Monday, February 27, 2012

Divisions, Spiritual Gifts & Honor (part 2 of 3)

Now we are in a position to be able to hear about the “gifts of the Spirit” in a different and perhaps more enlightened way than we have ever previously experienced.  We have honor and shame constructs in mind.  We know that there are divisions and factions within the church, and we here note that it the text leads us to believe that some of this fracturing is linked to speech acts and the accumulation of honor associated with the ability to offer up eloquent speech (in accordance with societal norms).  We are aware of concerns regarding the meal practice, and that this meal practice, more than anything else, was a lamentable demonstration of the importation of the societal values of the surrounding culture into the life of the body of Christ.  It is incumbent upon us to bear these things in mind, and to hear the words of the apostle from the position of being seated at a meal table.  At that meal table, we would be able to look around us, mentally registering the results of the functioning of the honor and shame culture, the divisions that Paul has referenced, and the fact that our meal practice looks quite a bit different from that of the Jesus tradition (and apparently, from that which Paul first taught them).    

With that said, we read: “Now there are different gifts, but the same Spirit.  And there are different ministries, but the same Lord.  And there are different results, but the same God who produces all of them in everyone” (12:4-6).  Given the cultural context in which differences are celebrated and quite determinative of one’s standing, Paul’s repetitive employment of “different… but… same” is key.  It is a significant component of the theme of corporate unity that underlies the whole of the letter and most certainly chapters twelve through fourteen.  He continues, writing “To each person the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the benefit of all” (12:7).  Here, in much the same mode as his use of “different” and “same,” Paul deploys “each” and “all.”  Expounding upon the “different,” “same,” “each,” and “all” statements, Paul writes “For one person is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, and another the message of knowledge according to the same Spirit” (12:8).  It must be pointed out that, if we take seriously the use of different, same, each, and all, it is impossible to see a hierarchical function in the list of spiritual gifts to which Paul makes reference.  Paul is not stressing that one gift is more important that another, or that one gift somehow stands further down the list of importance, for that would actually militate against the point that he is making in regards to the body.

Continuing, Paul indicates that God gives “to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another performance of miracles, to another prophecy, and to another discernment of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues” (12:9-10).  This use of “to another” reminds us that this is not a vertical listing.  It is a linear and horizontal listing.  All, for Paul, are equally valid and equally honorable manifestations of the Spirit, as Paul rounds out this particular rhetorical flourish with “It is one and the same Spirit, distributing as He decides to each person, who produces all these things” (12:11).  The reference to the Spirit’s activity informs the hearer that any honor to be assigned is not to be assigned to the person through whom the gift is being enacted, but to the Spirit (and the God) that is producing the action. 

As something of an aside, we must resist the tendency to elevate any of these gifts or to devalue any of these gifts, while also resisting the tendency to think of the last items on the list as spiritual leftovers.  However, it may be of interest to us, as it relates to our study, that Paul does mention speaking in tongues and the interpretation of tongues towards the end of his list.  Again, for those that would allow lists to function in a “first to last” movement, this would not be to demean these practices in any way.  Instead, might it be possible that they are placed where they are strictly for function, so that those gifts will be in mind as Paul moves forward?  This may not be far-fetched, as not only is speaking in tongues mentioned again at the close of chapter twelve, and at the opening of chapter thirteen, but it is the primary subject matter of chapter fourteen. 

Also, it must also be noted (and noted well), that Paul is not attempting to offer up an exhaustive list of the giftings of the Spirit.  Rather, just as is the case with the whole of the letter, he is dealing with issues related to this church, with what he knows about this church, and the actions in the church that are resulting in a setting that runs counter to that which is expected from those that represent and model out the kingdom of God before the world.  Surely, we are not willing to place limitations on God’s working through His people, through the same Spirit that raised up Jesus from the dead, by indicating that this list of actions found in the first half of chapter twelve of the first letter to Corinth is an actual and limited list of the ways in which the Spirit manifests itself.  Clearly, this list is not meant to be systematic.  It is most likely that Paul could have gone on to make reference to other activities within the church as evidences of the gifting of the Spirit, but it might be the case that these were the activities that were most related to the problems at hand within the church.  It is also interesting to point out that, though the performance of all of these things could lead to the accrual of honor and status, more than half of Paul’s list have to do with public speech acts.   

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