, let him stay in God’s name; that is certainly no sin. If someone is weak and fearful, let him flee in God’s name as long as he does not neglect his duty toward his neighbor but has made adequate provision for others to provide nursing care. To flee from death and to save one’s life is a natural tendency, implanted by God and not forbidden unless it be against God and neighbor, as St. Paul says, “No man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it (Ephesians 5:29).”
Preserve us, O Lord, from acting foolishly exclusive toward others, and from leading ourselves or others into sins against your Fifth and Sixth Commandments because of our attitudes about modesty and immodesty. Teach us to love and respect ourselves and the members of the body of the church. Use each of us according to your plan, and let us serve you in modest humility. Amen.
Pastor Timothy Smith