Unity, diversity, unity, diversity: when Paul teaches the Corinthians about spiritual gifts and the church, he weaves back and forth between the unity of believers in Christ and the diversity of their gifts. As 1 Corinthians 12 wraps up, we find Paul emphasizing again the variety of gifts in the church:
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way. (1 Cor 12:27-31, NRSV)
Paul has already made the point metaphorically by insisting that a body cannot be only an eye or an ear and still be a body (vss. 14-19). It’s not clear why he had to say this; it may well be that some of the Corinthians were troubled by a mistaken belief that the spiritual gifts that really mattered came in one flavor only. There must be diversity in a body — but there must also be unity. Some members of the church, apparently, thought of others as weaker or inferior (vss. 21-26), and this attitude could not be left to stand.
It’s surprising, then, that Paul ends the chapter in a way that seems first to suggest a hierarchy of gifts, and second, to encourage the congregation to chase the “greater” ones. If, as both this and earlier chapters suggest, spiritual arrogance was a problem in Corinth, wouldn’t this feed it?
As we’ll see in later posts, we need to recognize that Paul does in fact believe that some gifts are greater than others, particularly prophecy. But it also seems clear that to some extent he elevates prophecy to argue its superiority to speaking in tongues, which was probably a cause for concern in the church. Prophecy is the greater gift, in Paul’s eyes, because it better served the purpose of building up the fellowship (1 Cor 14:12).
In other words, any reading of 1 Corinthians 12 that steers people away from the edification of the body is misdirected. There are other reasons why Paul would enumerate gifts (positions, really) and call them first, second, and third. Think back to his metaphor of the church as a building (4:10-17). As an apostle and the Corinthians’ founding pastor, Paul thought of himself as laying a gospel foundation upon which others would build. Where the establishment and edification of the church are concerned, apostles are logically first; prophets and teachers then build on the foundation the apostles have laid.
Nor must we suppose that the order of the other gifts implies a hierarchy. Paul has different lists of spiritual gifts; the lists overlap to some degree, and when they do, the items they share in common aren’t always presented in the same order. If there is a logic to the way he orders the items here, it’s to put speaking in tongues and interpretation last — because these are the issue at hand, which he will get to in chapter 14.
First, however, he must show them the “more excellent way.” To strive for particular spiritual gifts for reasons of personal pride or superiority, or even just to feel like one belongs, makes for bad theology and a divisive church. To desire particular gifts out of a concern for the health of the congregation is better.
But getting from good to great requires immersing ourselves in chapter 13 and learning the way of love.