To the Word

Reflections on the call to live by the Word of God

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

One Body, One Spirit

1 Corinthians 12
Preached Sunday morning, November 12, 2006
Lexington Church of Christ, Milton Stanley

Here in chapter 12 we enter a new section in 1 Corinthians. The Apostle Paul begins writing about spiritual gifts, especially the gift of miraculously speaking in unknown tongues or languages. And as Paul does with all the topics he discusses with the factional congregation at Corinth, he addresses the topic with an eye to unity in the body of Christ. As we’ve seen throughout our study, the Corinthian Christians had trouble with divisions over favorite teachers, over sexuality, over suing one another, over idolatry, and, worst of all, over the Lord’s Supper. Some of the very issues that should have brought Christians together were the subject of contention. Sad to say, these topics are at times the subject of contention today.

Paul begins this section with a reference to "spirituals," a term usually thought in this case to refer to spiritual gifts but one equally as descriptive of spiritual persons. Paul reminds the Corinthians that not all spirituality is necessarily good: "You know that when you were pagans you were led astray to mute idols, however you were led" [1]. In other words, we can be led by false spirits or by the Holy Spirit, and each has its various fruits. The words here about either cursing or affirming the lordship of Jesus are not a formula but a guide. They remind us that true spiritual gifts are received and exercised under the lordship of Jesus Christ. Paul goes on to make some important points about these gifts: where they come from, what they’re given for, and how each gift and each member fit into the body of Christ.

In verses 7-11 we learn that spiritual gifts are given by the Holy Spirit as the Spirit chooses. The gifts Paul describes here wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, tongues, and interpretations are more than merely natural abilities. God certainly intends us to use our natural abilities, but what we see here is much more than what comes to us naturally. They are gifts from God to his people, with supernatural power, for the common good of the church. They may not be razzle-dazzle displays, but they are more than we would have available without our faith.

Looking back over the history of the church, it seems that miraculous gifts dwindled and went away from the church around the end of the second century, about the time the New Testament took shape. We should not be surprised that miraculous gifts passed from the scene, because the Holy Spirit blows where it will (Jn. 3:8), and throughout the history of God’s people, miraculous gifts have waxed and waned. But simply because we don’t enjoy a profusion of miraculous gifts today doesn’t mean God has quit gifting is people. Again, our gifts today may not have the razzle-dazzle of first-century gifts, but they are nevertheless real and powerful. We may not feel much different at our baptism, but we have received the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38).

Spiritual power is much more than natural ability. Of course, if we refuse to acknowledge we have that power, neither we nor anyone else will see it in our lives. At the end of 1 Corinthians 2, the Apostle refers to all Christians as spiritual, as having received the Holy Spirit. But many of the Corinthians were walking in the flesh rather than the Spirit [2]. If, like the Corinthians, we live according to the spirits of the world around us, we are not accessing or manifesting the power of God’s spiritual gifts. Paul wanted all Christians to walk spiritually. When we do, we can accomplish God’s work with God’s power.

Notice in today’s passage that spiritual gifts are given to every Christian [3]. As Paul tells the Corinthians, To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. . . . All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills (1 Cor. 12:7, 11). Every Christian is gifted by God for the good of the church. As we’ll see, we’re gifted not to hold onto the gifts, but to exercise them.

The Spirit gives gifts as he wills not necessarily as we would like. We may not particularly desire the gifts or roles God gives us. Moses didn’t want to be a prophet; Saul didn’t want to be king. God may equip us to do work we would rather not do. But all Christians are called to do the Lord’s work with his power and his authority. And if the power is not our own, then we have no reason to be proud of it [4]. It’s important to remember, however, that although spiritual power comes from God, it is a power he has entrusted to his people.

And when we are given this incredible power from God, we are equipped to serve the body in the way God has prepared us. Paul says,
To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. (1 Cor. 12:8-10)
The gifts mentioned here are not an exhaustive list, but merely examples. How do we know? We know because Paul lists spiritual gifts elsewhere (e.g. Rom. 12, Eph. 4), and the lists are not identical. In fact, spiritual gifts are as different as the needs of the church. They also cover widely different functions, from speaking knowledge to working miracles.

The length to which Paul goes in writing to the Corinthians about spiritual gifts suggests that they were having trouble with this very topic. For one thing, it seems many of the Corinthian Christians didn’t appreciate one another’s gifts. Reading between the lines of Paul’s letter here, it seems the Corinthians assigned too much value to speaking in tongues. So Paul goes on to remind them that every gift is given to serve the body. What good would a body be that were nothing but eyes? Nothing but hands? Nothing but feet or heads? Each member has a function in the body.

God has given his people a variety of gifts and wants all those gifts used. The temptation for every Christian is to play up the importance of our own at the expense of the gifts God has given others. I know a retired pipefitter, a man who faught with the Marines in World War II. God has blessed this brother with an ability to see all of life in light of the cross. Even in his eighties, he continues to be a help to many brothers and sisters in Christ and even to unbelievers. He knows the Bible and sees life in the light of the Word. But he's not much of a public speaker. Although he often has spiritual insights to offer, it may take him a while to get those ideas out of his mouth. One of the preachers at this brother's congregation didn't have much patience with this older brother, and showed it during mid-week Bible study whenever this brother stuttered and struggled to get his ideas across. Other members of the congregation, in turn, didn't have much respect for the preacher, because as an adult he had never done any work other than preach and live off the contributions of the saints. The congregation had been blessed with gifts from God, but the members needed to appreciate not only their own, but each others' gifts.

Each gift is given to the church for edification. We may have the role of facilities maintenance, cooking, or greeting visitors. We may be writers, musicians, teachers, scholars, or administrators. We may be gifted in nurturing children, encouraging, helping, or serving where needed. Each one of us is gifted in different ways, and we must never despise a fellow child of God for being gifted differently, or for using them in ways other than we think they should. The Apostle Paul addressed this very issue in his letter to Christians in Rome when he wrote, "Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand" (Rom. 14:4). We have each been gifted by God and charged to be fruitful for the Kingdom. And as someone said long ago, not one of us has been given the gift of fruit inspector.

Christians often ask, "How do I know what gifts God has given me?" That's a good question, because if we understand our gifts we better understand our mission. People have come up with ways for helping Christians discover their gifts. In my office I have a "Spiritual Gifts Inventory," and I'll be happy to let you take it and see what it says about your life. But it isn't necessary to take any kind of test to find out what our gifts are. The church has plenty of work before us. The best way to discover our gifts is to jump into that work! The more we involve ourselves in the work of the church, the more our gifts begin to emerge and manifest themselves. So if you see something that needs to be done: do it! That's where we discover our gifts.

And when each member is doing the work God has given him or her to do, then all parts of the church are working together for the common good (vv. 7, 11). The Corinthian Christians were treating spiritual gifts as they had teachers: as the subject of positioning for prestige, of one-upsmanship [10]. They failed to see that the gifts were given for all, and that the gifts themselves are not more important than the giver [11]. But if Christians do use our gifts for God, we will have unity in the Body of Christ. The exhortation here is that there be no division in the body, but that Christians care for one another (vv. 25-27). Spiritual gifts are given for the unity of the body, but the Corinthians' focus on the gifts themselves and personal power had led to disunity [12]. They were supposed to be depending on one another, but instead they were trying to outdo each other with their spiritual gifts [13].

Unfortunately, spiritual gifts can still be a point of division in the church. Christians argue over whether or not today God gives spiritual gifts outside the Bible while others argue over the relative values of the gifts. The foot wishes everyone would help carry some of the load, while the eyes wish they didn't have to do all the spotting. The fact is, though, God gives each member gifts for the good of the whole body. And as we'll see in the next chapter, he also gave us love to appreciate the gifts he's given every other member.

Whether we want to admit it or not, we Christians are bound together as a body just as organic and interdependent as a physical body. When one Christian suffers, we all suffer; when one is honored, we're all honored. On the one hand, this is a picture of how the church should be. On the other hand it's a picture of how the church is, whether we act like it or not. One member's sickness is the church's sickness. The sin of one member is the sin of the body. Coldness between members of the church is like a numb, unconscious body. Does this congregation need to wake up out of numbness and unconsciousness? I pray we begin to act like, not a collection of parts, but a body and a healthy one!

So every Christian is gifted by God. You have the power, I have the power to benefit the church, to do the wonderous work God has set before us for the common good of the whole body. And we are a body. When one of us suffers, we all suffer. But we all benefit when one obeys.

And here's a final thought. The Body of Christ is the only place we can really be who God created each one of us to be. We live in a culture of self-sufficiency and individualism. We may want a relationship with God, but perhaps only with our own personal Jesus. But God does not call us to have a generic relationship with Christ where he and I are on equal terms. God calls us into a relationship in which we are one part of something much bigger than ourselves, and in which Christ is the head over all. That's the church the only place to be in fellowship with Jesus Christ, our Savior, our Head, the one one who died and then rose alive to win our forgiveness and equip us in power for whatever comes our way.


1. 1 Cor. 12:2. Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version of the Bible.
2. Thomas Constable, Notes on 1 Corinthians, 2004 ed. Available online at, 126.
3. Bob Deffinbaugh, "Spirituality and Spiritual Gifts Part 2 (1 Cor. 12:4-11)," online study at
4. Deffinbaugh.
5. Constable, 127.
6. William Loader, "First Thoughts on Year C Epistle Passages from the Lectionary: Epiphany," online study.
7. William Loader, "First Thoughts on Year A Epistle Passages from the Lectionary: Pentecost," online study.
8. Deffinbaugh.
9. Ibid.
10. Constable, 127.
11. Loader, "Epiphany."
12. Loader, "Pentecost."
13. Deffinbaugh

(c) Copyright 2006, A. Milton Stanley

Holding Firmly to the Traditions

1 Corinthians 11:2-16
Preached Sunday morning, October 29, 2006
Lexington Church of Christ, Milton Stanley

It’s encouraging to see the women of this congregation gathering together for food and fellowship as they did yesterday. You cannot have a strong church without spiritually strong women, working together. That’s an important truth to remember in the context of the passage we’re studying today, because the concepts of 1 Corinthians 11 are easily misunderstood in our own culture. In fact, quite a bit of the Apostle Paul’s language here about authority and head coverings is a little difficult to appreciate today. But at the heart of the passage we’re studying this morning is this truth: Christ is the head over every man, and man is head of the woman (v. 3). Man is the glory of God, and woman is the glory of man. These truths have consequences for worship: men must not cover their heads while praying or prophesying, but women must. Despite the way these verses are sometimes translated, the head covering is probably not so much a veil as what we would today refer to as a shawl [1].

The question facing Christians today in this passage is simple to ask but much more difficult to answer: are Paul’s instructions here primarily cultural, so that they would not apply to Christians today? Or is he speaking of eternal principles for Christian worship, so that we must obey the letter of his instruction? We can look to the history of the first century Roman empire to help us find answers. In Paul’s day, for example, it was considered scandalous for a woman to appear publicly without a head covering; to do so made her look like a prostitute [2]. But what about in a private home? Was a Christian woman allowed to appear bare-headed when the church met in the houses of members to pray and worship? In the first century, Roman men wore head coverings while praying, but Greeks worshiped bare-headed [3]. Although in later centuries Jewish men came to cover their heads in prayer, during the first century it seems they did not [4]. All of these historical details help us better to understand what Paul was referring to in the first century, but history will take us only so far in deciding how best to interpret this passage for today.

For example we won’t be able to answer certain questions strictly by looking at history and the New Testament. Knowing precisely how Paul’s words apply to us today hinges on understanding complex cultural practices that we simply don’t have adequate information to understand today. What, for example, do the angels in v. 10 have to do with head coverings? Is Paul speaking in this passage strictly of the assembly or also of Christian womens’ appearance in public? Given Paul’s instructions in 1 Cor. 14 about women keeping silent in the worship assemblies, why does he mention them praying and prophesying here? At least some of these issues are cultural, and we don’t fully understand them today.

But the underlying themes of the Apostle’s message are clear enough: traditions are important for the church; men and women are both under authority, and neither man nor woman is independent of the other. Let’s begin our study today by looking at this issue of tradition.

Paul begins this section by complimenting the Corinthian Christians on their faithfulness to Christian tradition: "Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you" [5]. It may seem a little strange for Paul to commend the Corinthian’s faithfulness to tradition when we consider that he immediately follows these words of praise with criticism for ways they are in fact not following Christian tradition. But, in general, they must be following the tradition. After all, Paul was with them for eighteen months teaching Jesus Christ and him crucified. More important for us today than precisely which traditions the Corinthians did or did not follow is Paul’s implicit statement of the importance of Christian tradition. In short, we learn here that traditions are important for the church, both at the beginning and end of today’s passage.

In our culture today, few men or women appreciate what a tradition really is. Literally, it is a practice handed down, from generation to generation. You can’t make up a new tradition; it takes generations of fellowship to create a real tradition, whether those generations are in a family or in a church.

For the church, traditions are dangerous matters. Once a belief or practice has been handed down for a few generations, the tradition has a way of taking on a life of its own. Once a particular practice has been in place for as long as anyone in the church can remember, we are inclined to feel it was handed down not only by men, but by God. The church today, for example, is struggling with innovations introduced not by God, but by Christians seventy-five or a hundred years ago. Our practice on head coverings is a good example. As much as we claim to follow only the Bible without the introduction of human tradition, if we’ve always been taught a particular doctrine or practice, we almost never give it up, even if it’s wrong. Once a teaching, however wrong, becomes a tradition in the church, it’s terribly difficult to get rid of it. So traditions can be very dangerous matters.

Right traditions, of course, are very good. As Paul told the Thessalonian Christians, "So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter" (2 Thess. 2:15). The lineage of a true Christian tradition shows its value: Jesus to the apostles to the church, either in spoken or scriptural teaching. The church practices this proper reliance on tradition all the time. Why, for example, do we celebrate the Lord’s Supper each week but not foot washing, even though Jesus seems to have commanded Christians to practice the latter (Jn. 13:15-17). Why do churches take a collection every week but not practice the holy kiss, even though the Apostle Paul commands Christians four times in the New Testament to greet each other in this way? The answer, is tradition. We look back over how Christians from the earliest days of the church have interpreted these biblical instructions in their day, and we gain insight into how we ought to interpret them today.

Without tradition, Christians become too confident in our own cleverness. Eccentric, goofy interpretations often arise when Christians do not listen to tradition. Tradition is learning not only from the wisest Christians of our own day, but from the wise and faithful Christians of past generations. It’s a wonderful relationship, really: tradition helps us interpret Scripture, and Scripture keeps tradition from straying too far from the truth. From this perspective, the Apostle Paul begins this section of instruction with a reminder of the importance of Christian tradition.

He then goes immediately to the heart of his instruction: "But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God" (11:3). He goes on to say in vv. 8-9 that man is not made for woman, but woman for man. That’s certainly not a politically correct saying in our day, but it is without a doubt biblically correct. In the very first book of the Bible we see that woman was created out of man to be his helper (Gen. 2:20-23). That’s Scripture, tradition, and truth.

Thus Paul instructs women to cover their heads as a symbol of authority: "That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels" (11:10). The word Paul uses here for "authority," by the way, is the same word often translated "right" in 1 Cor. 9. That word usage, by the way, reflects a problem of our own day. We want rights without submitting to authority men as well as women. But Paul writes that women are to cover their heads as a sign of male authority.

Our culture and even the church at times want to deny these different roles for men and women. We live today in a very, very sick time spiritually. The politically correct position is to say that men and women are equal with no real difference between them. We thus see a strange mixing of gender roles today. Some of these gender distinctions are indeed cultural, but many are intrinsic to the way God created men and women to function. In many cases, the distinction between cultural and intrinsic difference in role may not be clear. But here is one place where it is. Churches faithful to the Bible teach the distinction between men’s and women’s roles.

Regardless of what cynical voices may proclaim, these distinctions are not for the advantage of men. It’s much easier to roll with the tide of the day than to stand up for biblical manhood and womanhood. But being faithful to the Word is being faithful to the way God created things. The church’s mission on earth is to re-establish God’s order that was damaged by the fall of mankind. The Kingdom of God is an alternative society that calls its citizens to live a radically different lifestyle than the world around us. Yet some members aren’t willing even to change what they wear to conform to God’s instructions.

Yes, women in the church are essentially in the same state as men. As Paul himself told the Galatians, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28). All men and women have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. All of us are unable to save ourselves. All of us must depend on the blood of the Savior for redemption. Spiritually men and women are in exactly the same boat.

But in the created order we have different roles thus the need for a symbol of authority. But how this truth out to be demonstrated in the church today is not necessarily easy to understand. Man is made in the image of God for God’s glory and adornment. Woman is created for man and placed in a subordinate position; we’ll see in 1 Cor. 14 that a woman is to keep silent in the Christian assembly. Thus congregations that conform their practices to New Testament teaching do not allow women to be preachers or teachers or men (1 Tim. 2). This teaching is hard for many to accept, because it runs totally contrary to our contemporary way of thinking. I don’t mean in any way to qualify or soften it. But there is another side to the issue.

Look at 1 Cor. 11:11-12: "Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God." So woman is created for man, but man is created through woman. That is a qualitative power women have that men do not: bearing and nursing children. I don’t know if God gave women this power to balance the authority of men or not. That might be a "fair" distribution of power and authority, but God is not fair. He is, however, just and loving, and his created order is good and perfect.

This teaching in 1 Cor. 11 about the different roles of men and women raises a broader question. How do we reconcile Paul’s teaching here with what he told the Galatians about their being "neither male nor female" in the Kingdom of God? A clue to the nature of men and women can be found in what the Scripture tells us about the nature of God. Let’s look at the relationship of Jesus, the Son of God, to the Father [6]. If we skip ahead in 1 Corinthians, we find these words:

For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For God has put all things in subjection under his feet. But when it says, all things are put in subjection, it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all. (15:22-28)
Do you see the situation Paul describes here? Christ is in subjection to the Father, even as woman is in subjection to man. Yet Jesus and the Father are in essence one (John 1; 8:58; 17:21). In essence, the Father and Son are one, yet in function they are different. The analogy to men and women is simple: in essence we are the same, but in function different. And as we can see from Jesus’s subjection to the Father, there’s no shame in submission.

Now, all this theology still hasn’t answered a basic question raised by this text: should women wear hats in the worship assembly today? Well, I don’t know. Culturally, first-century women covered their heads in public and were instructed to cover them in their Christian assemblies, too. But more than social conventions are at stake here. Paul’s instructions in 1 Cor. 11 are about God’s created order. In that order, male authority should be demonstrated in some way. For the church today, the question of how to be faithful to this biblical teaching is not up to the preacher alone to decide. For submission to mean anything, it’s the women, not the men of the church, who must decide how best to submit to men. Let’s all, men and women, pray and meditate on this teaching to find the best way to do God’s will in this matter.

Whatever we decide, one thing is clear: Christian women should be women and men, men. Each has different roles, whether headship or support. Those who have served in the military may see the analogy here with officers and non-commissioned officers. The commissioned officers have the authority, but it’s the NCOs who keep things running. If you don’t think support roles are vital, see how long the military could function without NCOs.

One role officers or enlisted is not better; it’s just the roles we play. Once we get that matter settled, we can get down to what really matters. And what really matters? The answer is found in Paul’s original message to the Corinthians: Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:20). In that simple teaching is everything we need to know about submission: Jesus Christ to the Father, and us to God. The roles we play as men and women on this earth are for a short time in the context of eternity. But the roles Christians will one day lay in the Kingdom of God are forever.


1. Thomas R. Schreiner, "Head Coverings, Prophecies, and the Trinity: 1 Corinthians 11:2-16," online study at
2. Lawrence Richards, The Teacher’s Commentary. Wheaton: Victor Books, 1987, p. 867.
3. Norman Hillyer, "1 Corinthians" in The New Bible Commentary, rev. ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970, p. 1065. See also Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 10. New York and Nashville: Abingdon, 1953, p. 125.
4. Interpreter’s Bible, 125.
5. 1 Cor. 11:2. Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotes here are from the English Standard Version.
6. The ideas on this subject come from Wayne A. Grudem, "Wives Like Sarah, and the Husbands Who Honor Them: 1 Peter 3:1-7." In Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, ed. Wayne Grudem and John Piper, 194-208, 499-503. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1991. Book on-line. Available from Internet. Accessed 15 October 2006.

(c) Copyright 2006, A. Milton Stanley