There is, and probably always will be, a great deal of interest in spiritual gifts in the church. That in itself is a good thing, for it is by God’s design that the Holy Spirit should work in and through his people. Yet the story of the church in Corinth supplies us with a cautionary tale: it’s possible to want the right things for the wrong reasons, to make spiritual gifting all about us instead of God.
In chapter 12 of 1 Corinthians, Paul turns to address a question that was apparently raised by the Corinthians in an earlier letter they wrote to him. Remember the social context: this is a church in which there had already been strong manifestations of the Spirit (e.g., 1 Cor 1:4-7). But this is also a church divided by pride and the clueless habits of social class.
It doesn’t take much imagination to guess at the problem Paul had to address with them. Spiritual gifts had become a matter of pride, another way for believers to rank themselves above or below one another.
Paul must begin with general principles, pointing them back to the basis of their unity. He writes:
There are different spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; and there are different ministries and the same Lord; and there are different activities but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. A demonstration of the Spirit is given to each person for the common good. (1 Cor 12:4-7, CEB)
The parallelism is unmistakable: Paul makes his point by saying similar things three times. There are different gifts, ministries, and activities—but despite this diversity, there is but one Spirit, one Lord, one God. “Lord” here refers to Jesus, as he has just mentioned in vs. 3: “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.”
It would probably be pushing too hard to make of this an attempt by Paul to teach a doctrine of the Trinity, even if at this stage he has at least an implicitly trinitarian understanding of God. But his more direct practical and pastoral point is clear: There may be a diversity of gifts, but they all derive from the same source. There is no division in God—why should there be division among you?
The problem in Corinth, it would seem, is that the gifts had become things-in-themselves, like private possessions to be proudly put on display. The gifts had become separated from the Giver; the people took pride in their God-given charismata (gifts) but lost sight of the charis (grace) that was the ground and substance of each.
Paul is trying to flip their understanding: the life and unity of the church depend on a deep appreciation of the charis in the charismata, the grace of the Giver in the gift. In the next post, I’ll suggest another (and possibly much stranger!) metaphor to help make the point.