Do You Earnestly Desire Spiritual Gifts? Thoughts on 1 Corinthians 14.1
Mar 19, 2008
I’ve been giving some thought to Paul’s exhortation in 1 Corinthians 14:1. There he writes, “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy” (ESV). I’ve written on this somewhat extensively in my book Convergence (pp. 209-15), but would like to add a few comments below.
It would appear from this passage that it is not enough to be open to spiritual gifts and their operation in the local church. One must be zealous for them and earnestly desire their presence, especially the gift of prophecy (1 Cor. 14:1, 12, 26).
However, not everyone agrees with this interpretation. As I’ve thought about it, there appear to be several ways that one might respond to this exhortation. But first, two observations are in order.
(1) It’s important we remember that this is an exhortation, an imperative, a command, and not merely a statement of fact. In 1 Corinthians 12:31 Paul says, “earnestly desire the greater gifts.” The verb translated “earnestly [or eagerly] desire” (zeloute) is grammatically ambiguous (it can be either indicative or imperative). A few insist it is merely a statement characterizing the behavior of the Corinthians, hence “you are eager for the greater gifts.” In other words, they take it to be a statement of fact concerning a state of affairs, not an exhortation to future action.
But the Corinthians were not, in fact, seeking the greater gifts. That was precisely their problem. They were placing far more emphasis on the gift of tongues, making it a mark of spirituality. In fact, the whole of chapter 14 is Paul’s attempt to encourage them to desire prophecy in their corporate gatherings rather than uninterpreted tongues, prophecy being the greater gift insofar as it, because intelligible, edifies others.
Also, the same verb form appears in 1 Corinthians 14:1 and 14:39 and is there unambiguously imperative (i.e., a command). It is difficult to believe that the same verb, in the same form, in the same context, would be used by Paul in two entirely different ways without some hint or contextual clue to that effect.
Consider also 14:12 where Paul writes, “So also you, since you are zealous of spiritual gifts [referring to their collective enthusiasm for tongues], seek [imperative] to abound for the edification of the church [in particular, the gift of prophecy, as the context demands].
(2) Some have pointed out, correctly, that the exhortation to “earnestly desire” spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12:31; 14:1) is in the plural. But they conclude from this, incorrectly, that Paul’s command is therefore directed not to individual believers but to the corporate church. They argue that this is grounds for rejecting the idea that individual Christians should seek any spiritual gift.
But of course the verb is plural, as are virtually all Paul’s commands in letters other than those addressed to individuals (such as Philemon, Titus, and Timothy). Paul is writing to everyone in the church at Corinth, each of whom is responsible for individually responding to an exhortation that has validity for the entire church. In other words, what is the corporate church if not a collection of individuals on each of whom the obligation falls? The plural of this exhortation simply indicates that all believers in Corinth are to heed the apostolic admonition. It is a duty common to everyone. That includes us as well.
I can well imagine someone in Corinth (or today) responding to this attempt to evade Paul’s obvious intent by saying: “How can we as a church pursue spiritual gifts if none of us as individuals is allowed to?”
Now, those observations aside, there are six possible ways of responding to this exhortation.
First, I suppose someone might claim to be an agnostic on the subject of spiritual gifts and thus exempt themselves from having to respond. They just haven’t been able to make up their mind concerning the debate between continuationism and cessationism. In other words, they say, “I don’t know if prophecy and tongues and word of knowledge, for example, are still being given by God to the church, and until I do know I can’t be expected to obey an exhortation that might not be binding on my conscience.”
I understand this position, but if it is yours I would argue that you have a moral and spiritual obligation to resolve the matter as quickly as possible. On the one hand, if cessationism turns out to be true, you haven’t lost anything by ignoring the imperative. However, if continuationism is true, your failure to explore the issue and lingering uncertainty are depriving you of the benefits that you and your church could enjoy from the exercise of these gifts. And you, personally, are at minimum guilty of a sin of omission.
If this first option is where you find yourself today, by all means study and search out the Scriptures, come to a conclusion, and act accordingly. After all, if continuationism is true, and at the judgment seat of Christ the Lord inquires about your failure to obey his Word, I doubt if you’ll relish saying, “I’m sorry God, but I just couldn’t make up my mind!”
Second, there are those, like myself, who believe the New Testament explicitly affirms the on-going, contemporary validity of all spiritual gifts. For such, the command of 1 Corinthians 14:1 is morally binding and must be obeyed.
Third, there are those who believe the NT is explicit in its affirmation of the cessation of certain spiritual gifts in the first century. For them, the exhortation in 1 Corinthians 14:1 is therefore irrelevant. The most we can learn from it is what God desired for the early church, but it has no application to the body of Christ beyond the death of the last apostle. It is no more binding on Christians today than are the dietary regulations in the Law of Moses (although for different reasons).
Fourth, there are those who are cessationists, even though they do not believe the NT is explicit on the subject. In other words, they would say that whereas the NT doesn’t teach the cessation of certain spiritual gifts, they nevertheless believe it. Therefore, the command of 1 Corinthians 14:1 was binding on first-century believers but no longer is for us.
This is a somewhat dangerous stance to maintain, for it entails believing something without explicit biblical warrant, on the basis of which one justifies ignoring an exhortation that is explicit.
Fifth, I suppose someone might respond to 1 Corinthians 14:1 by saying, “I think some gifts, such as prophecy and tongues, have ceased. Therefore, I am not under obligation to earnestly desire or pray for them. But other spiritual gifts, such as teaching and mercy and giving are still operative today and I will happily pray that God might bestow such gifts on me or on the church at large.”
On this view, we have a selective obligation to obey Paul’s command. We can ignore his emphasis on prophecy (“especially that you may prophesy”) but must heed his exhortation when it comes to all other, so-called non-miraculous, gifts of the Spirit.
Sixth, there are those who don’t believe the NT teaches cessationism, who also believe that it is possible that all spiritual gifts are still valid for the church today, but who do not obey Paul’s command in 1 Corinthians 14:1. I would also include here those who believe it is definite that all spiritual gifts are still valid for the contemporary church, but they, too, fail to obey the Pauline imperative. This is the least viable of all positions.
If one believes either that it is possible or that it is definite that all gifts are still valid and important today, one must explore ways to obey Paul’s command. If the gifts are valid, God does not leave us the option of either seeking them or not seeking them.
One cannot respond to this text by saying, “Well, yes, there is no evidence that God has withdrawn the gifts and in fact there is evidence that they are still being bestowed by the Spirit, but that’s just not what we, as a church, are into. It’s not our style. It’s not our vision or contained in our mission statement, and to be perfectly honest, we are frightened by the possibility of such manifestations of the Spirit’s power and would prefer to fulfill the ministry given us by God without incorporating the pursuit of spiritual gifts and the mess that it would inevitably bring.”
This latter position, quite simply, is sin. To acknowledge the validity of spiritual gifts, and to acknowledge that God commands us to earnestly desire their manifestation, only then to refuse to do so, is sin.
Of course, whichever position one adopts we are all, in every age, responsible to “pursue love” (v. 1a), for without it, all gifts, whether teaching or tongues, whether prophecy or pastoring, are but a “noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor. 13:1).
How, then, will you respond to the apostolic imperative?
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