This passage appears to support the idea of difference not mattering, of us all needing each other, of everyone having an important role to play. However, reading with a critical eye unearths further questions
Verse 13 doesn’t challenge the state of enslavement; it’s just another social category here. We might argue that this is not the point of the text, that it is about those social categories meaning nothing when we are in Christ, but is this a sufficient justification – especially to those whose history was, in part, shaped by slavery or for those who are affected by the contemporary trafficking of human beings? 
Look again at verse 13 in light of verse 18. God has arranged everything as God wants it to be. Whether we are talking about the Church or society as a whole, this poses questions. Does it encourage a belief that the status quo is God-sanctioned, that God approves of the various hierarchies that exist? E.g. ‘I am rich/poor because God wants me to be’. Again, what might be the implications for readers of this text?
Here, Paul seems to be implying that the hands and feet are the weaker parts. Why would the hands and the feet be seen as weaker than the eye or the head? If we consider the role of the hands and feet in the body compared to that of the eye and the head, are we perhaps seeing comparisons made between ‘physical’ and ‘intellectual’ labour, between those that do the practical work and those that do the thinking and decision making?
Why are the weaker parts ‘indispensable’? Is it because God cares for the weak and marginalised or because the weak make the ‘strong’ feel better about themselves?
Who are those that represent the parts that are ‘less honourable’? How are they ‘treated with special honour’? Who might the ‘unpresentable’ be? How are they treated with ‘special modesty’? There seem to be echoes here of covering something up or keeping something quiet. This could be reflected in various experiences.
Can this be seen as reflecting the ways that women have been regarded through the history of the church? How prominent are the voices of women in Biblical text? What influence did women have on choosing the biblical canon? What roles are assigned to women in our contemporary churches across the denominations? What are the attitudes held towards women in the present day?
Perhaps this text is reflected in the debates on sexuality? While churches will engage (sometimes grudgingly) in dialogue on ‘race’ and gender issues, sexuality is still a no-go area for many who feel that Biblical text dictates unambiguously where the church should stand. Do those who are marginalised because of their sexuality see their experience mirrored in these verses – required to be silent and ‘modest’ before they can be accepted and valued?
There are others still who feel rejected or marginalised, who are not encouraged to speak up or to recognise their own value. Are they the ones who don’t fit the idea of what we think a ‘Christian’ should be, those that we find embarrassing, or who ask too many difficult or awkward questions?
We must also acknowledge that there may be people who struggle with this text because they find using this ‘body’ analogy unhelpful, perhaps because of their experience of disability or infirmity?
So here we see a text that, though used to encourage unity and the recognition and celebration of diversity, also features instances of exclusion, marginalisation and hierarchy. Does this have implications for how we engage with this text? We can decide to reject the more ‘problematic’ readings and comfortably remain with the ‘tried and tested’ interpretations. We can decide it is an oppressive text and reject it outright. Or we can use critical reading strategies as a means by which to ask challenging questions not only about the text itself, but about our own experiences and actions both inside and outside the church, as individuals and as communities.
Some questions for reflection and discussion:
- Has your perception of this passage changed through doing this re-reading? If so, in what ways?
- In light of this re-reading, do any of these verses reflect your experience of church or not? Explain why/why not?
- Who do you think are the ‘feet’ and ‘hands’ in your church and in society as a whole?
- Where do you see yourself in ‘the body’ and why?
- Do you think the idea of ‘parts of the body working together’ accurately reflects what is happening in the church?
Bible extracts from New International Version - UK (NIVUK)
Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society
 This Bible study is adapted from a journal article - C.Troupe ‘One Body, Many Parts: A Reading of 1 Corinthians 12: 12-27’ in Black Theology: An International Journal Volume 6, Number 1, 2008, pp.32-45
 Arguments about slavery being ‘different in those days’ are also problematic. Is any social system that features the ownership of another human being as a norm acceptable at any point in history?
 There are instances in history where Biblical verses of this ilk would have been used to justify the oppression of one group by another e.g. during the Transatlantic slave trade or Apartheid in South Africa
 See, for example Randall C. Bailey, Tat-Siong Benny Liew, Fernando F. Segovia (Eds) They Were All Together in One Place? Toward Minority Biblical Criticism (Society of Biblical Literature, 2009) or Randall C. Bailey ‘ “But It's in the Text!”: Slavery, the Bible, and the African Diaspora’ in Black Theology, Slavery, and Contemporary Christianity: 200 Years and No Apology Edited by Anthony G. Reddie (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2010).