Studying the gifts of the Spirit is an exceedingly worthwhile endeavor. I have made it my goal to study the subject all year-long, in hopes that I might have more concrete convictions about the so-called charismatic gifts. Yet, before diving into a study like this it is important to set the gifts within a proper context. The temptation when discussing hot topics like “gifts of the Spirit” is to make the dividing lines within the body of Christ, but Paul challenges this very idea when he writes about the gifts to the Corinthians. Love is more important than the gifts of the Spirit.
The Corinthian church is a strange case study. The church possessed all the gifts of the Spirit (1:7), and yet they were a church full of divisions and immorality. Paul writes directly to confront these issues (1:10). The church had created divisions over which leaders to follow – Paul, Apollos, Peter, Jesus (see 1:12), they were dividing over (or rather by) law suits (chapter 6), and they were creating divisions over Spiritual gifts too. Paul’s point in chapter 12 is to demonstrate the validity of the diversity of gifts. They are all of the “same Spirit” (v. 4) and “same Lord (v. 5). And each gift is given for the “common good” of the whole church community (v. 7), so that no gift is more important but all have their place. In fact, while the body is made up of different members and parts it is one body. No single part is more vital than another (v. 12-31). D.A. Carson notes:
These latter verses insist on the diversity of the gifts but the oneness of the source. This suggests that Paul’s correspondents were at least partly made up of charismatics (in the modern sense of the term) who wanted to elevate their gifts to the place where they could give exclusive authentication for spiritual life and who wanted Paul to approve this judgment; and partly they were made up of non-charismatics (again in the modern sense) who were profoundly skeptical of the claims of the charismatics, and wanted Paul to correct them. (Showing the Spirit, 26)
The differences in the gifts among the body was becoming a temptation for cultivating division, which is, of course, not unlike the contemporary church. Our various views on the continuance of the charismatic gifts have become a serious point of division within the body of Christ. Paul’s response to the Corinthian divisions is a good response to us as well: there is a better way (v. 31).
Chapter 13 can seem an odd placement in the flow of Paul’s argument. Chapter 12 talks about the diversity of Spiritual gifts, and chapter 14 ranks the gifts according to their immediate value in building up the church, but chapter 13 talks about love, and in fact diminishes the importance of the gifts. This all makes sense, however, when you consider Paul’s desire to help the church properly esteem unity amidst their diversity. Love for one another is more important than the gifts, and Paul makes this point explicitly in chapter 13. The very first verses articulate this point:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. (13:1-2)
Paul focuses here on two gits, tongues and prophecy, which parallel his emphasis in chapter 14. Clearly these were the two gifts causes the most amount of strife and contention within the body – the same is true today, by in large. Paul urges them to see love trumps these charismatic gifts. In 12:31 he speaks of the “greater gifts,” likely a reference to tongues and prophecy. Yet, he inserts this important chapter here because he wants to combat the divisions already breeding among the church. Without love even these greater gifts will be useless to the church. In that sense, then, love is what makes the spiritual gifts truly spiritually valuable, and apart from exercising the gifts in love they will be nothing but noise (v. 1).The gifts themselves, Paul says, do not last forever (v. 8-9). Eventually they will pass away (discussions of when that happens, and what the “perfect” refers to will be reserved for latter posts), but love never passes away. Love endures forever! Love is of supreme importance.
Within the contemporary church the two dominant views on the spiritual gifts wage war against one another. We condemn, ridicule, and deride one another. Those in the Charismatic camp do exactly what Paul condemns here in chapters 12 and 13. They assert that they are more spiritual because of their experience of these gifts, but Paul says the diversity in the body is good. In fact chapters 12 and 13 clearly indicate that not everyone experienced the gifts. Not every spoke in tongues (12:29-30). Love does not “boast” in personal gifts, nor does it elevate one member of the body over another. On the other hand, those in the non-Charismatic camp tend to ridicule and mock their brothers and sisters. They condemn them as overly emotional and influenced by mysticism. But Paul warns them too, “love is arrogant or rude.” Love “believes all things.” The non-Charismatic ought to strive to believe the best about their brothers and sisters. Are there extreme versions of both camps? Yes. There are Charismatics who go to excesses and abuse the language of the Spiritual gifts. Likewise, there are non-Charismatics who diminish entirely the influence of the Spirit of God today. These are extremes, however, and should not be used to write-off all our brothers and sisters. Love is greater and calls us to something greater.
1 Corinthians 13 is an important chapter for setting up the context of the study of the Spiritual Gifts. The temptation is to focus on the gifts, but the gifts themselves are a tool aimed at building up the church. The focus isn’t the gift itself as fascinating as they are. The Corinthian church experienced the exact same struggle we experience today over the gifts of the Spirit. Paul’s words to them are God’s words to us. Whether you believe in the continuance of the spiritual gifts for today or not, the most important thing to emphasize is love. Love trumps gifts! We would all do well to remember that as we engage on this issue.