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The Holy Spirit and Body Building: A Study of 1 Corinthians 12–14

By James Richardson

People frequently ask, “What place should the gifts of the Spirit have in public worship?” Within a few years of the Holy Spirit’s outpouring in Acts 2, the apostle Paul addressed this issue in 1 Corinthians 12–14. In the midst of today’s confusion and controversy, many Christians fail to recognize the underlying truth Paul conveyed to the Corinthian church (and to us as well). The Holy Spirit’s ultimate desire is for the body of Christ to be edified individually and corporately. Paul is promoting Christian “Body building.”

The church at Corinth represented a typical congregation. While the church demonstrated spiritual strengths, it had leadership issues and some serious personal and spiritual problems and questions. There were differing levels of spiritual maturity among its members, along with dissension caused by differing loyalties to spiritual leaders. There was constant tension between the church’s lifestyle and that of the surrounding society and culture. And there were serious questions about cardinal doctrines and practices. Paul addresses many of these elements in 1 Corinthians. He also details his views as an apostle of Jesus Christ on the role of the Holy Spirit in the church. In chapters 12–14, Paul focuses on the work of the Holy Spirit in public worship, particularly with regard to the operation of the gifts of the Spirit.

Paul follows a measured, logic-based outline in writing to the Corinthian church. He presents the doctrinal and theological foundations for his comments in chapter 12, concluding with a snapshot of the situation in Corinth (and in all churches to some degree). In chapter 13, he explains a critical weakness in the Corinthians’ understanding with regard to the operation of the gifts of the Spirit. Here Paul emphasizes the necessity for love (as the fruit of the Spirit) to be the guiding force behind the operation of spiritual gifts. Finally, he addresses specific questions and problems in the Corinthian church’s worship service (chapter 14), concluding with his summary and instructions to the church.

Chapter 12: Doctrinal, Theological, and Symbolic Foundations

In his typical style, Paul begins by commending the Corinthians for where they are spiritually. He acknowledges their spiritual consciousness (verses 1–3), with added instruction on how to distinguish between manifestations of God’s Spirit and those of evil spirits. He follows with a theological declaration showing how all three members of the Trinity are active in the church (verses 4–6).

Verses 4–6 contain the familiar classifications of gifts, services (or ministries), and workings (or operations) that correlate with other listings of spiritual gifts and ministries in the New Testament. If the reader, however, focuses only on these categories, he will miss a key theological truth. Paul associates gifts with the Spirit, while he connects services with the Lord Jesus Christ. Finally, he links workings to God the Father. The entire Trinity is active in the Church Age, just as they have been since creation.

In different periods of history, a different member of the Godhead has the predominance. During the Old Testament, God the Father is the One most visible; the Lord Jesus Christ is during the Gospels. Since the first chapter of Acts, the Holy Spirit is the most visible member of the Trinity in the life of the Church, but all three are equally active. Paul declares this truth before he turns to the critical spiritual issues facing the Corinthian church.

In 12:7–11, Paul presents the traditional listing of the gifts of the Spirit. While other gift and ministry lists appear in the New Testament, these nine receive precedence here. Interestingly, the key principle Paul is teaching is found in verse 7. The ultimate purpose for the manifestation of the Spirit is “for the common good” (emphasis added). The nine gifts of the Spirit are not intended for personal use or benefit; God gives them so the entire Body may grow. Thus, the ultimate goal of all Holy Spirit ministries in the public meetings of the church is to build up the Body. This theme appears again and again in these chapters.

The second key insight is found in verse 11. Since these nine gifts are specific works by the Holy Spirit, Paul declares that He (the Spirit) decides which gifts will be utilized and by whom. This is not the prerogative of the individual believer or even of the church. Only the Holy Spirit has this right. Paul must lay this foundation because some believers were acting otherwise, clearly ignoring the Body concept of the church.

In 12:12–27, Paul explores this Body concept in detail. He begins with a clear declaration of his premise: “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So is it with Christ” (verse 12). Before explaining this truth, Paul speaks of the Spirit baptizing us into Christ and then of our being given the Spirit to drink. The baptism into Christ refers to salvation; the Spirit is the one who convicts and draws us to Christ. Here, the Spirit is the Baptizer. Paul then refers to the Church being given the Spirit to drink. Here, speaking of the believer being baptized into the Spirit, God the Father is the Baptizer (“what my Father has promised”; “the gift my Father promised,” Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4).

Paul addresses the self-righteous attitudes of some of the Corinthian believers in 1 Corinthians 12:14–24. These members believed they were more important, and therefore worthy of more honor, since the more prominent gifts of the Spirit were manifested through them in public worship. This is the same attitude seen in chapter 11, relating to problems and errors in the Lord’s Supper. To correct this misperception, Paul mentions different human body parts, declaring that no single part of the human body is more important than any other. In the same way, no individual in the church is any more valuable than anyone else. In both cases, each and every respective part is critical for the body to function properly. Paul repeats the cardinal truth he established in verse 11 two times (verses 18,24); namely, that in the body of Christ, just as in the giving of the gifts, God decides what part or gift goes where. In fact, God gives greater honor to the body parts (members) that seem to be less honorable (verse 24).

Paul summarizes his Body analogy with the declaration that since we are all one interrelated body, we should care for each other, recognizing that what affects one member affects all others (verses 25,26). Then, in typical Pauline fashion, he summarizes his arguments, “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (verse 27).

Immediately building on this declaration, Paul reminds the Corinthians of God’s organizational chart for the Church. He identifies eight distinct groups; i.e., apostles, prophets, teachers, workers of miracles, those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administrations, and those speaking in tongues. In this immediate context, it is clear that speaking in tongues describes those who minister in the gift of tongues. Paul is not referring to the initial evidence of the baptism in the Holy Spirit or to the private worship of a believer. This becomes clearer in his questions in verse 29,30 where he adds “interpret” to the list.

By comparing 1 Corinthians 12 with Ephesians 4 and Romans 12, we discover that Paul is not simply naming the gifts of the Spirit. He is listing some of the ministry gifts that are present and operating in the Church. While Paul does not list pastors here, it is apparent from his use of teacher in the remainder of his writings that he considers pastor-teacher to be a single ministry gift, as the Greek structure of the passage in Ephesians 4 implies. Thus, Paul is presenting God’s organizational design for the Body, the Church.

Paul concludes his doctrinal and theological background to the problem at Corinth. He emphasizes again that not everyone has the same function in the Body (verses 29,30). He lists the same gifts from verse 28, but asks rhetorically if everyone in the church demonstrates every gift. The obvious answer to each question is no. Paul then adds an interesting statement in verse 31.

Almost every Bible translation presents verse 31 as a command, implying that Paul is ordering the Corinthians to desire the “greater gifts.” However, this interpretation goes against Paul’s overall tone. The specific form of the Greek verb translated “desire” can be a command or imperative, but it can also be a simple declarative statement. Paul has been teaching how God has placed the gifts and ministries in the Church. In verse 31, he is giving the Corinthians a mild reprimand for the fact they are “desiring” the more prominent gifts, possibly ignoring the less obvious ones. Paul is scolding the church for not modeling God’s intention. Translating this sentence as a simple statement, not a command, is more logical as Paul transitions to his discussion of “the most excellent way” in chapter 13.

Chapter 13: “The Most Excellent Way”

Some people question why Paul inserts the love chapter in the middle of his discussion of spiritual gifts. However, there is no more appropriate place for it.

The “most excellent way” is not just “love.” It is the entire fruit of the Spirit. Comparing the structure of 1 Corinthians 12–14 with that of Galatians 5 shows some strong parallels. Paul wrote both passages to Christians who are filled and gifted by the Holy Spirit. In both passages, Paul is warning the church to move forward in their life in the Spirit, turning their backs on the evil practices of their past. Finally, in both cases, Paul makes the same appeal — seek to excel in the fruit of the Spirit. This is the key to the successful and blessed life in the Spirit.

In 1 Corinthians 13 is saying: Without the fruit of the Spirit being manifested in the believer’s life, the gifts of the Spirit are meaningless. This does not mean that nothing good occurs when only the gifts are manifested, but it does mean that it hinders or restricts the level of personal and corporate edification. This closely parallels what Paul had said in 1 Corinthians 3:10–15 about Christians standing before the judgment seat (Bema) of Christ. At that time, He will test their works and reveal their true motivations. At that time, “I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (13:12).

On the night before His crucifixion, Jesus told the Twelve that people would recognize His followers by their fruit, not by their signs, miracles, teachings, or gifts. Paul builds his “most excellent way” on this principle. He uses “love” as the collective representation of all of the fruit of the Spirit. He declares the emptiness of manifestations of the two prominent gifts of the Spirit (tongues and prophecy) without the accompanying spiritual fruit (13:1,2). Then, in verse 3, Paul explains that even if he were to give away everything to benefit the poor and die a martyr it would not benefit him in any way, unless it was done in love. It is just “hay, wood, or stubble” in God’s sight (1 Corinthians 3:12–15).

To be certain that the Corinthians would not misunderstand love, Paul describes true love (agape) in verses 4–7. This description echoes Paul’s description of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5.

Love

The Fruit of the Spirit

Galatians 5

The Most Excellent Way

1 Corinthians 13

Joy

Rejoices with the truth (v. 6)

Peace

Keeps no record of wrongs (v. 5)

Patience

Patient (v. 4)

Trusts (v. 7)

Hopes (v. 7)

Kindness

Kind (v. 4)

Not rude (v. 5)

Goodness

Not envious (v. 4)

Not self-seeking (v. 5)

Does not delight in evil (v. 6)

Protects (v. 7)

Faithfulness

Perseveres (v. 7)

Never fails (v. 8)

Gentleness

Not boastful (v. 4)

Not proud (v. 4)

Self-control

Not easily angered (v. 5)

While there is no one-to-one correspondence between these two passages, there are several strong common points. This table clearly demonstrates that Paul’s “most excellent way” is for the gifts of the Spirit (charismata) to operate within the context of the fruit of the Spirit. People can manifest the gifts without the fruit, and vice versa. But the proper (“most excellent”) way is for these two dimensions of the Spirit to function together in perfect harmony.

Paul summarizes his “most excellent way” discussion by using one of his favorite literary techniques — comparison and contrast. The core of his argument is in verse 10, “When perfection comes, the imperfect disappears.” In this context, the word translated “perfection” can also be rendered “completeness” or “fullness.” While verses 8 and 9 emphasize the imperfect or incomplete nature of the spiritual gifts, Paul indicates they will continue to operate until “perfection” comes. To illustrate this distinction between imperfection and perfection, Paul contrasts the understanding of a child with that of an adult (verse 11), quickly adding that even his adult level of understanding is imperfect. He is still known “in part,” looking forward to the day when he will be known “as even I am fully known” (verse 12). The question is: When will that happen?

Many have debated what this “perfection” is, as well as when it will come. By comparing these verses with 1 John 3, it is apparent that the imperfect (or partial) will only be replaced by the perfect (or complete) when the Lord returns. Paul is not thinking of the New Testament canon as the “perfect” that is to come. Rather, the gifts of the Spirit will remain in operation until the second coming of Christ. Paul (along with every believer) will only be known “as even I am fully known” (verse 12) at the judgment seat of Christ.

In verse 13, Paul declares the permanence of faith, hope, and love. While faith may refer to the gift of faith, Paul may be alluding to two of the cardinal doctrines of Christianity. If so, faith would refer to the salvation provided by the death of Christ.

Hope, in the New Testament, often refers to the second coming of Christ, the Blessed Hope. From this perspective, Paul looks both to the past (Calvary) and to the future (the Second Coming). He then adds love — the attribute of God that undergirds not only our past and our future, but also our present.

The fruit of the Spirit needs to characterize our Christian life. Since love represents the fruit of the Spirit, Paul is again stressing the “most excellent” way. This theme carries over to chapter 14 where he returns to the specific situation of the Corinthian church.

Chapter 14: The Corinthian Situation

Paul begins chapter 14 by urging the Corinthians to pursue the “way of love” (the “most excellent way”) and to eagerly desire spiritual gifts. In contrast to 12:31, the “eagerly desire” here is clearly imperative. Paul commanded the church to crave for the gifts of the Spirit to operate in their lives. The context makes it clear that these gifts are to be active within the public worship services of the church. Otherwise, he would not have given such detailed guidelines on how the gifts should operate in public worship.

In 14:2–5, Paul describes the Corinthian situation. Their problems related to the gifts of tongues and prophecy. From the beginning of this passage, Paul stresses the overriding principle that gifts of the Spirit are to edify the church. Apparently, some church members being used by the Spirit in the gift of tongues were presenting themselves as super spiritual. While they were being personally blessed and edified, the rest of the church was receiving nothing. This activity was bringing disunity — not edification — to the Body. Paul, however, is careful to affirm the use of the gift of tongues both in private worship, and when accompanied with the gift of interpretation in public worship (verse 5).

Paul gives his rationale on the relative benefits of these gifts in verses 6–13. Speaking in tongues in public worship has little edification value without some accompanying understandable speech (verse 6). After elaborating on this in verses 7–11, he concludes by again focusing attention on the ultimate goal: “Try to excel in gifts that build up the church” (verse 12). Once again, Paul links tongues with interpretation as the appropriate way for these gifts to function in public worship. He never forbids the operation of the gift of tongues in public worship. On the contrary, he does just the opposite. In verse 39, he forbids banning the gift of tongues in public worship. To prevent the abuse of tongues, he provides guidelines for its proper use.

In 14:14–19, Paul describes the operation of tongues in his own life. Since chapter 14 deals with public worship, it is evident Paul is describing the gift of tongues in public, not his private worship in tongues as a prayer language. By using himself as an example, he shows how the Pentecostal believer should utilize the gift of tongues publicly. Again, the ultimate goal is to edify the church body.

Following a final discussion of the effects of tongues and prophecy on unbelievers (verses 20–25), Paul gives guidelines for the proper operation of these gifts in a church service (verses 26–33).

Paul identifies the common elements of a typical worship service in verse 26: hymns, words of instruction, revelations, tongues, and interpretations. While he does not mention prophecy in this list, he deals with it specifically in verses 29–32. From verse 31, we may infer that he includes prophecy among the “revelations” mentioned in verse 26. Regardless, Paul again states the purpose of everything: “the strengthening of the church.”

Paul describes the proper use of the gift of tongues in a public worship service in verse 27. The correct sequence is:

Tongues à Interpretation

Tongues à Interpretation

Tongues à Interpretation.

People have explained Paul’s limitation to three message/interpretation combinations in a church service in various ways. This restriction may be intended to encourage believers to minister through additional spiritual gifts, such as interpretation (verse 28) or prophecy (verse 31). Also, since tongues are a sign for the unbeliever, more than three messages could cause unbelievers to focus on the sign rather than on Christ. For whatever reason, edification and orderly worship are the overriding principles (verses 26,33,40). Paul clarifies this further in verse 28, where he instructs the person being used in the gift of tongues to be silent if there is no interpreter present.

In contrast to the operation of the gift of tongues, Paul places no limit on the number of prophecies that may be given in public worship “So that everyone may be instructed and encouraged” (verse 31). Again, the goal is edification. Even with prophecy, orderly worship is paramount. The responsibility for the appropriate use of the gift is placed on the individual believers giving the prophecies (verses 30,32). Uncontrolled, unregulated utterances in a service are not God’s design (verse 32).

Paul again describes elements of proper public worship in 14:33–38, speaking first to women and then to those exercising spiritual gifts, including prophecy. Much has been written about Paul’s attitude toward women’s participation in church and ministry. Some have used verses 34,35 to prevent women from exercising their God-given gifting. Other have accused Paul of being “anti-women.” However, a careful study of his other writings, notably Romans 16 (with Phoebe, Prisca, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and others), discredits this accusation.

The issue at Corinth is orderliness in worship. Paul explains the required silence of women (verse 34) in verse 35. He is saying, “Do not interrupt the service.” If a lady wants something explained (or anyone else, for that matter), she should wait until she is at home before asking.

In the same spirit, Paul addresses the issue of submission to authority by those exercising spiritual gifts. He directs verses 36–38 to the entire church body. In verse 36, he challenges those who have presented themselves as “spiritual” leaders. He seems to ask, “Who do you think you are?” In response, Paul asserts his authority as an apostle (verses 37,38).

Without hesitation or apology, Paul appeals to the Corinthian believers to accept his teachings as the Lord’s commands and to reject or ignore anyone in the church who disagrees. While this may seem harsh, Paul is responding to the members who were bringing disunity and contention to the church, individuals who were more intent on self-edification than on building up the entire Body.

After this lengthy discussion on the role of the Holy Spirit in public worship, Paul concludes his teaching by repeating his three key points for proper public worship services:

  1. Seek to prophesy.
  2. Do not forbid speaking in tongues in public worship.
  3. Do everything in public worship services in proper and orderly ways.

From this summary, it is obvious that the ultimate goal is to build up the body of Christ in every way possible.

Conclusion

What do Paul’s teachings mean for us today? First, the Church must accept the commands of the Lord that Paul gave to the Corinthians as still valid today. Second, everything that occurs in a worship service must serve to build up or edify the entire congregation. Third, the proper way for the operation of the gifts of the Spirit is in the environment of the fruit of the Spirit. Fourth, the church should still seek to prophesy in public worship, and it should not forbid speaking in tongues in public worship services.

These teachings place heavy responsibility on the leadership of a church. When people manifest the gifts of the Spirit in a public service, it is essential that leaders explain their operation to the congregation, both believers and nonbelievers. This is the greatest opportunity to help members grow in their understanding of the workings of the Holy Spirit as well as to participate more actively in spiritual gifts in worship. At the same time, it gives leaders a perfect opening to share the gospel to any nonbelievers who are in the congregation. It is not a time to be embarrassed or ashamed of our God-given heritage as Pentecostals.

Finally, verses 37 and 38 are just as true today as they were when Paul penned them. Whoever claims to be spiritual or serves in leadership in the Body but does not accept the truth of these instructions from the apostle Paul should be ignored. They are not pursuing the Holy Spirit’s ultimate goal of Body building. “He who has an ear to hear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelation 2:7).

James Richardson, professor, Global University, Springfield, Missouri

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