“Body Dysfunctions” 1 Corinthians 12:1-31
I grew up in a church where every Sunday was pretty much the same. We sang old hymns. We read the Bible. We stood during the (long) congregational prayer. We sat still and listened to sermons (though I frequently wrote notes to my friends on my bulletin). And after a closing blessing, we solemnly filed out of the sanctuary. We all knew what to expect. But then I went to college and I was introduced to a very different church experience. There was freedom and excitement and enthusiasm. People lifted their hands, the music was joyful and sometimes there was even dancing in the aisles. Sometimes people were healed. Often, people would speak in tongues that no one seemed to understand–except occasionally when someone would interpret. And there was no bulletin! Each week, there was a sense of anticipation and wonder. One never knew exactly what would happen next. The experience was liberating for me and I wanted to experience more.
It was during this time that I was told about the “baptism of the Spirit”. All the joy and exuberance was because people had been filled with the Spirit. I wanted it. So some friends of mine gathered around me, laid hands on me and prayed that I, too, would receive the baptism of the Spirit. We waited. We continued to pray that God’s spirit would fall. We waited some more. We were waiting for me to receive the evidence that our prayers were answered. I was supposed to speak in tongues. I didn’t. I wanted to. I was told that I needed “just let it happen.” Honestly, I tried. I followed all their instructions. I babbled to “prime the pump.” Nothing happened. I needed to persevere. I persevered. Still nothing happened.
Since I didn’t receive the gift of tongues, and God says, “ask and you shall receive,” obviously something had to be wrong with me. Maybe, I didn’t have enough faith. Maybe I was blocking the movement of the Spirit as a result of some sin. I confessed every sin I could think of. I read the Bible cover to cover so I would better know God’s will. I learned all I could about the gifts of the Spirit. I prayed–hard. I still didn’t speak in tongues. Though no one said it, I felt like a second-class Christian. There were other gifts of the Spirit, but speaking in tongues was THE evidence I expected. It was the evidence that everyone else around me expected. It was the one gift above all others that mattered; that made my infilling of the Spirit valid.
Now that I have matured in my walk in the Spirit, I realize how dysfunctional my college experience had been. Because there was so much focus on what I had not received, no one could appreciate what I had received–gifts that ultimately propelled me into pastoral ministry and prepared me to help others on their spiritual journey. The problem was not that people were speaking in tongues–a legitimate expression of the Spirit’s presence in person’s life, but that speaking in tongues was held up as the only legitimate expression of the Spirit’s presence and as the pinnacle of personal spirituality. Along the way I discovered that God had much more to say about spiritual fruit as evidence of the Sprit’s presence. An over-emphasis on spiritual gifts–especially elevating one gift above all others–was evidence, not of spiritual maturity but of spiritual dysfunction.
The church at Corinth exemplified this very dysfunction. They too were exalting one gift over all others and were minimizing the other manifestations of the Spirit. And they were minimizing those members of the church that did not show evidence of greatest spiritual gift–the gift of speaking in tongues—especially “angelic tongues”. Those who spoke in tongues were more spiritual than those who did not. Those who did not speak in tongues were inconsequential and unnecessary. Possession of THE gift led to spiritual pride and social arrogance. They might as have well worn “I’m better than you” buttons.
Such dysfunction ultimately destroys the church and prevents it from fulfilling its God-given mission. Paul writes to clarify in no uncertain terms that there are MANY spiritual gifts from God and ALL gifts are necessary to the healthy function of the church. AND the Spirit distributes the gifts not on the basis of some maturity hierarchy, but as the Spirit wills. Not every member will be a prophet. Not every member will speak in tongues. (Why hadn’t my college friends read that to me?) Not every member will have the ability to heal. Therefore, we need each other and the full range of spiritual gifts.
There is unity within the body of Christ, for we are all baptized by the Spirit into one body, but that does not require uniformity. In fact, it requires many parts. To illustrate his point, Paul used the analogy of the human body–a single body made up of many parts–some visible, some protected inside the body, some covered out of modesty, some seemingly inconsequential. However, ALL parts are indeed needed. To exalt one gift or one calling or one perspective over all others will only result in spiritual disability. To denigrate certain parts just because they are not visible or because they are small; to say to any part, “I don’t need you,” is the height of arrogance.
Their hierarchical understanding about spiritual gifts had also led them to a hierarchical attitude toward those who possessed the lesser gifts. The church had once again divided itself into a group of “haves” (they have the gift) and the “have-nots” (they have not the gift). This was beyond social class structure–another issue in the church. Now the church was creating a spiritual class structure! And the “haves” had little concern about the well-being of the “have-nots”.
The purpose of spiritual gifts–all the gifts–is for the upbuilding of the entire church. It is for the common good. Mutual edification can only occur in an atmosphere of humility and love (the more excellent way of 1 Corinthians 13). For the common good to flourish, we must treat each other as though they are God’s gift to us.
The church that God means for us to be is a church that values diversity of gifts and diversity of people demonstrated through respect, mutual care and equality. Unfortunately, many churches, while giving lip service to diversity, have actually pursued segregation. One of the foundational principles of the Church Growth Movement is that churches can only grow in homogeneous groupings of people. In a book entitled, Our Kind of People, C. Peter Wager wrote, “men like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic or class barriers”. Therefore, segregated churches based on socio-economics, education, race, language, generation and even spiritual gifts have been (and continue to be) planted throughout America. Rather than the church embracing diversity and the gifts of different cultures, experiences and perspectives, the church has chosen instead to organize itself on the principle of “separate but equal” (which is never truly equal) and on the de facto statement, “I don’t need you.” This structure has resulted in mega-churches and mega-church wannabes that have little power to challenge the status quo. And because the body of Christ is not engaging the gifts of all the members, the result is a church that has actually lost its voice. We can hardly speak about systemic injustice when our own systems mirror the injustice.
The church needs a reformation which affirms the need for all gifts, experiences and perspectives. The church needs to make new choices about welcome and inclusion. The church needs a structure that allows for those of “lesser gifts” to do their part with great respect and honor. While diversity of people and gifts within a denomination or a local church is challenging, it is what God desires. Isn’t that why God gave us the Spirit in the first place–to empower us to do God’s will in the world and to be God’s witnesses across all lines of division?