1 Corinthians Week 9

Called to … Do Our Part: 1 Corinthians 12.1–14.38

By Robert Drovdahl

Seattle Pacific University Professor of Educational Ministry

Read this week’s Scripture: 1 Corinthians 12:1-14:38


Week 9
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The Corinthians are back at it again — turning differences in the church into divisions and status symbols of importance. In the letter’s opening section, some claimed, “We are better because we belong to Apollos … or Paul … or Cephas.” (1:10–17). In 8:1–10:31, some claimed, “We are better because we know that idols are not real … that food doesn’t bring us close to God … that all things are lawful.” In this week’s Lectio passage, some Corinthians seem to claim, “We are better because … we speak in the tongues of angels.”

In response, Paul goes back at it again, emphasizing the importance of interdependency (see 3:5–15), love (see 8:1–13), and sacrificing for others’ sake (see 9:1–27).

This week’s passage begins with the familiar phrase, “Now concerning ….” Recall that this phrase typically introduces a topical question the Corinthians asked Paul about. Perhaps the question was something like, “Is speaking in tongues a mark of a believer’s spiritual maturity?”

Paul’s answer moves from general teaching about spiritual gifts (12:1–31) to specific instructions about two spiritual gifts: prophesying and speaking in tongues (14:1–40). Paul sandwiches his well-known exposition on love between these two chapters (13:1–13).

To mix it up a little, our look at this week’s passage will be a rear-view-mirror perspective. We will follow Paul’s argument in reverse — from his conclusion to his starting point.

The Conclusion: Orderly Worship With Priority Given to Prophesying

Chapter 14 contains Paul’s practical advice to the Corinthians. He sums this up in the chapter’s last sentence: “So my friends, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues; but all things should be done decently and in order” (14:40). The basis for this two-part summary is developed in 14:1–25 and 14:26–39.

All things done decently and in order (14:26–39)

A long-standing joke claims this verse proves Paul’s preference for Presbyterian worship. While perhaps a humorous take on the phrase, it is no joke that Paul wants Corinthian worship services to be more orderly than they evidently were. To this end, Paul gives very specific directions for worship practices. They include:

  • Worship should include hymns, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation (14:26). These elements can come from any and all worshipers.
  • If tongues are spoken, there should be a limit on how many (at most three); someone must provide an interpretation; and the speakers should take turns (14:27).
  • If prophecies are given, there should also be a limit (at most three), and hearers should weigh [see Author’s Note 1] whether the prophecy is from God (14:29, 31–32).
  • If a revelation is given, it should be done in an orderly manner (14:30).
  • If speaking by wives is disruptive to the service, the disruption should be stopped [see Author’s Note 2] (14:34–35).

This section gives us our best picture of worship in early Christian congregations. We see an emphasis on participation, ordered expression of spiritual gifts, and a building up of the body.

Be eager to prophesy; don’t forbid speaking in tongues (14:1–25)

When it comes to preferences, Paul makes it clear that, of the varieties of “speech” that take place in communal worship services, prophecy is preferable to speaking in tongues. What are these forms of speaking and why is prophecy preferred? Prophecy seems to be speech that aims to encourage and educate (14:3, 24, 31). The best contemporary equivalent may be preaching, testifying, or sharing a word received from God for the congregation. Speaking in tongues seems to be speech addressed to God and uttered in a language unknown to both the speaker and the hearers.

Paul’s preference for prophecy is based on three basic arguments:

  • Since prophecies are spoken in a familiar language, prophetic speech has the potential to build up the congregation. Speaking in tongues can build up only the person speaking, since, without accompanying interpretation, this speech is unintelligible to the congregation (14:4–12).
  • Speaking in tongues engages the spirit, but not the mind. Prophesying engages the spirit and the mind. In making this point, Paul acknowledges that he does speak in tongues, but he sees its value in the believer’s life outside communal gatherings (14:13–19).
  • Prophecy has the potential of reaching unbelievers attending worship services. Speaking in tongues would likely be perceived by outsiders as “bizarre [see Author’s Note 3].” Only prophecy has the chance of winning unbelievers to God and convincing them that “God is really among you” (14:20–25).

The clear outcome Paul seeks in worship is building up the members. Six times in this chapter Paul has highlighted this principle, summed up nicely in 14:26, “Let all things be done for building up.” Now let’s continue our backwards journey to see the motivating power Paul identifies that will help the Corinthians keep this command — the power of love.

All You Need Is Love? (13:1–13)

Unfortunately (perhaps), Paul’s high-water tribute to love has been hijacked by the wedding industry. While this “love chapter” provides a fine and meaningful description of love in the context of marriage, its original function was to remind the Corinthians that “love builds up the church” (8:1).

For Paul, love is not some abstract concept we bring to romance (the wedding connection). It is not the solution to difficult situations (Joseph Fletcher’s famous ethical question, “What’s the loving thing to do?” comes to mind). Neither is it “all we need” (apologies to John Lennon). For Paul, love is the concrete, orienting motivation that explains why prophecy is preferable to speaking in tongues and why order is preferable to chaos in communal worship services.

Paul’s description of love needs to be read more than commented on, and it needs to be practiced most of all! The only interpretative debate around this section centers on the meaning of 13:10, “but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.”

Some argue that “the complete” refers to the Christian Bible, and “the partial” refers to spiritual gifts. This interpretation is typically used to argue that spiritual gifts “came to an end” when the New Testament canon was completed. This interpretation is simply too strained to be credible.

The end Paul has in mind “when the complete comes” is seeing God face to face (13:12). We will see God face to face when Jesus comes in glory and the dead in Christ are raised (15:22). Until that day, all knowledge of God is partial, including knowledge that comes through prophecy, speaking in tongues with interpretation, revelation, and, yes, even knowledge that comes through the Bible.

Spiritual Gifts in Congregational Life (12:1–31)

We finish our rear-view mirror perspective by examining Paul’s starting point for addressing the Corinthian believers’ preference for speaking in tongues. Paul begins by emphasizing three corrective truths about spiritual gifts that temper the Corinthians’ enthusiasm for speaking in tongues. Here are the three truths Paul teaches:

  • It is the content and results of spiritual experiences that matter more than the experience itself (12:1–3).
  • All spiritual gifts come from God and are distributed by God’s gracious choice, not based on our merit or wishes (12:4–11).
  • All spiritual gifts are essential to the healthy functioning of a congregation (12:12–31).

In 12:1–3, Paul addresses the belief that speaking in tongues was a sign of superiority, since it meant the speaker was completely possessed by the Holy Spirit. Paul reminds the Corinthians that pagan worship also included experiences of complete possession by a spirit. It is not the degree of possession in an experience that measures a person’s spiritual life, but the content and results of the experience.

In 12:4–11, Paul identifies nine spiritual gifts: utterances of wisdom, utterances of knowledge, faith, gifts of healing, working of miracles, prophecy, discernment of spirits, tongues, and interpretation of tongues. Paul’s point is not to provide a clearly articulated list of spiritual gifts [see Author’s Note 4], but to remind the Corinthians that spiritual gifts are distributed by the Spirit’s choice to whom the Spirit wishes (12:11); the same Spirit is the source of every gift (12:4–6); and the purpose of spiritual gifts is for the common good (12:7).

In 12:12–31, Paul provides an extended analogy to emphasize the value of each person’s gift. Just as the body had many parts and each part is essential, so the body of Christ has many parts and each part is essential. To further his analogy, Paul notes that even parts of the physical body which may be considered less honorable (most likely sex organs) we actually show greater honor by dressing (covering) them up! In the same way God wants greater honor shown to church members who might be considered “inferior” by others (12:23–25).

If the Corinthian believers think of spiritual gifts in these ways and exercise their spiritual gifts in love, no room will be found for spiritual superiority or pride. Instead, they will excel in their spiritual gifts and thereby build up the church (14:12).

Questions for Further Reflection

  1. In what ways do you see the Holy Spirit at work in your local congregation?
  2. What forms of spiritual pride and superiority are most tempting to Christians today?
  3. How has the Spirit gifted you for service in the body of Christ?
  4. Worship practices are a major concern in this letter. In what ways do the worship practices of your church build up the church? Build you up?

Author’s Notes

Author’s Note 1

The Greek word is diakrino. It means to discriminate or decide. Paul clearly does not want believers to simply accept a prophetic word as coming from God, no questions asked. Believers are to test a prophet’s words, remembering that God is a God of peace (14:32).


Author’s Note 2

Interpreters have long puzzled over this particular directive. It seems impossible to take as a “blanket statement” about women’s participation in services, since barely two chapters earlier Paul mentions women who pray and prophesy in services (11:5). If it can’t be taken at “face value” because it contradicts Paul’s express statements and practices regarding women’s contribution to worship services, how can it be understood? Scholars have been all over the map on this question. Most see some kind of “qualification” behind the directive. Given the instruction to ask their husbands at home if there was something they want to know (14:35), perhaps the instruction concerned married women whose conversations (conflicts?) with their husbands were disrupting the service.


Author’s Note 3

Paul seemingly states the opposite idea in 14:22, where he says that prophecy is for believers; speaking in tongues is for unbelievers. This conclusion follows a quote from Isaiah 28, where hearing an unintelligible language (Israel’s foreign conquerors) is a sign of Israel’s unbelief. If unintelligible speech confirms unbelief (my sense of 14:22), the Corinthians should not be surprised that unbelievers will not respond well to speaking in tongues (14:23).


Author’s Note 4

A long-standing question about spiritual gifts is whether the four lists of gifts found in the New Testament (Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4, and I Peter 4) should be considered a complete list or an illustrative list. Given wide variability and significant overlap (aren’t healings a type of miracle?), we should probably see the gifts mentioned as illustrating the way in which the Holy Spirit empowers believers to serve one another in congregational life.



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