Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 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. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way. (1 Corinthians 12:27-31 ESV)
The “more excellent way” that Paul wrote of is the way of godly, unselfish love. The church had become competitive in the exercising of its gifts, with some calling attention to themselves. Paul answers with the fact that, yes, some gifts are more important than others, but no Christian is more important than another. The end result of all gifts is that the body of Christ may be built up, and that means that every part of the body.
In the preceding verses Paul wrote:
On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable … God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. (1 Cor. 12:22-25)
The way of love should color every part of church life and of our ministry. Does love have its limitations? No. According to the next chapter: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends” (1 Cor. 13:7-8).
Some gifts are not for public display
Some, I know, will misunderstand this point and think that this means that all gifts are equal – they simply do not separate the value of the gift from the value of the individual’s personhood. They would vote for people who are tone-deaf to torture the congregation with their “singing” to emphasize the importance of these people. But this passage is making the exact opposite point.
The gift of service, for example, is humble in its nature, and these people delight in meeting needs in a gracious and loving way. They work behind the scenes. They should be appreciated and affirmed, their work should be mentioned, but it would be a misuse of the church life to display her gift as though it were the same as teaching – “Now let us worship God as we watch Sister Edith fold sheets as she does when she helps with the sick.”
But “Sister Edith” may have a personal testimony that is uplifting, or someone may have a testimony of how her loving service had touched them.
The gifts move from the few to the many
In the list of spiritual gifts above, they move from the apostles, who were few in number, to the more common gifts. Not everyone was an apostle, prophet, or even a teacher, but everyone had at least one gift. Healing, helping, administrating, and tongues were the more widespread gifts.
How are we to think of these higher gifts and these lower gifts? Using a city or a nation as an analogy, we might think of what are the more important professions for the city. If we had to remove half of the professions in the city or in the nation, which professions would we be willing to part with and which would we insist we needed to maintain?
Undoubtedly, some professions would come to the top. We would choose farmers, for example, over elite restaurant owners. In healthcare we would choose general practitioners over specialists. And we would choose school teachers over many other professions on the basis that so long as we had school teachers we could eventually have every other profession as well. It would be a slow suicide for any nation or city to close its schools and try to retain its workers, for all the workers would eventually die out and they would have none.
So in the church, the higher gifts are those connected with proclaiming the truth of God and teaching the people of God. So long as we retain these higher gifts, we can eventually have every other gift. But if these are neglected, then the church will commit a slow, lingering suicide of sorts. And, by the way, it is the neglect of biblical teaching in the Western church that has created this exact situation – a slow, lingering suicide of the church in many places.
Experiencing love is the goal of the gifts
All of the gifts have as their goal that the people of God would experience the love of God. The preacher and teacher, no less than the healer and helper, are to touch people with the love of God. In a healthy church the whole church is involved in expressing, sharing, and receiving the love of God. People need to interact with one another, get to know one another, share life together and share Christ together.
Church can never become only coming and sitting and listening. We need to share Christ together. The small group is an essential factor in a church. The worship leads to empower and enable people to know one another and to experience Christ with one another. And in so doing we learn of and experience His love.