Unity not Uniformity: Diversity not division

Chapter 12 begins an entirely new theme in Paul’s letter to this troubled church: it’s about how the church works as a whole and how individuals work within the whole.

  1. Spiritual gifts

Doing church is not a spectator sport, it calls for participation and work. Members of the church have been equipped to serve. The equipment comes in the form of gifts given to us by the Holy Spirit.

Prior to becoming Christians, some of the Corinthians were pagan and were influenced by idol worship. This issue had raised itself in the questions Paul dealt with earlier concerning food offered to idols. Now it seems that this particular group had requested some insight from Paul on spiritual gifts. The pagan background perhaps had still some influence on some of the thinking of members of the church and Paul first of all makes it clear that the presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers had influence on what the Corinthians christians were capable of doing; no one can say ‘Jesus be cursed’ if they are speaking by the Spirit of God, says Paul. It seems that Paul is suggesting that there are both Christians and Pagans in the world, but whilst Christians can be capable of being effective channels for the work of the Holy Spirit, they can also continue to allow the sin nature (and their pagan background) to overly influence what they do.

The individuals who make up the church have been equipped says Paul. Interestingly Paul seems to relate gifts, service and work with the Holy Spirit, The Lord Jesus and God the father respectively. It seems that Paul is stressing that whilst our work is diverse, it has as its basis a unity, just as the Godhead is diverse and one at the same time. Paul notes that there are different gifts(distributed by the same Spirit) associated with different service (but the same Lord) and different work (but one God is at work).

Spiritual gifts are not earned or bought, but are given says Paul.  And they have been given for a specific purpose – the common good. Reading between the lines I think we can begin to uncover some of the issues in the church that may have prompted this part of Paul’s letter. It seems that the church in Corinth was blighted with division, and the church activities may have been overly influenced by pagan practices and thinking, there seems to have been little thought for the common good of the church.

In verse 7, Paul speaks of the ‘manifestation of the Spirit’ and how it is given for the ‘common good’. Concrete activities that take place in the church are manifestations of the Spirit, or at least they can be. Paul is thinking of how the exercise of these gifts demonstrates the Holy Spirit and result in benefit for all. He lists nine different gifts: 1. Message of wisdom, 2. Message of knowledge, 3. Faith, 4. Gifts of healing, 5. Miraculous powers, 6. Prophecy, 7. Distinguishing between spirits, 8. Speaking in different kinds of tongues, 9. Interpretation of tongues. This seems to be an incomplete list as elsewhere (in his other letters) Paul lists other gifts, but perhaps these were the gifts that were of most relevance to the enquiry Paul had received. I’m struck how many of these gifts are not observed in most churches I have attended in my lifetime. Miraculous powers, gifts of healing, distinguishing spirits and tongues and their interpretation are largely lacking in at least many churches today. Some churches claim that these gifts are in regular use and for sure there are those who claim to possess these gifts. This is an odd situation given Paul’s stress on the unity of the church and the value of gifts for the good of the church: some claim to have these gifts and yet they are absent elsewhere. Rather than unity we see disunity. Members of churches that claim to have these gifts can be quite blunt in their criticism of churches in which these gifts are not apparent – ‘they are quenching the Spirit of God’ they will say and ‘denying the power of the Holy Spirit’. ‘We have to get back to the New Testament ways’ is the call. So it seems that the very manifestations of the Holy Spirit that Paul was so keen to associate with unity can today be a battle ground for discord and splits. My own observations of churches in which gifts of healing, miraculous powers and speaking in tongues have been emphasised is that the physical evidence for their genuine presence is somewhat lacking. A young man I know has Downs syndrome, but I have never ever heard of anyone successfully curing this condition through the gift of healing (or by any other means), could it be that healing Down’s syndrome is more difficult  for God than dealing  with a sore back or knee? Certainly not! What about gifts of miraculous powers?: I have seen no evidence for anyone possessing this sort of gift, ever.  And what of this gift of tongues? There can be no doubt that speaking in tongues means speaking in a foreign language without the need to learn it. (See Acts 2) – the ‘tongues’ I have heard people claim to speak seem to be more like incomprehensible and unintelligible utterances. I am not for a minute suggesting that Christians and churches that claim these gifts are deliberately faking them, but whatever is practised today is unconvincing and not at all the same as those described by Paul and demonstrated in those days. Luke’s historical record of the early church in the book of Acts records many miraculous events that were entirely convincing to both believers and those who opposed the gospel. But today claims for such events are wholly unconvincing to many believers as well as those who oppose the gospel. This all rather begs the question: why the difference between events in Corinth and now?

There appear to be two possible reasons for the change from New Testament times to the present day.  The miraculous gifts in the early church may have been given to authenticate both the church and its radically new message. There can be little doubt that Jesus’ miracles had a purpose to authenticate who he was and it seems reasonable to think the same of miracles in the early church. This reason however raises some good questions, wouldn’t the church benefit from some similar help today? We live in difficult times: church attendance is low, interest in spiritual things is equally low and opposition is growing. So why should we be deprived of the help of public and convincing miracles? Why indeed. This raises the second possible reason. Do a search of the bible and look for ‘miraculous signs’ (NIV). There are not a few instances in the bible and many occur in the gospels and the book of Acts. To whom were the signs directed? There can be little doubt that the signs were for Israel and the Jews. Even when there were such miraculous signs among the Gentiles the significance was for Jewish observers.  (in the sense that the miraculous signs spoke the Jews of God’s inclusion of Gentiles in the early church efforts, see e.g. Acts 15:12). Paul seems to support this view in his phrase in 1 Corinthians 1: 22 when he states that ‘Jews demand miraculous signs’.  Thinking specifically of the gift of tongues that Paul will deal with in depth in chapter 14, Paul quotes Isaiah, and says that God would speak to his people (Israel) through ‘men of strange tongues’ (and in spite of this, they would still not listen). If these sign gifts are thus intended as signs to Israel (signaling the arrival of the promised Messiah), perhaps it is not so surprising that the sign gifts were prominent  when the Jews were presented with their Messiah in the gospels and subsequently when they were offered another chance to repent of their rejection of the Messiah at Pentecost (see Acts 2 and 3) and during Paul’s encounters with the Jews during his missionary journeys. Once the Jews had sealed their fate (by rejecting the Messiah, the message of Peter and Paul) and God’s judgement had come in AD70, the need for such miraculous signs had at least greatly reduced or had entirely gone.

If this is the case (and please let’s not divide over this issue if you don’t agree with me!) we must not throw the baby out with the bath water! Just because some gifts may now be redundant does not at all mean that they all are.

The question for each of us now, is what is our gift(s)? and are we synchronising our lives, thinking and being with the Holy Spirit to enable these gifts to operate effectively for the common good of the church?

  • Living in the body

Paul uses a simple picture to describe how things work in the church – a human body. Paul says that we become members of the ‘body of Christ’ by baptism. Some churches take the view that this can be accomplished with greater or lesser quantities of water but this baptism is not accomplished by water, it is rather by the Holy Spirit. Note what Paul says in verse 13: ‘we are all baptised by one Spirit so as to form one body’. You might remember John the Baptist’s call – I’m baptising with water, but Jesus will baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Ours is a baptism of the Spirit which takes place when we believe. Because the Holy Spirit is the means of entering the body there is a unifying component to being part of the body, it makes no difference whether we are Jews or Gentiles, slaves or free, black or white, Scottish or English, man or woman. And if the Spirit brings unity, the members most certainly bring diversity!

The diversity comes from who the members are and the gifts that God has given them. So how ought these diverse members and variously gifted members relate to one another? The short answer is, not like the Corinthians were!  Paul says if the foot said that because it was not a hand it had no part in the body it would make no difference, it would still be part of the body: likewise the ear and the eye. Just because you are different (and maybe have a lower function than others: foot vs. hand) does not mean that you are not part of the body – if you are in Christ you are. It would make no sense if all of the body was an eye – how would it hear? And likewise if it was all an ear how would it have a sense of smell. Diversity is not just good it is essential for effective functioning.  God has designed it and put it together in this way says Paul: many parts, one body; unity, not uniformity, diversity not division. It’s unhealthy if everybody dresses the same, thinks the same and does the same things in a church – those are the hallmarks of a sect or cult not a church.

Because the component parts of the church body are different there is a tendency to discriminate. The eye may rather proudly dismiss the need for a hand, or the head dismiss the need for a foot! But as Paul says the apparently ‘weaker’ parts of the body are indispensable. How should we consider each other? Paul says, ‘its parts should have equal concern for each other.’ If one part suffers, every part suffers, if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.

The body of Christ not only has differently gifted components, which each play an essential and complementary part, but God has placed into it people with roles that are of different degrees of importance. The roles (which are in part distinct from the gifts) are listed as follows: First apostles, second prophets, third teachers, and then miracles, gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance and of different tongues. Note again that this is probably not an exhaustive list (other lists include pastors and evangelists, See Ephesians 4). What does Paul mean here? It seems that he means that some offices (such as Apostles, prophets and teachers) have special importance and that these function to prepare the people in the church for service so that the body as a whole can benefit.

If you are tempted to be somewhat dissatisfied with your gift or position in the church and hanker after something more spectacular of more important, Paul has a more excellent way for you – you will have to read chapter 13 to find out what it is!