If you see a little of the influence of Barna and Viola’s Pagan Christianity here, you’re not imaging things. I find myself agreeing with them more the more I read, and the part of 1 Corinthians (chapters 11-14) I’m presently studying just coincidentally (yeah.) happens to be one of the passages they rely on heavily to make their case for a fellowship in which all believers are full participants. So, with that product warning, let’s look at 1 Corinthians 12:12-31.
The body of Christ, like our physical bodies, has many parts. This is one of many metaphors used in the Scriptures for the church–that is the sum total of people who believe that God raised Jesus from the dead and who have truly confessed Him as their Lord.
Whether we are rich or poor, retired or unemployed, clergy or laity, white, black, red, yellow, or a combination, Hispanic, Germanic, Jewish, Polynesian, Native American, plain-ol’ American or Martian, we are all a part of the one body. No one is more valuable or less valuable than anyone else in the body of Christ.
How many churches have one or a handful of active members? The pastor, maybe the song leader (who might also be the pastor), a few Sunday school teachers. Everyone else is a spectator, and everyone except the pastor and music team is a spectator during the worship service. The majority of the congregation is not involved except as passive recipients, beyond perhaps attempting to answer the odd question in Sunday school.
Which is it more prestigious to be? A foot or a hand? An ear or an eye? If your part in the body seems less prominent or attractive, that doesn’t make you less necessary. All members of the body are needed. Imagine doing without your feet or your ears. Even for those of us whose ears don’t work as well as they once did, we treasure them. Wouldn’t we look odd without them? And how would we wear our glasses? If you or I consider ourselves to be less necessary and therefore don’t use the ministry gifts God has given us, we cripple the whole body. We are needed.
As far as sensory organs are concerned, the eye takes prominence in the human body. Next would probably be the ear. Smell (and taste and touch) run a distant third, but we still relate strongly to them. So the whole body isn’t an eye–we need and use all of our senses, and the body of Christ, the church, is no different. If we must rely on the giftings on one or a handful of persons while all others are silent, we are severely handicapped.
Paul has exhorted the “lesser” parts of the body not to feel inferior or neglect to offer their gifts. Now he reminds the more prominent parts of the body not to forget their need for the hands or the feet or even the seemingly “weaker” parts of the body.
I’ve spent a lot of thought and prayer trying to figure out what Paul meant by the “less honorable” or “unpresentable” parts which need to be treated with greater modesty. My commentaries say this means the entrails, and though this wasn’t exactly my first thought on the matter, it doesn’t help in any case. I don’t know whether the feet and the hands and the ears and the eyes refer to any specific ministry gifts, but the “unpresentable” parts obviously refer to people who need some sort of protection from being openly seen as they are or as they appear to be.
One commentator suggested this may refer to brothers or sisters who have fallen into some publicly disgraceful sin and have repented and are being restored. This could be, but I don’t see that this would correlate with the body parts we typically feel the need to cover, let alone the body parts that would have been covered by the Corinthian Christians (they covered most everything in those days). While it might be shameful to display these parts, that’s not because the parts have somehow done something wrong that needs to be kept from prying eyes.
I wonder if this doesn’t refer to those “irregular” people who are present everywhere in small numbers, and mildly embarrassing because of their social disabilities. If, out of love, we cover for one another and particularly for those socially inept though well-meaning members, wouldn’t this correlate? They are needed because of a wide range of reasons . . . First, Christ died for them and loves them. Second, they too, carry a part of the image of God. Third, they help us to learn to respect everyone, and to learn from and love all our brothers and sisters, even those who seem different or odd.
Or Paul might be referring to the bumbling new believer who has a great abundance of enthusiasm but is still fleshly and lacking in knowledge and humility and love and all those things Jesus develops in us as we walk with Him. Would it not please our Lord that we cover for these new little siblings? Yet they, too, have a wealth of things to teach us. What loving and responsible parent has not learned volumes from his or her children?
Perhaps Paul is talking about that needy member of the body who always seems to have a disaster in her life . . . medical, marital, parental, financial . . . you name it. This person is always in the midst of an emergency. Nevertheless, God does expect us to take care of her–she’s our sister. We’re not sure why all these things seem to follow her around, but she doesn’t need to be scrutinized by the world, so we cover her.
Whoever these people may be, we’re to treat them with love and extra care. In this way, every member of the body has equal respect . . . whether it’s the respect of people who recognize and value giftings and service to the body or the respect of caring for a needy sibling.
We are to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn. If one member is honored, we, the loving family, are not envious but overjoyed. If one member suffers, we are not annoyed, but we truly suffer with him. Think about the last time you had an infected toenail. Did your whole body not suffer with it? But where was the pain? Only in one small part. We need to care for one another well because we are all one in our Lord.
Here we have another list of gifts, different from the list in verses 8-10, though overlapping in some places. These are not offices to which we might appoint people we deem called of God or competent or deserving. These are functioning parts of the body who are what they are because God has made them so.
As far as gifts of the Spirit, Paul consistently lists “tongues” or “languages” last. I don’t know whether he lists it last because it is the least of gifts or because the Corinthians so highly valued it. As is often the case today, that which was least beneficial to the body was also the thing everyone wanted. The gift of speaking in unknown languages is a good gift and a useful gift, though it’s not the best gift. God doesn’t give bad gifts. The problem is, I think, that we have so highly valued it that we have exalted it above all other spiritual gifts. As a result, it is frequently the only gift we’re able to receive.
Paul asks, “Does everyone have every gift?” Today we might add, and does anyone have all the gifts to enable him to carry on all the ministry of the body whilst everyone else sits in pews saying nothing and trying to keep their minds from wandering? His point . . . we have differing gifts. None of us has it all. We need one another, and we needn’t fret because we don’t have this or that coveted gift–we each have the gifts God has chosen for us. Nevertheless, we can desire and pray for the best gifts, as we’ll see in verse 31.
Charismatics will tell you that the gift of a personal prayer language is evidence of the infilling of the Holy Spirit. Here, Paul asks, “Do all speak with tongues?”, with the implied answer being, “No.” However, he follows the question with another: “Do all interpret?” I believe that the Charismatics are right in saying that this question refers to the public gift, not the private gift of tongues and that everyone can, indeed, have his or her own prayer language. However, I do not believe that this gift is either evidence of the infilling of the Holy Spirit or that the lack of it is evidence of not being filled. All believers are filled with the Spirit and though Scripture does give some support for a “second blessing,” I don’t think the gift of tongues is required evidence of having received that additional infilling.
We don’t all possess all the gifts, nor does any one person possess all the gifts. We need each other. That’s the way God designed the church to operate. What I lack, you supply and what you lack, another supplies. Only together do we see a complete picture of our Lord.
Some use this verse to negate all that Paul has just said about the spiritual gifts. “I show you a more excellent way.” Does this mean we no longer need the spiritual gifts? Let’s think of this more excellent way as the foundation to a house. If you have the foundation, do you cease to require walls and a roof? Will you be satisfied without electricity or water? Not in this country. “A more excellent way” does not mean we don’t need the gifts or that the gifts aren’t worth having. It just means they’re not worth having alone. What good are walls without a foundation? Not much, and not for long.
The more excellent way does not cancel all that Paul has written of spiritual giftings. If it does, why did Paul waste his time going through all this? How much simpler to have said, “Oh you don’t need all that. Forget about it. Come here–I’ll show you the good stuff.”
Rather, I hear him saying, “Yes this is good–and you should go for the very best of the gifts.” What are the best gifts? I’ve heard it said that the best gifts are the ones needed at the moment, and I think that’s a great definition. I doubt Paul would disagree with it, but I think perhaps what he had in mind were prophecy and teaching and gifts that do the most to build the body.
All this, and there’s something even better! And Paul’s going to tell us about it . . . next time.
Grace and peace,