Epistles: Diversity and Unity in Spiritual Gifts (1 Corinthians 12:1-11)
The church members in Corinth asked Paul a number of questions, and Paul responded in the letter we know as 1 Corinthians. One of the topics he addresses is “spiritual gifts.” Paul’s explanation begins in chapter 12; we’ll begin in verse 3.
Same source, but different results (verses 3-7)
Paul comments on how God works in different ways in different people: “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.”
Paul uses “gifts,” “service,” and “working” as roughly equivalent (just as Spirit, Lord and God are equivalent). The three terms are not distinct categories, but they highlight different aspects of the same phenomena: 1) that the abilities are given, not something we can take credit for ourselves, 2) they are given for service, to help other people, and 3) they work; they produce results in our lives. The main point is that God works in different ways in different people.
Paul summarizes the purpose: “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” Spiritual gifts are not for a person’s private benefit—they are to help the church as a whole.
Various gifts (verses 8-11)
Paul lists some of the gifts: “To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit.” Generally speaking, knowledge refers to awareness of facts; wisdom refers to the ability to apply facts to the right situation. The Corinthian believers seem to be interested in knowledge and wisdom, and that may be why Paul begins with these two gifts.
He lists more: “to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits.” All believers have faith, but some have stronger faith than others. Presumably someone who has a gift of miraculous healing also has stronger faith than most people. These gifts overlap; Paul is giving examples, not creating totally distinct categories. He will have more to say about prophecy in chapter 14.
Paul ends with the gift that was causing the most problems in Corinth, and its solution; “to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues.” No matter what the “tongues” were, no one in Corinth understood them, except people who had the special gift of interpretation.
The main point for Paul here is that “all these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.” Not everyone is given the same abilities; the Spirit purposely distributes different skills to different people.
As verse 7 says, it is for the common good. When we have different gifts, when no one has all the abilities, then we need to work together, and that in itself is good for us.
The Greeks had a word for it: χάρισµα
In English, a person who has “charisma” has a personality that seems to attract followers. But for Paul, everyone has been given a charisma, because for him the word meant a gift, something given by the grace (charis) of God. When God delivered Paul from danger, it was a charisma (2 Cor. 1:11). His ability to be celibate was another charisma from God (1 Cor. 7:7).
But charismata (the plural form of charisma) are best known as the special abilities God’s Spirit distributes to his people (Rom. 12:6; 1 Cor. 12:4; 1 Pet. 4:10). Churches that emphasize these gifts are often called charismatic churches.
But actually, all Christians can be called charismatic, because we all believe that “the gift [charisma] of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). Salvation is the greatest gift, given to all.
Features of the literary structure
Paul writes, I don’t want you to be ignorant about the spiritual things (v.1). This is similar to 7:1, so Paul may be addressing the topic of spiritual things at the request of the Corinthians. Fee notes that “this is a nearly universal conviction (570n), but notes that Paul’s corrective comments imply that the Corinthians were not simply asking for information. I suspect that they did not admit any ignorance about this topic, so 12:1b may indicate that Paul is initiating the topic (cf. 11:18). His comments in chapter 14 suggest that he would have addressed the topic of spiritual gifts whether the Corinthians had asked or not.
Verse 2 refers to voiceless idols, and v. 3 to speaking. Chapter 14 makes it clear that the spiritual gifts of greatest interest to the Corinthians and to Paul involved speaking.
Verse 3 contains trinitarian words, but not in formula. Verses 4-6 mention Spirit, Lord, and God, but “God” here does not seem to be the Father, as distinct from Spirit and Lord. Rather, “God” encompasses both. No matter what kind of gift, no matter who has it, God, by means of either the Spirit or the Lord, is the one working in the person.
The parallels of verses 4-6 at first suggest that charismata, diakonia and energemata are three types of pneumatika (=manifestations of the Spirit). Martin seems to follow this view, saying that Paul sets the pneumatika “within a larger framework of God’s charismata, a broader term referring to all manifestations of God’s favor” (1016). However, Paul seems to vary his terms without necessarily implying distinct categories (Barrett 285, Fee 585-6n12). Paul seems to use charismata and pneumatika interchangeably (cf. v.31a and 14:1; cf. Fee 576).
The list of gifts does not seem to be in any well-defined order. (Other lists are in different orders — cf. vs. 28-30 and Rom. 12:6-8.) In 1 Cor. 12:8-10, Paul begins with two gifts of words, perhaps due to the interest in gifts of speaking, or perhaps due to the Corinthians’ interest in wisdom and knowledge. Faith, healing and miracles may form a group. He ends with two gifts of tongues, putting the gift causing the most problems last (Fee 591, 619). But the gifts of prophecy and discerning spirits don’t seem to be in any particular order or logical connection. None of the lists is exhaustive. “Paul’s concern here is to offer a considerable list so that they will stop being singular in their own emphasis [i.e., expecting all Christians to speak in tongues]” (Fee 585).
Paul does not prove that the diverse gifts are all inspired by the same Spirit. He simply repeats this truth in various ways. His analogy shows that it is possible, but doesn’t prove that this is the only possible explanation for diverse gifts.
Did Paul emphasize diversity, or unity? Fee argues for diversity, but I think Paul was keeping both in balance. As Fee points out, there doesn’t seem to be factions due to charismata, but there were factions over leadership (1:10-12) and social status (11:17-34). Paul is encouraging them to have greater diversity in charismata and less diversity in factions; thus he has to keep balancing unity and diversity. The principle of love and mutual benefit achieves both of Paul’s interests.
Paul argues that the diversity originates from a common source, and he develops that thought into the fact that God’s gifts are distributed(vs.11, 28). This seems to be important, because from the concept of distribution comes several important corollaries: 1) Gifts are given for a good purpose. 2) God designs the distribution of gifts. 3) Not every member has every gift. 4) All gifts are important. 5) Gifts are for the benefit of the community.
Verse 31a is interpreted as an imperative in the RSV and NIV. The NIV footnote acknowledges that the word could be taken as indicative. The Corinthians seem to have been eagerly desiring a particular spiritual gift; why would Paul command them to continue? The answer is in v. 31b: Paul is going to clarify for them what the best spiritual way is, laying the foundation for chapter 14, in which he encourages them to seek a spiritual gift that is more helpful.
Outline of the chapter
- Introduction to the topic of spiritual gifts. vv. 1-3
- One Spirit inspires a variety of divine gifts — vv. 4-11
- Analogy of the human body to show how diversities work together
- God distributes his gifts — vv. 28-31
Cultural and contextual background
This chapter has numerous interesting words. Some are not found elsewhere in the New Testament, because few passages discuss the topic of spiritual gifts. Interest is increased, and opinions multiply, because of current controversies about charismata.
Verses 4-6: varieties (diaireseis) may imply distribution, rather than simple variety. The related verb in v. 11 clearly means distribution (Earle 234-5, Barrett 283). Although diaireseis might have been ambiguous on first occurrence (Fee 586n13), Paul’s later use of the verb would make the meaning more clear on subsequent readings of the letter.
Verse 9: Faith “is the only charisma listed in 1 Cor. 12 that is also listed as a `fruit of the spirit’ in Gal. 5:22…. Here, however, pistis seems to mean an unusual degree of faith” (Spittler 603). “Faith cannot be that faith by which alone the Christian life is begun and maintained, for this could not be spoken of as a gift enjoyed by some Christians but not others” (Barrett 285).
Verse 10: Discernment of spirits “refers to the ability to evaluate  either the spirits themselves [cf. 1 Jn 4:1] or  spirit-inspired utterances [cf. 14:29]” (Spittler 603-4). “It was necessary (and it required another gift) to know whether the inspired speaker…was actuated by the Spirit of God, or by some demonic agency” (Barrett 286; he should have added as a third option that the person could be speaking of his own spirit).
Verse 10: Tongues. Fee lists the following as certain: It is an unintelligible Spirit-inspired utterance, directed to God and under the control of the speaker. “What is less certain is whether Paul also understood the phenomenon to be an actual language” (Fee 598). Fee gives evidence against glossolalia being a human language, but he also says the question is irrelevant.
Verse 11: “as he wills.” The Greek verb bouletai implies “the deliberate exercise of volition” (Earle 235, citing Abbott-Smith).
The message and application
When discussing spiritual gifts, the best starting point is the realization that we cannot naïvely accept all impressive gifts as having divine origin. Non-Christian religions have some dramatic phenomena, but such phenomena are not evidence of value or authenticity. Rather, value is seen in relationship to Jesus Christ our Lord. If phenomena (including supernatural, seemingly miraculous powers) work against Jesus, they are not inspired by God. That is a reliable criterion. If miracles are used in association with a false gospel or a misleading message, we must not be misled by the display but rather judge the truthfulness of the message. If the phenomena are used to promote the Lordship of Jesus Christ, they are good, and the message of Lordship is inspired.
Next, we should realize that spiritual gifts come in great variety. Even though there is only one Lord and only one Spirit, God works in every Christian, using every variety of spiritual gift. We must not expect uniformity or be misled by the diversity. Spiritual gifts are distributed with purpose and thought, according to the divine will, therefore for our good, and we are likewise to use them to serve one another.1
God inspires a large variety of abilities. We cannot expect any person to have them all, or any of them to be experienced by all Christians, because God purposely distributes them. By dividing the skills, God encourages members to work with and help one another. The human body is an apt illustration, since it contains many types of organs. This analogy helps us see how foolish it would be to conclude that we must have one particular ability or else we don’t belong. Because if the entire body were only one type of tissue, it couldn’t function. Rather, the organs are interdependent, by divine design.
Just as we shouldn’t lament our lack of a particular ability, we shouldn’t disown or exclude those who have a different ability. That’s because we are often unable to correctly judge the usefulness of various abilities. Our internal organs may be weak in some respects, but they are nevertheless essential. The point is that we can’t judge value the way God does, so we must tolerate and try to understand differences within the church. God is the author of the variety, even though he isn’t a creator of confusion. Rather, he wants the variety to have harmony and unity, not discord and schism. Members of the church need to care about one another, without haughtiness or envy. The haves and the have-nots must remember that they are part of the same body.
God has distributed within the church gifts of leadership, miracles and service. None of these gifts are universal — God distributes them as he wishes. We should seek not for the gifts of our own choosing, not for the gifts we perceive to have honor,2 but we should seek to allow God to give us greater gifts, which operate within the parameters of love and humility rather than schism.
1 “One of the great tragedies of history is that many people have thought that salvation comes by being a `member’ of some church” (Earle 235). Membership isn’t enough; we must become involved with Christ and with one another.
2 It is not for Christians to dictate to the Spirit what gifts they (or others) should have, though they should strive for the greater (and perhaps less spontaneous) gifts (verse 31). The Spirit chooses what gift shall be given to each Christian, so that none has occasion for boasting, or for a sense of inferiority” (Barrett 286).
Barrett, C.K. A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians. Harper’s New Testament Commentaries. New York: Harper & Row, 1968.
Earle, Ralph. Word Meanings in the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977, 1986.
Fee, Gordon D. The First Epistle to the Corinthians. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987.
Martin, Ralph P. “Gifts, Spiritual.” Anchor Bible Dictionary, edited by David Noel Freedman. Volume 2, pages 1015-1018. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Spittler, R.P. “Spiritual Gifts.” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, edited by Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Volume 4, pages 602-604. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988.
Author: Michael Morrison, 2010, 2013