Agonizomai: 1Cor 12:27-31 - Order and Unity

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

1Cor 12:27-31 - Order and Unity

27-31 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? 31 But earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.

Though all are members of the same body and are unified in the Spirit under the headship of Christ - all this being true, yet there is still an order by which God administers His graces within the church. We are temporal and mutable beings. We must grow in grace and we must learn Christ. This necessarily means that so long as God uses members of the church to minister to other members by means of unique spiritual gifts, then some must communicate truth and doctrine to others.

And since the knowledge of God is through His Word, by His Spirit, God has provided in all ages and circumstances spiritually gifted people through whom a deeper understanding of what God has said in His Word is disseminated to the church as a whole. This does not mean that the teachers and preachers themselves are of any more value than those who serve in less visible ways. But they have more responsibility and will therefore be held more accountable.

A person who stumbles in administration or helping surely creates problems - and it is no small matter when that stumbling comes through carelessness or thoughtlessness - or even willful ignorance; others can be adversely affected. But a person who is charged with teaching and preaching the truth to others can have a far wider, longer and deeper impact upon hearers for good or for evil. To be careless, thoughtless or willfully ignorant as a pastor/teacher is to corrupt the truth of the gospel and by that means to introduce corruption into the church. Corruption can come to a body by starvation or by poison - but both are debilitating and both can be deadly.

So, while all are equal in the body of Christ, not all are equally charged with responsibility. Some bear more than others. Some are placed in what the world might think of as positions of authority or power or influence - but to God and to the saint all positions are positions of service. Service to God and church for Christ’s sake and service to God and the church as vessels of the fruit of Christ’s labours.

Because there is order in the church, God is able to say through Paul that He has appointed first, second, third...and so on. It’s not a matter of time, but of order - and in this particular context, Paul is at great pains to emphasize this because he wants to underscore the relative unimportance of the showy gift of speaking in tongues and their interpretation. And where does he place them? Dead last!

And not only are they dead last but it is made crystal clear that they are not gifts that are given to everyone - but only to some, as the Holy Spirit wills. This puts a dagger in the hearts of all those purveyors of false doctrine (including the early, and some still extant Pentecostals) that claim that speaking in tongues is a necessary sign of salvation. Such teaching is nothing less than re-introducing the circumcision claims in a way that is bloodless and virtually unverifiable.

It is especially helpful to read Paul’s questions in this way - "All aren’t Apostles, are they?" And "All don’t speak in tongues, do they?" As such they are rhetorical questions that answer themselves.

But tongue-speaking and its attendant misbeliefs can be far more subtle than simply a false and easy-to-disprove-from-scripture claim that is added to the gospel. In its more subtle variations it is a repository for spiritual pride, imitation, falsification, deception, judgment and dissent. Let it not be forgotten that true Biblical tongues is speaking in an earthly language that was never learned by the speaker, given by the Holy Spirit in order to communicate the truth to people whose language it actually was. It was supernatural yes - but it was not irrational, unfalsifiable or for careless or indiscriminate use. Self-control was not only possible, but it was mandatory in the use of this, as with all other gifts.

Rather than try to separate that which was false and imitation from that which was true in tongue-speaking, Paul simply laid down the parameters by which the tongues related gifts were to be used in the church body. That way, the true gift would be used responsibly and the imitation (if present) would be restrained. Very elegant.

In exhorting the Corinthians to "earnestly desire the higher gifts" Paul is actually saying that some gifts are higher than others. The highest gifts (note, it is the gifts that are higher, not the recipients of the gift - because they are gifts to the church and not to the individuals themselves) - the highest gifts are preaching and teaching, as stated elsewhere. {1Co 14:1,1Ti 5:17} These are not obviously supernatural. They are not miraculous and showy. They are not short-term, visible signs for unbelievers. No - they are gifts requiring the unglamorous application of the mind and effort in study, and the faithful exposition of the Word of God to His people. They require a devotion and a willingness that sails a straight course regardless of the circumstances and the reception or opposition of the hearers. They require a willingness to be opposed and despised within the church, if necessary for the sake of Christ and His gospel. They bring a heavy onus to the person so gifted because God puts such a premium upon His Word. How big a premium? What does God say? "...for thou hast magnified thy word above all thy name." {AV Ps 138:2}

Aside: {Now, I realize that David is speaking of God’s faithfulness in keeping His promise(s) and that other versions (the ESV, for example) speak of exalting His Name and His word, but there is still application here. The ultimate promise of God, the One upon and for Whom and in Whom all other promises were made and kept is the Living Word, Who has been given a Name above all names. And this Living Word is now communicated to us by the Spirit in the written Word. Communicating Christ, Who is the fulfillment of all promises, from the Word of God is the most choice and sacred calling and gift of God to his church.}

In the face of the Corinthian fascination with showy but minor gifts, Paul is focused on getting their attention fixed upon the Word and the gospel it contains. To know Christ better they must know the Word, because this is how God has chosen to communicate wisdom to His people - and the Holy Spirit has been sent for the purpose of revealing Jesus Christ. He does not do this apart from the Word of Truth. Rather than having a bunch of children fascinated with bright and noisy toys, he desires that they grow and mature by actually learning Christ.

Wherefore, he exhorts them to earnestly desire the higher gifts (preaching and teaching) as opposed to the more showy gifts, many of which were kick-starters for the church and self-evidently abated after the Apostolic age. What will sustain the church for daily living in all generations is not miracles, future-telling or the use of unlearned languages, but being continually steeped in the Word.

Are they to desire the higher gifts for themselves or for the church? By this I mean to ask if they are to want the higher gifts for their own selves, or to want that God would grant them to the church in no matter whom? You see, if we are looking for the right thing we shall be grateful no matter where it shows up. It’s not, after all, about us but about God and His church.

While we are desiring the higher gifts to be manifested in the church through the gifting of the Holy Spirit there may be still one thing lacking, as there was in the Corinthians’ behaviour. And Paul is about to tell us what that actually is.


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