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When Is a Gift Spiritual?

When Is a Gift Spiritual?

Dave Black writes about spiritual gifts and natural abilities. (Link on, to make a permanent link available.) I like what he said. I want to add a note. You can find more of my comments on 1 Corinthians 12-14 under the 1 Corinthians tag on this site.

The problem that I see commonly with our reading of 1 Corinthians 12 especially is that we assume that Paul is setting out to explain spiritual gifts. I don’t think that’s what he’s up to. Rather, he is using the variety of spiritual gifts as a means to talk about Christian unity, and as a way to teach discernment of all of our activities.

Everything is a gift of God. There are gifts that God places in the body of believers for the purpose of carrying out ministry. Whether these gifts are “spiritual” or not is not a function of whether they are received from God or not. All gifts come from God. The issue is under whose authority we place these gifts. If you take a look especially at 1 Corinthians 12:7-11, and then focus on 11, “All these are the work of one and the same Spirit,” you will start to get the picture, I think. This isn’t a list of “approved” spiritual gifts, and it isn’t a question of what gifts come from God and what gifts occur naturally. Nature itself belongs to God. The natural is divine by gift of its creator.

Acting under one Spirit, however, is an excellent test. The gift, whether designated spiritual or not, that is used to tear down rather than to build up is distinctly unspiritual in this sense.

Another error we often make is to extract 1 Corinthians 13 from the passage of 12-14. (Of course, the structure of the entire book is important as well.) I recently read an article, and I now can’t recall the source, that mentioned this wasn’t a wedding passage, and indeed it isn’t. Nontheless I will say it’s fine at weddings, because scripture uses the marital relationship as a metaphor to tell us about the divine relationship and also about the body of Christ. But here it is Paul’s principles for the use of God’s gifts in a spiritual way. He in turn makes those principles explicit in detailed action in 1 Corinthians 14.

We shouldn’t be complacent in reading 1 Corinthians 14. We sometimes read it as a corrective to raucous or disorganized worship services, but the worst problem we have is that we don’t have the problems that the Corinthian church had in worship. We don’t have everyone showing up with each having “a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation” (14:26, NIV). We each show up only with a backside to plant in a pew.

We need first to put our gifts into God’s hands for service, and then we can start talking about how to best use them in an edifying, i.e. building, worship service.

These three chapters are powerful, and I think incredibly relevant to the church today. We should have problems like the Corinthian church!


Community vs Supporting the Organization

Community vs Supporting the Organization

Miguel Angel Nuñez, in a post on Facebook, discusses what he would like to see in a church. Here’s an extract:

Deseo formar parte de una comunidad cristiana que base su relación en la igualdad y no en la jerarquía, en la sinceridad y no en medias verdades, en la intimidad y no en un vínculo fingido, en la aceptación y no en la aplicación de etiquetas y partidos, en el poder curativo de un Dios de amor y no en la toxicidad de un dios que atemoriza, que culpa, que persigue y que manipula.

For those who don’t read Spanish, let me provide a quick translation:

I want to be part of a Christian community that is bases its social structure in equality and not in hierarchy, in sincerity and not in half-truths, in intimacy and not in fake ties, in acceptance and not in applying labels and parties, in the healing power of God’s love and not in the toxic nature of a god who frightens, blames, drives away, and manipulates.

I like the kind of community we’re talking about, but I wonder just how it is that we can achieve it. I have experienced many different Christianity communities, either through membership or as a visitor. I have tried connecting with groups that claimed to be non-hierarchical, and in general I find that they are very hierarchical. In fact, the less explicit they are about their hierarchy, the more manipulative they become. There is nothing quite like the manipulation that takes place in a group where the lines of authority and the social connections are poorly defined.

On the other hand, manipulation does not disappear in highly structured organizations. It may be easier for the newcomer to navigate the structure, but the more subtle manipulation of the group with an undefined structure is replaced by an inflexibility of the fixed structures. Methodist churches often fall into this second category.

But I have observed something else. Often the structure that is claimed, either in writing or reported by members, is not the same as the real structure. If the claimed structure is not being followed in reality, the result can be even more manipulative than one that is completely undefined.

In any of these churches one will hear calls to community, to give up oneself, to live for others. It’s not about me. It’s not about you. It’s all about God. But when all is said and done, God seems to support some “me’s” and “you’s” more than others. Those god-favored folks for some reason seem to be the same group that tends to become leaders in any social organization.

It’s not supposed to be this way with the church.

In his first letter to the Corinthian church Paul has to address issues of immorality as well as serious errors in theology and in church practice. But he starts out with his surprise that factions have broken out in the church. There’s even a “Christ” faction. I don’t know if the groups precisely match, but this reminds me of myself in a factional dispute. I’m prone to create a “not part of any faction, just following Jesus” position, which quickly become its own faction of holier than thou folks because, well, we’re not a faction! We’re an unfaction. Or something.

Whether you’re in a home church organization or in a highly structured church organization, this human tendency toward hierarchy and faction can, and probably will, rear its ugly head.

What can we do?

The one answer that I have found is more application of the gospel message. When we apply the gospel message, we need to apply it first to ourselves. In other words, I need to get out of my faction, including the faction that says I have the answer, and start pointing to Jesus. No, not pointing to the way in which I’ve got Jesus under control so that my non-faction is the only group in the church that has things right.

The gospel teaches us that we are all outsiders. We’re not part of any “in” crowd. It is only by grace that we become part of the only community that really matters, the community that belongs to Jesus Christ.

(You can also follow me on Facebook.)

The Problem with 1 Corinthians 14 Worship

The Problem with 1 Corinthians 14 Worship

In Sunday School this morning we touched on 1 Corinthians 14 and worship. I again brought up the issue I see with the way that 1 Corinthians 14 is applied to modern worship.

On the one hand are those who use it to prevent innovation. To them the key verse is 1 Corinthians 14:40, “Let everything be done decently and in order” (KJV). And it’s generally the KJV that is quoted at this point. This means, according to many, that we don’t need deviations from the order of service. We don’t need words from people that aren’t on the plan for that morning. I’ve heard it used in complaints about excessive loud “amens” or about people raising their hands as they sing. What this has to do with the rest of the chapter, nobody is very inclined to explain. If it doesn’t look like order to you, it’s condemned by 1 Corinthians 14:40.

On the other hand, there are those who see this chapter as a series of rules for managing certain types of activities. What do we do with people who have prophetic words? What do we do with speaking in tongues? If you don’t have these specific things in your worship service, of course, you don’t really need the guidelines. Who cares if there is an interpreter present if no tongues are spoken?

I’m not interested right now in whether or not these activities belong in the modern church. Rather, I’m thinking about the background. In my opinion, the reason we don’t understand this chapter very well is that we really don’t have that many churches with the problems that the Corinthian church had.


How then should it be, brothers and sisters? When you come together each one has a psalm, each one has something to teach, each one has a revelation, each one has a tongue [perhaps message in a tongue], each one has an interpretation. Let everything be done for building up the church (14:26).

Now let’s be honest. When was the last time you went to a church service and found that everyone showed up with something constructive to provide to the worship service? If you go to such a church (and I’ve experienced this once or twice in half a century), then you are very blessed.

We look to 1 Corinthians 14 to tell us how to control something that’s really pretty dead. Here are the Corinthians, with all their problems, showing up filled with excitement and ready to contribute. The problem there was to channel the enthusiasm so that everything can be done so as to build up instead of breaking up into confusion. Thus we have a call for two or three to speak, not everyone.

Learning and Living Scripture

I think we should be asking how we could experience the problem and then we might need to think about the remedy. The problem is a good thing. It’s like the enthusiasm and excitement of a child first experiencing an outdoor ball game. The child is enthusiastic, runs around, and does things with the ball.

Now consider what would happen if we handled children at their first ball game the way we handle people in church. If we had on our church hats, we’d probably tell the kids to go sit on the sidelines until they had completed seminary or something of the sort. Only when they were fully responsible could a very small number of them get involved in actually playing ball.

So how would we get this problem? I think we need to open up the service to more people. My wife Jody regularly tells whoever will listen that every church service should include testimonies. How would we get to the point where many people have something to say? Well, this goes back to making life into worship. If we’re spending our time with God during the week, we’ll want to talk about it when we gather together with other believers. It will happen naturally.

Again, it seems to me that mission provides the driving force. If we’re involved in mission all week, we’ll be filled with the things of God, and sharing and mutual edification will come naturally.

This is one of several points of the Sharing phase of the participatory Bible study method for which this blog is named.

(See my other post on worship today, What is Cutting Edge? from my Threads blog.)

Gifts to Build the Body

Gifts to Build the Body

T. C. Robinson has a post on the gifts of the Holy Spirit in Galatians 5:13.  He makes several points that I think are important, but I did not draw from that particular passage, though I did draw from Galatians 5:22-26 with the fruit of the Spirit.  T.C. points to the importance of 1 Corinthians 13 in connection with the purpose and use of the gifts.

I wanted to connect this with a series of posts I wrote that make a similar point amongst others.  I think it is tragic that 1 Corinthians 13 is often disconnected from 12 & 14 in discussions of the gifts.

Here’s the series:

I illustrate the connection between the fruit of the Spirit and the gifts as follows:

A B&W version of that slide is used in my book Identifying Your Gifts and Service (Workbook), designed for use in a classroom setting, and I discuss the issue in the Small Group edition of the same book.

Series on Chauvinistic Passages in the Bible

Series on Chauvinistic Passages in the Bible

Christopher Smith has written a three part series on chauvinistic passages in the Bible. The passages are:

In general I agree with what he writes, though I think the balance of evidence is slightly in favor of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. I tended the other way on that passage before reading Gordon Fee in his The First Epistle to the Corinthians (NICOT) pp. 699-708. Despite accepting Fee’s arguments on that passage, however, I cannot agree that Paul was essentially egalitarian. I think he points an arrow in that way, but I don’t think he ever brought it to pass, and other passages cited in the series indicate this as well.

I would add I believe that a Biblical writer and/or church leader may be right for his time and place and yet be wrong for another.

I commend the entire series to you to read, as well as the discussion I’m having with Jeremy Pierce in the comments to this post, in which Jeremy says I’m being unfair, and I’ve said a few less than complimentary things about what he has to say. I find Jeremy extremely worthwhile to read, even when he’s annoying me. Read and judge–or enjoy–or both.

Stories in a Chronological Context

Stories in a Chronological Context

Several things over the last couple of weeks have called my attention to time.  My pastor preached about it last week, speaking of times of God’s extended silence.  I lost some of it while being sick this week which always makes me a bit tense.  Then I received a copy of 24/7:  A One Year Chronological Bible, which puts Bible readings into a chronological framework.  (I’ll get around to reviewing the Bible in a later post.)  Finally I was asked about God’s answers to prayer and the frequencies of his miraculous intervention.

As Christians when we read scripture we need to be aware of these long periods of time.  There are times to lose our sense of times, especially when our liturgy calls us to become more aware of eternity and less aware of the present.  It is rare in my experience that the liturgy is successful in this call, but it is certainly worth it, and should be more frequent.  But the very experience of eternity impinging on our limited, dare I say puny, time requires that we be aware of time.

Stories, on the other hand, tend naturally to give a false impression of time.  You cannot tell a story of a long period of time whilst truly giving the full impression of the extended time of waiting involved.  Frequently you’ll see phrases like “after a long time” or “after several months” or even “years passed.”  For the reader, whether it is a few days or a few years, they are passed in just a moment.

Which in the ordinary course of reading a story is a minor issue.  You know that time passed for the characters, and you’re glad you don’t have hundreds of pages narrating when they ate, went to bed, got up, or went to the toilet.

But when you go to reading scriptural stories, which provide us with an example (1 Corinthians 10:6), you need to think about this.  How long was it between one thing and the next.  Consider for a moment Judges 13:1:

The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and the LORD gave them into the hand of teh Philistines forty years.  (NRSV)

Now how do we normally read this story?  Well, when I got it in church, I heard immediately about the arrival of the angel and then we wandered through the story of Samson as one overwhelming chain of miracles.  Of course, with all this miraculous intervention by God, we also shook our heads over Samson’s terrible failures.  How could he, when God was so obviously with him?

But that view of the story misses two important things.  First, those forty years.  Forty years ago it was 1978, and Jimmy Carter had been president for nearly two years.  Forty years ago I was in college.  Forty years ago the PC was a pretty marginal idea.  Forty years ago there was no internet.  Forty years is a long time, and the Israelites had been under foreign domination for that length of time.

Second, there’s the lifetime of Samson.  While the story of Samson can be covered in a Sunday School lesson or so, at least as stories are commonly covered in Sunday School, we’re told that Samson judged Israel for 20 years (Judges 16:31).  Twenty years is an awful lot of lifetime in which to hide those miracle stories.  It may be that Samson spent years between those miraculous interventions wondering whether God was going to do things for him.  Yes, we’re told he always had his strength, but it seems to have come into play only rarely.  All things considered, I would guess that Sampson did often long for God’s more direct intervention

We can apply this principle to the entire Bible story.  I’m frequently asked why God doesn’t act today in the way he acted in Bible times.  Which Bible times?  Do we refer to the hundreds of hears the Israelites spent in slavery in Egypt?  Or perhaps we’re looking for century after century of the divided kingdom.  Maybe instead we should think about the 400 years or so from the time of the return from the exile to the opening pages of the New Testament.  Sure, we have a few interventions under the Maccabbees, but would you really want to suffer what those guys did in order to get a couple of divine interventions?

My point here is certainly not that we should pray less, or ask less of God, nor is it to cut off hope.  More importantly, I think we need to cut off excuses.  We shouldn’t claim that God is more absent from our lives than he was from the lives of people in “Bible times.”

Yes, there are moments in time when God’s intervention is pretty frequent, but even then remember that we are being told a few stories that cover a long time.  The book of Acts, for example, relates around 30 years of the history of the early church.  If we spread the number of miracles recorded in Acts over 30 years of the modern church, is it possible that people would complain bitterly about God’s absence?

Stories are wonderful.  They can be encouraging or instructive.  But in the Bible they form part of a history of how God has intervened.  Understanding how they fit into time can be very important as we try to learn the lessons they offer for our lives.

Easter Evening, 2005

Easter Evening, 2005

Easter Evening, Year A

March 27, 2005

I didn’t manage to restart these notes before Lent as I had planned and stated on the web page, but they are restarted now. I am no longer including my working translation so I can focus more on the interpretive process. Where I have worked such translations over enough, they will be found on my Totally Free Bible Version page, a project to work on Bible translation in public with input from anybody and everybody and the result free to anybody. Whether there is an entry there or not, I will include a link to a translation of the passage on the Bible Gateway, normally from the Contemporary English Version (CEV). I apologize for the long break in posting these notes, and hope the new style will be helpful.

At the bottom of the page is a form for posting response notes. This will allow readers to add their own comments and thoughts.

  • Isaiah 25:6-9
    Isaiah’s prophecy of the whole world coming to know the Lord.
  • Psalm 114
    A song of passover celebration.
  • 1 Corinthians 5:6b-8
    Response in our lives to Christ’s passover sacrifice–unleavened bread is equated to purity.
  • Luke 24:13-49
    The walk to Emmaus–What do you do when events confuse you?

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Property May Stay with Breakaway Churches

Property May Stay with Breakaway Churches

According to a story on, some breakaway Episcopal churches in Virginia may be able to keep their property rather than having it go to the denomination.

This is a ruling on only one point, and it is based on a law from just after the civil war when there were many issues of this type in the southern states. It will only be applicable in Virginia. It is nonetheless good news for those congregations.

While I do not sympathize with all the reasons why these congregations are separating from their denomination, I do think it is foolish and not very Christlike for the denomination to try to keep the property. In many jurisdictions, the property will legally belong to the denomination, but when a congregation separates, the denomination is likely to end up with empty property. They can, of course, sell it for cash, which provides them with some resources, but they do so at the cost of such good will as may remain. They also provide a spectacle of bad behavior for the world.

As I did when I wrote about this type of issue before, I will quote Paul to the Corinthians: “Wouldn’t it be better to be wronged” (1 Corinthians 6:7)?

Spiritual Gifts in 1 Corinthians 1:7

Spiritual Gifts in 1 Corinthians 1:7

The lectionary passages for Epiphany 2 (Cycle A) include 1 Corinthians 1:1-9. In verse seven, we have the phrase “spiritual gift.” It’s interesting to note which word is used for “spiritual gift”–in this case charisma. This is not the word used in 1 Corinthians 12:1 and 14:1, which both use pneumatikos.

A number of interpreters have suggested that in 1 Corinthians 12:1, pneumatikos should be translated either “spiritual people” or “spiritual matters.” I suggested in a previous post that, despite the translation hardships it presents, the same thing is true of 1 Corinthians 14:1.

Part of my reasoning for that is that in no other case does the use of pneumatikos refer to spiritual gifts. It refers to spirituality, but not specifically to spiritual gifts. They are all called charismata. This verse, 1 Corinthians 1:7, reminds us of that, in the very book in which those other passages occur.

Why is this important? I think it strongly reminds us that God’s gifts come by God’s grace and are not ours somehow by spiritual nature. Gifts should always be related to grace–received by grace, used graciously, and intended for the spread of God’s grace.

In addition, 1 Corinthians 1:7 again points out to us the fact that gifts are given to the church. They equip the church for its work of ministry. They are not an individual possession that may be hoarded.