Unity in Diversity

1 Corinthians

Introduction: Having given his apostolic admonition on the manner of their taking the Lord’s Supper, Paul now sets himself to give instruction on another vital issue that relates to unity. Spiritual gifting was necessary for the growth of the church in truths known only by revelation. Worship according to the regulative principle that would prescribe what was to be included would continue from generation to generation and from culture to culture: prayer, singing, Scripture reading, preaching, giving, practicing the ordinances, and making public confession of the faith. The instruction part of worship would involve three basic elements: (1) exposition of the Old Testament in light of the incarnation and the completed work of Christ, (2) doctrinal and practical instruction received either in person or by letter from an apostle or one of the apostolic company, and (3) instruction given by those who had gifts of revealed truth from the Holy Spirit. In this passage, Paul is dealing with some of the implications about this third source of instruction and builds his argument on two major aspects of unity. The first is the existence of the one God in three persons; the second is the singularity of the body though it is dependent on the right functioning of its individual members.


I. The Singular Operation of the Spirit of God (Verses 1-3). Paul did not want them to be unaware of how the Holy Spirit operated to edify the body of Christ through the variety of abilities that he gives.

A. Their Leading as Pagans. As pagans they worshipped idols and were prompted and perhaps strengthened in that pursuit by the demonic – “led away to mute idols, however you were led.” (Look at 1 Corinthians 10:14-22)

B. Their leading as Christians. The Christian faith is based distinctively on the person of Christ; we are led to trust Christ and worship Christ by the Holy Spirit. The work of the Spirit is to glorify Christ, take the things that Christ did and said and preserve them for the edification of Christians (John 14:15-17; 15:26, 27; 16:5-15).

C. Anyone who speaks, therefore, pretending that he has a message from the Spirit and says something derogatory of Christ or that does not indicate reverence for, trust in, and worship of Christ, is not speaking by the Holy Spirit. Likewise, none can truly trust in Christ and see him as the Lord of heaven and earth apart from being led to that conviction by the Holy Spirit. Thrust in Christ and glorifying his name is peculiarly the evidence of regeneration (1 Corinthians 1:26; 2:14-16).


II. The Variety of Gifts given by the One Spirit (Verses 4-11).

A. God determines the ministries of a church and how they are to be fulfilled. It seems that Paul shows that each person of the triune God operates in this purpose of building the church. Each of the persons interpenetrates the entirety of the work (Classically this idea is called circumincessio), but Paul affirms specific functions according to the respective person.

  1. With the wide variety in the gifts that are distributed, we must remember that the same Holy Spirit gives all of them.
  2. There is also a multiplicity of service ministries performed in the church by persons who are suited for those ministries. All of these are granted to the church by the Lord Jesus Christ (cf. Ephesians 4:7-13).
  3. These gifts and ministries have ongoing effects on the church. All of them are necessary for the continued growth of the body, for its maturity, and for increasing holiness. God the Father has decreed this to be the case and operates to bring about these effects.

B. Extraordinary gifts were necessary for the first new covenant generation. The new covenant community has been formed and it must live on new covenant principles and set forth new covenant truth. Revelation concerning all that the work of Christ accomplished was needed the give clarity to Old Testament prophecy and to add new dimensions to our grasp of his work of redemption. In addition, the coming of the Holy Spirit to mark out with power the chosen people of God would be explained in increasing measure throughout the apostolic age (1 Corinthians 14:37-40; Ephesians 3:2-7; 1 Timothy 6:20; Revelation 22:6, 7, 18, 19). All of these gifts come from one Spirit. They were gifts of guidance, power, and knowledge.

  1. Knowledge gifts were designed for the proper teaching and preaching of truth—tongues, prophecy, and interpretation of tongues. These gifts were revelatory in nature and gave doctrinal truths that would establish the confession of the church and govern its proclamation of the gospel and essentially connected truths. The gift of tongues was a revelatory gift to be used only if someone were present who had the gift of interpretation; Then the tongues would become prophecy, that is, a speaking forth of a revealed truth of God (14:2-5; 27-33).
  2. Guidance gifts were for the day by day ministry decisions of the church. These included the word of wisdom and the word of knowledge and perhaps the distinguishing of spirits. How marvelous it is today to have persons whose wisdom is in tune with the word of God and is sanctified by the work of the Spirit in their minds and affections!
  3. Power gifts were given for the physical well-being of the people while at the same time demonstrating the continuity of the local congregation with the graces given to the apostles. These included gifts of healing and of miracles (cf. Acts 2:43; 8:6-8; 19:11, 12; Romans 15:18, 19; 1 Corinthians 12:11, 12). In the same way that the giving of tongues gave immediate observable demonstration of the descent of the Spirit on a distinct group of people (Acts 2:3, 4; 8:15-17; 10:44-46; 19:5-7), so the continuation of gifts of power in the churches showed their connection with the apostolic ministry.

C. With the end of the age of the apostles, the work of the Spirit continued along lines of wisdom gained from conformity of mind to the message and example of Christ, holiness of life through internalization of revealed truth under the secret and sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit, and witness to the faith by conformity to the written apostolic message. The need for revelatory gifts ceased. Truth now was to be judged through agreement with Scripture which now included the written words of the apostles (2 Peter 1:12-21; 2 Timothy 3:1-16).

D. The “ordinary” work of the Spirit are no less supernatural than those “extraordinary” works of the Spirit. The Spirit still raises sinners from spiritual death to spiritual life; he still sanctifies his called ones from the corruptions of sin; he still indwells and seals the elect until they receive the perfection of their heavenly home; he still gives assurance to the saints as he witnesses to their adoption by spreading his love abroad in their hearts and by witnessing, along with their spirits, to the evidences of saving grace that increase in the children of God year by year.


III. Many Members, One Body. (Verses 14-27)

A. No single member can survive on its own but needs the vital functioning of the body (Verses 14-17). Even as a foot cannot dissociate itself from the body because its function is unique and not at all like that of other members, nor can any person in the body isolate him/herself from the rest of the body. Because and eyes sees and does not hear, does that eliminate its status as in vital connection with and even dependence on the body. Can an eye see if it does not receive a constant renewing of substance from the digestive system and necessary sustaining elements from the blood? Even so the gift of prophecy would not be as useful as it should be without those who received words of wisdom. Could those who speak in tongues function for the edification of the body without those who interpret tongues?

B. We seek to give some adornment to various parts of the body that otherwise might be awkward, and we wear appropriate covering that is distinguished, symmetrical, and tastefully colored. We give attention to what Paul calls the “less honorable” and the “less presentable” parts of the body. Even so, should we in the church recognize that those who might be deemed of no account, awkward, weak, and unimpressive by the world are those that give the specific characters of grace to the congregation. Those upon whom God’s Spirit has wrought a work of saving grace, but seem to have few natural talents, manifest the unique quality of the church of its absolute and universal dependence on grace. Who makes us to differ from another? Not ourselves, but only the grace of God. We suffer together when one suffers; when the body honors one of its members, all receive the honor.


Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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