Epistles: 1 Corinthians 12 – Diversity and Unity in Spiritual Gifts

The church members in Corinth asked Paul a number of questions, and Paul responded in the letter we know as 1 Corinthians. One of the topics he addresses is “spiritual gifts.” Paul’s explanation begins in chapter 12; we’ll begin in verse 3.

Same source, but different results (verses 3-7)

Paul comments on how God works in different ways in different people: “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.”

Paul uses “gifts,” “service,” and “working” as roughly equivalent (just as Spirit, Lord and God are equivalent). The three terms are not distinct categories, but they highlight different aspects of the same phenomena: 1) that the abilities are given, not something we can take credit for ourselves, 2) they are given for service, to help other people, and 3) they work; they produce results in our lives. The main point is that God works in different ways in different people.

Paul summarizes the purpose: “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” Spiritual gifts are not for a person’s private benefit—they are to help the church as a whole.

Various gifts (verses 8-11)

Paul lists some of the gifts: “To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit.” Generally speaking, knowledge refers to awareness of facts; wisdom refers to the ability to apply facts to the right situation. The Corinthian believers seem to be interested in knowledge and wisdom, and that may be why Paul begins with these two gifts.

He lists more: “to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits.” All believers have faith, but some have stronger faith than others. Presumably someone who has a gift of miraculous healing also has stronger faith than most people. These gifts overlap; Paul is giving examples, not creating totally distinct categories. He will have more to say about prophecy in chapter 14.

Paul ends with the gift that was causing the most problems in Corinth, and its solution; “to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues.” No matter what the “tongues” were, no one in Corinth understood them, except people who had the special gift of interpretation.

The main point for Paul here is that “all these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.” Not everyone is given the same abilities; the Spirit purposely distributes different skills to different people.


As verse 7 says, it is for the common good. When we have different gifts, when no one has all the abilities, then we need to work together, and that in itself is good for us.

One body with many parts (verses 12-16)

Paul compares the church to a human body: “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ”—that is, with the body of Christ, the church. Paul is still stressing diversity within one body. The Corinthians needed to know about that diversity, because some of them said that everyone should have one gift in particular—tongues—and they looked down on people who did not have that gift.

Paul explains the body analogy: “For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” The Spirit places people of all ethnic and social groups together. We have a common origin and a common purpose, but (Paul reminds us again) we are not identical: “Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.”

Paul insists that all the parts are needed: “Now if the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason stop being part of the body.” Similarly, if a person who did not speak in tongues should say, “Because I do not speak in tongues, I do not belong here,” Paul would respond: “That does not disqualify you—you are still part of the body.”

Similarly, “And if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason stop being part of the body.” If someone thinks that they don’t belong because they lack the gift of miracles, then Paul says: “You are part of the body anyway; that is no reason to drop out.”

Variety is necessary (verses 17-20)

Paul develops the analogy further: “If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?” He is saying, in effect, “If everyone in the church had the gift of tongues, who would be doing the prophecy? If everyone had the gift of miracles, who would have the wisdom?”

Paul stresses diversity: “But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.” We cannot turn a gift into a requirement for acceptance, because God has distributed different roles to different people. There are many parts to play within the body of Christ.

All parts are needed (verses 21-27)

Earlier, Paul encouraged the people who felt left out. Now he addresses those who look down on others: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’” People who speak in tongues should not think that they have everything they need.

One person might say, “I don’t need prophecy, because I have tongues. I don’t need discernment, because the only gift that counts is the one that I have.” But Paul says, “We need every part, and every person.” God puts his people into a body, into a community of people in which we need to work together to help each other.

“On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor.” Is this true in the church today? Do we give special honor to people who are weak, who are not in the limelight?

“And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment.” Do we take special efforts for church members who are less glamorous in the eyes of the world? Paul wants us to make sure we include everyone, and to make everyone feel an important part of the body—because everyone is important.

“But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.” God wants his children to love one another, no matter which gifts they have or lack. We should not separate into the haves and the have-nots; we are all in this together, and we are to help one another and learn from one another.

What does “equal concern” look like? Paul will say more about that in the next chapter. Here he gives one example: “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” Our sorrows and our successes are shared; we support those who suffer, and congratulate those who have blessings. Someday the tide will turn, so everything will work best if we stick together, each doing the part God has given us to do.

Paul summarizes it: “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” Everyone belongs, and all the parts need to work together.

The Greeks had a word for it: χάρισµα

In English, a person who has “charisma” has a personality that seems to attract followers. But for Paul, everyone has been given a charisma, because for him the word meant a gift, something given by the grace (charis) of God. When God delivered Paul from danger, it was a charisma (2 Cor. 1:11). His ability to be celibate was another charisma from God (1 Cor. 7:7).

But charismata (the plural form of charisma) are best known as the special abilities God’s Spirit distributes to his people (Rom. 12:6; 1 Cor. 12:4; 1 Pet. 4:10). Churches that emphasize these gifts are often called charismatic churches.

But actually, all Christians can be called charismatic, because we all believe that “the gift [charisma] of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). Salvation is the greatest gift, given to all.

Author: Michael Morrison, 2010, 2013

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