(1 Cor. 12:28) Are the spiritual gifts equal or not?

CLAIM: Paul argues that the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you” (1 Cor. 12:21). Earlier, he argues that “the body is not one member, but many” (1 Cor. 12:14). However, in this passage, Paul places the gifts in some sort of prioritized order (e.g. first, second, third, etc.). Are the spiritual gifts equal or not?

RESPONSE: While all members in the Body of Christ are equal, not all gifts are equal.[1] Specifically, Paul devalues the importance of speaking in tongues: “Greater is one who prophesies than one who speaks in tongues” (1 Cor. 14:5). In fact, he writes, “Earnestly desire the greater gifts” (1 Cor. 12:31; c.f. 1 Cor. 14:1). If all gifts are equal, then Paul never would have written this. Of course, since these are all gifts from God, we do not merit them. Therefore, we should be content with whatever spiritual gifts we have been given.

In this section, Paul seems to be focusing on the chronological priority of the gifts. That is, we first need apostles to start the church, then we need prophets and teachers to explain the Bible to the people, and then we need the rest of the gifts to make the church thrive. Only the first three gifts are numbers, while the rest are successive with the word “then” separating them. Blomberg,[2] Fee,[3] and Johnson[4] hold to this view.

Finally, we should note that the spiritual gifts do not give us “celebrity status” in the Christian community.[5] After all, Paul places “apostles” as “first” on his list. Yet, elsewhere, he describes them as Christ-like, humble, servant leaders: “God has exhibited us apostles last of all, as men condemned to death; because we have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men. 10 We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are prudent in Christ; we are weak, but you are strong; you are distinguished, but we are without honor. 11 To this present hour we are both hungry and thirsty, and are poorly clothed, and are roughly treated, and are homeless; 12 and we toil, working with our own hands; when we are reviled, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure; 13 when we are slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become as the scum of the world, the dregs of all things, even until now” (1 Cor. 4:9-13).

[1] Mare writes, “As placed first, [these] are to be considered of greatest importance.” Mare W. Harold Mare, “1 Corinthians,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans through Galatians, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 10 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976), 266.

[2] Craig Blomberg, 1 Corinthians: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 215.

[3] Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), 620.

[4] Alan F. Johnson, 1 Corinthians, vol. 7, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Westmont, IL: IVP Academic, 2004), 236.

[5] I am indebted to Taylor for this observation. Mark Taylor, 1 Corinthians, ed. E. Ray Clendenen, vol. 28, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2014), 301.