1 Corinthians 12-14 is a much-studied passage today. Each phrase has been analysed and re-analysed in great detail, but sometimes, in our careful analysis of detail, we miss the overall drift.
What, for instance, is the purpose of chapter 13? Why is it there, in the middle of an argument about prophecy and tongues?
A common understanding of the place of chapter 13 is that Paul is seeking to maintain unity within the congregation by encouraging people to love each other. The tongue-speakers should not claim to be superior, nor should the non-tongue-speakers exclude those who use tongues. In our age of controversy—and sentimentality—this is a popular interpretation. Yet is that the drift of 1 Corinthians 13? What about the ‘greater and lesser’ gifts?
The second half of chapter 12 has argued for the interdependence and value of each gift. Yet at the end of chapter 12, there is a list of gifts in terms of ‘first’ and ‘second’ and ‘third’ and so on. We are then encouraged to pursue the ‘greater’ gifts.1
In what sense are the apostles first, and the prophets second? And in what sense are there greater gifts to pursue?
If one says that these are the ‘greater’ gifts, how we can square this with the immediately preceding argument—that all the gifts are interdependent? Some suggest that the numbering is only temporary, for the apostolic age. Others say that it is just a random numbering—that ‘a, b, c’ could have done just as well.
However, even if we discount the numbering, we still have the ‘greater gift’ problem. 1 Corinthians 13 solves it for us. This chapter interrupts the flow of the argument with a discursus on love. If it was left out, most of us would not miss it. This indicates that most of us are probably misreading it!
The ‘most excellent way’ is necessary in order to define the nature of ‘greater gifts’. The gifts are to be evaluated on the basis of love, for a gift without love is useless, irrespective of what sort of gift it is. But with love, even the same gift can be great, for love is one of the eternal values, whereas gifts are transient.
Having established the criterion of love, Paul can then expand on which gifts are ‘greater’. The greater gifts are those which promote love, while the lesser gifts are those which are hard to use in love. Thus, prophecy is loving, for it builds up the church and is other-person-centred by its very nature. Speaking in tongues, on the other hand, is a more private matter. At best, it only builds up the speaker—it is not primarily loving. If we do speak in tongues publicly, we must have an interpreter because of the demands of love. Even with an interpreter, two or three (at most) should be allowed.
That is, speaking in tongues in church is basically unloving. It is not to be forbidden, for on certain occasions, with interpretation, it may be loving, All the same, it is not to be encouraged or sought after.
Reading the chapter this way places chapter 13 in a whole new light. It is not an interruption or a side-track—far from it. It is the turning point of the argument. It establishes the basis on which Paul, who has already said that the gifts are interdependent, can elevate one gift over another as of value in church life.
1 Some take the ‘pursue’ to be indicative rather than imperative. That is, ‘you are pursuing the higher gifts’, rather than ‘make sure you pursue the higher gifts’. In Showing the Spirit, Don Carson argues persuasively that it is an imperative—that is, a command.