In his contribution to The Word Leaps the Gap: Essays on Scripture and Theology in Honor of Richard B. Hays, John Barclay highlights the creativity of Paul’s notion of reciprocity in the church. Reciprocity as Paul conceives it “has the capacity to complicate power relations, and to work against the emergence of one-sided systems of gift, patronage, or authority.” It is “not a neat hierarchy, in which the lesser honor the great, but a mutuality of honor-giving.” When Paul tells the Romans (12:10) to seek to be first in bestowing honor, he is in effect telling them to “Be first . . . in being second,” and he passes on this instruction “not to one party but to all.”
As Barclay says, this is not simply an inversion of a hierarchy, not simply the lowly exalted and the exalted lowered. It is a “more creative” model of communal life “in which community members continually invent ways to honor each other,” a see-saw with ever-shifting relations of gift and reception, of “superiority” and “inferiority.”
These “dynamic” acts of deference that run “continually both ways” aim not merely at the unity, albeit “differentiated unity.” Rather, for Paul unity is “part of a larger shared commitment to processes of mutual construction. . . . What is in view here is a continuing project in which each party seeks to draw out the potential of the other, and both are committed to the construction of a community that is perpetually being remade and further developed.” The goal is the mutual construction that Paul describes with the word “edification” (424-5).