The Assembly and Its Functionality – 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 127 min read
The assembly is body-like in its character. It is made of many members. It is a single entity. It has one head. And just as a body needs its members to work both in harmony and in their specific places, so we need to understand what our individual callings are and how God has enabled us to fulfill them in fellowship with God’s people. As we look at 1 Corinthians 12 as well as Romans 12, we will find that God has a very specific prescription for the functions of assembly members. This is what we commonly call the doctrine of spiritual gifts, or graces – divine enablement for a specific calling in God’s service. Paul calls one’s “gift” the “manifestation of the Spirit,” which should give us insight as to its nature.
The Basis for the Gifts – 1 Corinthians 12:1-11
Building on the background of the idolatry of the Corinthians and how they were led away by it, Paul brings us to a new calling that is empowered by the Spirit of God and glorifying to the Lord Jesus Christ. This new calling has both a general aspect (it is for every believer) and a specific aspect (applied to personal life in a unique way). Such a transition is made possible through three main factors, which bring us the basis for spiritual gifts.
Firstly, we find the Trinity in verses 4-6 as being intimately at work in the assembly. Whether we look at the Spirit in different spiritual gifts, the Lord in different services, or God in different operations, we see the assembly united even through each person’s diversity. The motivation for our services, the power for our services, and the organization of our services – these all have a single origin. Thus, even in distinction the assembly can be one.
The second foundation point for spiritual gifts is that they are individual in application, yet collective in their effect. We are all individuals with different capacities, personalities, and levels of ambition. Some are speakers; some are not. Some are introverted; some are extroverted. Does that mean the assembly accepts the popular and discards the rest? Not at all, because the assembly isn’t about popularity, but about usefulness; and every member has that. Thus every member has a place to participate; when all are active in their place, the entire assembly benefits.
Thirdly, verse 11 emphasizes the sovereignty of God in distributing gifts. We need to understand something in our own hearts: I do not choose my place in God’s assembly. He does. It is for His glory and by His power that we participate in the assembly; why would it not also be His divine choice as to how we participate? “The same Spirit operates all these things, dividing to each in particular according as he pleases.” This means we cannot object to our place in the assembly: God knew what He was doing when He gave it to us. This means we look outside ourselves for confirmation of our spiritual gift, for it is not subjective if God-given. This means we must not think we lack gift, for God has given a place for every person in His assembly.
Body-Mentality – 1 Corinthians 12:12-31
To have the mentality of a living organism is vital as we progress in service for God, because it teaches us something as to how we function. The first thing it teaches us is this: no member of a body is detached from another member. “The eye cannot say to the hand, I have not need of thee; or again, the head to the feet, I have not need of you.” How arrogant for a mere instrument to exalt itself above another, as if it were the entire body in itself! We cannot declare another useless. Now, it should be granted that some do not exercise their gift as they should, but that isn’t another member’s business as much as it is the business of the Head. We are always interdependent.
Along with that, we see an intrinsic value placed on each member in a body, even though they may seem “lowly” or more “void of honor.” Verse 23 says “and those parts of the body which we esteem to be the more void of honour, these we clothe with more abundant honour.” God doesn’t look at one’s position first; He looks at devotion. Whether a preacher or a factory worker with a testimony, a reward waits for those who are faithful with their commission. Because God sovereignly imparts a gift, it is not our place to question its value. It comes from God! So then, we must serve in it to our greatest ability.
And when we learn the value of each individual member, then there is mutual care and unity that results. “That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another.” What a wonderful key to unity! Yes unity and care result from humility, from the gospel, from fellowship; but we can certainly add a correct understanding of spiritual gifts to the list of things that are essential to unity. When we understand our personal relationship to other believers and the value of each individual member, then we see care flourish amongst God’s people.
Personal Exercise of My Gift – Romans 12:1-8
Where does the individual go from here? This is where Romans 12 comes in. And the first thing it mentions is not regarding unique abilities. It starts with what everybody can and must do: “Present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service of worship.” God can’t use our unique abilities if we are not offering Him our all. Full consecration is the first key in success with spiritual gifts. Regardless of one’s ability, if he should lack a heart for God and deep worship for Him, he has no use for his gift. That is not the only qualification, however; verse 2 goes on to say “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” Both mind and body must be committed to God before ability can be used for Him. How well do we get this first step right?
Secondly, before one can exercise his gift he must learn humility, for every man is called “not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith.” The Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary says this: “Faith is here viewed as the inlet to, or seed-bed of, all the other graces, and so as the receptive faculty of the renewed soul.” So then, if every person has God dealing personally with them, we really aren’t as special as our flesh would like us to think. We are just vessels in company with other vessels working for a great God, Whose power we owe all our usefulness to. We all have a tendency to draw attention to ourselves and our place in the assembly, either by self pity or self-righteous exaltation. Either is a detriment, because both put self at the fore. God says that there are the “many” to think about before we think about self. And when self ever does come into the picture, it is a weak and pitiful self who is ever dependent upon God’s grace. Before any spiritual activity can come to fruition, we must be ready to declare with Paul “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.” In other words “I’m no one special, just a vessel. It must be God Who is glorified and other who are edified.”
Then when we have consecration and humility, we must get to work, because we weren’t given a duty for no reason! We each have a capacity to fulfill our duty, and we must fill that capacity. So then, whether you be a leader, a preacher, a giver, a teacher, or one particularly merciful, fulfill that position without reserve. It is each our personal responsibility to find our place and fill that place, for nobody else will. It is uniquely ours. Therefore, though the assembly is collective by nature, its fruitfulness starts with personal diligence. The question remains for us “Am I doing my part fully, faithfully, and fittingly?” We will stand before God someday with this question before us. We had better answer it now before later comes and service is left unattended.