In our evening church gathering, we have been working through 1 Corinthians. So recently I was reading 1 Cor 12 again. Sometimes we go to this passage looking for information about God's gifts to individuals, or to talk about the diversity amongst the people of God. Yet what strikes me about this particular section, is that it is more about unity and oneness in Christ, despite the diversity. And this makes sense when it seems that the church Paul was addressing was quite fragmented and divided (cf. 1 Cor 1:10-13, 1 Cor 3:1-4), and seemed to use the possession of particular gifts as a claim to superiority or authority (cf. 1 Cor 4:7; this seems to be a general problem with the church in a number of areas, and in chapters 12 to 14, the issue seems to focus on those who claim superiority or authority because they can speak in tongues). Instead of emphasising the value of gifts among Christ's people, Paul needs to emphasise that they are all one, and need to live as a unified community, rather than practising some kind of caste system based on gifting.
I take 1 Cor 12:3 to introduce this emphasis. God does make a significant distinction between people. But it is not based on what special gift they have from His Spirit. It is based on whether or not they have the Spirit at all, whether or not they follow Jesus at all. And if they do follow Jesus, if they do have the Spirit, then they are to be counted as fellow-members in the family of God, and none are to be despised, excluded or competed against. It is not that Paul wants them to have a low view of those who do not yet follow Jesus, but he wants them to have a high view of everyone else who does follow Jesus.
As we read through the rest of chapter 12, we should count how many times Paul uses words like 'one' and 'same'. And as we do this, and note this important emphasis in the Scriptures, we should also ask ourselves, 'How important to me is unity in Christ's church, because it is certainly important to Christ?'
I once heard someone comment that the priority of individualism was advanced by the Reformation (eg Luther's "Here I stand" and all that). There is certainly value in freedom of speech and opinion, and the significance of the value of the individual is not to be dismissed (we don't want utilitarianism either). But there is also an ugly flip side that over-emphasises the individual, and under-rates the community. And as Christians (especially as influenced by Western thinking?), we need to recapture the importance of unity amongst the wider Christian family, and the value of that community. In my experience, too often we still talk about 'us and them', whether in terms of denominational patriotism, or of loyalty to the local church we are part of, or of our own particular grouping within or across denominations. How often have we heard other Christians (even myself!) emphasise 'I'm a Pentecostal', 'I speak in tongues', 'I'm an Evangelical', 'I'm Reformed', 'I studied at this or that Theological College' etc etc. Is that what Jesus wants of us?
Of course we have to make some distinctions. There is a difference between truth and error. There are wrong understandings of Bible passages as well as correct ones. And in our imperfect existence as Christ's body, probably there is a place for different expressions (even differently labelled ones) of Christ's people, to expedite kingdom work and gospel ministry. However, somehow we have to do this while avoiding the 'us and them' mentality, and without looking down our noses at Christians in other groups. Somehow being able to still foster cooperation and partnerships amongst us all.
Sometimes we talk about how we can better do our part in more people becoming Christians, trusting Jesus, believing the gospel and following Christ. We ask, 'What sort of things can we do to make our evangelism more effective?' In our morning church gathering today, we were also reminded about another verse which gives a challenging answer to these kinds of questions, and also strikingly highlights the point of this post: 'I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their Word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.' (John 17:20-21; NJKV)
[PS: I remember doing a Bible talk a few years ago on 1 Corinthians 12. I haven't reviewed it recently, but I've uploaded a copy of the audio here anyway :-D ]