One Spirit for the one body of Christ.

1 Corinthians 12.4-27.

The way first-century pagans understood the supernatural, there were many supernatural abilities… but each of ’em 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.

The Greek pantheon included a lot of gods, so if Apollo got ’em nowhere, they could also pray to Asklipiós, Panákia, and Ygihía. And frequently Greeks didn’t limit themselves to only Greek gods: If they got word the Egyptian or Persian or Arabian or Norse gods actually got stuff done, they’d try ’em out. Or if they figured the big gods were too busy, they’d try out lesser gods, personal gods, helper gods, known as δαιμόνια/demónia, from which we get our word demon. But nope, they’re not capital-G gods. Just unclean spirits.

Today’s pagans still think this way. If sick, they might try western medicine: They’ll grab some painkillers at the pharmacy, and maybe visit the doctor (unless they live in the United States and can’t afford it, so they Google their symptoms and try to diagnose themselves). If the doctor’s no help, they seek a second opinion. If no doctor can help, they look up researchers who are testing experimental cures—some legitimate, some very much not. Or they check out non-western medicine, like traditional Chinese or American Indian methods. Or 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 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 in all.

The doctors at the hospital, the faith healers, the herbalists: They can only cure you if God grants ’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 all these things—when absolutely necessary. ’Cause we see the Spirit do this in both Christ Jesus and the first apostles. In Acts, both Simon Peter and Paul had to make up for the fact there weren’t enough Christians around with the requisite faith. Ideally the Spirit works diverse things with a diverse group… but sometimes the Spirit’s gotta take what he can get, and sometimes he’s gotta do everything through only one person. Which is not his preferred method; there’s too great a risk of starting a cult around the one gifted person. So the Spirit would rather spread out his gifts among several different Christians.

1 Corinthians 12.7-11 KWL
7 Each individual is given a different revelation of the Spirit—to bring us 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 By the same Spirit, to someone else, faith.
By the one Spirit, to another, healing gifts.
10 To another, powerful activity.
To another, prophecy.
To another, judgment of 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 they were heavily dependent on demónia; devils don’t do cooperation. Cooperation’s the Holy Spirit’s thing. So’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 and Sosthenes 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.

The limbs of Christ: What they’re not 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 absolutely loved to talk about being parts of Christ’s body, and absolutely avoided all the supernatural stuff in its context.

I’ve also heard way too many sermons where the preacher asked us, “So which part of the body are you?” Add some literalism to the idea, and we get Christians thinking, “Hm, 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. With no thought at all (as you’ll see), a friend of mine decided 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 am I?”

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 any 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.” Isn’t that exactly what happens?

There are plenty of go-it-alone, unaccountable prophetic ministries, connected with no church because the prophets don’t care to be held back by anyone. 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… ’cause teaching ministries do it too. As do apologetics ministries, evangelistic organizations, traveling faith healers, parachurch ministries, independent missionaries, and many a parachurch organization. Yes, some of these parachurch groups do great things; they help the needy, share the gospel, and all sorts of good deeds. But most of ’em are just floundering, ’cause most of their time is spent trying to raise money. Often money for the ministry, but too often, money so the founders don’t need to take a day job, and can do this full-time. You know, unlike Paul and his team.

Likewise a lot of these minstries suck at followup: Once they help people, they do a sucky job of plugging people into local church families. It’s these church families—not the outreaches—where people really become Christian. 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 a plucked-out eyeball, 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 very inefficient by human standards. But y’know, when 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.