1 Corinthians 12:27-28 (spiritual gifts)

spiritual gifts

(1Co 12:27-28 ESV) 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.

Notice that, in v. 27, “member” translates melos, meaning a body part. Paul is not discussing who’s on roll. Rather, by “member” he means a part of a single organism — just as my arm is a “member” of my body. To sever my arm from my body would be to “dismember” me.

In v.28, Paul makes a partial list of spiritual gifts, ranking apostles first, prophets second, and teachers third. Notice that we’re not many verses beyond chapter 11’s discussion of women prophesying in the assembly — surely making them prophets, and if so, ranking them below the apostles but above teachers, miracle workers, and administrators.

It would be easy to argue that Paul has two different kinds of prophecy in mind, except that there’s not the least evidence for a distinction in the text itself. Paul discusses what women should wear while prophesying in chapter 11, and then in chapter 12 he ranks prophecy above all spiritual gifts other than apostleship, and then in chapter 13 he discusses prophecy as a spiritual gift, and in chapter 14 he again addresses how prophets should behave in the assembly. It all fits together — and so the female prophets of chapter 11 are among the prophets ranked above all but the apostles in chapter 13.

On the other hand, it’s not clear that Paul’s ranking is about hierarchy. Some commentators point back to 1 Cor 3:5-10 and conclude that Paul lists apostles, prophets, and teachers first because they are most important in terms of church planting, with the latter gifts to be most valued in an established congregation.

It is not so much that one is more important than the other, nor that this is necessarily their order of authority, but that one has precedence over the other in the founding and building up of the local assembly.

Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), 619–620.

Moreover, once Paul lists his first three offices, he lists gifts, not offices, that is, he mentions “miracles” rather than “miracle workers” (mistranslated by the NIV). Evidently, the same person might gain new and lose old spiritual gifts, so that it’s more about what the Spirit does from time to time rather than what office the individual holds.

“Helping” has been traditionally associated with the work of deacons, but the word has a broader meaning. It refers to any kind of help that might be offered. In fact,

even Chrysostom felt the need to explain to his congregation (who spoke Greek) what Paul had in mind. He suggested it meant “To support the weak” and had to do with “aptness for a patron’s office,” referring to the ancient role of the patron or benefactor.

Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians (Pillar NTC; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 613.

We covered the role of patronage in the Greco-Roman world in an earlier post. It was a central feature of society in which a wealthy person committed to be of help to specific less fortunate people — using his contacts and wealth to advance the interests of others. After all, influence and wealth are only of value to the church if those gifts are held by someone with the sympathy and compassion needed to wisely use those things for others.

“Administrating” might be better translated “guidance.” The word’s root refers to piloting a ship, and so seems to refer to those having the overarching leadership of the congregation — likely the same as an elder, shepherd, or overseer — although we can’t insist on limiting to the term to elders.

The term refers to the gift, not the office, which should counsel us all that elders and other church leaders should be recognized based on the gifts they have, so that it’s ultimately the Spirit selecting our leaders.

(Act 20:28 ESV) 28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.

The overseers are chosen by the Spirit by the Spirit’s gifting.

(Rom 12:6-8 ESV) 6 Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith;  7 if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching;  8 the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. 

(Eph 4:11-12 ESV)  11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers,  12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ … .

Moreover, the same passages that show that church leaders are chosen by the Spirit each provide a different list of offices and gifts. Paul seems to go out of his way to keep these lists fluid, as though telling us that the Spirit will provide not only the people but the choice of gifts and offices that each church needs when it needs them.

Even the offices of elder and deacon aren’t found in all the lists, but there’s always a list. The Spirit always provides leaders, but the leaders we need in one church might not look like the leaders in another church down the road.

Hence, a congregation isn’t so much to be “scripturally organized,” as the Churches of Christ so like to insist, as spiritually organized, that is, recognizing the gifts received and letting lead those gifted to lead, letting help those gifted to help, etc.

Again, this has implications for the role of women. If the Spirit chooses to gift a woman to take on a task, if we take these passages seriously, the gift itself is authority to use the gift.

“Tongues” would normally be translated “languages,” because glossa is the Greek word for languages (as well as plural for “tongue”). And so scholars debate whether human languages are in mind. It’s easy to see the advantage of a miraculous power to speak a foreign human language in an evangelistic church, and in Acts 2, glossa refers to a miraculous manifestation of human languages. However, in Acts 2:8-11, we are only told that the audience heard the preaching in their own language, not that the lesson was taught in several languages.

Scholars disagree as to whether the tongues in 1 Cor 12-14 were human tongues or some sort of ecstatic speech. The debate can be intense because it’s presumed that if Paul was speaking of human language in 1 Corinthians, then today’s ecstatic speech, often called “tongues,” is not a legitimate gift of the Spirit. But the logic doesn’t hold. Paul could have been speaking of human languages in 1 Cor 12, and yet today’s ecstatic speech could be a manifestation of the Holy Spirit. After all, the Old Testament has examples of ecstatic speech prompted by the Spirit, whether or not 1 Corinthians does.

(1Sa 19:19-24 ESV)  19 And it was told Saul, “Behold, David is at Naioth in Ramah.”  20 Then Saul sent messengers to take David, and when they saw the company of the prophets prophesying, and Samuel standing as head over them, the Spirit of God came upon the messengers of Saul, and they also prophesied.  21 When it was told Saul, he sent other messengers, and they also prophesied. And Saul sent messengers again the third time, and they also prophesied.  22 Then he himself went to Ramah and came to the great well that is in Secu. And he asked, “Where are Samuel and David?” And one said, “Behold, they are at Naioth in Ramah.”  23 And he went there to Naioth in Ramah. And the Spirit of God came upon him also, and as he went he prophesied until he came to Naioth in Ramah.  24 And he too stripped off his clothes, and he too prophesied before Samuel and lay naked all that day and all that night. Thus it is said, “Is Saul also among the prophets?” 

Although the scriptures refer to the spiritual manifestation as “prophecy,” this is clearly some kind of ecstatic utterance. Therefore, the legitimacy of the modern practice of tongues is not so easy dismissed.

Sometimes we just aren’t given all the answers, and so it’s wise to be silent where the Bible is silent. On the other hand, in chapters 13 and 14, Paul clearly does not care to have tongues be a feature of the Christian assembly unless the tongues are translated, as we’ll see.

And we’re told to “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1). We should do just that. We shouldn’t judge others based on very questionable exegesis of the text, but neither should we treat every claimed manifestation of the Spirit as real.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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