In Romans 12, Paul works on the idea of the church being like a human body, with different parts functioning together to create one harmonious whole. Here’s a snippet:
“For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.
We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.” (Rom 12: 3-8)
Paul stresses the activity of each member, noting that God has allotted to each believer a special function or ministry. God has also appointed to each member a measure or a proportion of faith, enough to enable each particular member to fulfil that particular ministry.
If a body is to be vigorous and active (and normal), then each bit should do its stuff. A church in which only one or two members had any active ministry would be, by Paul’s standard, like a body in which, say, your big toe and your elbow could move, whilst all the rest remained paralyzed and useless. A sad condition indeed.
In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul explains that the Holy Spirit works through each member to create this “harmonious whole.” “But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all” (v 7). He describes different kinds of Holy Spirit activity (through the use of “spiritual gifts”) and concludes: “But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing each one individually as He wills” (v11). It’s like electricity running through one complex circuit in a house, but being used for a variety of purposes -dishwasher, lights, fridge and so forth – to facilitate the running of the whole.
It seems clear from this that God intends each member to exercise spiritual gifts, and when these gifts are not used, the whole “house” does not function together properly. If you’re not sure what I mean, try doing the dishes in the dark!
In 1 Cor 14, Paul discusses how these gifts are to be exercised: “I wish you all spoke with tongues, but even more that you prophesied.” This indicates that some gifts are more important than others, or (at least) more appropriate at certain times. The lights come on after dark; the dishwasher after meals. The verse also notes that not everyone has the same gifts. Look at v13: “Therefore let him who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret.” Plainly, then, we can pray for gifts we don’t have.
The Importance of Prophecy
The chapter begins: “Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy.” Prophecy is highlighted as being of special importance, but (as 1 Cor 13 makes clear) it is useless and fruitless without love. In v31, Paul returns to this point: “For you can all prophesy one by one, that all may learn and all may be encouraged.” Prophecy is thus understood as a teaching gift that encourages. And Paul says, “one by one.” That is, believers are to exercise this gift by turns, not more than one believer prophesying at any one time “to avoid confusion” (v33).
There’s another limitation upon the exercise of the gift of prophecy in v 29: “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others [the members] judge.” Paul here limits how many may exercise the gift of prophecy in any service to two or three. The purpose of this is that the whole service should not be monopolized by one particular form of spiritual manifestation. The exercise of prophecy has its place in the service, but it does not make up the whole service. The ministry of the Holy Spirit through God’s people is much more varied than that. Many other different forms of ministry are required to make up a complete service.
And notice that the exercise of the gift of prophecy must be judged, or tested. He says: “Let the others judge.” The other Spirit-baptized believers present who are capable of recognizing the genuine manifestation of the gift of prophecy are required to weigh up the genuineness of the prophecy. Paul brings in all the members. He does not specify merely one professional minister who is to judge, but he makes the whole church responsible to do this. This crops up in 1 Thess 5:19-21: “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies. Test all things; hold fast what is good.” Everything needs testing to see that it is genuine.
“Test all things”
These are important verses, I think. We are called to be careful and not critical on the one hand or gullible on the other! It is wrong for believers to quench or reject the moving and manifestation of the Holy Spirit in their midst. It is also wrong for believers to adopt an attitude of criticism, contempt, or unbelief toward the manifestation of the gift of prophecy.
But, when this gift is manifested, believers are to test it by the standards of Scripture and then accept or retain only that which is good—that which accords with the standards and patterns of Scripture.
We see, then, that Paul is careful to guard against anything that might be spurious or disorderly in the exercise or manifestation of spiritual gifts.
So what does “church” look like?
In 1 Cor 14:26, Paul describes the kind of services that result. He says: “How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.”
Notice the phrase, “each of you has”—a psalm, a teaching, a tongue, a revelation, an interpretation.
Generally speaking, when Christians come together today, they come with the primary purpose of receiving, not of contributing. They come to get a blessing, to receive healing, to hear a preacher. But this was not the way of the New Testament church. There, the members came not primarily to receive, but to contribute. Paul mentions various possible forms of contribution.
- A psalm would denote some form of musical contribution. This might be the product either of natural talent or of the supernatural enabling of the Holy Spirit.
- A teaching would denote the ability to impart some truth from the teaching of God’s Word.
- A tongue and an interpretation might be taken to cover generally the three gifts of supernatural utterance: tongues, interpretation and prophecy.
- A revelation would cover any one of the three main revelatory gifts: a word of wisdom, a word of knowledge, and discerning of spirits.
In this way, everyone had something of their own to contribute towards the total worship and service of the church. They are thus able to fulfil the injunction given by Peter: “As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another” (1 Peter 4:10). The ability of the members to minister effectively to one another was due mainly to the fact that they had received these supernatural spiritual gifts.
Had their ability to minister to each other depended merely on education or natural talent, then the main burden of ministry would have fallen upon just a few of the members, and the rest of them would have remained largely passive or inactive, without any real opportunities for spiritual expression or development.
The way it mostly is, I guess!
One body… of Christ
But the important principle that sometimes gets overlooked in many discussions of this all-member-ministry point is the glory of Jesus. “We being many, are one body…” But the body is the body of Christ. We are jigsaw pieces, but He is the whole picture.
And that’s why Paul says, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought.” We mustn’t overemphasise the importance of the individual member to the detriment of the Lord of the Church. No one would intend to, of course, but that might well be the result if the individual contribution comes into undue prominence. ”The manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all.” The gift of the Spirit, don’t forget, is a corporate gift to the Church. The Lord is returning for a “Bride.”
That’s the lovely corporate image of purity and holiness.
That’s us, in the power of the Spirit, reflecting the glory of Jesus.