Paul continues on to write “Now you are Christ’s body, and each of you is a member of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27). It must be asked: could there be any greater honor or source of honor? To that Paul adds “And God has placed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, gifts of healing, helps, gifts of leadership, different kinds of tongues” (12:28). Again, one must be careful not to hear Paul creating spiritual hierarchies, as that would seem to run counter to the movement of the entire letter in which Paul seeks to devalue and destroy the accepted honor constructs that have no place in the church. One must keep in mind Paul’s insistence on the equal importance of all members when reading “Not all are apostles, are they? Not all are prophets, are they? Not all are teachers, are they? Not all perform miracles, do they? Not all have gifts of healing, do they? Not all speak in tongues, do they? Not all interpret, do they?” (12:29-30)
Though it will be the case that not every member exhibits these types of spiritual gifts, that does not mean that they are not equally valuable or that their spiritual gifts are not equally honorable, so these categories should not be employed to create authoritarian hierarchies in the church. In fact, Paul, after what seems like an elevation of these particular “offices,” appears to engage his hearers in a transition away from a mode of thinking that elevates these offices and their associated gifts, and goes on express that there are greater gifts that are perhaps deserving of even more honor when he writes “But you should be eager for the greater gifts. And now I will show you a way that is beyond comparison” (12:31).
Wading then into chapter thirteen, the reader must be aware that Paul is beginning to deploy his full rhetorical arsenal with great skill. While he is most certainly elevating love as that which is to be the controlling ethic for the body of the Christ, he is also stripping other activities of the honor that has been over-ascribed to them.
When he writes “If I speak in the tongues of mean and of angels, but I do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (13:1), he is not passing judgment on the activity of glossolalia. For Paul, this particular action, acknowledged by him as some type of evidence of the work of the Spirit of the Creator God, is a common and accepted religious practice dating back hundreds of years. However, it does seem to be problematic for this church in some way, and owing to that, he is engaging in rhetorical speech directed to those in the church that are vaunting themselves as being superior to others, or who are allowing themselves to be viewed as being superior to others, simply because they engage in the common practice of ecstatic speech and also accept the honor that would naturally come their way as a result. Paul acknowledges their activity but he also indicates that it is not being performed in the right spirit, which is that of love---the greater gift and way that is beyond comparison.
Paul does not pick on speaking in tongues, but goes on to treat other perceived spiritual gifts in the same way, writing “And if I have prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so that I can remove mountains,” which appears to be a nod towards the Jesus tradition and His statements about faith, “but do not have love, I am nothing” (13:2). This “nothing” makes for quite the contrasting statement, as if somebody prophesied, excelled in the revelation of mysteries, demonstrated knowledge, and had a commendable faith, they would enjoy the adulation of others, with a commensurate increase in their honor status.
However, if a self-sacrificial, other-preferring, serving, equalizing love was not the basis for all of these things---if these things were motivated by love of glory and pursuit of honor, then it was all meaningless. In fact, if such was the case, then all of these things, when practiced within the Jesus community, actually stood apart from honor and was instead a source of shame. With the sheer number of attributions, it is reasonable to presume that Paul may have had one particular individual in mind with the statement of verse two.