Gifts for the common good

May 10 — 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; May 17 — 1 Corinthians 12:12-31

Apr 27, 2015 by

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I hate to tell you this, but the Johannine communities of our previous lessons were not the only Christians who had church fights. Some 40 or 50 years earlier, the Apostle Paul wrote the letter we call 1 Corinthians to try to unify the house churches he had planted in Corinth. They had split into four factions, each following a different leader.



By this time, Paul is in Ephesus, but he received an oral report of conflict from one leader, Chloe, and a letter asking about lifestyle issues from other Corinthian believers.

One issue in the letter Paul received concerned which spiritual expressions were the most important, especially during their communal worship services. (1 Cor. 11-14 presumes the context of an evening meal followed by a worship service.) Each time Paul responds to questions in their letter, he begins by saying, “Now concerning . . .”

Now concerning . . . what? In 12:1-11, Paul does not begin by talking about spiritual gifts; that is a mistranslation. Instead, he uses the Greek term pneumatikos to refer to the world of spirits that affected the lives of many people in that culture. At that time, every Gentile believer in Corinth was only a year or two removed from a pagan way of life. For many of them, various spirits, angels and demons still inhabited their worldview. Though Paul does not believe idols speak, some former pagans have not yet shaken off demonic whisperings — the idea that Jesus is cursed because he was executed as a criminal (verse 3). It is only through the Spirit of God that anyone can say “Jesus is Lord” — the upside-down idea that the crucified Jesus is now Lord rather than the Lord Caesar.

Then Paul describes the kinds of spiritual gifts (charisma) that should be operating within an assembly where God’s Spirit dwells. Though there are many gifts, they all are inspired by the same Spirit, the same Lord Jesus, the same God, and all are “for the common good.”

Paul stresses unity in the Spirit for the common good because this was rarely happening in the Corinthian assemblies. They were deeply divided along lines of social class: wealthy and educated patrons, poor manual laborers and slaves with no human rights. The elite patrons expected to exercise more spiritual power because they helped support the church financially and thus thought they were more important. But Paul insists that each receives these abilities as gifts entirely as the Spirit chooses.

Our churches today are far more homogenous by class, race and education. Even so, how many of these gifts of the Spirit in 12:7-11 are visible in your congregation?

For the rest of 1 Corinthians 12, Paul continues promoting unity and equality in the church, although the activities and gifts are diverse. In verses 12-31, he uses the image of the human body as an example of how each part has a distinct and necessary role, yet each has equal value to the body as a whole.

Comparing the physical body to social structures was not original with Paul. Greco-Romans also saw the body as a metaphor for organizing human society. But to them, the body represented a hierarchy of honor, with the head having the most honor and the feet the least. This made for social stability. When lower classes would protest and demand more rights from the aristocracy, leaders would use the body metaphor to stress that all parts of the civic body must perform their proper roles — and stay in their place.

But Paul makes the opposite point. In fact, in verses 22-26, he reverses ordinary observation by saying that the hidden or “less respectable” parts of the body are just as important as the parts that are considered more honorable.

Questions to discuss:

1. When Paul lists apostles, prophets, teachers, in verse 28, is he contradicting himself by speaking hierarchically — or just chronologically, in the order roles develop in the growth of a house church?

2. Which image of the body does your congregation imitate? Do you have a hierarchy of roles? Do men tend to have more visible, “honorable” roles than women? Who teaches the children or cares for babies in the nursery? Who makes coffee in the kitchen or cleans the sanctuary? Are there hierarchies by ethnicity, race or level of education?

3. Can Paul’s ideal of equal value and honor realistically be practiced in congregations?

Reta Halteman Finger is co-author of Creating a Scene in Corinth (Herald Press, 2014), a simulation of 1 Corinthians that can be read individually or used by Sunday school classes and small groups.

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