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If 1 Corinthians 13 is our measure of love, America has never loved Black people, and the church is complicit. But through 1 Corinthians 12 and 13, God shows us a more excellent way forward. This Bible study examines America’s failure to love Black people in the way defined by 1 Corinthians 13 and invites you to journey from unloving to loving through biblical study, personal reflection, and engagement with Black voices and stories. It is part of the 1 Cor. 13 Project.

Dismantling racism is often seen as a matter of mission or justice. But at its heart, this is discipleship work. And the journey this Bible study is inviting you on is one of discipleship. It’s about loving your neighbors and making the body of Christ truly whole.

Love according to 1 Corinthians 13

Read 1 Corinthians 13:

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. Love never ends.

– 1 Corinthians 13:4–8

Reflection questions

  • How does love here differ from the way you talk and think about love in your community, family, and church?
  • What is the easiest part of loving people in the way described in 1 Corinthians 13? What is the hardest part for you?
  • How does your church demonstrate 1 Corinthians 13 love? How does it fall short?
  • How does America’s treatment of Black people compare to the love described in 1 Corinthians 13?

America’s failure to love Black people

Watch this video introducing the 1 Cor. 13 Project. The video explains how the failure to love Black people has dismembered the body of Christ and lays out a process of biblical repentance and healing based on 1 Corinthians 13. This Bible study is designed to help facilitate that process.

What 1 Corinthians 12 tells us about 1 Corinthians 13

Context matters. To understand 1 Corinthians 13 fully, we also need to understand 1 Corinthians 12.

Read 1 Corinthians 12:

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

– 1 Corinthians 12:21–26

Now read this contemporary adaption of 1 Corinthians 12 and reflect on how 1 Corinthians 12 may speak to our current cultural context.

A contemporary adaption of 1 Corinthians 12

You, the NFL, cannot say because you kneel at the flag for racial justice, 
I have no need of you. 

You, Hollywood, cannot say because you refuse to be mammy, Jezebel, or the recipient of white saviorism, 
I have no need of you. 

You, the academy, cannot say because your scholarship begins in story form and not in print, 
I have no need of you. 

You, standard of beauty, cannot say because you have tight curls, round bottoms, and dark skin, 
I have no need of you. 

You, social norms, cannot say because your volume can be elevated and you express yourself in ways that make me feel threatened, 
I have no need of you. 

You, white church, cannot say because your singing is robust, your expressions demonstrative, and your Jesus demanding of liberation, 
I have no need of you.

Reflection questions

  • How does 1 Corinthians 12 enhance your understanding of 1 Corinthians 13?
  • How does reading the contemporary adaption change the way you think about 1 Corinthians 12?
  • In what ways have you seen the church communicate that it has “no need” of some of its members?

Reading 1 Corinthians 12 makes it clear that the love described in 1 Corinthians 13 is not just important for us to show others as individuals. God is calling for the church to act with love as a whole body. And the church body cannot function well if some of its parts are being excluded, hurt, and told they are not needed.

Saying or communicating with your actions that “I have no need of you” is an instrument of dismemberment. It dismembers both individuals and the body of Christ as a whole.

Judges 19: a biblical illustration of dismemberment

Empathy: the ability to understand and share the experience of another. 

The biblical book of Judges tells us of a people who do what seems right in their own eyes. This is the phrase that is woven through the pages of this book of the Bible, which includes the stories of Deborah, Gideon, and Samson, but also that of a nameless woman who meets a tragic death.

Chapter 19 introduces this nameless woman. She is known only by her relationship to the Levite man she accompanies—and even that identification is vague. She is a concubine, or maybe his wife, or maybe his girlfriend, or maybe a sex slave. The text is unclear about her identity, but it is explicit about her worth to her Levite companion: she is a commodity.

Empathizing with the experience of dismemberment

Read Judges 19. Empathize with the concubine. She left this man and returned to her father’s house. What must she have been feeling? What might have been going on to compel her to return? What might she have been thinking when her father continued to invite this man to remain at their house? Do you think she wanted to return to Ephriam with him?

The concubine has no voice in the text, but if she were to speak, what would she say at the town square? At the stranger’s house? To the daughter of the stranger whose house they were in? To the man who tossed her out to the mob? What might she have been thinking when the man found her and demanded she get up? What would her headstone say about her?

How Judges 19 parallels the Black experience in America

The dismemberment of peoples from Africa, sometimes directly at the hands of the mainline church, has rendered them unprotected and unloved.

The unloving has been communicated in words, actions, and inactions for over 400 years: “Black people, because you are not white, we have no need of you.” Black bodies are bartered with, brutally and continuously raped, left lifeless on hard pavements, dismembered from full participation in the church in America, and tossed to systems, structures, and institutions that conspire with the winds to keep them emotionally, mentally, and psychologically dismembered.

There is a tendency to deny or brush to the side this dismemberment, to scapegoat comfort and style as the reasons for the segregated white church. Meanwhile, unlike the Black church, the white church sings only its own songs, amplifies only its own voices, and ignores the suffering of other parts of Christ’s body.

A more excellent way: the path to repentance

Repentance: a turning of the heart

Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret” – 2 Corinthians 7:10.

Repentance” is not simply a word, but a turning of the heart. Sometimes our hearts turn by the direct power of the Spirit. Other times we are confronted with our unloving practices, and it breaks our hearts.

There are many layers of unloving and systemic brokenness that dismember Black people and tear apart the body of Christ. And some of them may be hard for us to see on the surface right now.  In journeying toward repentance, it helps to be guided by a structured process for discipleship. The process begins with 1) rehearsing or digging in the soil, then moves to 2) re-minding or planting new seeds spurred by new fertilizers, and concludes with 3) re-membering or cross-pollinating to yield a new crop and new fruit. 

A note about timing: It is our nature to want to follow a linear process or plan. We want to want to know exactly when to move from rehearsing, to reminding, to remembering. But reckoning with 400 years of centering the white experience won’t happen overnight or follow a straight, predictable path. It will take deep spiritual work that must be done in the Word, in prayer, and with patience. It might take years of digging for a church to be ready to move toward change. So be it. Let Godly sorrow run its course. It is essential.

Rehearsing: Reckoning with the unloving in the soil

Rehearsing: To excavate the soil that has formed you

Read Isaiah 5.

Isaiah rehearses the transgression of his people and God’s impending judgment. Isaiah 6 explains the call of Isaiah when he was confronted with God’s holiness and his own wretchedness. His faithful response was, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.“

The process of rehearsing cannot be fabricated or rushed. Like digging in the soil to find the root of a tree, the work is arduous. The soil is full of minerals and ingredients that both feed fruit and cultivate the weeds that threaten to dismember it. The history, stories, practices, and recognition of a church’s or institution’s unloving relationship with Black people must be rehearsed and rehearsed, like a rototiller going back and forth through the earth, until what is revealed is undeniable and provocative.

How to rehearse

Human change generally occurs in two ways. Sometimes it is like when Nathan confronts King David about his actions toward Bathsheba and her husband, Uriah (2 Samuel 12). Nathan metaphorically lifted the soil to the face of the king to expose his sin. And King David responded with repentance, as recorded in Psalm 51. Other times a new piece of information or question leads us to dig into the soil ourselves.

Rehearsing is excavating work. It pulls harmful, sinful, and untrue things out of the soil, leaving behind a hole large enough to fill with new ideas, new practices, and new narratives.

What to rehearse

America must rehearse its own history in order to remove unloving ingredients from the soil around us. And the American church must rehearse the ways it helped to cultivate unloving in the soil.

Rehearse the slave trade, the middle passage, the auction block, and the sermons and declarations that dehumanized Black bodies. Rehearse Blackface and picnic lunches under hanging bodies. Rehearse the countless missionary letters that reference African image-bearers of God as “heathens” and “savages.” Rehearse exclusionary contracts and agreements and the misrepresentation of the Black experience in the arts and history books.

Rehearse silence in the face of racial violence and indifference to suffocating policies and practices. Rehearse the perpetuation of fear of the Black man and the debilitating burden of the strong Black woman. Rehearse the biblical hermeneutic that associates light with white—and paints Jesus in porcelain, too. Rehearse the destruction of Black businesses and exclusion from certain classes in schools. Rehearse the expulsion of Black people from white churches by strong arm or cold shoulder. Even Black people need to rehearse their own unloving of themselves, their practices, and their traditions, which has left them wounded and traumatized.

Like a skilled ballerina or an accomplished thespian, America must rehearse the history, the ideals, the actions, and the inactions that have brought us here until it hurts. We must rehearse until the only reasonable response is that of the prophet: “Woe is me!”

Reflection questions

  • What might be difficult about rehearsing the unloving patterns of the church toward Black people in America?
  • How might rehearsing lead to an encounter with the holiness of God?
  • What is the difference between Isaiah’s “Woe is me” and self-deprecating?

Re-minding: Changing your way of thinking

Re-mind: to be of a new mind 

This is not about refreshing your memory of something you forgot. In this process, to be “re-minded” has more to do with the renewal of the mind than memory. Romans 12:2 captures the meaning well: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” This is an essential step of repentance. In fact, the Greek word for “repentance” is metanoia, which means “a changed mind” or “a new mind.”

We need to be re-minded in order to see Black people as image-bearers of God, uniquely gifted, necessary for the body of Christ, and worthy of 1 Corinthians 13 love. 

Many non-Black people have not had any close relationships with Black people. Their knowledge about their Black neighbors may come from mostly secondary sources. Unfortunately, what non-Black people hear about the Black community from secondary sources like the media, school, and other non-Black people may do more to reinforce stereotypes than help them think rightly about the Black experience. 

How rehearsing leads to re-minding

Rehearsal sets the stage for re-minding. We cannot repent from something if we are still blind to its brokenness. Rehearsing allows a person, church, or organization to have a true encounter with its own broken, flawed, unloving self. It reveals to us where misinformation needs to be replaced by new information. Humbled by encountering our brokenness and aware we need to change, we open ourselves up to new ways of thinking. 

Re-minding is the renewal of the mind by the Spirit that takes place when we humbly listen and learn about areas where rehearsal has revealed our brokenness. In a renewed mind, new synapses, new thoughts, new assumptions, new values, and new ideals replace the broken ways of thinking rehearsing helps expose.

How you can enter the process of re-minding

Re-minding happens when you seek out new sources and new voices that can reshape your mind. Engaging this process can look like reading anti-racist works, watching documentaries about racial justice like 13th, and studying the Bible from the perspectives of people who are on the margins. 

When we expand the theological and cultural voices we’re listening to beyond the white, male, and Western perspective, the biblical text reveals truths and raises questions we didn’t see before. The ground beneath us is prepared to produce new kinds of fruit. This is at the heart of 1 Corinthians 12; every part of the body has an essential part to play in our mission. We can’t understand the gospel without them.

Reflection questions

  • What were you taught about Black people that you have had to be re-minded about?
  • Where do you still need transformation toward a renewed mind about Black people?

Re-membering: Healing a broken and dismembered body

Re-member: To reconcile or reassemble the whole church

Disclaimer: Black people have never been dismembered from the Universal Church of which Christ is the head. It is the “mainline” institutional church in America from which Black people have been dismembered for over four hundred years. 

Rehearsing leads to a revelation of our need for repentance. Re-minding allows new thoughts and ideas to transform our minds. But the ultimate goal of this process is re-membering: to move from the unloving that has led to the dismemberment of Black people toward a 1 Corinthians 13 kind of loving that acknowledges the need for the gifts, expressions, values, and presence of Black people. 

Cross-pollination, not assimilation

Re-membering requires cross-pollination, an intertwining of practices, values, and expressions that will cause the soil to yield a different kind of fruit. Cross-pollination is not integration, that process by which Black people were invited into white spaces to coexist according to the mores set by white people. It’s not a melting pot where identities and traditions get melded together so that no distinction can be noticed. 

Cross-pollination is the transfer of fertilizer from one plant to another, making a third kind of plant.  Cross-pollination can happen in three different ways: 

  1. The “wind” (Spirit) takes the fertilizer from one plant and applies it to another. 
  2. Birds and insects carry the pollen to another plant. 
  3. Humans intentionally share pollen between plants to create something new. 

In every version of the cross-pollination process, something new is created. This is a necessary step for healing dismemberment.

What re-membering requires

Re-membering requires non-Black people to bring themselves to the places where Black people gather. By entering these spaces, they’ll acquire new information and insights about things like family and faith, as well as about things they might never have considered. These insights will equip them to change the attitudes and ideals of their own community.

Re-membering also requires a commitment to invite Black people into non-Black spaces in order to pollinate the space with needed expressions, convictions, and gifts. This is the work of those who I call freedom fighters: white people and non-Black people of color who have done the rehearsing and re-minding work necessary to faithfully engage with Black people in ways that are affirming, loving, and respectful. 

Re-membering as the fulfillment of 1 Corinthians 13

Re-membering is patient, kind, long suffering, and imbued with temperance; it is not envious, not boastful, not arrogant or rude. Re-membering does not insist on its own way. It is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. Re-membering bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, and never fails. In order to re-member Black people into the church in America, we need to take 1 Corinthians 13 kinds of action so that we can journey toward the most excellent way called Love. 

Denise Kingdom Grier

Denise Kingdom Grier is pastor of Maple Avenue Ministries in Holland, Michigan. She is also is a missionary with the Reformed Church in America, serving in partnership with Setshabelo Family and Child Services in Botshabelo, South Africa.