Body Works (1 Cor. 12) 1: Diversity
Recently, I was speaking in a conference on 1 Corinthians 12. This blog post, and two subsequent ones, are based on what I shared in that context. The image of the body of Christ is rich and three truths about it jump out from this familiar chapter.
In this post, I want to think about diversity. This is the main point of 1 Corinthians 12 verses 4 to 14, which closes with the line, “the body is not made up of one part but of many”. It is clear from this passage that diverse gifts are given to different individuals. But they are all given for the common good. So, what are spiritual gifts?
I confess that in the past I got this wrong. I uncritically bought into assessment tools supposed to help people find their spiritual gifts. Maybe you’ve experienced them too. I think they have some value, but they tend to describe gifts as abilities God gives to people, and then they tell me that I must discover my gifts and other people have a responsibility to give me the opportunity to use them in my ministry.
I hope you see the problem. It is so individualistic.
When we think like this, it’s like this. Please note, it’s a fictional scenario. We are talking after church over a cup of coffee, and see me clutching a bundle of £20 notes. I say, “Look at this big wad of cash, aren’t I great!” You ask me, “Where did you get it?” I say, “Oh, brother [insert name] gave it to me. Aren’t I great?” You’re intrigued, “What did you do to earn it?” They say, “Nothing! In fact, I insulted him, but he turned round and gave me the money. How great am I?”
In that scenario, who would you think highly of? Not the guy who got the watch, but the one who gave it to him. He’s clearly the good guy. He paid for the watch. He repaid the insult with kindness. He was generous beyond expectation. I, on the other hand, seem to have let his gift go to my head. What has his generosity got to do with my greatness?
I hope you see the parallel. We are so often impressed by giftedness. But you don’t praise the recipient of the gift, you praise the giver! All the more so if the gift was utterly undeserved. And that’s the case with the gifts God gives us. They are ‘grace gifts’. That’s the meaning of one of the Greek words, charismata, Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 12. It describes God’s generosity in giving freely what we do not deserve. Not only in saving us and giving us eternal life, but in providing us with the resources we need to do His work. Within the body of Christ, we have everything we need to do what he’s calling us to do.
Now, go back to the fictional (remember that bit) scenario. You ask me, “So, he gave you the money. Did he say anything?” “Oh yes,” I reply, “he told me to give a £20 note to every person here to help with their fuel costs”. Now you’re really interested! You wait for me to give you your note. I notice your expectant look. “Oh, I’m not intending to share it. That was his idea, but I’ve got a better one. I fancy a trip to the Bahamas!” Now, you’ll still think well of the giver, but you’ll think I’m a rogue. That’s what it’s like when we don’t use the gifts God gives for his service, but for our own glory.
So, instead of my gifts for my ministry, let’s think about Grace gifts for God’s service. My gifts are not my own, to treasure, develop and insist on using. They are God’s gift to others through me, to be used in His service for their good. And when we serve using grace gifts, we do so in response to God’s grace in saving us and making us His own. Amazingly, God not only saved you from sin and hell; He called you to serve Him!
And we should not think too narrowly of what these grace gifts are. Counter to the usual spiritual gift assessments, the gifts listed in 1 Corinthians 12 are not all special abilities. Some are – like speaking in tongues and interpreting tongues – but others clearly aren’t. They encompass three groups.
Later in this chapter, Paul mentions gifts that aren’t either special abilities or specific acts, but people. Verse 28, lists apostles, prophets and teachers. He does something similar in Ephesians Chapter 4. God has given people as servants. Some of those people, like pastor-teachers, occupy specific ministry positions. Most of us don’t. But all are gifts of God’s grace to the body, including you.
God uses all kinds of people to reach all kinds of people. The children and young people you serve are diverse. Some are confident, some shy. Some are bright as a button, others less so. Some speak clearly, others don’t. Some love wild games, others prefer structured activities. Some are sporty, some arty. Some are from homes where the Bible is read and taught, others never see a Bible between your meetings. Leaders, you must work hard to make your programme meet all of them in their individuality. I’m sure you do. But you must also work to make sure your team connects with each of them and that’s much easier if your team is diverse in personality and interests, just like them. So, each of you has a role to play. There’s no single ‘right’ personality type for ministry.
And, yes, God has given each of us abilities and resources for service. We have diverse strengths. It’s wise to learn what you can do well and what you can’t. So, try serving in different ways and seek feedback. Get training to help you develop your strengths.
If you realise you are tone deaf, you are probably not going to be in the choir, but you can do the announcements.
If you struggle putting words together, you will probably not do talks regularly, but you can listen to people and work with your hands.
If you are quiet and reserved, you might not be the centre of attention, but you can be brilliant at talking one to one with those who feel on the margins.
If physical limitations mean you cannot carry heavy loads, it is fine that you do not help set up, but you can encourage those who do.
If you have not been given more money than you need, you do not have to give financial support, but you can give your time.
In all these ways and many more, each of us has something to contribute.
But some of the gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 are neither people nor abilities. They are individual acts of service. For example, ‘words of wisdom’ and ‘words of knowledge’ are not abilities some people have. Paul says: “To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge”. The gift is not the ability to speak, but the message.
God gives us countless opportunities to serve. Each time you do something for Him, it’s a grace gift from Him to the people you serve. When you serve in your family, in church, in work or in any other setting, God is blessing people through your words and actions. That should remind us that there will be times when, even after you have figured out your strengths, you do something outside them because that’s where the need is. If you do your best, even if you think it could be better and even if no one acknowledges it, it is a grace gift from God to others. He delights in it and others are blessed by it.
So, you see, everything we do for God is a grace gift. We cannot limit this idea of ‘grace gifts’ only to the list of gifts in this chapter. In Ephesians 4 and Romans 12, Paul mentions some of the same gifts and some other ones. In all these cases, he is not saying, “Here are all the gifts – figure out what yours are”. He’s saying, “All of these, and many more, are ways of serving for the common good and all are gifts from God”. Every person and every resource, ability and personality trait each of you has was given to you for the good of the body to be used in God’s service.
One final thought about our diversity of gifting. Paul says all these gifts come from the one Spirit.
Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.
Please notice – it is all spiritual. Sometimes we are fooled into thinking some gifts are spiritual, and others are just practical. It is spiritual to preach, teach, pray or lead sung praise. It is just practical to set out the chairs or sweep the floor. We readily divide our lives into compartments. This is spiritual; that is material. This is worship; that is work. This is sacred; that is secular. This is holy; that’s profane.
The New Testament does not divide things like that. Everything is spiritual. Everything is worship. Everything is sacred. Everything is holy. We offer everything to God. The body, directed by the head, is energised by the Spirit. Paul says we have all been baptised in the one Spirit into the body and given the one Spirit to drink. We live in Him, and He lives in us. Whether your contribution is up front or behind the scenes, you’re ministering God’s grace and the Spirit is working through you.
What a joyful reality diversity is! No one can do everything, and no one needs to pretend to be equally good at everything.