How we are to understand chapters 12-14 of First Corinthians

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Chapters 12-14 of I Corinthians are to be understood in the light of their context and according to the analogy of faith. These chapters deal with the gifts of grace (χαρίσματα) and the Ministerial Office. There were gifts of grace which God gave to both men and women, but He committed the public ministry only to men who were qualified and fit for the office.

Through the apostles God gave special gifts of grace to certain people. He gave them to both men and women, as He had promised in the book of Joel and as the Bible confirms. Acts 2:17: "your sons and your daughters shall prophesy"; Acts 21:9: "four daughters... which did prophesy". In the first letter to the Corinthians we note that also in Corinth God had given special gifts of grace to women. "But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head... For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels", 1 Cor. 11:5,10. This prophesying was foretelling the future (compare Acts 21:9) or revealing some other secret matter, as stated in 1 Cor. 14:24: "But if they all prophesy, and there come in one that believeth not, or one unlearned, he is convinced of all, he is judged of all." Women were not permitted to engage in that prophesying, which was a part of the Ministerial Office. "It is not permitted unto them to speak... for it is a shame for women to speak in the church", 1 Cor. 14:34-35. The Greek word λαλέω "to speak" is often used as a term for preaching and teaching in the New Testament. Examples of this are the following: 2 Cor. 4:13: Referring to preaching, Paul says: "I believed, and therefore have I spoken." In the context of this passage Paul speaks of "us" or preachers and "you" or hearers. James 5:10: "The prophets who have spoken in the name of the Lord". 1 Pet. 4:11: "If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God." 1 Thess. 2:2,4,16: "We were bold in our God to speak unto you the Gospel of God with much contention... but we were allowed of God to be put in trust with the Gospel, even so we speak; not as pleasing men, but God, which trieth our hearts... forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they might be saved." Also as a term for the work of the Holy Spirit: John 16:13,15.

It is perhaps necessary to mention that when the Bible and the Lutheran Confessions speak of preachers, they do not refer to laypreachers, but to those who are in the Ministerial Office and are proclaiming God's Word.

Paul mentions that there were three branches of the Ministerial Office in the Corinthian congregation: "And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondly prophets, thirdly teachers (διδασκάλους)", (1 Cor. 12:28). In the letter to the Ephesians Paul writes: "And He gave some, apostles; and some, prophets, and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers (τοὺς δὲ ποιμένας καὶ διδασκάλους)", Eph. 4:11. The lists are the same except for the fact that evangelists are mentioned in the letter to the Ephesians, whereas they are not mentioned in 1 Corinthians. Pastors and teachers refer to the same people. In the original test they have a joint article. That there is no mention of evangelists in 1 Cor. 12:28 can be explained by the fact that 1 Cor. deals with the situation in Corinth, whereas Eph. 4:11 speaks more generally of the "edifying of the body of Christ". Another possible explanation for this may be that the lists do not purport to be all-inclusive lists of duties, but as the apostles did all kinds of work - were apostles, evangelists (1 Cor. 4:15) pastors (John 21:15-17) and teachers (1 Cor. 14:19) - so too the work of an evangelist could also have included the duties of a teacher-cathecist and pastor. Timothy was both a pastor and evangelist at the same time, 2 Tim. 4:1-5. When new members were joining the congregation, they were first given instruction for Baptism. This, if anything, was the work of an evangelist.

The duty of the prophets who were in the Ministerial Office was to speak "unto men to edification, and exhortation and comfort." (1 Cor. 14:3), also so "that all may learn" (1 Cor. 14:31).

From lists such as these we cannot conclude that the Ministerial Office of each congregation had to have the same kind of apportionment of duties, or that there was a certain individual in charge of each office. Nor can we say that a congregation is not permitted to arrange the care of the Ministerial Office in other ways, for example having: a preacher, a spiritual care giver, someone who explains the Scriptures or a "prophet", a teacher of the catechism who teaches those who wish to join the congregation as well as those who are already members, an evangelist whose duty is to win those outside the church and to induce them to receive catechetical instruction, a teacher of theology for those who wish to enter the Ministerial Office, and someone who organizes, coordinates and directs all this and sees to it that all the responsibilities of the Ministerial Office are fulfilled. All of these could be different individuals, who had all received the necessary general theological training and had specialized according to the gifts given to him. Each would have received to the Ministerial Office for life, the area and field of service of which could be changed by a new call. A collegial type of ministry of this sort would, of course, presuppose the ability to work together, and the ability to keep each one's field of service separate from the other, so that no one would become involved in someone else's office. The members of the congregation should also be aware of the prevailing situation and know without difficulty, whom they should approach in what matters, or who could direct them to the proper person. A good practice, especially when there is a continuing crying need of pastors, is the century-old practice that one or two pastors together take care of the entire Ministerial Office of a congregation.

In referring to the Corinthian congregation Paul mentions three different subjects: "gifts of grace" (χαρίσματα), "administrations" (διακονίαι) and "manifestations of the Spirit" (ενεργηματα) (1 Cor. 12:4-6,10). Those who were in office, as well as others, had charismatic gifts. Those who were in Office used these gifts privately as well as in the congregation for the edification of the congregation. The gifts and the abilities which God today gives to pastors as subjects to faith through education, diligent study of God's Word, learning, prayer, training, trials and experience, and of which Paul especially speaks in his epistles to Timothy and Titus, at that time were given mediately as special gifts of the Holy Spirit through the apostles. In addition to the fact that they proved that Paul was a genuine apostle, they helped the congregation begin its activity during that time of great transition. In the pastoral epistles these special miraculous gifts are not presented as qualifications for the pastoral office, but one becomes qualified in the above-mentioned ways. See Franz Pieper, Christian Dogmatics.

The apostle writes: "Covet earnestly the best gifts, and yet show I you a more excellent way", 1 Cor. 12:31. The best gifts of grace are those that edify the congregation. An incomparable avenue in the building up of a congregation is genuine love of which the apostle speaks in the following chapter. Even the greatest gifts are nothing in the absence of love. The true Word does its work, but without love "I am nothing" (1 Cor. 13:2). A pastor needs love for his flock.

What was the nature of the speaking in tongues at Corinth? Of this we have no specific information. Paulc speaks of a genuine language, which is made up of words and which can be translated. See: 1 Cor. 14:19: "ten thousand words" and 1 Cor. 14:27: "let one interpret" (διερμηνευέτω). The church father, Chrysostom (354 - 407) says that in his time it was no longer known what the nature of the speaking in tongues in Corinth was like. In view of this, it is not possible to prove that the automatically ocurring "speaking in tongues" of today is the same phenomenon as that at Corinth and that it is a miraculous gift of the Holy Spirit. Chrysostom's comment also indicates that the phenomenon had already ceased long before his time.

Today one confronts often the idea, that church life today should be organised according to Corinth. Then certain important things have not been seen. The special gifts in Corinth were conveyed through apostle Paul and belonged to that time of transition, when Christians were moving to the NT area. The gifts were not intended to continue to the end of the world. But the public pastoral Ministry was to continue to the end of the world. The gifts needed in the Pastoral Office God does not bestow now indirectly. In Corinth there were also misuse and disorder in church life, so that the apostle had to rectify certain things.

The teaching given by the apostle to the Corinthians shouws among other things that following positive things should prevail in our churches:
  • The Word of God should dwell richly among us. 
  • Preaching Christ crucified is to be the central point of our teaching. 
  • Pastors should have love to souls as their motif. 
  • The aim of the Office is build the church. 
  • Teaching is to be proved by the written Word of God. 
  • In the church are to prevail peace and good order. 
  • The church respects the whole Word of God, also creation orders, and acts accordingly.