I love the Corinthians. If they didn’t exist, I’d have to invent them. If there were no Corinthians, then every time I wanted to tell my church about one of our problems, I’d have to say it was one of our problems, rather than say, “Can you believe what those wacky Corinthians did this time?”
This passage is in the middle of Paul’s explanation of spiritual gifts. Since this letter is probably a reply to a letter the Corinthian church sent Paul, we can guess with some confidence they've asked him about these gifts of the Holy Spirit.
We piece together something about the Corinthians from these letters, information we have about the culture and society of the time and just general human nature. That gives us a pretty good idea about their questions as well as some of the issues behind them.
The Corinthians have probably asked Paul which spiritual gift is the best one. Which one is “most spiritual?” Which one shows the most divine favor? Paul wants to answer them, but he also wants to dig into what’s behind the question.
In the passage just before this one, he reminds the Corinthians that all spiritual gifts come from the Holy Spirit. This ought to be a no-brainer, but it has a point. He re-emphasizes it by talking about the distinct but indispensable roles of the different parts of the body.
The Corinthians seemed to want to put one spiritual gift at the top of the list, and that can cause problems. Their focus seems to have been on speaking in tongues. So if that’s the best spiritual gift, then people should try to work towards it, right? They should focus their prayers, their devotions, their study, etc., on being able to speak in tongues.
See the problem? That kind of focus could easily lead a person to ignore the spiritual gift they already had. If everyone spoke in tongues, where would the gifts of compassion or of teaching or of wisdom be? If everyone had the “top” gift, then who would serve?
A church where everyone either has or seeks the top-level spiritual gift would be a church as unable to do its work as a hand is unable to see. It would also be a church defying God’s plan, since everyone’s gifts came from the Spirit, and not from any sort of human hierarchy or scheme.
Sure, we should improve ourselves in all areas of Christian life. If I don’t have the “spiritual gift” of compassion, I don’t get a free pass to act like a jerk. I may need to work at it harder than those who seem to have such a gift, but it’s still my responsibility to live out that aspect of a Christian life. Even so, there’s no overlooking the reality that each of us has these different spiritual gifts.
Now, Paul says later on in this letter that he himself doesn’t see speaking in tongues as the most important spiritual gift. But he wants to make this point clear first, because it wouldn’t do the Corinthians much good if they switched one top gift for another.
There is a “top” gift, but Paul describes that later, and it’s the kind of gift that belongs on top because it can be there without unbalancing a Christian or the community of believers.
For now, Paul reminds the Corinthians that in the case of the body, we show our “less honorable” parts greater respect and attention. Think of a woman’s unending search for the exact pair of slacks that won’t make her look fat, or a man’s undending search for the precise arrangement of hair so that no one will know he has that bald spot.
Maybe speaking in tongues is a showier, flashier spiritual gift. But it has its proper place, Paul says, or else the church is unbalanced. Maybe compassion is the quieter, more reserved gift. But it must never be forgotten, or the church can’t be the church.
If the church ignores any of its spiritual gifts, it will find itself blind, deaf, mute, crippled and helpless. In such a case, of course, we’re thankful God is always a healer.