Purpose and Function of Gifts in 1 Corinthians

Siegfried S. Schatzmann  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 45 - Fall 2002

Even a cursory reading of 1 Corinthians alerts the observant reader to the fact that certain (groups of) Corinthian Christians distorted and abused some gifts, which they might have held in higher regard than others because they were deemed more spectacular. Rather than simply shutting down the practice of all gifts on account of the abuse of a few, which to the modern mind might have seemed the easier solution, Paul seeks to correct aberrations among them, affirming what is good and calling for correction of their malpractice. One of Paul’s main concerns in chapters 12-14 is to demonstrate that charismatic gifts are not ends in themselves but are given for particular purposes. Furthermore, the apostle inextricably links the function of gifts with such purposes. In the following we shall briefly examine both concerns.

For the purposes of this paper the terms “spiritual gifts” (pneumatika) and “gifts of grace” (charismata) will be considered as  complementary, if not synonymous.[1]In the case of Romans l:ll, however, Paul modifies the noun charisma with the adjective pneumatikon, thus “a spiritual charism.” Certainly in the context of 1 Corinthians, specifically in 1:7 and 12:4, 9, 28, 30, 31, the sense of charisma(ta) is effectively the same as that of the term pneumatika in 12:1 and 14:1, namely “that which God freely and graciously gives to someone by his Spirit.”[2]Cf. Max Turner’s discussion in The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts Then and Now (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1996), 261-67, where he argues that lexically the term charisma derives from the verb charizomai, rather than from the noun charis. While his linguistic argument is valid, there rs little advantage to be gained from pressing the point in Paul’s treatment, since every expres­sion of God’s free grace is ultimately what he chooses to give freely. See also Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans/Carlisle: Paternoster, 2000), 929f., who returns the favor by correlating charimata once more with grace, which “through the cross governs ecclesiology and ministry.” The derivation of charis­ma from charis is also argued by D. A. Carson, Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of1 Corinthians 12-14 (Grand Rapids: Balker, 1987), 19 and G.D. Fee, God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 33.

Contextually Paul’s response to the Corinthian request for clarification (peride, 12:1) concerning ton pneumatikon needs to be seen in the broader framework of the section of 11:1-14:40, if not indeed of 1:4-14:40. A tendency to elitism surfaces at several points in 1:10-11:34 and may also be echoing in their reference to “things that ‘come from the Spirit,”‘ as Thiselton suggests.[3]Thiselton, 910f. Consequently Paul’s preference for the term charismata throughout the remainder of chapter 12 suggests that he used his term as a corrective of the Corinthian tendency. It further suggests that the Corinthians’ view of the gifts’ purpose differed significantly from Paul’s.


A.  The Purpose of Gifts

God’s graciously given, Spirit-apportioned gifts were clearly not meant for the self-aggrandizement of the endowed or as an elitist pursuit of a higher spiritual or social status. In the context of chapters 12-14 Paul seems to articulate a three-fold overarching purpose encompassing the practice of any and all gifts.

1. Exaltation of the Lordship of Jesus Christ

Paul’s declaration, “and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by (the agency of) the Holy Spirit”[4]I take the dative prepositional phrase en pneumati to denote means or, perhaps more accu­rately, agency, rather than as a locative of sphere ( “in the Spirit,” e.g. NJB). points to the quintessential early Christian confession[5]Paul uses similarly terse confessions in 2 Corinthians 4:5; Romans 10:9; Colossians 2:6. whose profundity lies in its simplicity. Cullmann’s suggestion, that both acclamations of 12:3, anathema Iesous (“cursed be Jesus”) and kyrios Iesous (“Jesus is Lord”), typically belonged to a persecution setting in the early church, has much to commend itself.[6]O. Cullmann, The Christology of the New Testament, 2nd ed., transl. Shirley C. Guthrie and Charles A. M. Hall (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1963), 219. But Cullmann’s observation points to post-Pauline developments that do not directly address the reason for the apostle’s use of this (surely pre-Pauline) confession. More likely he appealed to it at this particular juncture to lay down the primary criterion for the entire realm of gifts m the church. The Corinthians’ confession, “Jesus is Lord,” becomes the touchstone for what follows and is made possible and meaningful by the Holy Spirit himself. The diversities of gifts mentioned in 12:4 likewise have their common denominator in the “same (holy) Spirit” and Paul thus links their purpose unmistakably with the Lordship of Jesus Christ. All supernatural manifestations, forms of inspired speech and mighty works must be judged by whether or 10t their practice exalts Jesus Christ as Lord and reinforces his Lordship. In other words, the Spirit is effectively at work when the gifts are “pointing to the Lordship of Christ or Christlikeness.”[7]Thiselton, 936.

2. Building up the Church

While the confession “Jesus is Lord” represents the vertical orientation of the purpose of gifts in their decisive christological orientation, the horizontal, communal direction is indicated by Paul’s repetitive appeal for the functioning of the gifts to be for the purpose of the building up ( oikodome, oikodomeo) of the body, the church. Paul already points to this in 12:7 where he states, somewhat like a topic sentence for 12:8-11, “to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (pros to sympheron).[8]All English translations are those of the NIV, unless otherwise noted. Although Paul will acknowledge in 14:4 that there is merit in an individual being built up, and his statement in 12:7 should not be rendered absolute, it is nevertheless true that his major concern in 12:7 is not the building up of the individual but of the community as a whole. Hemphill’s assertion, therefore, is quite apt, that “no one was given a manifestation of the Spirit for personal gratification but for the common good.”[9]Kenneth S. Hemphill, Spiritual Gifts: Empowering the New Testament Church (NashVJlle: Broadman & Holman, 1988) 61. MacGorman observes that while “the bestowal is individual (“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit”), the benefit is congregational (“for the common good”).”[10]J. W. MacGorman, The Gifts of the Spirit (Nashville: Broadman, 1974), 32.

In chapter 14 Paul uses the metaphorical language of the noun “edification” (oikodome) and the respective verb “build up” (oikodomeo) exclusively to stress the communal purpose of gifts. In this manner he establishes the direction of the gifts by placing the emphasis on the priority of intelligible expressions of inspired speech (i.e. prophecy) over unintelligible forms of such speech (i.e. tongues). As far as the criterion of building up is concerned, the apostle distinguishes between the purpose of tongues and prophecy as follows: “He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church” (14:4). The former con­ cedes a limited purpose in terms of the speaker himself being built up, whereas the latter is clearly Paul’s primary issue here: for the sake of the church being built up, what matters is not the individual’s personal benefits but the community’s wellbeing. Indeed, according to 14:3 the com­munity-wide purpose of prophecy is three-fold: strengthening, encouragement and comfort. Although the three nouns are syntactically coordinate, it may be appropriate to distinguish between the first, on the one hand, and the second and third, on the other, in that both exhortation/encouragement and comfort represent tangible expressions of being built up (RSV), strengthened (NIV) or edified (NAS).

The principle of “the common good” and “the building up of the church” is also addressed in the intriguing body analogy in 12:14-26. On the one hand it serves to illustrate the enormous diversity of body-parts, as well as to recognize that the sum of all the parts does not automatically constitute a whole. For this reason Paul’s emphasis is equally on the body as an entity and hence, like in 12:4-6, stresses diversity in unity.[11]So Fee, Presence, 182-87. On the other hand however this analogy also serves to impress the mutuality and common benefit of each member’s function for the body as a whole. Both function and purpose of each member are shown to be by God’s sovereign design. There is no room for an abject dependence upon everyone else, hence for inferiority, because “God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be” (12:18). The “common good,” in this case, means that no-one’s gift is trivial   or inferior, even if perhaps less prominent. Conversely there is no room for arrogant independence from everyone else, hence for superiority, because “God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it” (12:24b). It is important to note that in both instances the emphasis of the Greek text rests upon what God has done. The lesson of this analogy for the church is that the building up of the church is only becoming truly effective when the members practicing their gifts do so in conscious interdependence.

3. Loving Practice

Certainly love (agape) is itself God’s gracious gift to every believer, poured out into their hearts by the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5), and describes the fruit which the Spirit produces as evidence of the new life in Christ (Galatians 5:22-23). In 1Corinthians 13, however, Paul’s concern is a different one. He is not negotiating a tradeoff of gifts for love, rather for him the practice of gifts in the matrix or realm of love is essential, if their function is to build up the body and thus exalt the Lordship of Christ. In this context, Stuhlmacher concludes, “To the extent that the individual charisms participate in love, the community is being ‘built up.”‘[12]Peter Stuhlmacher, Biblische Theologie des Neuen Testaments. Band 1: Grundlegung: VonJesus zu Paulus (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1992), 356. Interestingly, J. J. Suurmond, “A Fresh Look at Spirit-Baptism and the Charisms,” Expository Times 109:4 (January 1998), 105, terms the charismata “expressions of love.” To be sure, it is quite possible to practice one’s “gift” apart from the criterion of love but doing so betrays wrong motives, forecloses on such practice being a “manifestation of the Spirit” (12:7), and jeopardizes the purposes of building up the body and exalting the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Taking seriously the environment of love in one’s practice of gifts also guards against the presumption that some or all of the pneumatika and charismata are enduring into the eschaton. Paul’s ode of love leaves no doubt about the temporal limits of gifts; they are for this age[13]The view that most, if not all, gifts ceased at the end of the apostolic era, has been addressed and effectively refuted by a number of scholars but perhaps none more effectively than J. Ruthven, On the Cessation of the Charismata: The Protestant Polemic on Postbiblical Miracles, JPTSS (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993). only and will cease “when perfection comes” (13:10).[14]For an eschatological perspective of teleion, cf. e.g. C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, HNTC (New York: Harper & Row 1968) 306-308· Fee Presence 207-11; Hemphill, 86-90. Likewise, loving practice takes cognizance of the fact that all manifestations of the Spirit are marked by the still flawed humanity of the gifted. Paul reminds the Corinthians of the sobering realization that at best “we know in part and we prophesy in part” (13:9, 12b). Although I agree in principle with the eschatological interpretation of to teleion (“perfection”), Thiselton[15]Thiselton, 1067. wisely points out that Paul may have had the notion of “maturing” in mind as well, all the more so since in 3:1 he spoke of them as nepioi (“childish,” “immature”), those who are in dire need of maturing. If this is correct, then Paul leaves room for the Corinthians to mature in practicing their gifts as well.


The Function of Gifts

The three-fold purpose of gifts mapped out above rises from the text in its context with sufficient clarity to stand on its own merit. At the   same time it seems almost inevitable that the purpose of gifts is also   related to their function. While scholarship and practitioners would agree with the purposes discussed, at least in broad outline, a similar consensus is harder to achieve on the subject of the function of charismata, especially with regard to the following four major areas: ( 1) the various gifts of inspired speech, especially tongues and prophecy, (2) the more normative gifts that are often equated with ecclesiastical offices, ( 3) the relationship of gifts to (natural) talents, and (4) the manner in which Paul ordered the gifts.

1.  Gifts of inspired speech

Already in Paul’s initial listing of charismata in 12:8-10, it is self-evident that he tailored the gifts in terms of their own preference for (gifts of) inspired speech. Consequently, six of the nine listed are diverse expressions of inspired speech: Word/message of wisdom, word/message of knowledge, prophecy, distinguishing between spirits,[16]Especially if the noun “distinguishing,” (diakriseis) in 12:10 is correlated with “the others should weigh carefully” ( hoi alloi diakrinetosan) in 14:29. kinds of tongues and interpretation of tongues. A built-in corrective can be seen in Paul’s arranging these gifts in such a way that the intelligible forms of inspired speech are given priority over tongues, the Corinthians’ preferred, if not absolute, expression of Spirit-inspired speech, followed by the gift of interpretation of tongues.

Two or three of these gifts also appear in the lists in 12:28-30, prophets and tongues in 12:28 and prophets, tongues and interpretation in 12:29-30. Prophecy and tongues, together with knowledge and faith, are also addressed in 13:1-3; here the issue is that apart from love, the incontrovertible sign of the work of the Spirit, such manifestations amount to “nothing” ( 13:2).

In chapter 14 Paul then turns his attention to the proper understanding of the function of mainly prophecy and tongues, as well as the interpretation of tongues, which always only works in tandem with the former. The function of tongues is established at the very start, immediately following the paraenetic admonition whereby Paul set the direction for the entire discussion of 14:1-25, “Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy” (14:1). The reason for elevating prophecy becomes clear in 14:2a, “for the one speaking in a tongue does not speak to people but to God.” Paul reiterates he same important issue in 14:14-16 and 14:28. This is further underscored in what follows in 14:2b, “for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit.” In all of his recent writings on the subject, Gordon D. Fee, himself belonging to the Pentecostal tradition, makes this point compellingly.[17]Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 656; Presence, 218; also in his more popular volume, Paul, the Spirit and the People of God (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1996), 148.  At the grassroots level, however, much of Pentecostalism[18]There are some laudible occasional expressions of tongues as prayer/praise directed to God. I have personally witnessed this several times in the weekly chapel services at Regents Theological College, a Pentecostal institution affiliated with the University of Manchester. A number of students considered this God-ward direction of tongues a refreshing change and correction of what the normative focus of speaking in tongues should be. continues to disregard Paul’s functional directive for tongues.

The function of prophecy is laid out equally clearly in 14:3a, “But everyone who prophesies speaks to men.” Here the direction of prophecy as intelligible inspired speech is from God to the community. Hence the community is able to participate in what is being said and respond to it appropriately and thereby is built up (14:25).

The Pentecostal handling of tongues as more or less equivalent to prophecy, especially when accompanied by the interpretation of tongues, is clearly not based on scriptural precedent but on accepted and unchecked tradition within these church bodies. Given Paul’s consistent appeal for tongues to function God-ward, it comes as a surprise, perhaps, that various scholars from outside the Pentecostal tradition would endorse a blurring of this functional distinction between tongues and prophecy. For instance commenting on 14:5, Don Carson states, “in any comparison of prophecy and tongues, in the church the edification of the church is of paramount concern. On the other hand it appears as if tongues can have the same functional significance as prophecy if there is an interpreter present.”[19]Garson, 102. Italics are his. If he means that the combination of tongues and interpretation is as mtelhg1ble as prophecy, one may agree with him; what he means by “functional,” however, is by no means clear and tends to support the Pentecostal practice of functionally directing both forms of speech to the community.

Does the gift of interpreting tongues represent a more circuitous venue of prophecy? Nowhere does Paul even come close to intimating such. Rather, he insists on rendering intelligible what the tongue-speaker has expressed in his prayer, praise, and perhaps even petition. In other words the interpreter, under the Spirit’s guidance, formulates in a prayer-form what had previously been uttered as a mystery, that 1s to say, m a manner inaccessible to anyone apart from the tongue-speaker. Paul attaches the gift of interpretation to the gift of speaking in tongues because of his overarching conviction that in the community public speaking in tongues without interpretation is inadmissible because it is not intelligible.

This does not mean, however, that Paul does not also affirm a place for speaking in tongues to oneself in the believer’s own devotional practice, for instance. Thus he is able to say, “I desire for all of you to speak in tongues” (14:5) and “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you” (14:18). It is important to note, however, that the affirmation in v. 5 is followed by the contrasting “but rather” (mallon de) and the testimonial in v. 18 gives way to the superordinate “but in the church” (alla en ekklesia) of v. 19 thereby indicating that his own personal practice, however beneficial, is not the criterion for the gift’s public use.

Since the issue of “other tongues” is also raised in   the following, rather troublesome, passage of 14:20-25, it is important to address it briefly in the framework of the function of gifts of inspired speech. Paul introduced the quotation of Isaiah 28:11-12 (LXX) with the phrase “In the Law it is written.” In this context the term “law” (nomos) encompasses the entire Jewish and Christian body of scripture, namely the Old Testament, rather than the Pentateuch alone. The quotation itself, however, follows pree1sely neither the Septuagint nor the Hebrew text; instead, Thiselton argues convincingly, Paul may have quoted and applied the Isaiah passage at the same time.[20]Thiselton, 1122, offers various supports for his argument.

In the historical setting of Isaiah 28:11-12 the prophet most likely refers to God’s punishment upon obstinate Israel, represented by its spiritual leadership, through the Assyrians who speak a radically different ( heteros) language, since they, after all, were not willing to heed God’s own, intelligible words offered through Isaiah. In the context of the Corinthian community Paul has already established that glossalalia without interpretation is inappropriate, in Thiselton’s words, “because it places many of God’s own people in the situation of feeling like foreigners in a foreign land and (not at home) in their own home.” Furthermore, such tongue-speaking “will not bring the message of the gospel of Christ home to unbelievers.”[21]Ibid., 1121f. Italics are his.

In verses 22-25 Paul then draws out the implications of the Isaiah text, first with the contrasting statement of v.22, which appears to most modern readers to be confusing at best or contradictory at worst and, second, by developing a scenario of a worship setting with its contrasting consequences (23-25). In the former Paul asserts, “So then, tongues are a sign not for believers (toispisteuous [participle, ‘the ones believing’]) but for unbelievers (tots pistois [adjective, ‘the unbelieving ones’]), but prophecy [is a sign] not for unbelievers but for believers.[22]Translation is mine. Both datives connote advantage/disadvantage. The phrase “for a sign” (eis semeion) is likely best understood as “serving as a (warning) sign”[23]BAGD, 748, 1. or signal of judgment. Thus instead of glossolalia, together with interpretation as its attendant gift, functioning in a God-ward direction for the upbuilding of the body, here uninterrupted speaking with tongues has the opposite effect of hardening unbelievers and eliciting from them such reactionary exclamations as “you are raving mad” (v. 23).[24]See Marion L. Soards, 1 Corinthians, NIBC (Peabody: Hendrickson 1999) 294-96.

Prophecy, on the other hand, effectively signals “the presence and action of God in nurturing people of faith.”[25]Thiselton, 1123. In the immediate context, Barrett surmises, prophecy seems to have had the same effect upon the Corinthian Christians as tongues did upon unbelievers. He suggests that the Corinthians “tend to shut their ears to prophecy because they gain more satisfaction from listening to tongues than from hearing their faults exposed and their duties pointed out in plain rational language.”[26]Barrett, 324. There may have been a grain of truth to Barrett’s interpretation but it hardly captures the heart of Paul’s concern here. Perhaps Thiselton’s formulation of the meaning of v. 22, underscored by his interpretation of v. 23-25 and consistent with the tenor of the larger context of ch. 12-14, does better justice:

Unbelievers do not produce prophetic speech which communicates gospel truth. Hence on one side prophetic speech characterizes the believing church at worship; tongues, on the other side, constitute negative signs (at least in public and in their effect) generating barriers and alienation inappropriate for believers.[27]Thiselton, 1123, italics are his. On the (mainly) recent history of interpretation of 14:22 see Thiselton, 1124-26.

In summary then, Paul does not assign a singular, stereo­ typical function to all of the gifts of inspired speech. At the very least he delineates the function and direction of tongues as God-ward and those of prophecy as community-ward.

2. Gifts and offices

In my earlier work[28]Siegfried Schatzmann, A Pauline Theology of Charismata (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987), 84-87. I have argued that in 1 Corinthians there is little to commend the view that Paul worked on the premise of a two-tier structure of gifts/functions and ministries/offices. The listing Paul provides in 12:28, not least the numeration of the first three, namely apostles, prophets, and teachers, has led some interpreters to the conclusion that Paul’s shift from the gifts as functions per se in 12:8-10 (in this context especially prophecy in 12:10) to listing the persons who carry out their gifts as ministerial functions in a more normative and more prominent manner, denotes an “office.” This tendency can be observed both in Catholic and Protestant contexts.

Contextually, however, it is to be noted that Paul’s lists in 12:28-30 are primarily the immediate application of the preceding passage dealing with the functioning of the human body. The lists are shaped by the Corinthian situation, rather than by Paul’s endeavor to establish a distinction between gift and office. This is not to argue against the possibility that Paul had something like “offices” in mind in certain of his later letters. However, reading this ecclesiastical distinctive back into a mid-first century letter is an endeavor based on presuppositional, rather than evidential grounds. Georg Strecker acknowledges as much when he speaks of prophets, teachers and leaders as those fulfilling “community tasks” (Gemeindeamter). He sees these as functions rather than offices. “They are fundamentally charismata and hence need to be seen as functioning alongside other gifts given to the community.” He further argues, “The community tasks (or functions, more correctly) are not to be detached from the Spirit who works in them and is expected to work, just as he commonly apportions and sustains the community’s charismata.”[29]Georg Strecker, Iheologie des Neuen Testaments, bearbeitet, erganzt und herausgegeben van Friedrich Wilhelm Horn (Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1996), 199-206, esp. 206. It is not insignificant that Peter Stuhlmacher, one of the foremost contemporary European Pauline scholars, points in the same direction. He disavows the notion of gifts equating offices in 1 Corinthians and instead understands them as functions (Dienste) diakoniai),[30]Stuhlrnacher, 356. even if these are to be understood as a “regular feature,” manifested “within an ordered context,” rather than as a spontaneous service rendered, as E. Earle Ellis has observed.[31]E. Earle Ellis, Pauline Theology: Ministry and Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 87-102, here 100, 89.

3. Gifts and talents

The question of whether gifts and talents are to be understood as synonymous or at least as complimentary functions, is not based primarily on exegetical considerations. In the context of 1 Corinthians 12 there can be no doubt that the apportioning of all the charismata is the Spirit’s work. They are made effective by God himself. This leaves little room for doubt that all gifts have their source in God, through the Spirit. On account of these givens MacGorman, for instance, felt compelled to conclude that charismata “are handed down by the Spirit of God; they are not worked up by men.”[32]MacGorman, 28-29. MacGorman’s stance is correct but it does not provide an answer to the question of whether the grace of God, or presence of the Spirit dwelling in the believer (2:15), has a tabula-raza effect of sorts, where talents given by nature and heritage, as well as skills acquired through personal discipline, are simply removed and replaced by a gift or gifts that differ radically from natural dispositions. Under this scenario, for instance, no one who has studied to be a teacher would ever be apportioned the gift of teaching from the Spirit.

Perhaps Robert Banks provides a theologically sensitive solution by suggesting first that Paul would not have held the two in juxtaposition and that natural talents are equally “implanted by the prior creative activity of God, or by social advantages conferred by the circumstances of life.”[33]Robert Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community: The Early House Churches in Their Historical Setting, 2nd rev. ed. (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 100. Thus if natural abilities are likewise God’s gifts to humanity, and these are surrendered to God in the experience of his grace in salvation, surely he is able sovereignly to bestow those talents again as charismata upon the one who surrendered them to God. In either case God remains the source. For Hasenhuttl this is precisely what differentiates grace gifts from talents. He further observes that a talent remains a talent and retains its meaning even when it is severe from its giver. The grace gift, however when loosed from its source, “turns into pagan manticism or into common ‘traits.’”[34]Gotthold Hasenhuttl, Charisma: Ordnungsprinzip der Kirche. In Oekumenische Forschungen, vol. 5, eds. Hans Kung and Josef Ratzinger (Freiburg: Verlag Herder KG, 1969), 114-15. Thus ultimately this issue turns on the purpose and function of a sovereignly bestowed gift or of a talent yielded to the sovereign God who bestows it afresh, now energized to build up the church in loving practice and hence exalting Jesus Christ, the living Lord.

4. Gifts and order

Just as Paul affirmed the diversity in giftedness and the unity of their source and purpose (12:4-11), thereby holding the two in a delicate balance, so he also acknowledged a degree of spontaneity in the practice of gifts in the church, while also insisting on their orderly practice. To a considerable extent this seems to have been his concern in 14:26-40. For some interpreters spontaneity and order appear to be mutually exclusive, especially because the former has the potential of being understood as license and thus to function out-of-control. For Paul, however, this was not an either-or matter. Indeed, he regards both aspects as integral to being a Spirit-directed community of the Lord Jesus Christ. Even if he will come down more emphatically on the side of order—and in the context of the Corinthian church this represents an apostolic correction of misuse, he nevertheless recognizes the validity of spontaneity in the practice of gifts in a worship service.

The introductory formula in 14:26, “What then shall we say?” indicates a shift in Paul’s focus by drawing out what to him were important implications from the various instructions and admonitions in 14:1-25. To this end he addressed the church as a whole, as indicated by the use of the second person plural verb forms throughout this concluding section.[35]”you come together” [synerchesthe], 26; “you can” [dynasthe], 31; “do not forbid” [me kolyete], 39. Although the phrase “when you come (or gather) together” could more strictly be translated “whenever you come together,” to give the use of hotan with the present subjunctive form of the verb its full weight of importance, our modern English versions adequately capture Paul’s thought here. It is unlikely that he sought to establish a fixed liturgical order and content of worship to be observed at each gathering, even if he might have accorded more importance to some contributions than to others. Given Paul’s penchant for diversity, even in the realm of types of inspired speech, it is perhaps just as important to note what Paul does not include in the listing of verse 26, together with the forms he does list. The fact that prophecy is not mentioned until 14:29 and keeping in mind his overall preference for prophecy over speaking in tongues in public, Paul’s exhortation in 14:26 leaves little doubt that his list in this instance is still ad hoc.[36]Cf. Fee; 1 Corinthians, 690. Dunn’s view, that this phrase describes a “typical gathering for worship, is difficult to assess; J.D.G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 583. Thiselton’s observation that the “everyone has (hekastos ekei)” clauses represent “possible scenarios,” points in the same direction.[37]Thiselton, 1133. The emphasis therefore is less on what precisely everyone will contribute and more on the purpose of each individual expression, namely everything is to be for building up (the object-the body, the church-is implied). Thus Paul’s introductory admonition reiterates the overarching communal purpose of all forms and contributions of inspired speech, whether sung or spoken.

In order for tongues and prophecy to function in proper balance with other expressions of ministry, Paul, for the sake of communal orderliness (14:40) and peace (14:33), placed limitations both on speaking in tongues (14:27-28) and prophecy (14:29-32).

a. Speaking in tongues

Three criteria should govern the practice of glossolalia in the church; the first two have a limiting function, namely “two or at the most three” may speak and only “one at a time,” while the third, “someone must interpret,” safe­ guards the need for intelligibility at all times. All three directives are to be understood as corrective of the Corinthian abuse of this particular gift of inspired speech. Two aspects cannot be determined with absolute certainty: First, does the NIV rendering of the third criterion, “someone must interpret,” imply “someone other than the tongue-speaker” or, like in 14:5 and 13, the glossolalist him or herself? The use of the numeral heis (“one”) in this clause is likely best understood as a stylistic variation of tis (indefinite pronoun, “someone”) in the first clause of verse 27, as the NIV suggests, and thus suggests that Paul has in mind an interpreter other than the tongue-speaker(s). Nevertheless, the possibility of following 14:5, 13, cannot be entirely ruled out either,[38]Cf. RSV: “and let one interpret.” though that would raise the further question of why Paul distinguished between the two gifts clearly in 12:10 by using the term alloi “to (still, NIV) another the interpretation of tongues.”[39]Italics are mine. Second, does Paul’s third criterion mean that the interpretation should follow each glossolalic contribution or only after a maximum of two or three of them? It is impossible to know, though his concern for orderliness might tip the balance in favor of the former.

b. Prophecy

In the case of prophecy Paul brings two criteria to bear; of these, similar to tongues in 14:27, the first one limits the number of those prophesying to “two or three.” The second one calls for “the others” to “weigh carefully what is said.” Both the subject and the verb of this clause are subject to various interpretations. In the absence of an explicit subject, it is possible to take “the others” to mean “the other prophets” who are not prophesying on this occasion.[40]E.g. G. Friedrich, “prophetes,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament 6:851. Thiselton prefers to understand hoi alloi here to refer to the apostles and teachers, presumably as those who are the leaders of the community.[41]Thiselton, 1140f. In 1 Thessalonians 5:20-21, however, Paul exhorts that all God’s people assembled are to “accept after testing” (doki­ mazete) what has been communicated in intelligible prophetic speech. In light of this and given the larger context of 1 Corinthians 12-14, discernment is not only incumbent upon the leaders of the church but upon all of the members of the body, all the more so since the Holy Spirit indwells every believer. Thus “the others” in 14:29 are best understood as all of the believers present, including the leaders.[42]So e.g. Barrett, 328f.; Fee, 1 Corinthians, 693. MacGorman aptly observed that “the early Christians placed no premium on gullibility. They were not urged to park their brains in the vestibule, so to speak Instead they had the solemn responsibility of assessing that which purported to be a word from the Lord.”[43]MacGorman, 109.

The verb in this clause is diakrino (lit. “let them differentiate, make a distinction,” rather than “judge” in the absolute sense),[44]BAGD, 185, 1.b. from which the corresponding noun diakrisis (cf. 12:10) derives. In this case the action does not call for distinguishing or discerning whether or not the prophecy comes from a spirit other than the Spirit of God, as much as whether and to what extent it “coheres with the gospel of Christ and the pastoral situation,” as Thiselton suggests.[45]Thiselton, 1140. At this point it is important to stress that the object of “discerning” is not the persons prophesying but the content of their communication. Prophets should be keenly aware of Paul’s own assessment of prophecy in the era of the church in 13:9, according to which “we prophesy in part.” Prophecy is indeed a form of inspired speech but one that cannot represent God’s ipsissima verba and therefore is always subject to the church’s discernment. In various ways 14:30-32 under­ scores that prophecy and other intelligible speech-gifts, as well as tongues, are ultimately controlled forms of inspired speech and therefore are not produced under ecstasy, unlike their counterparts associated with pagan cults. What God works by his Spirit, in and through gifts of inspired speech in particular and all gifts in general, is not disorder or unruliness (see James 3:6) in the community but peace, that is to say wellbeing, wholeness and harmony.


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