The Corinthian Phenomenon Pt. 1: Unity in Diversity
Floral Fantasy, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore
Six times in Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians, he used the same phrase, sometimes translated in the AV, “now concerning” (7:1: 7:25; 12:1; 16:1), and sometimes, “as touching” (8:1, 16:12). It seems that he was addressing a series of questions that the Corinthians had asked in a previous letter (1 Cor. 7:1). The issue at this point was spiritual gifts and the negative construction “I would not have you to be ignorant…” (1) assumes that there was indeed some lack of understanding among the Corinthian Christian concerning the spiritual gifts. This misunderstanding or misuse of the gifts related particularly to tongues.
The tongues phenomenon created a real problem in Corinth. A spiritual pride had developed among some of the tongue-speaking members who thought they had a monopoly on spirituality (12:30, 13:1, 14:5, 18-19). This divided the congregation, some were marginalized and considered inferior and dispensable (12:17-18). This faux-spirituality effectively despised others and forgot that the greatest gift is love (13:1-3). Public worship was also affected; it became selfish, individualistic and disorderly (14:26-40). Paul’s letter at this point was corrective and chastising. He could not go as far as forbid tongues (14:39), but we should notice throughout his discussion (chapters 12-14) the disapproving and pejorative language he used concerning tongues and the negative tone towards this supposed higher spirituality of tongues.
Paul began with a general statement on spiritual gifts. He did this by contrasting their past paganism with their current Christianity. He also pointed out that in paganism they were carried away in frenzies and ecstasies by idols that could not speak. Now, however, in Christianity, they have self-control and have the Spirit of the living God dwelling in them. True spirituality, however, is not just in self-control, but is based on the confession of Jesus as Lord (3, Matt. 16:16). No matter what gift you have, or how well you speak in tongues, if you are not confessing Christ as Lord, then you do not have the Spirit of God and are not a Christian.
Having briefly laid the foundation of spirituality and dismissed the unbelievers, the apostle quickly got to the issue of division among the believers. We can reduce his argument down to three general points.
First, there is diversity in the church, but it is one body (12-13), and it gets its life from a single source (4-11). Underlying the apostle’s thoughts here is the similarity that he sees with the trinity—the “same Spirit…Lord [Jesus] … God [the Father] (4-6). In this trinitarian theme he had something to ground his thoughts and get confidence as he unpacked this thought of unity in diversity.
Paul’s list of nine gifts is not exhaustive (8-10 see also Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-14; 1 Peter 4:10-11) and his purpose was not to address each gift specifically, but to make a point that God operates in his Church with diversity and variety. The emphasis of this list is on the one and the same Holy Spirit. Paul makes his point with the repetition of “one Spirit,” and “same Spirit” or “selfsame Spirit” (4-11). This is the same Spirit who enables us to call Jesus Lord (3), who unites us in Christ (13) and who dispenses gifts to the Church (7, 11). The Holy Spirit manifests these gifts in every believer (7, 11) for the good of all. No one has all the gifts, and no one is without a gift—all are needed for the balanced functioning of the Church. The distribution of the gifts, however, is “as he [the Spirit] wills” (11) and as “it has pleased him [God]” (18).
To properly understand how these gifts work in the Church, Paul introduced the example of the body. “Even as” the body is an organic whole consisting of many members (12), “so also” the Church (“Christ”) is the same—an organic (living) unit consisting of many members (13). As far as the function and operation are concerned, the least gift is as important as the greatest, as the apostle will later develop (15-16), but there must be unity of operation, just as there is in the Trinity.
Furthermore, the apostle continued, we are all united to this body by a baptism of the Holy Spirit and caused to drink (made partakers) of this same Spirit (13). When one boasts, therefore, and elevates his gift over other gifts, he/she is being ungodly (unlike the trinitarian God), and the unit is broken.
Second, the apostle developed the image of the body that he had previously introduced (12) and emphasized the point that the Church is “one body” (14-26). Now, Paul does not assume that these spiritually puffed up Corinthians even know what the nature of a body is. He spoke to them as though they were children (3:1; 14:20). The body, he said, is one unit with many members.
Two things happened when spiritual pride developed in the Corinthian congregation. First, the greater, more prominent members became elitist, despised others (20-26) and effectively said, “I don’t need you…” (21). As a result of this spiritual manipulation, other members felt inferior. They had not got “great” gifts and a sense of not belonging developed or not being needed (14-19).
No, Paul interjects, all members are necessary—even those who seem feeble, the less honourable, and the unpresentable members (22-23). If the eye monopolises and becomes so dominant, or the ear, then where is the body (19). It is no longer a body, but a grotesque single organ monster and has lost other functioning parts; where is the hearing…where is the smelling (17).
In fact, Paul said, those less honourable parts we dress, we make more attractive. Also, the unpresentable parts we treat with greater modesty (23). The point that Paul is making is that as all are members of the body, some are less prominent than others, some are less useful, or less significant and with less honour—but all are needed in the body and no member should be despised. The Body cannot be divided, there should be no schism but mutual care (25).
Furthermore, all the members of the body are interdependent—they suffer together, and they rejoice together (26). If you hurt your toe and find yourself limping, do you say, “I hurt my toe,” or “I hurt myself”? Either is correct, because the toe is part of the body and if it suffers, the body suffers.
Third, although the Church is one body, yet there are many gifts (27-30). Paul repeated—as though to reinforce the point—that they are all part of the same body, but they are also individuals in the body. Paul said to this congregation, “you are the body of Christ.” Not that they were part of the body, or a body, but the body itself. In every congregation (the body of Christ), there are members with diverse gifts. God sets his church in order and he has appointed individuals to a position. It is clear from the wording, “first… secondarily… thirdly… after that…” that there is a descending order in place.
Again, Paul’s intention is not to give a complete list, but to make the point that there is diversity, and that we should not expect for all to have all of the gifts, nor indeed should we expect for all to have any particular gift (e.g. tongues). The list of rhetorical questions (29-30)—all of which expect the answer “no”—very clearly shows that no one spiritual gift is to be identified as the measure of the Spirit’s baptism, or any other test of spirituality.
1 Cor. 12:29-30, without seeking other biblical evidence, puts a sword through the heart of Pentecostal theology, and the idea of tongues as the initial evidence of Spirit baptism.
My name is Aaron Dunlop. I am married to Grace and we have five children. I grew up in Northern Ireland and after seminary in Greenville, SC, I church planted in Victoria BC, Canada, and pastored there for ten years. In 2018 my family moved to Kenya where I worked among rural pastors.
Early in 2020, we returned to Ireland from where I am the director of The Krapf Project and associated missionary with UFM Worldwide, helping to prepare ministry resources for pastors in rural East Africa. In this blog, I write devotional, pastoral, and theological articles. I also write on the history of evangelicalism (especially 20th century) Church History and issues related to Missiology.