One Spirit for the one body of Christ.

So stop dividing the body for the sake of your particular gift!

1 Corinthians 12.4-27

The way pagans in the first century understood the supernatural, there were many different supernatural abilities—and each ability was produced by a different spirit.

  • If you wanted healing power, you prayed to Apollo.
  • For wisdom, Athena.
  • For speaking in tongues, Dionysius.
  • For mighty acts of power, Zeus.

You get the idea. Different abilities require the intercession of different gods. Or lesser gods, little helper gods, personal gods, known as daimónia, from which we get our word “demon.” Nope, not real gods. Unclean spirits.

Of course, when these gods did no good, as was usually the case, you do realize there were other gods. Apollo wasn’t the only Greco-Roman healing god. There was Asklipiós, Panákia, and Ygihía. And if the Greco-Roman gods didn’t work, there were always the Egyptian gods, the Persian gods, the Norse gods…

Today’s pagans still think this way. First they try western medicine. If the doctor’s no help, they go find a second opinion. If no doctor can help, often they keep trying: They look up researchers who are trying experimental cures. (Some are legitimate; some are cranks who try untested herbal remedies, vitamin therapies, or homeopathic cures.) They dabble in non-western medicine, like traditional Chinese or American Indian methods. They try psychic healers, medicine men, witch doctors. Whatever it takes to get well.

But Christians properly understand regardless of the method, there’s only one source of our life and well-being: God.

1 Corinthians 12.4-6 KWL
4 And there are a diversity of supernatural things—and the same Holy Spirit;
5 a diversity of ministries—and the same Lord;
6 a diversity of activities—and the same God activating all of them in all of us.

The doctors at the hospital, the faith healers, the herbalists: They can only cure you if God granted ’em the knowledge to diagnose your ailment, the scientific technique to treat you, or the supernatural power to heal you. If they don’t depend on any of those things, you’re not getting cured. At best, you’ll heal up naturally, and think your quack cured you. At worst, you’ll get tricked into thinking you were cured, and die anyway.

Same with any other supernatural thing you encounter. It was all done by God. Otherwise it was a trick. Devilish trick or human trick; doesn’t matter. ’Cause there’s only one Holy Spirit who dispenses the power. There are no others.

Multiple acts—through multiple Christians.

But today I wanna focus on the fact the Holy Spirit has a habit of granting these different abilities, not to one mighty individual like Christ Jesus, but to multiple Christians.

Not that he can’t have one apostle do everything when absolutely necessary. We see the Spirit do this in Christ Jesus; and lest you think he’s an extra-special exception to the rule ’cause he’s Jesus, we sorta see Simon Peter do a lot of these things in Acts. Paul too. When it turns out there are no other apostles around with the requisite faith, the Spirit’s willing to work through just the one person. But that’s not his preferred nor usual m.o. He’d rather spread out his gifts among several different Christians.

1 Corinthians 12.7-11 KWL
7 Each individual is given an individual revelation of the Spirit—to bring together.
8 For by the Spirit, while a word of wisdom is given to one,
by the same Spirit, a word of knowledge is given to another.
9 To someone else, by the same Spirit, faith.
To another, by the one Spirit, healing gifts.
10 To another, powerful activity.
To another, prophecy.
To another, the ability to judge spiritual things.
To someone else, families of tongues.
To another, interpretation of tongues.
11 One and the same Spirit acts in all these things,
dividing them to each of his own people however he wants.

The reason the Spirit’s doing this is because he’s trying to foster interdependence. He wants us to serve one another. Not have one person with all the supernatural ability, obligating everyone to be dependent on that one person. Power corrupts, y’know. Even when it’s God’s power: He can handle it, but we don’t do so well. One person without checks and balances tends to get a little full of themselves. Sometimes a little tyrannical. So the Spirit spreads his power around.

One way-too-common problem we see among Christians (particularly in the United States) is competition. Within our churches, we have a diversity of ministries and supernatural gifts. As we should. But far too often, these ministries compete with one another.

  • Prophets consider their ministry the most important. After all, they share God’s communiqués with everyone.
  • Teachers push Christian education above all other ministries: How else are we gonna build up Christians?
  • Evangelists, considering they’re trying to share good news with everyone they can, consider their job essential.
  • Prayer leaders figure a church which doesn’t pray is so screwed.
  • Faith healers: They wanna see people get healed—and saved, in that sense.

And so on. Sometimes they trick the head pastor into ceding power to them through this “fivefold ministry” bushwa—even though they should go through proper channels and become proper elders and associate pastors. Maturity, not ability, makes us eligible for Christian leadership. Never the other way round.

Yes, each of these areas are important. But most important? That’s not how God’s kingdom is supposed to work. We don’t demand our ministries take priority over one another. We serve one another. Mk 10.42-45

Hey, in the Greco-Roman religion it was a thousand times worse. They weren’t even serving the same god. Yes, in their myths the gods were related, and Zeus was king. The myths were written to keep these different worshipers from fighting: Hey, we’re kinda on the same team! But in practice it didn’t work. Each was devoted to a separate, independent god. Especially when their daimónia appeared to grant ’em that god’s power—and devils don’t do cooperation.

Cooperation is the Holy Spirit’s thing. That’s his fruit: Love, patience, kindness, grace, and unity. The devils’ fruit is “healthy competition”—which, beneath the surface, is seldom healthy.

This is why Paul had to emphasize the Spirit’s purpose of spreading around these gifts: Interdependence. Unity. Community. My supernatural gifts aren’t granted to make me important or impressive: They’re to make me serve others more effectively. To make me a better helper, a better minister. To make me useful to the kingdom—to Christ’s body.

What limbs of the body isn’t about.

Paul segued immediately from his list of supernatural gifts, to a discussion on Christ’s body—and how each of us is a limb of it.

These concepts are meant to be studied together. Problem is, Christians who wanna talk about the supernatural don’t feel “limbs of the body” sounds all that supernatural, so we skip it. Likewise Christians who wanna talk about being different parts of Christ’s body, don’t always care to talk about the supernatural. I grew up in a cessationist church, which loved this “parts of Christ’s body” passage—but skipped all the miracle stuff. These two ideas often get discussed separately. Hence out of context.

I’ve heard way too many sermons where the preacher followed up with, “Now, think about which part of the body you are.” Add a bit of literalism to this idea, and you’ll have Christians thinking, “Am I an arm? An eye? A foot? Which body part best describes my ministry?” If you’re a missionary who travels to preach Jesus, does this make you a foot? If I study a lot, does this make me an eye?

In seminary, one of my professors gave us a writing assignment to explain which body part we are. Without a lot of thought, a friend of mine concluded he was the penis. ’Cause when the hand of God comes upon him, he spreads the seed of the gospel.

“That’s so wrong,” I responded, “and I double-dog dare you to present it in class.”

And he did. After the shock, then laughter, subsided, the professor—somewhat uncomfortably—admitted this passage is only an analogy after all.

My point in telling you this filthy little story is to remind you of this. It’s an analogy. We can stretch analogies only so far before we get horribly off track. The context of this passage is supernatural gifts. Not playing “Which body part are you?”

Oh yeah, the passage:

1 Corinthians 12.12-27 KWL
12 It’s like this: One body has many limbs, and the limbs compose one body.
Christ’s the same way: 13 We were baptized by one Spirit into one body.
Whether Jews, Greeks, slaves, or citizens, we were all given one Spirit to drink.
14 The body isn’t one limb, but many.
15 Had the foot said, “Since I’m no hand, I’m not of the body,” this doesn’t make it not of the body.
16 Had the ear said, “Since I’m no eye, I’m not of the body,” this doesn’t make it not of the body.
17 If an eye were the whole body, where’s the hearing?
If hearing were all, where’s the sense of smell?
18 Now, God put each one of the limbs in the body as he wanted.
19 If one limb was all, how’s that a body? 20 Yet now, many limbs and one body.
21 The eye can’t tell the hand, “I’ve no use for you.” Nor the head to the feet, “I’ve no use for you.”
22 On the contrary: Limbs thought weak are necessary for the body.
23 We take more care with the parts of the body we find embarrassing.
We take pains to conceal the parts of the body we find unpresentable.
24 Those pains are inconvenient, but God put the body together so we’d be prepared for it—
25 not to divide the body, but to make the limbs care for one another.
26 If one limb suffers, all limbs suffer together. If one limb excels, all limbs rejoice together.
27 And you’re Christ’s body—parts of a limb.

Now, in context, how do we see miracle-working Christians put this “Since I’m no hand, I’m not of the body” into practice? Simple: Ministries which focus on only one thing, detached from denominations and church bodies.

The one-limb “body” of parachurch ministries.

Say a “foot” decides, “I have the gift of prophecy. This gift is so useful, so special, so authoritative, I shouldn’t limit myself to this one church. Nor should I suffer under the oversight of the ‘eyes’ of the church. I answer to the Holy Spirit alone. I’m not part of the body.” And yet isn’t that exactly what happens? There are go-it-alone, unaccountable prophetic ministries, connected with no church because the prophets don’t wanna be held back by the body. They ask donors to send their tithes to them, not their home churches. In so doing they drain resources from the body to support their freakish one-limb bodies.

Not to knock on prophets. Well, just prophets. Evangelists do it too. So do teaching ministries. So do missionaries. So do traveling faith healers. So do lots of parachurch ministries.

Now yes, some of these parachurch ministries appear to do some great things. Certain evangelism ministries do a great job sharing Jesus with the masses. But most of ’em flounder at follow-up. After they got people to confess Jesus as Lord, they do a crappy job of plugging these people into local church families.

And it’s these church families—not the evangelistic crusade—where people really become Christians. Where they go through the day-to-day nuts-and-bolts life of following Jesus. When evangelists are part of a church, or work hand-in-hand with them, this isn’t a problem at all: The newbies go directly into the church and get mentored. But evangelists who are only in town to hold a revival service, then leave: They drop the ball. They’re only one body part. They’re not part of the body.

Likewise faith-healing ministries. Yeah, they cure people. Yeah, they clear all the critters out of a demoniac. But it’s only a matter of time before the critters come back with friends, Mt 12.45 and if the ex-demoniac isn’t Christian, things are gonna get way worse. How’s their follow-up? Do they have any follow-up? Or do they assume they’re only ministering to people who are Christian already? They shouldn’t.

I’ve also seen many a prophetic ministry which hands out God’s word, yet never sticks around to see whether it’s implemented—nor answer for the many times their prophecies never come to anything. Or traveling prayer ministries which spend a whole lot of time praying over stuff, but never stick around to see whether their prayers changed a thing, and too often they really didn’t. ’Cause they didn’t really want the prayers answered. They just enjoyed the self-satisfaction which comes from thinking prayer is the only effort God expects of us.

I’ve heard it argued—more than once—how these ministries have to be independent: They tried to work within a church, but the leadership just didn’t understand their gifts. Or they always felt under-funded, and needed to break out and contact donors directly. Or how it’s way more efficient if they go it alone.

All I can tell ’em is Jesus emphasizes unity over efficiency.

If Jesus wanted his entire body to be an eye or ear, he’d have made it that way. He didn’t. The method by which he has us spread his kingdom—go make disciples and teach them everything he taught us Mt 28.19-20 —is actually not efficient, by human standards. But y’know, if you have an infinite supply of power, you don’t worry about your electric bills. Jesus doesn’t care about efficiency. He cares about unity. He wants us to be one, like he and his Father are one. Jn 17.21

So that means no splitting the body. Especially over gifts. The Spirit grants gifts so we can minister to all these unappreciative people in our Christian families. Not minister to appreciative strangers who will only embrace our gifts… and ignore our Lord.