Beliefnet
Mark D. Roberts

Part 7 of series: Spiritual Gifts in the Body of Christ
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After beginning his correction of Corinthian abuses by outlining the nature of spiritual gifts, Paul proceeds to an extensive discussion of the church as the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:12-27). Because I have written about this in my recent series, The Church as the Body of Christ, I’ll make only a couple of summary observations here.
At the moment of conversion, every believer receives the Holy Spirit and is simultaneously immersed by the Spirit in the church, the body of Christ. Each Christian is necessarily and permanently connected to the fellowship of other Christians. Yet that does not mean every individual is just the same as every other. For, even as the human body is made up of different parts, so it is with the body of Christ. Diversity among members is essential to the body’s very nature and existence. But the diverse parts are also unified, composing one body together. Therefore, every individual part of the body is necessary to the whole. No part can exclude itself, or be excluded by others. In fact, the apparently less important members of the body are actually those which receive greater honor. (Photo: El Greco, “The Pentecost,” 1596-1600
It’s easy to see how this metaphor addressed the problems in Corinth. The “super-spiritual” folk who boasted of their superiority because they spoke in tongues were wrong to dismiss others as unimportant to the church. And the others, who bought the false line of their own worthlessness, were wrong to denigrate their value to the body. All believers are essential to the church, no matter what spiritual gifts they have manifested in the past.
As it turns out, most churches in today’s world, whether overtly or implicitly, value some spiritual gifts while devaluing others. Some congregations prize teaching and service, whereas others emphasize healing and prophecy. Some churches go so far as to forbid the exercise of certain gifts by their members, especially the gift of tongues. While other churches make tongues the most important of gifts. The Apostle Paul, on the contrary, goes out of his way to give value to all members of the body of Christ and to all expressions of the Spirit’s power. Thus, we should always resist the temptation to limit, intentionally or not, the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
Paul concludes his discussion of the church as the body of Christ by relating the metaphor specifically to spiritual gifts (1 Cor 12:27-31). This is a notoriously confusing passage, partly because Paul’s language use is so varied. I will translate it very literally to preserve the sense:

And those things which God placed in the gathering are: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then powers, then gifts of healings, instances of helping, instances of leadership, kinds of tongues. All aren’t apostles, are they? All aren’t prophets, are they? All aren’t teachers, are they? All aren’t powers, are they? All do not have gifts of healings, do they? All do not speak in tongues, do they? All do not interpret, do they? But eagerly desire the greater gifts. Yet I will show you the way according to excellence (1 Cor 12:28-31; my translation).

Paul is mixing types here, blending a discussion of people who serve in the church (apostles, prophets, teachers) with spiritual gifts, all of which God provides for the gathered assembly.
What is Paul trying to say in this passage? First, everybody in the church doesn’t minister in exactly the same way. Some have different roles. Some have different gifts. This difference is part and parcel of the Spirit’s plan. Although some roles appear to be rather fixed, spiritual gifts are given more flexibly. In one gathering of believers a person might minister in a gift of healing. The next time that same person might speak in tongues. It’s unlikely that all will be given the same gifts in the same meeting. We should be open to lots of variation in gifting, even as we recognize that certain people have abiding ministry roles, and will, therefore, be gifted regularly in ways that fit their roles. Those who are called by God to be prophets will, for example, ordinarily be given gifts of prophecy.
Second, while acknowledging that a diversity of gifts and roles exists within the church, Paul urges us to desire “the greater gifts” in particular (1 Cor 12:31). This verse comes as a surprise, because the series of questions that precede it would appear to suggest the opposite conclusion: “Since not everyone does everything, be satisfied with your role and your gifts.” But, curiously enough, Paul encourages us to be zealous for the greater gifts, gifts we may have not yet utilized in ministry. Operating in these gifts does not make us greater than others in the body to the body. The gifts are greater, not the users. So, what are the greater gifts and how are we to strive for them? Paul will answer these questions, but not right away. In the midst of his discussion of gives he interrupts himself with an extended meditation on “the way according to excellence,” the way of love.
Paul’s praise of love in 1 Corinthians 13 is extraordinary important to his overall discussion of spiritual gifts even though it interrupts the flow of his argument. For the sake of clarity and emphasis, I will skip to chapter 14 in my next post in this series and return to chapter 13 later.

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